An astonishing and—once its wider implications are recognised—deeply disturbing reaction to the increasingly progressive and liberal attitudes to literary censorship through the twentieth century (and particularly since the 1960s) has been the identification, for the purposes of censure and censoring, of the phenomenon known as “cultural appropriation”. In Lionel Shriver’s keynote address to the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, the American novelist confronted this issue critically, expressing the “hope” that it is “a passing fad”, and brought down upon her head, thereby, the now-familiar tsunami of personal denunciation for expressing a viewpoint out of lockstep with the enforcers of “correct” thought.
“Cultural appropriation” is the fancy phrase for the allegedly disreputable process by which a writer from one cultural grouping takes the “identities” of another group, in the process of creating fictional characters—essential components, obviously, of any story or novel. Those who would censure and censor such appropriation—regarded as “theft”, as “helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you” (as Shriver points out)—focus particularly on the representations by such as white, male, heterosexual writers (that sole cultural group which it is routine to demonise today) who choose to present characters from “ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability” different from their own. Shriver cites the example of Chris Cleave, who in his novel Little Bee (2009), dared to write from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl, although he is male, white and British.
Prohibiting such appropriation, Shriver argues, denies to novelists what is essential to the pursuit of their craft: “to step into other people’s shoes”. But the would-be censors of this exercise have brought into being “proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively make our work impossible”. What remains, she contends, if this position is taken to its logical conclusion, is memoir-writing: your life alone is all you are entitled to appropriate. Imaginative excursions into other lives are forbidden. The prohibition would annihilate fiction:
Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes takes notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts? The fiction writer, that’s who.
That such a point has to be made, and so insistently—telling us what anybody who knows and appreciates anything about imaginative literature already knows—is in itself an indication of the rank idiocy of the position that Shriver nonetheless felt compelled to subject to a sustained attack. A critic of Cleave’s Little Bee, for example, was concerned that the “author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range”, as if this were a questionable, suspect procedure, rather than the routine practice of story-tellers since the beginning of time. And this is true not only of novels (on which the novelist, Shriver, predictably focuses), but of drama and poetry too.
We need only to consider a few texts from the body of literature in English over the past half-millennium to see that cultural appropriation has been the lifeblood not only of the work of imaginative writers, but of the greatest novelists, playwrights and poets. Let us go straight to the top, to Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice, the dramatist appropriates the identity of a Venetian Jewish moneylender, Shylock, the play’s principal antagonist; in Othello, we are in Venice again, but this time with a Moor (as another identity from a different racial grouping is appropriated); while in plays beyond number, the serial “thief”, Shakespeare, appropriates gender identities patently not belonging to him in such powerful characters as Lady Macbeth, Lear’s daughters, Desdemona, Portia and so on.
Speaking of Jewish Shylock reminds us that in the greatest of Modernist novels, Ulysses, the lapsed Catholic, James Joyce, appropriates the identity of Jewish Leopold Bloom (indulging this theft over several hundred pages, moreover), as his wandering Jew goes about a day’s business in Dublin; and the robber Joyce concludes the novel with a detailed, intimate appropriation of the quintessential female identity of Molly, in one of the great soliloquies of literature, beloved of numerous female solo performers. Unaccountably, in their regrettable failure to recognise that they are dealing in culturally-appropriated stolen goods, these women testify to the male author’s insightful representation of Molly’s thought and sensuality in those unforgettable, life-affirming pages.
Then, in opera, we have the Italian Puccini, in collaboration with his identity-thieving librettists, engaging in rampant cultural appropriation, with orientalism and femaleness abounding in his works—a double theft, if you please, in Turandot and Butterfly, but to the entertainment of millions. The censors of such cultural appropriation and gender-identity theft would require a modern-day Puccini to confine himself to Puccini: The Musical, bereft of any imaginative excursions into other lives, other worlds—his music reduced to the accompaniment of memoir. And, then there is the light-hearted operetta The Mikado, where orientalist-racialist appropriation for mere amusement has been indulged for more than a century. The censors have their work cut out for them!
In poetry, the situation is equally dire. In the genius of the Irishman W.B. Yeats, we have a writer who trespasses—brilliantly, as it happens—on manifold identities and appropriated cultures which, in any right-thinking world, should have been prohibited to him. There are the oriental wise men of “Lapis Lazuli”, his many imitations of the Noh drama, and the “Crazy Jane” sequence, portraying a woman’s wisdom-in-madness. He should have confined himself to his own life in Sligo. His contemporary, T.S. Eliot, is another guilty gender-identity thief, with his Cockney women in The Waste Land, his sortie into the Middle East in “Journey of the Magi” and—perhaps worst of all—multiple borrowings from Eastern philosophy and the Buddha’s teachings. Coleridge has Kubla Khan, purloined from China; Shelley has Ozymandias, stolen from Egypt; Matthew Arnold has “Sohrab and Rustum”, appropriated from the tenth-century Persian epic “Rostam and Sohrab”—the list of imaginative theft in poetry is endless.
