US writer roils Aussie fest

Officials in charge of an Australian writers festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks.

By ROD NORDLAND in Brisbane
  • Published 14.09.16
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Lionel Shriver

Brisbane, Sept. 13: Officials in charge of an Australian writers festival were so upset with the address by their keynote speaker, the American novelist Lionel Shriver, that they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks.

The event, the Brisbane Writers Festival, which ended Sunday, also hurriedly organised counterprogramming, billed as a "right of reply" for critics of Shriver, whose speech had belittled the movement against cultural appropriation. They scheduled the rebuttal opposite a session Saturday afternoon in which Shriver was promoting her new novel, The Mandibles.

Shriver 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 (or even characters of their ethnicity) by artists or others who do not belong to those groups.

Shriver 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. Shriver, the author of 13 novels, who is best known for her 2003 book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from cultural appropriation.

Shriver 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 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina," she said.

Shriver donned a sombrero for much of her speech - an allusion to a case in the US 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, Shriver warned that the anti-cultural-appropriation movement that began in America 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, got up and walked out, making live posts on Twitter about her dismay at what she described as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."

"I have never walked out of a speech," Abdel-Magied wrote in a post.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE