Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

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In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here. Continue reading

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