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Who Speaks for a Culture?

In early September, novelist Lionel Shriver, in her keynote address at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, claimed the right to portray minority characters in any way that serves legitimate literary purposes. Surely no one, including Shriver, could be surprised by the reaction: Festival officials publicly disavowed her remarks, censored her on the festival website, and hastily arranged a right-of-reply session directly opposite one in which Ms. Shriver promoted her new novel, The Mandibles [1].

I doubt Shriver’s donning of a sombrero to make the point that “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats,” softened the audience of writers and activists who were beginning to realize they would not be hearing the advertised talk on “community and belonging.”  

She eventually settled into her message: “Those who embrace a vast range of identities, ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other people’s attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”

This theft or “cultural appropriation” is defined by Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor, as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”


I certainly understand the resentment of creators who’ve labored in obscurity only to see their work snatched up and exploited by the already famous. Likewise, there are cheap and insulting imitations of traditional art and dress. Then again, innovative artists building on another culture’s forms strike me as legitimate so long as those artists acknowledge creative debt.

Shriver reminded her audience that had novelists never written from perspectives vastly different from their own, some of the great works of literature would never have come about: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano [2], Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt [3], Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers [4]. Her observation that “Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women” seems so obvious as to be banal.


A few years before Paul Revere and the Raiders sold a million copies of “Indian Reservation” and Cher belted out “Half Breed,” but after Hank Williams sang “Kaw-Liga,” William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner [5] was published to glowing reviews. Based on a purported 7,000-word confession made by Nat Turner regarding his leadership of an 1831 slave rebellion, the novel won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


By the following summer, a furor had erupted among intellectuals within the ascendant Black Power movement. Styron would, in his own words, “experience almost total alienation from black people, be stung by their rage, and, finally, be cast as an archenemy of the race, having unwittingly created one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time.”

William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond [6] raised several objections to Styron’s Turner, including his ambivalence toward violence, unsuccessful murder attempts during the insurrection, sexual tension and confusion around white women, and a brief homoerotic scene. That the fictional Turner’s reluctance to kill seems entirely consistent with the historical Turner’s confession mattered little. The writers accused Styron of racism, moral senility, and moral cowardice.

In his point-by-point demolition [7] of Ten Black Writers Respond in the September 12, 1968 issue of The New York Review of Books, Eugene Genovese made clear that the black intelligentsia’s primary problem with Styron’s Nat Turner was that a white man had dared write from the point of view of a black slave:

One might have thought that black and white Americans who are committed to racial equality would approve of the fact that William Styron, a white Southerner, has rescued the great rebel slave leader, Nat Turner, from obscurity. Instead, the claim is made throughout these essays that black America has always known of and admired the historic Nat Turner. This is pretense … If Nat Turner is now a name well known to black and white America, and if the existence of armed resistance to slavery is generally appreciated, William Styron deserves as much credit as anyone else.

Professor Genovese then laid down a challenge [7]: “If you say that black folk life can be unearthed and made relevant then do it; if white historians—for whatever reason—have been blind to whole areas of black sensibility, culture, and tradition, then show us. We can learn much from your work, but nothing from your fury.”

Yet, as unedifying as this fury might have been, it chilled literary ambition, intimidated American writers and deeply influenced creative writing programs.

In The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity [8], critic Stanley Crouch, a black man and no fan of Styron’s Nat Turner, charges American writers with cowardice:

[Writers] have decided that the big sweep of American life out there is something that should be avoided or broken up into ethnic, religious, sexual, class, and regional franchises. In other words: If you won’t write about me, I’ll stick to my favorite subject – myself – and suggest you do the same … The lack of aesthetic gumption is remade into a smugness that grants itself a pedigree in narcissism.


“Write what you know” has become a straitjacket, one that not only prohibits growth, but also distorts. Even in the whitest suburb or small town, the most established barrio or ghetto, what anyone “knows” almost certainly includes experiences with people of different ethnic heritage. Furthermore, “what you know” can grow with experience and study.

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a small town in south-central Kentucky where, though segregation was breaking down fast, black-white relations remained fraught but close, with unspoken resentments among members of both races. I knew and loved black schoolmates, roomed with them, shared strongly-held feelings with them—often loudly and at close range and at times quietly, in confidence. I learned from black teachers and coaches. I found certain white classmates far more inscrutable than my black friends.

