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.
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