In the English novel, the case of E.M. Forster is instructive in this matter. Not satisfied with having the temerity of taking his readers on a journey of cultural appropriation in A Passage to India, the novelist himself, while living there and in the position of private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas—which provided his material for the novel—got himself up in Indian dress and posed for an official photo, a sub-continental version of “blackface”. There is the great novelist, from top to toe, appearing for all the world as an Indian, somewhat exceeding the example that Lionel Shriver gives of some American college students being censured recently for proposing a culturally offensive, Mexican-themed party where sombreros would be donned.
But there’s more: as a homosexual, Forster repeatedly, incorrigibly, “stole” the heterosexual identity of numerous female characters, as in A Room with a View. He should have confined himself to his worst novel, Maurice—the only homosexually-themed one—where reprehensible cultural appropriation and identity theft are kept to a reassuring minimum. As has often happened in the history of censorship, the least accomplished or expurgated work would be the approved one. In Forster’s case, the only novel in his corpus that would satisfy the enforcers of approved cultural appropriation and identity representation is his least imaginative and accomplished.
Unfortunately, this novelist-thief is long dead so is unavailable to be set up for execration in the pillory erected by the politically correct, so assured in their self-righteous judgmentalism. So his censurers and censors will have to be satisfied with a burning of his books and the deletion of them from school and university curricula, with trigger warnings about racism, lest the young be corrupted by a misguided genius. Book-burning and banning are the standard procedures of the monocultural, totalitarian Thought Police, as the stormtroopers so efficiently demonstrated in their bonfires of profane writings that failed to toe the party line.
Forster and his good friend Virginia Woolf—both warriors against the scourge of censorship of thought and speech that has been progressively engulfing Western societies for the last half-century, and is now all but triumphant—spoke out against it, in a joint public letter, when the predecessors of our present-day censors were inveighing against the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in the 1920s: “The free mind has access to all the knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”
Now, with race-gender-class orthodoxies securely in command, there are more taboos on the imaginative faculty than ever. Rudyard Kipling truly is beyond the pale in this new world order. What with The Jungle Book and Mowgli, its feral Indian boy-protagonist, and the speciesist identity theft in the characterisation of the valiant mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, censors will need to be vigilant so that children of the future will not be exposed to stories that have delighted the imaginations of millions of them since the 1890s, lest any budding authors amongst them are encouraged by Kipling’s bad example to go and do likewise. Indeed, it is unlikely now that even James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, which rewrote classic children’s tales in strict conformity with 1990s politically-correct thought, will pass the more rigorous tests of today’s self-appointed guardians of cultural appropriation and identity theft.
But let us not confine ourselves to male writers. A female novelist from the seventeenth century, Aphra Behn, much championed by feminists for emerging in a period of English literature dominated by such hetero-patriarchalists as Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, and often cited as the first known professional female writer, penned the fiction Oronooko: Or, the Royal Slave (published in 1688). A classic text of cultural appropriation and identity theft, Oronooko tells (in the first person, to make the matter worse), the story of an African prince from Coramantien. The book has been appreciated as “a crucial text in the history of the novel”. But its most fervent defenders, from the feminist school, are faced with a serious dilemma. As they customarily submit to race-gender-class orthodoxy, from which the current “fad” for ferreting out and censuring cultural appropriation and identity theft directly derives, it will be interesting to see by what casuistry they reconcile Behn’s blatant committing of these crimes, in the free exercise of her imagination, and their ongoing appreciation and advocacy of Oronooko.
What Lionel Shriver has bemoaned may, in itself, prove to be a mere fad. But it derives from—and is another disturbing sign of—a much wider imposition upon the imagination and the curbing of freedom of thought and speech, not only of writers, but of citizens, at large, in the supposedly free world. This now has spread well beyond the universities that have been principally responsible for nurturing it. Mandated orthodoxy of thought and expression silences transgressive and counter-cultural discourse, demonises any who fail to submit to its strictures, and constricts and inhibits imaginative creativity, which is the lifeblood of artistic expression.
Barry Spurr was a member of the English Department at Sydney University for forty years and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry. He has published numerous books and is a leading authority on the life and work of T.S. Eliot