No doubt I’m guilty of presumption here, but we celebrated together, cried together, and, a few times bled together after we exchanged blows. I have never lived in a world peopled only by whites. Without frequent and close contact with people of other races, I would be someone else entirely. Writing safe, “white” novels would be lying.

Fiction, like journalism, can benefit from the gaze of an immersed outsider. In Graham Greene’s great novel The Power and the Glory [9], about the redemption and death of an alcoholic priest fleeing communist Red Shirts in southern Mexico, the scene that most haunts me is of the “whiskey priest” struggling through the mountains with an Indian woman carrying her dead baby:

At sunset on the second day, they came out on to a wide plateau covered with short grass. A grove of crosses stood up blackly against the sky, leaning at different angles – some as high as twenty feet, some not much more than eight. They were like trees that had been left to seed. The priest stopped and stared at them. They were the first Christian symbols he had seen for more than five years publicly exposed – if you could call this empty plateau in the mountains a public place. No priest could have been concerned in the strange rough group. It was the work of Indians and had nothing in common with the tidy vestments of the Mass and the elaborately worked out symbols of the liturgy. It was like a short cut to the dark and magical heart of the faith – to the night when the graves opened and the dead walked.

Although we are in the point of view of the priest, this is clearly the perspective of an Englishman—Greene—who’d spent weeks on a mule, riding around Mexico. Is this scene any less beautiful, informing, or suggestive of loss for having been written by an ambitious tourist? Would justice require that Greene stick to journalism here or abstain to wait for the native people to find their literary voice? Is he truly guilty of literary colonialism or should we credit him with a fine eye, hand, and sense of mystery? Isn’t it possible that while a native steeped in her culture might bring insight otherwise missed, she could pass over seemingly everyday details that might move other people? Must we choose?

Like Greene in Mexico, a talented Native American writer born and raised on a reservation might see in a quiet suburb an anthropological motherlode barely mined by Updike and Cheever.


In a September 10 response in [10]The Guardian, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian engineer, writer, and activist, called Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane address “…a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of others simply because it is useful to one’s story,” even though Shriver never suggested careless use or shallow or racist characterization. Abdel-Magied, who really should peek at the New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, or London Review of Books, continued [10], “How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?”

She does hint an understandable fear: If she is unable to claim literary territory based in identity, she might have to compete with the Graham Greenes of the world just as an obscure regional novelist in suburban North Texas must compete with the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Zadie Smith. So far, he is suffering a long-running rout, but that’s the way it goes.

Showing remarkable generosity, Abdel-Magied added, “I can’t speak for the LBGTQI community … but that’s not the point. I [should] allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimized.”

But how is the world worse off for Brokeback Mountain having been written by Annie Proulx, who, notwithstanding her reclusiveness, and speculation about her sexuality, isn’t a gay cowboy? Likewise the Oscar-winning screenplay adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana? How can we approach a healthy pluralism without an assumption of the possibility of intergroup empathy?

Finally, Abdel-Magied gets around to what amounts to a plaintive call for literary reparation: “Cultural appropriation is a ‘thing’ because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?”

If Abdel-Magied can’t be persuaded that creation of a fictional character doesn’t constitute identity theft and that literary authority has little to do with ethnicity or sexuality, she and her fellow travelers should steer clear of fiction. In any case, she seems better suited to another literary form. In 2016, she released Yassmin’s Story – Who do you think I am?, a memoir.

Henry Chappell’s most recent novel is Silent We Stood [11]. He lives in Parker, Texas.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Who Speaks for a Culture?"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 4, 2016 @ 2:08 am

“If Nat Turner is now a name well known to black and white America, and if the existence of armed resistance to slavery is generally appreciated, William Styron deserves as much credit as anyone else.”

Excuse me. But Nat Turner is the cautionary tale of rebellious blacks,. especially men. The idea that Mr. Styron deserves credit for what is standard US history – juxtaposed against John Brown’s righteous rebellion is “whistling Dixie.” Now I can certainly appreciate a black intellectual’s defense here. But it is a bit over the top, in my view.

I have not read the text in question. I would certainly defend Mr Styron’s right to write in whatever voice he so chooses. Though I am not sure why one would include anything suggesting same ex choices. I am totally unfamiliar with that aspect of Mr Turner’s life. I don’t think anyone is. Pure fiction for sales.

And this article is disingenuous. t suggests that Mr Styron’s skin color alone is the issue. When in fact, it is the imaginary scenes of a fictional sexual history. And that is what caused the stir. Again the author has the right to his fictionalized version of events. In my view, the stronger response would have been to the history verses the fiction. But this article is playing on the misguided broad stroke mangling of cultural appropriation of today to push the controversy of this particular work. And it just doesn’t fit.

