Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mulligatawny Soup, Fiction Writing, and Cultural Appropriation

Recently I was explaining to my children the origins of Mulligatawny Soup and it got me thinking about the latest cause célèbre of the political left-wing, 'cultural appropriation'. The delicious chicken curry soup originated in India and its name is an Anglicization of the Tamil words for 'spicy water'. It was popular with the British who served in India during the Raj and was one of many such dishes they appropriated when they returned home. You only need to visit British cities, particularly in Northern England or Scotland, to see the huge influence of Indian culture - and especially cuisine - on British life. The same applies to Indonesian culture in The Netherlands, North African culture in France and so on.

My musings on Mulligatawny coincided with reports of a speech by American writer, Lionel Shriver, who is best known for her book, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. Shriver was asked to address the Brisbane Writers Festival on the topic of 'fiction and identity politics'. The audience undoubtedly thought she would stick to the typical left-wing script about how important it is for authors to make careful deference to identity politics in their fiction, but they were to be disappointed. She signalled the tenor of her speech early on by stating that 'ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.'

Shriver was, of course, referring to political correctness, but more specifically she was discussing the tendency of the left-wing to take offence any time anyone (or, at least anyone of European descent) adopts any symbol of another culture. She talked about the U.S. college that censured its students for wearing sombreros to a tequila party and the student union in the U.K. that banned its Mexican restaurant from giving out little sombreros (it seems Mexicans are particularly sensitive to appropriation of their headwear). Then she went on to discuss how writers and other artists are finding themselves subject to accusations of cultural appropriation for the mere act of creating a work that imagines the experience of someone of another culture. Shriver points out that it is the very act of appropriating other people's experiences that defines what is fiction (and if it were otherwise, it would be called autobiography).

Shriver said that 'the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with'. She is right - much contemporary fiction has become anodyne drivel - and I think she is bang on with the cause. Many contemporary writers seem much more concerned with convincing us of their bien pensant credentials than with telling a good story.

Some of my favourite writers are those of the early 20th Century, such as Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, who wrote mostly about their experiences of cultures other than their own. Their appeal is due to the fact that not only were they perspicacious observers of human nature but they conveyed their foreign characters with unapologetic and unadorned authenticity. Waugh's portrayal of an African dictator in Black Mischief is surely one of the greatest (and most comedic) characterisations in modern literature and it is sad that no popular writer today would write such a character for fear of invoking a secular version of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Shriver's speech, which was reproduced in full in the Guardian (you can read it here), drew a response from a woman in the audience named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who (surprise, surprise) took offence at what Shriver said and equated her views with those of Australian nationalist politician Pauline Hanson. The Guardian gave Abdel-Magied equal space to air her objections and it is worth reading her article (here), if only to appreciate the perverted logic of those who, in the name of redressing imagined historical wrongs, seek to deny fiction writers the very freedom to create.

Taking the objection to cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion, no one would be allowed to learn a language that wasn't of their own ethnic background, which would be a problem for the large numbers of European New Zealanders who, presumably for reasons of cultural virtue, have taken up learning Maori. My ancestry would make my study of Irish Gaelic okay, but I'd probably be in trouble for my Spanish and French.

This is where the left-wing are going. It is they who are doing the appropriating and, not content with appropriating our incomes, our property, our institutions and our language, they now want to appropriate our minds. Like Winston Smith's tormentor in 1984, they are not going to be satisfied with us paying lip service to their cultural hegemony, they insist we must actually believe it. But, of course, that has been their aim all along.

I only hope that more creators of our popular culture are as brave as Lionel Shriver and take a stand against the real threat of appropriation of our free thoughts.


Mark Hubbard said...

Great post.

Hope you don't mind if I appropriate some of your great summary of Shriver for something I'm working on. Full attribution of course.

? [That's a request for permission by the way.]

Kiwiwit said...

No problem, Mark. Thanks for asking.

Mark Hubbard said...

Thank you, although I doubt anyone will get to read it published.

paul scott said...

yes good post.
I got along there to see about the appreciation of appropriation or the lack of it from Abdel-Magied. She says on her blog she is 'a Muslim woman doing her thang '
Although she had to walk out on the Shriver speech at Brisbane, she comes up with this sort of stuff on her blog.

trigger warning claptrap following
quote "" So what does this have to do with not laughing at Pauline Hanson's voters?
It's about reminding us to think about the long game. To think about why people are at the stage they are at, and realising that rather than derision, they deserve - like anyone else - to be listened to and heard. That is the minimum we owe. We may disagree, but what is more important is then to tap into that and dig deeper - why are you feeling the pain you are feeling? What in our systems is causing this entrenched and divisive societal ailment? What can we change?
Our societies are meant to be built to protect the lower income ends of society. It is not supposed to exploit them until they have no way of speaking out and thus turn to being societally destructive "" and so on.and on. and on.

Plenty of stuff there for various monetary grants from correct thinking sources I imagine.

Mark Hubbard said...

I've quoted this piece twice now, once, mainly, in a manuscript I doubt will see the light of day. But also here (new arts blog):


Rationale of blog explained here: