American author Lionel Shriver is a champion of free speech

American author Lionel Shriver believes that fiction is about freedom, so there should be no rules on how it should be written

Frank and fearless, American author Lionel Shriver pulls no punches - not in her works of fiction, not in real life.

In her books, she wrestles with thorny topics: school shootings; the worldwide obesity problem; and - this year, in her 13th novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 - the nightmarish plausibility of the United States brought to its knees by a catastrophic economic collapse.

Off the page, Shriver - who will be in town for the Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from Friday to Nov 13 - continues to tussle with the taboo.

In September, she struck a nerve when she launched a scathing attack on the concept of cultural appropriation, which refers to objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs or culture by outsiders.

Her controversial speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival dominated headlines and search results on Shriver, but the writer has had enough of the lingering attention.

What we do not need is new rules, new fences around whole groups of people and experiences with No Trespassing signs on the gates. You talk about lines? I don't want any lines.

AUTHOR LIONEL SHRIVER, who wants authors to be able to write whatever story and character they please

The 59-year-old, best known for her 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, tells The Straits Times over e-mail: "The concept of cultural appropriation is self-evidently stupid, and I am loath to spend much more of my professional life stating the obvious."

She knew from the outset that her views would rile people, at the start of her speech warning the audience: "Inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about 'community and belonging' is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose."

And people did take offence - at both its content and tone.

While Shriver had in her speech voiced hope that the concept of cultural appropriation - long a bone of contention in literature, art and pop culture - would end up a passing fad, her comments ended up reigniting an inferno of debate instead.

Voices chimed in, some supporting her, others criticising her.


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Some applauded her attack against a "climate of super-sensitivity" that could suffocate writers of fiction. Others took issue with what they saw as her lack of sensitivity and accused her of dismissing the concerns minority groups might have when it comes to representation.

"I am of two minds about whether I should have given that speech - and not because I can't take the flak or because I've experienced the slightest regret about any of the sentiments it expressed," she says.

"I still think the whole notion of 'cultural appropriation' is wrong- headed and poisonous, as it applies to anyone or anything really, but also fiction writing in particular."

She adds: "Because I find this concept so unworthy of perpetuation and the discussion unworthy of conducting at all, I worry that by starting what turned into an international debate, I inadvertently fired up a fad I had wanted to help extinguish.

"Sometimes to have an argument at all is to lose it. So I am in dread of this issue continuing to follow me."

This reporter earns a stern rap on the knuckles when her line of questioning dwells for too long on the content of the speech.

Shriver says that disheartens her, "when the questions raised in The Mandibles are so much more real to your readers".

"I'm afraid this whole tempest in a teacup about what kind of people the likes of me are 'allowed' to write about is a prime example of a 'first-world problem'," she says.

"Come fiscal Armageddon, I want you to remember this paragraph and see just how much you care about 'identity politics' when all of your savings, and your parents' savings, and your children's savings, have turned to ash."

What she wants is for every author in the world to be able to write whatever story and character he pleases - period.

"If it turns out that one of those stories or characters doesn't ring true, or employs a stereotype, that's what we have literary criticism for. Or Amazon, or GoodReads. Or coffee with friends, 'I didn't think that disabled character was very well developed, Mable'," she says.

"What we do not need is new rules, new fences around whole groups of people and experiences with No Trespassing signs on the gates. You talk about lines? I don't want any lines."

Fiction, after all, carries with it a whiff of freedom: to imagine, create and to slip into shoes unfamiliar.

And Shriver firmly believes in freedom of speech.

"I sometimes think I'm one of the last hold-outs on the planet who does. And don't start with that but- there-have-to-be-limits business. I wouldn't even restrict 'hate speech'. People who speak hatefully hang themselves," she says.

"They make themselves sound ugly. Let them. About the only limit I would put on free speech is incitement to violence. But fiction writers daring to craft characters of different races is a far cry from Hutus on the radio calling for genocide."

Her first responsibility will always be to her story, she says, and she does not have to report to a committee for permission every time she makes up a new character - "or not yet".

"I assert ownership over my characters. They do what I tell them to. These fascist identity-politics folks increasingly make liberally minded authors - the very people you'd think they'd regard as allies - fearful, timid and inclined, if they are white, to write only about white characters, because otherwise they might get in trouble," says Shriver, who is married to Jeff Williams, a jazz drummer.

