Lionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 1

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Lionel Shriver is wrong

My response to Lionel Shriver and authors’ appropriation of ‘other’ experience is in three parts, scheduled weekly. This is part one.

Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival was the latest escalation from a distant butterfly’s wing-flap. To give this self-titled ‘renowned iconoclast’ responsibility for the latest storm is to give her too much credit for regurgitating Trump-esque ideas. The resulting fallout is both bad and good. The bad: straight white non-disabled authors’ sense of entitlement was reinforced. The good: victims of misappropriation are expressing their outrage and, to a point, we are being heard.

Trump will build a wall; Mexico will pay for it; Trump likes Mexicans — look, he eats the food. Shriver advocates appropriation of gender, race and disability; she doesn’t care what it costs her victims; Shriver isn’t racist — she’s inserted a sole African American into a white family who literally put the black character on a leash.

Historical colonialism saw white men conquering a significant portion of the known world, appropriating artifacts, slaves and culture as they saw fit while killing or exiling people with disabilities. This foundation forms the basis of current Western culture where straight white non-disabled men feel besieged by queers, women, people of color (PoC) and people with disabilities (PWD) who are calling for equity.

This siege mentality has expanded to include some white non-disabled women — some of whom claim to be feminists — who are reinforcing the barricades, defending their privilege against other ethnic groups, queers and those with disabilities by silencing ‘other’ voices and by misappropriating ‘other’ culture and experiences.

Shriver said:

[A] reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” … Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm … sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.

Shriver is encouraging authors to appropriate the other while diminishing concern for research, it’s all about ‘what we can get away with’. Nike Sulway talks about appropriating queer culture and experience on her blog. I agree with her argument that fictional experience of minority (in my case disability) should be genuinely relatable by at least some of the minority represented. In contrast to Sulway, I’m not against non-disabled people representing minorities although, like Sulway, I want our voices to tell our stories. (I speak for myself as a person with a disability; I do not presume to speak for other minorities.)

If only people with disabilities write experience of disability, we will remain silenced. When a straight white non-disabled man — Jonathan Franzen, for example — writes domestic life, ‘it’s a novel about America’ but when a woman does likewise, ‘it’s chick lit’. Similar double standards apply for writing disability: Jojo Moyes wrote disability in Me Before You, a movie picketed by protesting disability activists overseas and in Australia while disabled authors find it difficult to be published and more difficult to be reviewed in ‘the right places’, especially if they’re women with disabilities.

People with disability are less likely to be able to write our own stories, less likely to be given permission and less likely to pass the gatekeepers. When I was at high school it was unusual for a student with a vision impairment to finish high school. Anyone who has followed me over the past few years knows my struggles as a vision impaired person at university trying to get large print photocopies for classroom materials during a writing and editing degree. Many times I sat in class unable to read and, therefore, unable to follow discussion based on written materials while my class was learning foundational techniques in preparation for assessment tests.

If we get past those barriers, if people with disabilities acquire the skills and start to tell our stories, we’re told ‘I don’t want to read stories about disability’, ‘write inspiration’, ‘write about two non-disabled women helping a woman with a disability’ (so it becomes a story about charitable able people) or ‘write a memoir and find a different writing group’. I’ve received all of these comments and more in student and professional settings.

Shriver admits ‘We do not all [write minorities] well.’ I concur. Pop culture’s portrayal of albinism — my disability — is so prevalent as the ‘evil albino’ trope that, when I was in primary school, my peers told me I must be evil. In The Heat (2013), the twist was that the obnoxious anti-social albino wasn’t the villain. The albino was a total asshat but he wasn’t the villain. Yay. [snark]

The albino in The Heat was a deeply flawed representation: he did not have any vision impairment. A common misconception is that albinism only makes people pale-skinned; insufficient pigmentation (skin colour) extends to the development of the retina (back of the eye) where the fovea and macula (bits you see with) aren’t developed properly. People with albinism have varying degrees of vision impairment depending on their degree of albinism. So to portray us as ‘just white’ but not vision impaired perpetuates misconceptions, causing problems for us as an already-reviled minority group. Dr Shari Parker, an albino and medical doctor, discusses albinism and The Heat on the ABC’s website.

We need an abundance of representations, which is why I don’t object — in principle — to non-disabled authors writing disability. However, accurate representation is essential. Albinos have vision impairment, we’re not just pale creatures of the night. Albinism is not shorthand for evil; no shade of skin color should ever be shorthand for evil. Having a disability is not justification for being evil just like being a white middleclass woman claiming to be a ‘renowned iconoclast’ should not be justification for being evil or racist. And our voices are needed to best tell our stories.

