Lionel Shriver, Political Correctness, and my addition to the furore
19 September, 2016 | By Goldie Alexander
This is a conversation about political correctness and the Lionel Shriver affair. If you haven’t heard of Lionel Shriver, she is a well-known established author who was invited to give the keynote address at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. In her speech, she bemoaned the push by certain academics and less well known authors to ‘only stick to what you are’ in your books. In short, to never try to fictionalise anyone of a different gender, ethnicity, religion and, we assume, age.
Apparently she got into trouble with some hardliners by writing about a black woman with dementia and the novel was viewed as racist. She also caused an enormous upset at the festival by not sticking to what she was told to talk about. Other, lesser known writers walked out. Do I dare suggest that this is an excellent way for them to get media attention because it sure worked!!! What is most upsetting according to all reports (but as I wasn’t there and only gleaned this from the media} the festival organisers were uncertain how to handle the situation.
If this swing to what and what characters we can create is taken seriously, it doesn’t leave much for authors to write about. The whole point of fiction is to get into someone else’s shoes. The challenge is to see the world from a different point of view.
I suppose that over the years I have sinned in many ways. My novels for young readers include a fourteen- year old Moslem cameleer, a first fleeter, a badly disabled young woman, a street kid teen, a girl dying from anorexia, several dragons and monsters (if these characters are made up are they ok or am I impinging on Disney?) a Chinese boy, even aliens, and lots and lots of young people of both genders whose lives I only dreamt up. In the 80 plus books I have written only three can be levelled as truly belonging to my own life: ‘That Stranger Next Door’ where the protagonist’s life style is based on some of my early memories of that affair, ‘My Holocaust Story: Hanna’ though I was never a victim and certainly never lived or fought in the Warsaw Ghetto, and ‘Mentoring Your Memoir’ self-explanatory as it is a memoir of my first thirty years. What a load of poppycock. But the resultant flurry is exactly what Shriver was talking about and in this way her point is fulsomely made.
But I should add that it is only too easy for writers to get unwittingly into trouble. I have done so at least twice. The first time when I made a joke about a Canadian singer also called Goldie Alexander, the second when I wrote an article about my early days as a music teacher. In a way it’s good to know someone is reading what I write, if only to get angry with me.
Thank you for writing this. I work in a library part time and after the ‘Shriver Affair’ I went looking for children’s books featuring characters and stories of other ethnicities written by white Aussie authors. I found many! I asked myself, are these authors denying people of those ethnicities the opportunity to tell their own stories? I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. But I think it’s wrong to tell authors they can’t write about something or someone because they haven’t personally lived it. That is censorship of creativity, if nothing else.
But, you know, I found plenty of autobiographies by people of varying ethnicities in our library’s Biography Section. Fascinating stories of love, courage, and daring to dream. So certainly some stories are being told and published, as memoirs. Maybe they are also writing fiction but to get those stories into libraries people need to request them. Don’t be afraid to ask libraries to buy specific books.
Keep on writing, Goldie. Your work is awesome.
Dear Sharon, I truly appreciate your comments. How lovely to work in a library and thank you so much for your heartening comments.