September 14, 2016
What we talk about when we talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin’s author talking about racism
by Ryan Harrington
Perhaps you’ve read about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation as it relates to the wearing of headdresses and bindis that is endemic to music festivals. But how about the wearing of sombreros at book festivals? Less so, I suspect. But show me a festival, and I’ll show you an offensive piece of headwear.
Case in point: last weekend at the Brisbane Writers Festival novelist Lionel Shriver—author, most famously, of We Need to Talk About Kevin—cheekily donned a sombrero for part of her scheduled talk on “community and belonging.” As Rod Nordland reports for the New York Times, Shriver’s talk focused on cultural appropriation, or “the objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs or culture (or even characters of their ethnicity) by artists or others who do not belong to those groups,” to borrow Nordland’s definition.
The point of the sombrero, and Shriver’s comments, was to say that our sensitivities surrounding cultural appropriation have gotten out of control, and are in danger of bringing us to a point where, according to Shriver, “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina.” That being who Shriver is and the nature of her experience.
But hers is a highly controversial stance (and the sombrero constitutes a particularly controversial approach to that stance), and one notable attendee, Australian author Yassmin Abdel-Magied demonstratively walked out and penned a scathing rebuttal. The festival responded by organizing a “right to reply” panel for writers and critics who disagree with Shriver, and scheduled it to coincide with promotional event for Shriver’s new book The Mandibles.
And while I have you, don’t forget to come see us at this weekend’s Brooklyn Book Festival. In the past, we’ve sometimes been known for our creative headgear, too — don’t miss the chance to see what we’re sporting this year.
Ryan Harrington is an editor at Melville House.