That Existential Leap: a crime story, was in production in September 2016, when Lionel Shriver caused a stir by launching a scathing attack at the Brisbane Writers Festival on the concept of cultural appropriation. In particular, she rejected the idea that writers should not write about characters from backgrounds different from their own, that it is exploitative, for example, for a white, male, British author to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl. As a white, male, British author who wrote much of That Existential Leap from the point of view of a young American woman of Indian origin, I had to agree with Shriver.
To most people it’s obvious that there could be no fiction at all unless people were able to try on other hats, as she put it. But objections to cultural appropriation, while often absurd – condemning white college students who wear sombreros as racist – are part of the logic of identity politics. This is the more pervasive idea that we are defined by our demography, and that only those with subjective experience of a particular identity can truly understand what it’s like – particularly when that identity is ‘marginalised’. It’s not such a great jump to conclude that only they have the right to talk about it or to participate in its culture, at least ‘without permission’.
I suspect it is caginess about identity politics that explains why Shriver was widely criticised even by those who would reject the excesses of policing cultural appropriation. Nobody wants to champion the right to be insensitive about race – or gender, sexuality, disability or the various other categories that are privileged by identity politics. But it was disappointing to read one novelist after another in a Guardian feature on the subject trot out a variant of the line, ‘Yes, you can write whatever you want, but…’
The recurring idea was that if you are going to write about people of another culture or identity, you have a responsibility to do it well. You should ‘do your research’. Maybe even run your work by someone of the background in question. To me, this is absurdly prescriptive. It reduces fiction to one, narrow aspect of what it can be. And it is not one that particularly interests me.
Alexander Rodchenko – Pioneer Girl, 1930
Not only am I not a young American woman of Indian origin. In writing That Existential Leap, I did zero research into the lives of young American women of Indian origin. I have no interest in representing the experience of young American women of Indian origin. I don’t read novels to gain insights into the experience of 18th century English ladies, the 19th century Russian nobility or contemporary black youth. The novels that interest me create characters I can engage with despite the fact they are unlike me, because the ways they are unlike me are less important than the ways they are like us all.
That is not to say there is no place for research in novel writing. Some writers use research brilliantly to conjure a time and a place in living colour. I’m just not one of those writers. In writing from the perspective of my Indian-American narrator, I sought to explore a more universal experience of adolescent crisis in the West at the end of the 20th century, which is in turn one aspect of a wider human story.
It’s perfectly true that the universal is often best explored through the particular, but why should those particulars be demographic? Why not the particular story of a young woman who is more interested in Russian literature than her own background, and who meets a man who pulls her further in the direction of deracination (and organised crime)? I only made her Indian because she had to be something, and I once noticed a lot of Indians board a train as it passed through New Jersey.
Of course, it is possible to write crassly and insensitively about people from other cultures. What if I’d really decided to go for the Indian-American thing, without doing any research? Indian-Americans are good at spelling, right? And maybe there are tensions about arranged marriage. So there’s my plot. A girl goes off to compete in the national spelling bee, where she falls in love with a white boy… Of course, this could be brilliant, but there’s a good chance it will be terrible, because I’ve started with nothing but stereotypes. The same goes for my gripping novel about two British Muslim twins, one struggling with homosexuality, the other radicalised on social media… But if I really, really research these, will they get any better?
The point is that an young Indian-American woman or a British Muslim twin will have a better chance of writing something compelling here, not because they know more about their own experience, but precisely because they might not feel so compelled to represent it. They have real lives to draw on should they choose to, but more importantly they will have interests of their own that might have nothing to do with their ethnic identities. Stranger things have happened.
The main character in the other strand of That Existential Leap is a white Scottish man of about my age and class, so perhaps I’m on firmer ground there. Except that he is also a police detective and a father, while I am neither. And no, I didn’t ‘do my research’ on that score either. But if I have failed, it will not be because I have misrepresented police procedure, but because I have not created a compelling human character and story. To me at least, that is what fiction is for.