The fight for free speech

The fight for free speech, by Rosemary Neil.

Lionel Shriver is talking down the line from Brooklyn, New York, and explaining that “I am not an obedient person by nature. If someone tells me I can’t do something, the first thing I want to do is that”. The Orange Prize-winning novelist, who has also described herself as having “an obstreperous streak a mile wide”, is not exaggerating.

Remember her Brisbane Writers’ Festival keynote address three years ago? The festival organisers had expected the British-based American to address the anodyne topic “community and belonging’’, but Lionel being Lionel, presented instead a blistering polemic on fiction and identity politics.

She claimed the rise of such politics challenges “our right to write fiction at all’’ and warned that if authors bowed to the doctrine of cultural appropriation — the notion that it’s wrong to create characters from religious, racial, sexual or gender groups to which one doesn’t belong — “all that’s left is memoir’’. Shriver said she hoped “the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’’ and in a theatrical flourish, calculated to amuse and provoke, she placed a sombrero on her head.

Well before she donned the hat, Sudanese-Australian writer Yassim Abdel-Magied made a “political exit’’, later accusing the keynote speaker of “mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories’’. She said Shriver’s speech was a “poisoned package … delivered with condescension’’. …

Since she delivered her 2016 speech “white writers, in particular, are being told they either have to ask permission to use minority characters …. or you’re just not allowed to. That’s a loss for everyone.’’ She adds, with a chuckle: “I’m not sure whom you ask (for permission).’’ …

She says the policing of cultural appropriation leaves many writers with an impossible dilemma: if they portray only white, straight characters, their work will be attacked for its lack of diversity but if they include characters from “protected’’ minority groups they may be called out as insensitive or disrespectful.

She has lived in the UK, including a long stint in Belfast, for three decades and, unlike most of her novel-writing peers, is a Brexiteer. She is also a columnist with America’s Harper’s magazine and the UK’s The Spectator, and she recently wrote in the former: “I doggedly out myself at London dinner parties as a Leave supporter … I’m surely pitied and deplored behind my back, for even face to face I’m regarded as an exotic if slightly repellent zoo specimen.’’