As Styron well knew as does this author, the role of sexual politics in defining the black male is central to all of US history. And while I get it was contrived to sell books. Using a historical figure in such a manner was going to be an issue. And I have little doubt that Mr. Styron knew this to be the case. Nat Turner does make a confession to his lawyer. But none of it contained any sexual history.

As for the rest of the article, it’s about fictional tales through and through, based on my read. And what can one say about fiction it’s fiction.

But in an time when people seem all googlie eyed, about the Musical, Hamilton, with dancing black men —

I am not impressed with complaints about cultural appropriation. But it is going to be interesting to see the referenced definition of the term tested in court. In my view, it’s completely unworkable.

#2 Comment By bacon On October 4, 2016 @ 6:43 am

The internet unleashed in our times. If one wants attention one only has to have the basic literate skill to pen a criticism of, well, anything in current public view, and some people will agree and amplify that criticism. Add to that those disaffected persons with too much time on their hands who look at anything they read or hear about with a view toward tearing it down and one gets Abdel-Magied and many more like her. No sensible person with even half normal skin thickness would give them a second thought.

#3 Comment By KD On October 4, 2016 @ 10:15 am

As an ethnic interest group, let’s say hypothetically, Germans, I think it would be very important to control your own folk narrative and prevent it from being polluted by the “others”.

Obviously, ethnic Germans are suspect as an entire class, so the Academy has no business lining up behind the Germans. However, African-Americans represent a pure ethnic volk, and shouldn’t have their ethnic narratives stained by the racist, white supremacist races of humanity.

If you oppose my point of view, you must be a racist and an advocate of white supremacy.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On October 4, 2016 @ 10:54 am

The argument that literature is improved by censorship (by any name or rationalization) is patently absurd. The alternative to free speech is propaganda, and the literary establishment has given us enough of that as it is.

#5 Comment By Gs On October 4, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

The key to going beyond the issue’s accusatory is to understand colonialization/globalization as a consolidating of cultures into a monoculture. The hegemonistic western culture would indeed put up a fight if it’s identities were ‘incorporated’ into and eventually supplanted by mayan,pan-african, etc. hegemony. Evidence of just such a necessarily consolidating dynamic is found in the premises of the argument of ‘participation’. How is it particaptory to claim worldliness mandates we all be able to wear sombreros wherever and whenever we like, or eat chinese food whenever and wherever we like, etc.?[We being westerners] That is not particapatory but is instead appropriative. Particapatory would be to live where sombreros are the norm – if one so desires; To exist committedly, rather than occasionally, within such a choice. Figuratively, stepping in and out of the water is to continually breach the nature of the shoreline as threshold. As a matter of fact when water innundates land we call it a flood not participation. Basically, appropriation and consolidation arise from a lack of respect for self-rule.
Westernization is premised on competition which knows no borders. The result is a bulldozing of multitudinous cultures rather than a preserving of multidutinous, individual cultures.
Western civilization is no longer lumberingly hegemonistic but is, instead, nefariously hegemonistic.

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On October 4, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

It seems to me that the problem is one of immaturity, and this has always been true. The perrenial cry of the adolescent has always been “You can’t understand me!” which is followed by finding like minded friends who do understand and the forming of an in-group. If this is carried through into adult-hood then you have identity politics where the in-group is now formed of an ethnic or racial or sexual orientation group. These groups have the same cry as the teen-ager shout to the rest of the world “you can’t understand us!” This may develop into a full fledged cry of “You hate us, so we hate you to”. Lets call this by its name, bigotry.
Fortunately, the Great religions of the world have taught us that the truth lies in humility. An understanding that we are no better or worse than other people. We have a common humanity that lets us understand others and treat them with compassion. It is this understanding and compassion that a writer uses to tell stories about people who are culturally different from themselves. The culture may be different, but the humanity isn’t.
This explains some of this cultural appropriation BS. Other aspects are a shallow reading of history that begins and ends with late colonialism and, of course, the sour grapes of unsuccessful writers.

