Posts Tagged ‘Lionel Shriver’

CONFESSIONS OF A CULTURE CRIMINAL

Last September, I wrote about “cultural appropriation” in “Let the Book Burning Begin.” Some attendees at a literary festival in Australia excoriated the novelist Lionel Shriver for advocating that “white” writers should be free to create characters of other ethnicities. They can also excoriate me!

My novel Slick! (one of Kirkus Reviews’ 25 Best Indy Books of 2012) presents Arab characters. They revealed all kinds of traits, some culturally specific, others simply human. Some characters I like. Others I satirize—as I did white American diplomats.

In San Café, I created—gasp—Latino characters. Again, I satirized human nature across ethnicities.

I avoided crossing most ethnic bounds in The Boy Walker but cop a plea to “cultural speciesism.” Like me, all my major characters are Jewish, but the novel’s narrator is the shattered Greenbaum family’s 12-year-old English Bulldog Brute. However, the speciesism isn’t all that grievous. Brute’s also Jewish.

In Flight of the Spumonis I had the gall to write about an Italian circus family with Irish roots. Was it okay because Italians and Irish are white? People think Jews are white, but I know many Jews with other genetic backgrounds. Also, I don’t identify that way. Still, I got enough Jewish characters into the novel to cover my tracks—including a “black” character who’s equal parts African-American, Chinese, Native American and, yes, Jewish.

Which leads me to my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I’m not giving much away by saying that Adonis is not—gasp again—Greek (would that be a no-no?) but Jewish. Yet he undertakes a relationship with a woman named Emily, adopted from Korea by white parents. He works closely with a Mexican-American named Fred. Can it be that in the major art museum where Adonis works, his contemporaries include people with Korean and Mexican genetics? Or must Adonis, living in a large but unnamed city, encounter only other Jews?

In Adonis, I also created an African-American character. I can imagine cultural purists salivating then snarling that Hunter Kirk must be a semi-literate gangster representing every racist’s stereotype. Or a star entertainer or athlete with no depth. Wrong! He’s the museum’s executive director. True, he shows Adonis a football in his office, but the protectors of cultural purity may be surprised:

“People always seem so startled,” said Dr. Kirk. “Or they think, Well, sure. All black men play sports.” A second-string tight end during his senior year, he’d caught the winning touchdown against his school’s archrival with seventeen seconds left. “Division Three ball. No pro scouts in the stands. Well, maybe one or two but not to see me. It was my only touchdown of the season. If you must know, of my career. A broken play. Life’s all about timing.” And discipline, he pointed out. It took discipline to earn a Ph.D. and an MBA. “No easy task for your average street kid.” He chuckled. “Of course, my father was a corporate lawyer, and my mother was a pediatrician.”

How dare a Jewish writer believe that an African-American can be educated and skilled, can lead a major arts organization, can be (final gasp) like anyone else? Take me to literary court and accuse me of recognizing the humanity in all ethnicities. I’ll plead guilty.

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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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