Australian writer Yasmin Abdel-Bagied has described what prompted her to make her obviously political exit from a speech given by US author Lionel Shriver.
The Brisbane Writers Festival opened on a controversial note last Thursday, after members of the audience walked out of the opening address given by the author of the best-selling We Need to Talk about Kevin.
“As I stood up, my heart began to race,” writes Abdel-Bagied. “I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.”
Shriver’s opening address began with a story about a group of American college students who were criticised for wearing sombreros to a Mexican-themed party.
“‘Can you believe,’ Shriver asked at the beginning of her speech, ‘that these students were so sensitive about the wearing of sombreros?’”
According to Abdel-Bagied, Shriver’s speech, about political correctness and cultural appropriation, ended up as “a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others, simply because it is useful for one’s story’.”
Abdel-Bagied argues that by making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver disregards history and current reality.
“It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian women can’t get published or reviewed to begin with,” she writes.
Lionel Shriver had written seven novels before finding international success with We Need to Talk about Kevin.
In Her latest novel, The Mandibles, explores the aftershocks of a US sovereign debt default on four generations of a once-prosperous American family.
According to a New York Times Book Review, “Shriver has always seemed to be at least a few steps ahead of the rest of us, but her new novel establishes her firmly as the Cassandra of American letters … I don’t remember the last time a novel held me so enduringly in its grip.”
Shriver is also an outspoken and sometimes controversial commentator, and a self-described rule-breaker.
“I do not obey rules because are rules, but because they make sense,” she said in a recent interview for the Sydney Morning Herald. “When they don’t, I feel free to ignore them – although I am as prey as anyone to shit-eating terror, and if the consequences of being a scofflaw are too dire I’ll toady along with the best of them.”
In a blog post on the Brisbane Writers Festival director, Julie Beveridge, said that the opening address was expected to set the tone for the Festival, and Shriver had moved away from the brief. “The views expressed during her address were hers alone.”
However, she also said that the festival was a forum for opinions and challenging conversation, and Shriver is renowned for provocative views and for challenging perceptions about the role of writers.
To continue the conversation sparked by Shriver, a Right of Reply event was organised, led by Abdel-Magied and writers Rajith Savanadasa and Suki Kim.