"Hilariously, the logical result of all this fierce defence of group identity - 'you can't have my experience, it's my story' - is a retrograde apartheid in fiction."

She had, she points out, noted in her speech that fiction is all about what writers can get away with.

"If we do our homework well - as I tried to in relation to economics in The Mandibles - we'll probably get away with it. If we fall short - which happens all the time, someone's likely to point that out, right?

"But fiction, for writers and readers alike, is a terrific vehicle for getting people to understand each other. And great literature arises from taking risks. The fearfulness I mention is a formula for safe, boring, mediocre novels."

Her appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival marks her first visit here.

In an article she recently wrote for British magazine, Prospect, she found herself reaching for an example of a place with a reputation for being a real-life utopia.

She originally put down Scandinavia, but the editor changed it to Singapore. "Once I did a little reading, I decided the editor was right. After all, Scandinavia is having a lot of problems lately, right? With the migration crisis?" says Shriver. "But Singapore, as they say, ticked all the boxes. So I'll be very interested to find out what it's like in a utopia."

Having put out 13 novels so far, she is now polishing off her first story collection. Themed around property, it will include two novellas - one of which she considers the best of her shorter pieces.

Her masterclass at the festival, Melding Fact And Fiction, on writing fiction based on real-world issues, is already sold out.

She will also be speaking on her latest book, The Mandibles, and its eerie plausibility in today's turbulent world in a Nov 13 lecture, An Unflinching Eye Into Truth.

It was, she says, inspired by the 2008 financial crisis - "but more by what didn't happen than what did".

"We tippled on the edge of the abyss, but did not fall in," she says. "Yet all the elements that contributed to what seemed a moment of reckoning - I say seemed, because we didn't really do much reckoning in the end - are still with us: massive property bubbles, intentionally unfathomable investment instruments, an intrinsically unstable international economy by dint of both its complexity and interdependence, and debt."

In a bleak novel that charts the fiscal apocalypse in the US and the resulting social decay, Shriver, however, brands herself "too optimistic" on one front.

Not up for writing about the economic collapse of the entire world, she instead chose to fashion a sequence of events that cripples the US alone. The dollar's value plummets, but the rest of the world stays afloat by creating a new international currency.

But she says: "At least right now, the prospect of the US going down the tubes without taking the rest of the world with it is unlikely. In other words, The Mandibles is guilty of being too optimistic."

Before starting on the novel, she pored over about a dozen economics books - "the more apocalyptic, the better" - and unearthed revelations she tried to include in her novel "in a spirit of 'Look, you wouldn't believe what I just found out. This is incredible' - which is what it's like to have dinner with me".

In The Mandibles, the American president not just renounces the national debt, but he also calls in all gold held in private hands, and declares "hoarding" gold a criminal offence - something former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in 1933.

Descent into social decay

The writer, who has lived in the United Kingdom for decades, says: "I was shocked that, as an American who fancied herself well-educated, I had never known anything about Roosevelt's gold recall - or that, at that time, most Americans cheerfully gave the federal government all their gold in a spirit of patriotism.

"I was certain that today's Americans in the same circumstances would be far more begrudging, if not wildly rebellious. The Americans in The Mandibles start burying their gold in the backyard."

The Mandibles is not just a tale of the end of the US economy, but it also orchestrates - with terrifying mastery - society's slow collapse.

The trick to making the book work, says Shriver, was controlling the rate of social decay.

"To begin with, it's become dreadfully difficult to buy imported extra- virgin olive oil, which even when you can find, it is outrageously overpriced. Then pretty soon, you can't afford not just olive oil, but also your house," she says.

"It was crucial to keep the reins tight on this horse. Let the apocalypse gallop too quickly and we're into Mad Max."

She was keen to keep the novel from sliding into cliche - there are no rampaging rapist hordes thundering down the streets to be found here, for one thing, she quips. "The more foreign the world of the novel became, the more I was likely to let the reader off the hook - 'This will never happen to me.' Slide slowly enough, and therefore credibly enough, into the gathering collapse of civic order and I take you with me," says Shriver.

"I want readers to realise just how utterly dependent they are on being able to trot off to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread. Especially if you live in a city: How would you survive without a viable currency?"

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to

'Writers should be free to draw from other cultures'

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Champ of free speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe