I think this is a more appropriate moment. I’ve had a while to collect my thoughts on it. The provocation started with Rafia Zakaria’s article ‘Can war reporting be a feminist project?’ that had me nodding all along. It sort of comes a full circle with the Lionel Shriver episode on fiction and cultural appropriation (Read Shriver’s speech here, good rebuttals here and here). To summarize, both Shriver and Zakaria ask if it is alright to use someone else’s experiences to produce (semi/non+) fiction, especially if the Other is historically less powerful than the author. My personal take on this business of representing the Other is that you can’t and further, if it is an entirely fictional account that has no semblance to possible realities or stereotypes, then you might as well use your own family to write the story out. Right?
I say so with two reasons in mind. The first is of course the sort of obvious meta-critique in the direction of a ‘Room of One’s own’ and what Susan spells out in her critique of Shriver:
“Shriver is someone who tries on hats and shoes and doesn’t see the hands that made the hats and shoes, the sun that shone on the heads that wore the hats, the roads that the shoes took.”
It’s never as simple as being able to write a story (fiction or anthropology). The concern of whom you can write about comes way after who can write at all. Writing is creative labour that requires publication, networks, money and visibility. So, some of us can (looking at you Naipaul) literally afford to write about anybody and anything and even manage to find an audience, others have to try harder. Further, as Zakaria points out, some of us are permanently cast in positions of being written about (poor, exotic, brown, black – the interiority of whatever is yet to be exposed; the anthropological instinct to expose, capture and translate). It’s also a genuine concern for me because the Other doesn’t have to be very far or different. There’s plenty of dimensions in intersectionality where your relative power can make you a prized interlocutor. But these are still a writer’s concerns.
The more worrying part about Shriver’s speech was its conclusion about fiction and empathy as if all we need is for someone to write and someone to read it in order to build a bridge of empathy. To put the responsibility of writing in context, I keep returning to Zahir Janmohamed’s musings both as a Muslim in India and as a writer of color in America:
In November 2012, as anti-Shia violence escalated in Pakistan, I wrote an op-ed about my uncle who was killed in anti-Shia violence in Karachi in April 2000. Every place I pitched responded within a day, expressing an interest in publishing it.
I am proud of the piece I wrote but I am very conscious of what it does—it builds onto an existing narrative of Muslims being intolerant and violent and of Pakistan being a failed state. Editors said I was “brave,” “singular,” and “eloquent,” words I never hear when I am pitching a piece about being on the receiving end of prejudice in the United States.
I guess what I am truly baffled by is that Shriver seems to take lightly (and what perhaps forced an ultra-woke Fey to do for money?); is the responsibility of committing memory and imagination to paper, something that will be for good measure in Internet times etched forever and read through volatile times. There will be young girls and boys clicking away to find out what the fuss about Afghanistan was, of all races and places.
Let me recount a personal incident of such literary fuckery. It’s this strangely masochistic relationship that young Indian girls have with Victorian literature (and even Elizabethan). By the time you’ve finished reading your “Classics” which were all part of the colonial education project, most students have deemed literature to be a boring, futile exercise. At best Jane Eyre or even Hamlet are remembered as stories, often universal stories. Why did nobody ask what the hell was happening in Japan when Jane Eyre was alive? (I want to teach a course some day titled: “What was happening to you when Jane Eyre happened?”
It didn’t resemble our Present and unlike science and mathematics, it held no promises for our Future. It taught many of us that poetry was to be imagined and written in a certain manner. Worse, we only encountered post-colonial literature as addendum in the third year of the B.A. program. That is when you are taught to excavate the madwoman from the attic of the Brontes, to pay attention to race, voice, agency and so on. Even as fiction, works like Wide Sargasso Sea are first glimpses of familiarity, telling you that rules of fiction don’t mandate talking about elderberries. Even though italicized, writing about Gulmohar is perfectly literary too. So, in that sense, bringing fiction closer to facts or juxtaposing the former against the latter has been a long project of finding ourselves in the margins, as a butler, maid, slave, dancer, orphan. Of looking around and acknowledging that Jamuns grow around you. Lastly, you should not be okay with being a plot device. Which is why cultural appropriation hurts. Being mined (mined/owned ha!) for discursively produced artefacts that stand for your community’s good and ugly interactions takes away from your centrality to your life’s story.
I can ramble on but again, it’s not what Shriver said but this sentiment bubbling under that imagination knows no territory and worse, for reporters, ethnographers and non-fiction writers, the notion that living somewhere or spending enough time observing is enough is painful. I want to think of writing/making not as capacity/authority (can I take from you?) but as responsibility (what am I giving to everyone forever?).