This past September, writer Lionel Shriver gave an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival for which she was later accused of crimes agains identity politics. Her offense was to argue on behalf of what’s been called “cultural appropriation,” the literary application of which is to write in a voice that is not your own. Those who decry cultural appropriation have charged that a white writer composing fiction about a black experience is a kind of crime, that it adds to the ongoing cultural enslavement and subjugation of black people. This results in a logic where white people are forbidden from wearing dreadlocks, playing jazz or rapping, wearing sombreros at a party or serving sushi in a university dining hall. Presumably, I’m not allowed to dance to Bruno Mars. And while we’re at it, because I’m mostly Irish, I probably can’t drink tequila.
Shriver’s address made the case that were such a thing true, all she’d be able to do is “write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt.” Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, precisely what and who she is.
She argued that it is a writer’s job to go and explore psyches other than our own. That’s the very nature of fiction writing.
In a defense of Shriver (perhaps the only defense of her published to date), Jonathan Foreman points out that if we hold that logic consistent, black actors should not be allowed to play King Lear or Macbeth and nonwhite dancers should not be allowed to perform ballet (seriously, is there anything whiter than ballet?) or opera.
Think about it. Kirk Hammett would not be allowed to play in Metallica because he’s half Filippino.
As a writer, my argument for “cultural appropriation” is that we learn nothing in a novel comprised entirely of straight, 59-year-old white women. It would be a curious novel, to be sure, but it wouldn’t carry the fundamental insight into human nature that made books like Faukner’s “As I Lay Dying” so fascinating. And it was fascinating precisely because one of the characters had Down syndrome, and the postmodern work allows each character to speak in the first person. Writing about other people, at least in fiction, rarely comes from a place of contempt. It begins with curiosity and fascination. Where it leads is the stuff of books like “Moby Dick.” One cannot write about characters as flawed as Ahab with derision. No, one must love the human condition. One must have empathy.
I’ve been thinking about this of late and how, as a writer, I turned my back on pro cycling in the wake of the Reasoned Decision. That we needn’t refer to that event with any greater specificity than those two words says everything we need to know about what a watershed it was for us. I learned less from reading the Reasoned Decision than I did from reading Tyler Hamilton’s and Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Secret Race,” and later from Reed Albergotti’s and Vanessa O’Connell’s volume, “Wheelmen.”
My enthusiasm for the grand tours took a sick day and has yet to call in.
But while my excitement for that racing lacks the passion it once had, my interest in the people is as high as ever. I’ve struggled to reconcile those conflicting features. What I’ve realized is that the moral ambiguity and the inherent conflict of interest that pro cycling forces upon riders. The grand tours trouble me the way that the Red Bull Rampage and many reality television series trouble me. They all exploit their subjects, and the only way for characters to succeed is to surrender to the clarion call for the extreme.
I realized while reading “The Secret Race,” that had I been good enough to be faced with the dilemma of doping in order to further my career, how I answered would have depended on where I was in my life.
That’s not a comfortable epiphany.
In my late teens and early 20s, an offer of performance-enhancing drugs would have scandalized me. I was too innocent, too idealistic. I’d have gotten on the first plane back home to Memphis. I’d have done the same thing in my mid-to-late 30s, but for different reasons. By then, I was secure enough in who I was and what I was about that I wouldn’t have been shocked, but I would have said no. That doing such a thing wasn’t worth to me what I’d have given up in self-respect.
However, I need to admit my mid-to-late 20s were a different story. I was hungry for success and willing to play by the rules of whatever game I was presented. That guy didn’t last long, and for that I’m grateful. But I am self-aware enough to know how that person once inhabited my skin. Which brings me back to empathy, and the notion of a writer’s mission, the author’s work.
I haven’t lived the life of a pro cyclist. Nor do I want to. But in the last few years, I’ve gained a more informed perspective of what the peloton faced, the ugly choices so many riders faced. I needn’t be a fiction writer to do that.
It’s harder to condemn someone once you’ve faced the same vulnerabilities.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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