17 October 2016 | Richard Elliott
In ‘The Yada Yada’ episode of Seinfeld, dentist Tim Whatley announces to Jerry and George that he has become a Jew, and immediately begins to crack jokes based around his new-found identity. When Jerry goes to a Catholic confessional to express his suspicion that Whatley has “converted to Judaism purely for the jokes,” the priest asks him “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” to which Jerry replies “No, it offends me as a comedian.”
In the twenty odd years since that episode, the area of cultural appropriation – defined as “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another” – has become disputed territory for academics and mainstream media alike. Never more so, perhaps, than in the weeks following Lionel Shriver’s speech on the subject at the Brisbane Writers Festival, a speech that dismayed festival officials and generated a clamour of media responses – of dissent and approval – on either side of the Atlantic.
While Shriver’s bottom line – that “fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats” – is not something that many readers or writers would hasten to dispute, the tone of her speech understandably drew criticism. Instead of providing concrete literary examples of writers being discouraged from writing across cultural boundaries, Shriver focused on sensationalist stories of political correctness gone awry: students being chastised for wearing sombreros, canteens being boycotted for serving sushi, and – most chillingly – Katy Perry not receiving universal acclaim for her geisha-style performance at the American Music Awards. When Shriver then warned her audience that “this same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you,” before identifying her adversary as the “culture police,” she was beginning to sound something like a cross between Bill O’Reilly agonizing over The War on Christmas and Eric Cartman giddily declaring Race War.
Of course, Lionel Shriver isn’t a best-selling novelist for nothing; if the main ingredient of her speech was some fairly unimpeachable tautology (“fiction is inherently inauthentic”), it was laced with enough exaggeration (“any way of doing and saying things that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced”) and provocation (“[fiction is] all about what you can get away with”) to transform it into a potently commercial dish. In this respect, all Shriver’s speech lacked was a response that, in embodying the rather improbable positions that were being postulated and attacked, would lend it a degree of retrospective urgency. This duly arrived in the shape of a Guardian piece by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that climaxed in the extravagant claim that Shriver’s attitude prepared the ground for genocide.
A nuanced response to both articles came from Nesrine Malik, who stressed literature’s ability to reveal commonality across difference, as well as challenging the use of “as a” in discourse about identity. Malik claims that arguments that begin with “as a woman,” “as an immigrant,” etc. concede ground to those in power, those who feel they “do not need experience to give them wisdom.” She insists that “an opinion, a belief, a feeling, an imagination, need not arise from, nor be justified and validated by some authentic experience.”
Irrespective of whether Malik is right about recourse to experience in such debates, she is surely correct to identity the issue of power as central. In this light, let’s return to the above Seinfeld episode and ask what it is (aside from the show’s overbearing laughter track) that gives Jerry’s response its effectiveness. If we allow that the ability to fashion our own identity yields significant power, then perhaps the move in the position from which Jerry “takes offence” – from “as a Jew” to “as a comedian” – is a move in the direction of greater power, since the former identity is an accident of birth about which Jerry may feel pride but can scarcely take credit, while the latter is an identity that he has earned. Moreover, in this scenario it is an outside figure of authority (the priest) who wishes to define Jerry as “a Jew,” whereas it is Jerry himself who chooses his identity as “a comedian.”
Given that a show famously about nothing can engender discussion about identity and cultural appropriation (I’m sure many people will have a different interpretation of the scene), little wonder that novels about some of the most contentious periods of history, such as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, have proved so divisive. If the impassioned responses to Shriver’s speech are anything to go by, we may be set for a prolonged period of intense debate on these subjects. Perhaps the best we can do is to join with Linda Grant and “hope fiction gets through it alive.”
Richard is writing his PhD on British and American fiction written across cultural boundaries, from the 1960s to the present day. He was once the reserve member of a winning Eggheads team and shamelessly accepted an equal share of the prize-money, which he is still living off today.
Article edited by Maygan Forbes and Juliet Conway.