#7 Comment By Tiber On October 4, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

I’m a liberal, and I think that cultural appropriation is a stupid and hypersensitive concept. So what if my ancestors, or others who happened to be slightly closer to me genetically did bad things to someone else’s ancestors? It’s not right, but I’m not responsible for it. Cultural appropriation fails at the premise. Nobody owns culture; you affect and are affected by it. Culture is a set of ideas, and you cannot “steal” ideas (you can steal credit for ideas, but that’s not the same thing and not the case here). Ideas are always copied, and the only way for an idea to be lost is to prevent their spread and for every person or object holding these ideas to be destroyed. Writing stories is the act of creating and spreading culture.

People seem to think that they can be the arbiter of others’ thoughts and actions. I became a liberal because I hated when Christians did it, and I hate it just as much when racial moralists do it. It’s even more stupid when you think that many of these people also complain that minorities are underrepresented in media. It’s such a shame that so many people spend so much energy discouraging others rather than encouraging others.

#8 Comment By Mr_Mike On October 5, 2016 @ 10:08 am

“This theft or “cultural appropriation” is defined by Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor, as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

The professor uses a capitalist concept to diminish her hated privileged white folk, and empower her beloved oppressed people of color. She’s a mark for her own con. No one owns culture, so you can’t ask for permission, unless she’s the type of activist who see’s herself as the only legitimate intercessor between me and a person of color.

#9 Comment By The The On October 6, 2016 @ 10:57 am

We are all just humans. There is only one human species. All this race talk is just BS. That’s all it is. There are cultural differences but that is just ideas. Ideas are to be criticized.

The role race plays is simple: its a tool to be used to stop people from questioning a set of ideas.

Race is used as a proxy to stop questioning of a groups ideology. Its a way to keep people divided. Its a way to maintain a status quo.

#10 Comment By Dave B On October 6, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

When writing fiction, I determine what reality is. I define the characters, their relationships, their dialog and their settings.

It is not necessary for any of these elements to reflect the real world.

“Write what you know” is a tired cliche, and was never a valid directive.

#11 Comment By Alex Ingrum On October 6, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

Your subtitle, “Today’s literary turf wars would have limited some of our greatest writers”, says all that needs to be said. The “our” here undoubtedly refers to White people. Your assumption of the “our” demographic reflects White normativity more than any of your arguments against it.

Yes, White writers can write about non-White characters, but like any good writing, that characterization should be well-informed and empathetic. Otherwise, they are just stereotyping. If White writers have not lived among Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, then what basis do they have to write about them in a meaningful way? Racial minority writers in White-dominated societies always interact with White people on a daily basis, so their writing White characters would have some basis of validity. See Toni Morrisson, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Junot Diaz, etc.

Lionel Shriver comes across as an ethnocentric White supremacist whose non-White characters only function as props in the lives of her White characters. Of course she has the right to write whatever she wants to, and we have the right to call her out on her bad art.

#12 Comment By Myron Hudson On October 6, 2016 @ 6:48 pm

There’s an interesting self-contradiction coming from the thought police on this one:

1) It is Wrong to not include diversity among characters in one’s work.
2) It is Wrong to appropriate the culture or experience of another.

This leaves some writers with the choice of:

1) give up writing altogether
2) give up the notion of pleasing anyone other than their target market (this makes sense)

The weaponization of grievance does not make it any more legitimate, it just makes it weaponized. It is worth noting that much of this comes from our well-fed and academic youth, who apparently have time on their hands, and a different perspective on what constitutes a threat to the very well-being of the world.

#13 Comment By Egypt Steve On October 7, 2016 @ 9:23 pm

I’m pretty liberal — in fact, pretty leftist.

I think the idea of “cultural appropriation” is crap. We’re all human. It’s all human culture.

I’m with John Donne: “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

And the same could be said for any man’s life: it enriches me, because I am involved in mankind.

#14 Comment By Mia On October 7, 2016 @ 9:56 pm

“Finally, Abdel-Magied gets around to what amounts to a plaintive call for literary reparation: “Cultural appropriation is a ‘thing’ because of our histories. The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?””

Hey, I like this quote. So am I wrong in thinking she means we need to take this into consideration too?


I’m sure the modern Copts and early Byzantine Empire are awaiting her wisdom in explaining how this all works out for them in the end, given all of the concern over colonization and such. And I seem to recall this happened much earlier than the British Empire that she probably thinks she means.

#15 Comment By Mia On October 7, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

“Yes, White writers can write about non-White characters, but like any good writing, that characterization should be well-informed and empathetic. Otherwise, they are just stereotyping. If White writers have not lived among Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, then what basis do they have to write about them in a meaningful way?”

I’m curious, have you read Sinclair Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal, and what is your take on it according to your comment?