We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my top ten novels, always comes to mind when someone asks for a recommendation.
This morning, as every morning, after my yoga I sat in front of the laptop and started cruising the news. I don’t read any one paper/site cover to cover; I hop around, the HuffPo, The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, and any links popped up overnight on my Facebook feed that catch my eye. And so I saw the headline for this essay in The Guardian, and got excited. (As excited as I get at pre sunrise, only on my second cup of coffee.) I am a huge fan of Lionel Shriver, as evidenced by the photo above. Over the past few years I’ve gotten rid of the majority of my paper books–surprisingly liberating–but I keep a couple of shelves worth, a selection or two or three showcasing authors I worship or individual volumes that have had a huge impact on me, as a person and/or as someone who writes.
When I read the essay, my first thought was, “oh, fuck.” It’s about the author’s response to part of a speech given by Lionel Shriver, about identity, cultural appropriation, what is or isn’t ok for an author to explore through their fiction. When I love an author’s work, I want to be one hundred percent devoted to them in every way. I want them to be the giants I’ve built them up to become in my mind, I want to have faith as I learn more about them that this is someone I’d enjoy having conversations with over tea, coffee, or a glass of wine. Silly, isn’t it? Especially silly when I’m someone who still harbors occasional fantasies of being published (well published!), and yet here I am running this blog: Mrs Fringe of the colorful language, big mouth, strong opinions, and anything but neutral political leanings. I have no doubt there are many who would not enjoy having coffee with me, maybe even some of the same who enjoy my words when they’re fiction. I’m the first to admit not everyone finds my sense of humor charming. General publishing wisdom–common sense, really–dictates that anyone hoping to earn a dollar from strangers shouldn’t do anything to actively offend anyone.
The thing is, I’m a person, first and foremost. That’s what Mrs Fringe is about, being a person who wears many hats, plays many roles; complete with disappointments, laughter, mourning, screw-ups, nonsense, inappropriate thoughts, offensive-to-some language, a desire to be heard and understood, a desire to learn and understand more, a desire to connect with others. Kinda like, oh, say…fiction. And the authors of said fiction. Yes, it’s imaginary characters and made up scenarios, but good fiction, enduring fiction, the kind of fiction Lionel Shriver writes, is uncompromising, unapologetic. She creates characters who are SO real, doesn’t hesitate to use her characters and scenarios to explore who we are as human beings, as a society, to use the mirror of fiction to examine the beauty, pain, and the ugly bits of what it means to be a whole person. Sure it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also riveting. This is the fiction that endures, because people are people–now, fifty years from now, two hundred years ago.
So I’m a person. So, apparently, is Ms. Shriver. And I read the essay, thinking about the author of the essay, her offense at Lionel Shriver’s remarks referencing how easily, too easily, people are offended now, the idea of political correctness. Her offense at the idea that a novelist can accurately and appropriately portray someone whose experience of life is vastly different than their own, i.e.: a white novelist writing a person of color, straight novelist writing LGBTQ characters, etc. Her interpretation of the novelist’s speech as arrogance–maybe it was, because I only have the author’s paraphrasing before she walked out twenty minutes into it, I don’t have enough information to give an informed opinion.
I want to be offended by her offense. But I’m not. The truth is, she has a point. Could a white male have written Their Eyes were Watching God, given the character of Janie Crawford the same depth, the same enduring honesty created by Zora Neale Hurston? Nope. Could In the Time of Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, have been written by someone who isn’t Dominican, written in a way that allows the reader to come as close to feeling what it would be like living in the shadow of Trujillo as you feel reading her story of the Mirabel sisters? Nope. If a white author writes a black protagonist, I’m going to be skeptical, I’m going to be wondering about the character being written in a way that is not only not realistic, but wondering about the icky squicky line of that protagonist being written in such a way that it’s lecturing (subtle or not) the reader on how a person of color should be feeling in this imaginary scenario. Will that novelist be able to allow the reader to feel the enduring humanity while preserving the reality of life experiences through they eyes and thoughts of a protagonist who isn’t straight and white?
Lionel Shriver, as far as I could tell from the essay, had a point, too. If we are afraid to examine any but our own narrow viewpoint, so afraid of using the wrong words we stay silent, we will never understand a damned thing, and our worlds will shrink with the novels in front of us, rather than expanding. Female authors have written beautiful, powerful strong male characters and vice versa. What would seventh graders read if Harper Lee hadn’t written To Kill a Mockingbird? What are we teaching these future generations (*cue thinkofthechildren wail*) if they stop reading it because it might be triggering, or offensive to examine our society’s racism–past and present? You know what was amazing to me, about Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Reading about her afterwards, and learning she isn’t a parent. My mind was blown. But maybe it shouldn’t have been. Maybe it’s because she isn’t a parent that she was able to take such a hard look at parenthood without turning the mother into a saint or a caricature of a villain (though not necessarily likable).
Would it be the same thing, a white author writing a protagonist who is Black, or Latino, Asian or Indigenous? No, but it also shouldn’t mean limiting characters to only those who experience life the same way the writer does. If it did I’d have to give up even fantasizing about having anything published. I can see it now, the NY Times Best Seller– Mrs Fringe Buys a Slow Cooker.
Cultural appropriation is a real thing, and it’s something we need to be aware of, and sensitive to. Maybe it’s harder for whites to understand because so much of the tradition of white, Christian culture involves the attempt to force it down the throats of everyone else. What the line is, exactly, I’m not sure. At the beginning of this post I referenced yoga. Is it cultural appropriation for me to practice yoga? I’m pretty sure I don’t have that Jane Fonda exercise tape anymore. Or a beta machine to play it on. Nerd Child tells me the Weeping Buddha statuette I have on my desk is cultural appropriation. I don’t know, it makes me feel better to touch it in the early morning, pretend that I really am letting go of any sadness and starting the day with a clean slate.
Mother of God with Child–Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin
I saw the above painting recently, wished I could have it hanging in my apartment. I’m far from a religious anything, let alone Russian Orthodox. It’s art, and what makes great art (visual, written, or other) is the creator’s ability to preserve the specific subject while transcending it, offering the reader/observer/listener a world outside of her own while tapping into the common themes we all share.
People don’t change, the human condition has had us exploring the same questions for hundreds of years. Society, though. Society changes. The words and language we use changes. What is acceptable changes. The line of what is or isn’t ok to do and say moves. Sometimes it moves quickly. It behooves all of us to remember this, and if we write, or read, or engage with the world in any way, it behooves us to remember this, like everything else that’s important, involves many shades of gray.
*Follow up: This morning I saw the transcript of Shriver’s full speech in The Guardian. I thought some of my readers might be interested, and as always, invite all to come back and comment here if you read it.