Lionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 3

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

This is part 3 of my response to Lionel Shriver’s views on appropriation and representation of others’ experiences. (Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.) In this part I mention a couple of mostly good representations of disability in fiction and wrap up the series by addressing Shriver’s stance.

In contrast to the examples cited in the previous post, Bareback (also titled Benighted) by Kit Whitfield, features Lola who is considered disabled because she is not a werewolf. As a ‘bareback’, she’s assigned to DORLA, the agency responsible for keeping society safe during the full moon, which is also — as employment for disabled people — disgustingly low-paid for dangerous and essential work. Bareback is the most complex fictional discussion of disability that I’ve read, talking about disability culture and prejudice from within. Furthermore, Bareback avoids the magical-disabled-person trope by making the disability about not being supernatural.

Whitfield’s exploration of issues concerning disability is deep and, at times, offensive like when Lola ‘plays the disability card’ to get what she wants. Some people with disability do ‘play the disability card’ to get what they want but, in my experience, asking for disability access leads to cessation of employment and requests to drop subjects at university. Recently I applied for jobs in a public service program that is supposed to ensure people with disabilities at least reach interview stage; I wasn’t interviewed. People have told me to be grateful for volunteer work; they have told me I should not aspire to paid employment. They have told me to kill myself because I’m a waste of the Earth’s precious resources. In theory disability discrimination legislation is supposed to protect us, ensuring equity; in practice not so much. This ‘playing the disability card’ is a trope promoted by people against equity who do not understand the disparity between the able and disabled.

Other than that, Whitfield’s exploration includes good exploration of a disability caste, lower pay rates for people with disabilities, the symbiotic nature of society and more.

Francesca Haig’s Fire Sermon trilogy features a society torn by the disabled/non-disabled divide in a post-apocalyptic world. Even the disabled community is rife with conflict not unlike the real community: those who ‘look’ disabled don’t trust those who aren’t physically disabled.

These kinds of nuanced novels are rare, especially from non-disabled authors, the result of deep research and respect for the disability community.

Lionel Shriver says, ‘The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.’ Would Shriver be so circumspect if someone wrote about her without doing their research and so tested what they can get away with? Does she require her critics to actually read her speech, her novels and dig a little deeper than her leashed African American in a white novel or is she content with someone condemning her on the basis of hearsay? Shriver, like David Leyonhjelm, requires a higher standard of behaviour for herself: she said she expects to be received with hospitality instead of criticism as she informed acclaimed black poet and author Maxine Beneba Clarke:

“When I come to your country,” Shriver’s chin is raised now. Her voice is strict, as if she’s speaking to small children. Though she’s shorter than I am, she somehow still manages to peer condescendingly down the bridge of her nose. “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.”

“You don’t even know what I said,” Shriver repeats, raising her voice slightly.

People from various minority groups have come forward expressing their outrage inspired by Shriver’s reinforcement of entitlement issues. Although I’m not completely against mainstream representation, I prefer our voices to tell our stories. While non-disabled authors and gatekeepers bar our entry, they shouldn’t be misappropriating our stories. If we’re allowed to the party too — preferably at the big people’s table and not shunted off into a dark corner — then increased representation by the mainstream is, in my opinion, a good thing as long as it’s genuine representation.

Would you read a travel guide written by someone who’s never been there? No? Well, don’t write a guide — whether fictional or not — to disability without deep research and consultation. 

Series Navigation<< Lionel Shriver, Representation and Misappropriation Part 1

3 Comments

  1. Hi, I read about Lionel Shriver’s remarks at Angela Savage’s blog and her excellent response and comments that followed. I wrote my own replies at that blog. Then Lionel Shriver wrote an (to me) obnoxious op-ed in the New York Times defending her attacks on “identity politics,” the concept of “cultural appropriation” and “political correctness.” To me to attack “political correctness” is a justification of bigotry — of all kinds, on nationalities, genders, gender-identity, ableism and disabilities, and so much more. It was awful, but many people read it because it’s in the NY Times. I think comparing her views to Trump’s are not without merit. In the long run, this is true, although she isn’t as crass as Trump is, but it still reinforces bigotry and privilege. Angela suggested reading Caitlyn Greenidge’s op-ed in last Sunday’s NY Times, which I did. She makes excellent points, that writers do not live outside of the power structure, and a lot more. The more that you and other writers representing various communities can write and speak out, the better. Brave people have to come to the forefront to challenge the privileged and present their perspectives and issues — and also be published and put on panels. This discussion has to be had everywhere people are writing and speaking. It’s essential. I send you my sisterhood and respect.

    1. Thank you so much.

      Kaitlyn Greenidge’s op-ed piece is here.

      I agree wholeheartedly about Lionel Shriver’s attitude. After reading her NYT article bitching about people criticising her — while emphasising age, race and employment status — I was even more angry and on so many levels. Putting down Yassmin for her age! I am nearly twice Yassmin’s age and agree that misappropriation with the intent to ‘get away with’ shit is not on.

      Furthermore, Waleed Aly addressed the right’s attacks on 18C, a legislative provision guarding against racial vilification. It’s notable that those who wish to change 18C are right-wing racists like Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt and the like, who may be held accountable for their attacks on people of colour by 18C in spite of 18D.

      For Lionel Shriver, a guest to our country, to attack 18C on an international platform with no legal training, no experience of being a vilified minority and no understanding of Australian culture or legal history, is a classic Trump-like manoeuvre. She’s trying to put one over her audience yet again.

      Thanks again for taking the time to contribute such a thoughtful comment. Sisterhood and respect to you, too.

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