September 19, 2016
Some other things we talk about when we talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin’s author talking about racism
by Ryan Harrington
Last week we wrote about novelist Lionel Shriver’s controversial comments about cultural appropriation. For those playing catch-up: At the Brisbane Writers Festival, Shriver gave a talk on “community and belonging” wherein she espoused the unpopular opinion that writerly sensitivities to cultural appropriation have spiraled out of control and risk stifling creativity. Oh yes, and she wore a (literal) sombrero of defiance for part of the speech.
In the New York Times’ coverage of that event, Rod Nordland cited (without directly quoting) Korean-American author Suki Kim lamenting that books about North Korea by white male writers received more attention than her own. This despite the fact that those writers don’t speak Korean and hadn’t spent nearly as much time in the country as she had.
Now, in a follow-up piece, the Times has reported that Kim’s comments were meant to be off the record, and that she considers their publication unethical. Liz Spayd writes:
Suki Kim, a New York Times best-selling author, found herself in such a situation when she attended a book festival in Brisbane, Australia, over the weekend. After listening to a controversial keynote address on racial and cultural identity, Kim and a few other authors retreated to a small room in the hotel for what was billed by the conference hosts as an “artist-only” private conversation over cocktails.
But four days later, Kim found herself quoted in The New York Times, in a piece in which she criticized another prominent author by name, lamenting that his and other books by white males on topics similar to her book’s tended to be better received. Kim was outraged, and still is, that the Times reporter Rod Nordland, who she acknowledges speaking with at the event, would quote her for an article. Nordland is the Times Kabul bureau chief and is himself a recent author of a book on Afghanistan. That’s the basis on which he was invited to the book festival, and to the smaller reception: he wrote a book.
That is, Kim knew Nordland was a journalist (Kim herself is a journalist), but, thinking he was there in his authorial capacity, believed the conversation was off the record and would not wind up in print. Nordland, though he wasn’t originally planning on writing the Shriver story, didn’t think of the private writers’ discussion as “off limits”–especially because Ms. Kim did not ask for it to be off the record.
So, the key to journalistic responsibility in this situation boils down to Kim’s expectation of privacy. The official stance of the Times (which has not removed Kim’s comments from the original piece) seems to be that she had unreasonable expectations in that particular situation. Spayd and Kim disagree. In any event, it would be a shame for us all to miss Kim’s (on-, off-, or around-the-record) point: that the outsized attention given to the white male authors writing within her same category might have something to do with the fact that the publishing world is dominated by white men.
Meanwhile, Shriver has defended her original actions, saying that “this entire hoo-ha illustrates my point.”
Ryan Harrington is an editor at Melville House.