Wedding Small Talk and Cultural Appropriation

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1. A writer and an accountant walk into a wedding … 

I was at a wedding on Labor Day weekend, when a chartered accountant I’ve met on occasion started chatting with me. He wanted to know if I was still writing (clearly, a huge fan) and how it was going. “Pretty good,” I told him. And then he began to tell me how he’d been thinking of writing a book about his life, and I was suddenly mesmerized by the tray of glazed hors d’oeuvres passing by atop a waiter’s hand. Alas, before I could chase after the waiter, the accountant latched onto my forearm and reeled me in. “We need to sit down and talk,” he said, as he fished out his phone, clicked to his calendar. “You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve got to tell. You can be my co-writer.” I told him biographies were not what I wanted to be writing at this point in time. I was polite. I swear. Honest. But he was clearly offended. Possibly hurt. I can’t recall his words exactly, but they went something like : “You’re missing out. But if that’s the way you want to be …” He avoided me the remainder of the evening.

I’ve been having second thoughts ever since. Maybe I should have listened to him. Maybe I’m an effete asshole. Maybe we should have gotten together. Maybe he did have stories to tell that I “wouldn’t believe”. But then, what if he didn’t?

2. “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” – Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is the author of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, among others. Her POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD is a favorite of my daughters. And lately, if you have somehow missed it, she has been the subject of considerable controversy. If you haven’t yet read the text of her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, I urge you to do so here and now, because there’s no way any précis by me would do it justice.

She raises several disturbing issues, as ideology and identity politics attempt to infringe upon the realm of art (not to mention cuisine and fashion), in what I see as a hugely misguided attempt to dictate who should be permitted to create what. It’s all part of the same restrictive (sensitive? oversensitive?) mindset that demands trigger warnings and safe spaces——all part of this Age of Outrage, where every public and private misdeed or affront, major or minor, real or perceived, egregious or exaggerated, is immediately followed with lynching by Facebook, tyranny by Twitter. Mob rule rules the Internet.

“What next—language?”

Dissenting opinions on Shriver’s speech are easily found, from Newsweek to the New Yorker to countless blogs. Still, no matter how hard I try (and I have tried), I cannot accept the other side of the argument. Not on any rational, historic, multicultural or literary level. Even were I to see the light, where does one draw the line? And how long would it take for the line to be moved until there is no line at all? What next—language? An expunging of all words from your vocabulary derived from languages other than your mother tongue? Extreme? I don’t think so. Not in an era where serving sushi in a university cafeteria is subject for debate.

“Goodbye Shakespeare …”

As friend and author, Barry Malzberg, said in an email to me (used with his permission): “It is to laugh or weep or scream.  Goodbye Shakespeare, goodbye ANOTHER COUNTRY, goodbye my own story TURPENTINE (it’s in STONE HOUSE), goodbye CAPRICCIO ESPAGNOLE and RHAPSODIE ESPAGNOL and I WILL FEAR NO EVIL. Goodbye MADAME BOVARY  Goodbye goodbye to all that; goodbye to art, science and the annual Temple Brotherhood (sic) Service.” (By the way, Malzberg’s IN THE STONE HOUSE is a master class on the art of the short story. And if you’re in any way into genre, his classic essay collection, BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS is a must-read. You will not always agree with Malzberg, that’s a guarantee. He might even piss you off. But you will be consistently challenged and rewarded.)

Another writer friend, Florida-based James Ladd Thomas, has also allowed me to share his thoughts on the issues Shriver raises. I leave the last word to him. (For now, anyhow.)

“Any writer worth her salt will not allow that type of thinking to enter her fiction.”

“All my fiction is set in the South. I was born and raised in the South, which makes me a Southern writer. Anyone has the right to set their fiction in the South, but that doesn’t make them a Southern writer. However, a Southern writer setting their fiction in the South doesn’t make the fiction true, authentic, genuine. The work should be judged by the quality of the work, the story, the characters, the language, the art.

“I’ve received a couple of emails that were very critical of my novel (ARDOR). The people were Southerners, and they thought that the story wasn’t true of the South. I was a liberal who focused on tearing down the South, even though I’m a Southerner. Honestly, I wrote Ardor as a feminist novel. I’m sure some feminists would rage at me for that, ‘You don’t have permission to do that.’ The two emails didn’t talk about the writing, the story, the characters; they just thought the story didn’t tell the type of story they liked.

“To scream injustice about writers writing stories outside of themselves is nonsense. I’ve had men and women tell me how much they admired my ability to write from a young Southern woman’s point of view. I don’t really care if some people don’t think I have permission to write outside of myself. That’s what writers do. Any writer worth her salt will not allow that type of thinking to enter her fiction. I believe that would impede the very first step in the creation process. A writer doesn’t have to be real in her work in order for the work to be good; a writer needs to tell the truth, which is as ugly as it is beautiful.”

3. Oh, yeah! I’ve also completed a novel.

It is free of cultural appropriation. I think so, anyhow. Time will tell, I guess.

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