Author Lionel Shriver's speech riles Brisbane Writers Festival officials

American novelist Lionel Shriver, whose speech upset the Brisbane Writers Festival officials.
American novelist Lionel Shriver, whose speech upset the Brisbane Writers Festival officials.ST PHOTO: SARAH LEE

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA • Officials at the Brisbane Writers Festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks.

They also hurriedly organised a "right of reply" session for critics of Shriver, whose speech had belittled the movement against cultural appropriation.

They scheduled the rebuttal opposite a session on Saturday in which the writer, who will be at the Singapore Writers Festival in November, was promoting her new novel, The Mandibles. She had been billed as speaking on "community and belonging", but focused on her views about cultural appropriation, a term that refers to the objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs or culture by artists or others not of those groups.

She criticised as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.

The author of We Need To Talk About Kevin criticised efforts to stop novelists from cultural appropriation. She deplored critics of authors such as Englishman Chris Cleave for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book, Little Bee. She noted that she had been criticised for using in The Mandibles the character of a black woman with Alzheimer's disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. And she defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation, if it served her artistic purposes.

"Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old five-foot-two-inch white women from North Carolina," she said.

She donned a sombrero for much of her speech - an allusion to a case in the United States in which non-Mexican student government members were impeached for doing the same during a fiesta- themed tequila party at Bowdoin College. To frequent laughter from the audience, she warned that the anti-cultural-appropriation movement that began in the US had already reached Britain - where she lives most of the year - and might be headed to Australia.

Actually, it seems to have already arrived. In the middle of Shriver's speech on Thursday night, an Australian writer of Sudanese and Egyptian origin, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, walked out, writing on Twitter about her dismay at what she described as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension".

Shriver's speech was "a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction".

The festival's director, poet Julie Beveridge, responded to the outrage by organising the "right of reply" session, for speakers such as Korean-American author Suki Kim and Abdel-Magied to speak out.

"The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal," Abdel-Magied said in her criticism of Shriver.

Beveridge wrote on the festival's website after links to Shriver's speech were taken down, "As a festival of writers and thinkers, we take seriously the role we play in providing a platform for meaningful exchange and debate".

"Lionel Shriver, by her own admission, did not speak to her brief. The views expressed during her address were hers alone."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'Author Lionel Shriver's speech riles writers' festival officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe