LET THE BOOK BURNING BEGIN

Political correctness recently broke out in Brisbane, Australia. Officials at a writers festival were so upset with novelist and keynote Lionel Shriver (The Mandibles), “they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times. What horrific things did she say?

“Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” (“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” Rod Nordlund, 9-12-16). Re artists, some people believe that white authors should not create non-white characters. Ms. Shriver disagrees. “She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book ‘Little Bee.’”

Right on, Lionel! Like Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, Little Bee is fabulous. Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who Cleave created, exhibits biting humor and remarkable courage. She offers a different perspective on England—one well worth examining. Oh, and Cleave creates sympathetic white Britons, as well—women as well as men.

Political correctness seems to demand that authors, playwrights and screenwriters create segregated worlds. Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) would be long forgotten. But all writers would pay the price. The Good Lord Bird by African-American James McBride would have its wings clipped since the white abolitionist John Brown plays a prominent role. Sherman Alexi, the Native American writer, would have to eliminate whites though they’re integral to his novels and stories.

Amy Tan? Imprisoned in Chinatown and the Middle Kingdom. Englishman Tom Rob Smith’s magnificent Child 44 set in Russia? Nyet! The late Bernard Malamud’s stories set in Italy with a Jewish protagonist and all those Italians? Bury the Italians. I’m sure I can find enough people to say Kaddish.

The foolishness never ends. Jewish Steven Spielberg directed the film version of The Color Purple with a screenplay by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes. Scandalous! The Broadway smash Hamilton features minority actors playing America’s white founding fathers and mothers—and rapping. Man (and woman) the barricades! Then there’s earthling George Lucas creating all those aliens in Star Wars. Talk about intergalactic cultural insensitivity!

Let’s get real. Writers tell stories by drawing on their experiences with people of all ethnicities. They observe. They do research. And they imagine. Good writers create characters of any ethnicity who reveal human nature at its best and worst.

I don’t restrict my characters to Jews. Specifically, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Specifically, men. Specifically, old men. In Flight of the Spumonis, the street kid Jimmy Q represents four different ethnicities, one of them Jewish. Do I get a pass? The private eye Moonbeam Cherney is a woman but Jewish. Cut me some slack? In my newest novel, the powerful executive director of a major museum, the holder of law and MBA degrees, is Black. Have I crossed a forbidden boundary?

Sure, we could purge our libraries, bookstores, Amazon and homes of all books guilty of cultural appropriation. But then we’d appropriate the cultures of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and much of the Middle East. And our shelves would be bare.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And read a good book—whoever the author is and whatever ethnicity the characters. It’s a human thing.

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3 Comments


  1. Clauda
    Sep 16, 2016

    Brave post! You will get a lot of negative response…
    But let me add some nuance here. Cultural appropriation only applies to the members of the “dominant” culture using the “minority” cultures. It doesn’t work the other way around. No one says that my Mexican-born neighbor who’s lived here since she was 2 cannot write about non-Latinas. But I, who lived most of my childhood in Mexico, am at risk because I’m “white” (Sephardic but still…)
    It’s easy to pinpoint the obvious limitations, but as you say, what fine distinctions will we draw? I can’t create a male character? Must he be an assimilated Jew? Can I write about a rich woman? A poor woman? An uneducated woman?
    The trick here is in your sentence: good writers reveal human nature at its best and worst. Deeply imagined characters, regardless of their ethnicities or the ethnicities of their authors, will survive this moment if imagined deeply and written with sensitivity and accuracy.
    Orientalism, stereotyping and two-dimensional “ethnics” will be decried for what they are, and for what amounts to bad writing.
    But two caveats: not everyone will agree with you (or me), believe me, and second, if you’re going to do it, GET IT RIGHT.


    • David
      Sep 16, 2016

      Well put, Claudia. I have to say though that it wasn’t particularly brave. I have nothing to lose. (I’d like to think I’d say it anyway and garner helpful publicity.) And yes, cultural appropriation applies only to members of the dominant culture. I get it. I also get the hypocrisy of it. And I have no idea whether I’m part of the dominant culture or not.
      One question intrigues me. Two-dimensional portraits of ethnics are not good. But are two-dimensional portraits of the dominant culture okay? Obviously, “get it right” applies to all writing.


      • Clauda
        Sep 16, 2016

        Yup. It’s a one-way street. Just as we women can malign men all we want, but the privilege is not reciprocal! Has to do with the balance of power…

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