Part 2 of this series will be published next week. 

Series Navigation<< Dick of the Day or why Lionel Shriver is wrongLionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 3 >>

4 Comments

  1. Hi Nalini! Great post 🙂

    I just wanted to respond to your reading of my blog post. It IS A bit of a rant, but I am definitely NOT against any writing depicting Others, in principle. I just would like us to aim for a utopian world where disabled people had just as much opportunity and were listened to/read just as much as (if not more than) about what it’s like to be disabled. In fiction and other areas. I’m sorry if I didn’t communicate this clearly in my blog. I was being … angry … and maybe stating the case for listening, rather than writing, in a kinda extreme way.

    My end point (but I was too exhausted by rage by then to write it clearly) was really that if you do co-opt the voice of a minority, the biggest thing you’ll have to accept is that (a) you won’t get it ‘right’, cos there is no single minority experience, and within, for example, the mass of disabled folk, or queer folk, or POC, there are a wide range of experiences, ideologies, and perspectives. And (b) you might attract some criticism and, like any other criticism your work attracts, your best bet is to listen (or not), but not to rebut it. Criticism and debate about literature are the lifeblood of literature. Silence is death.
    xx

    1. Hi Nike

      Thank you for your response 🙂

      Even if you, too, take the middle ground, others take the more extreme view that our voices should be the only voices who tell our stories. With the historical framework of colonialisation and theft of everything — artefacts, resources, lives, people — the view of ‘hands off, mine’ is valid even though I disagree because I want more representation than minority authors will provide.

      Also ranting, especially in your own space, is valid. Sometimes taking a more extreme view or arguing from one particular point rather than in the middle is necessary too.

      If you follow this short series of posts, next week I give examples of non-disabled authors writing disability and getting it wrong. Then, the following week, I mention a couple of examples of good representation of disability and wrap up the series.

      The most important thing at this time is that we, representatives of minority groups who have some voice and influence in the public sphere, voice our opinions and concerns. In recent years authors have told me I’m wrong, taking Shriver’s tack, and silencing me on the basis of ‘I’m an author and you’re just disabled you’. In a panel on cultural misappropriation I talked about why I love Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl (as a representation of disability) but a woman who is not disabled took a straw poll of the room, asked if anyone else read the novel like that and, when no one said yes, she turned to me and said, ‘You’re wrong’. So the only representative of disability in the room was silenced because of ableism. I was also silenced for the remainder of the panel and my previous comments about the evil albino trope were then repudiated by several people who came up to me individually at the end of the panel to tell me that ‘I’m writing and evil albino but my evil albino is justified’. In the end I just said ‘Don’t send me a review copy because I will shred it’.

      Thanks again for both your post and your comment here. I have a deadline so I must move on. We should chat. Perhaps even do coffee over skype considering our other current involvements and mutual interests?

      Best
      Nalini

  2. Nalini, thank you for your insightful and generous article.

    You behave far more graciously than you have been treated. Your experience on the cultural appropriation panel made me cringe, and if I’d been chairing, I like to think I’d have had the guts to put the speaker who silenced you to shame. It’s damning that no one in the audience came to your defence either.

    I read recently about how President Obama’s female staffers developed a strategy they called ‘amplification’ to make their voices heard. Perhaps we can initiate a similar strategy at writers’ events, where those of us on stage or in the audience can respond to attempts at silencing by countering with, ‘Actually, I’m interested in hearing what she has to say.’ Just a thought…

    1. I love that amplification strategy and I’d love to see more of it.

      I’m not sure now — it’s been a few years since that panel — but I think the person who silenced me was the moderator. She was certainly the primary speaker and the mover-and-shaker behind getting that panel running.

      Silencing is such a problem for minorities and has definitely been my personal experience. People won’t listen to me, they will talk to my companion — any companion but especially my husband — and not to me, they won’t listen to me and yet, when I’ve gone into a situation as ‘observer’ or ‘advocate’ for other people (‘Hi, I’m Nalini Haynes, I’m an advocate/community health worker/whatever’) it’s amazing the difference my mere presence has made to helping other people be heard (Centrelinik employee talks and listens to person, glances at me, turns back to focus on client). Or, in the case of advocating for NESL clients, I’ve advocated on their behalf until a mutually-satisying arrangement is reached. It’s heartbreaking to see minorities being ignored, pushed aside or steamrolled because of white non-disabled power.

      I enjoyed your blog post but I’d love to see you providing a platform, giving voice and permission, to other minorities to speak on this subject. Do you have any plans?

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