It was three in the morning in Seoul. I hadn’t slept properly in 36 hours, and I was tempted to tell the long, winding story of my life to the person on the other end of the line, as if she were my therapist. Perhaps it was the view of Gangnam outside my window that made me nostalgic. Or maybe it was the jet lag. Then I remembered that I was talking to the public editor of The New York Times about what had happened in Brisbane, Australia, that anything I said could be written up in the paper, and that the reason we were speaking at all was that the Times earlier that day had embroiled me in a controversy involving an American novelist who has a thing for sombreros.
Before last Friday, I had never heard of Lionel Shriver. As I settled into the back row of the room where Shriver was to give the keynote speech to the Brisbane Writers Festival, I was more concerned with giving myself a clear path to the exit in case my jet lag caught up with me. I gathered that she was famous, at least as far as writers go, and that she had written a book called We Need to Talk About Kevin that had been turned into a movie. But mostly I registered the fact that she was to give a speech on the theme of “community and belonging,” and that, like other festival speeches of this sort, there was a good chance it could be sleep-inducing.
It was anything but. Shriver—a thin middle-aged woman with spectacles and brown hair—began her speech by describing herself as a “renowned iconoclast.” She declared that she would not, in fact, be exploring the theme of “community and belonging,” but would instead discuss the issue of “fiction and identity politics.” In a diatribe that has since become notorious, she proceeded to enumerate the various ways in which cultural appropriation—the idea that white artists and communities have stolen elements of minority cultures in ways that are oppressive—was harmful to people everywhere. She asserted, “Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” She tempered what amounted to a right-wing case against affirmative action and political correctness with a paean to cultural exchange, proclaiming, “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad,” because the exchange of cultural ideas is “one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.” She then theatrically donned a sombrero to show her solidarity with those drunk, sombrero-wearing American college students in Cancun who supposedly are not giving any offense to Mexican culture. Shriver said she was merely an advocate for people trying on other people’s hats.
People began to walk out. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian Muslim, went back to her hotel room, where she wrote an essay called, “I walked out of the Brisbane Writers Festival Keynote Address. This is why.” The essay would go viral, inspiring dozens of thinkpieces and Twitter essays on white supremacy, white arrogance, and white ignorance. But back in the hall, for those of us who remained, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was so offensive about this spectacle—there was so much to choose from. Shriver questioned whether white people are even allowed to eat Pad Thai anymore. She chose extreme examples of counter-cultural appropriation gone awry, citing Oberlin students apologizing for the inauthenticity of sushi in their cafeteria as being insensitive to Japanese people. She asked, obtusely, if a crime writer should have criminal experience to write authentically in her genre. She chastised an unnamed writer for including “mostly Chinese” characters in his novel: “That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.”
But the most upsetting aspects of the speech won’t be found in the transcript. It was the sight of a white woman who has had great literary success playing the victim. It was the arrogance with which she declared that being Asian is not an identity; sure, we don’t want to be stereotyped according to race either, but who is Lionel Shriver to tell us that? It was the casualness with which she declared that “any story you can make yours is yours to tell,” and that, “in the end, it’s about what you can get away with.” And it was the smugness with which she put that sombrero on, looking defiant, as though she had just won some childish bet. Her whole attitude conveyed her annoyance, but for those of us whose identities—racial, sexual, and cultural—have branded us as others throughout our lives, her smirks went straight through like a bullet.
And what was alarming was that there seemed to be no way for anyone who had not really experienced that kind of exclusion firsthand to truly understand any of it. At one point, a young Chinese-Australian volunteer who had been sitting in front of me turned around and asked, “What do you think about what she’s saying? I am Australian, born here, but this scares me.” She added, “It’s because she is an intelligent person that it’s even more alienating to me.” I looked around, and saw that we were the only two Asians there. In that moment, race had polarized the festival, and it became us against them. Connection and belonging—this talk was, as promised, not about that at all.
The next day, a Saturday, Abdel-Magied’s essay hit the internet. This modest event in an antipodal corner of the globe became news everywhere. (The speech itself was eventually republished in its entirety by The Guardian.) That afternoon, as I was getting ready for the talk that I had been scheduled to deliver, I got an email from Julie Beveridge, the festival director. In less than three hours, there was going to be an impromptu panel called “Right of Reply,” featuring Abdel-Magied and Rajith Savanadasa, a Sri Lankan-Australian writer. And I was being asked to be the third member on the panel.
For writers of color, this is not an uncommon situation, even if this panel was sparked by what was fast becoming something akin to an international incident. In 2003, I attended my first writers festival, hosted by the Los Angeles Times. I had just published my first novel, a work of literary fiction and the only debut novel that appeared on Farrar, Strauss & Giroux’s list that season. Yet I was placed on a panel for writers of color featuring the authors of a chick-lit novel and a book of gay erotica. We had nothing in common except that we were not white. The panel for debut fiction, meanwhile, featured all-white writers, even one who was invited for a second year in a row, as if you could debut twice.
This time around, the panel presented those who may have been offended by Shriver’s speech with a chance to respond. But as we were paraded before a largely white audience, I began to wonder: Were our roles at the festival to react to Shriver’s speech, or to ease white guilt? Furthermore, the theme of the festival was definitely no longer about “connection and belonging”—it was about being a minority in Lionel Shriver’s world. I had been invited to the Brisbane Writers Festival as a writer, but now I was here, foremost, as an Asian. This was yet more proof, if it was needed, that Shriver was spewing nothing but nonsense: Some of us have no choice when it comes to identity. A black man in America cannot decide on a whim to take off the “black” label and just be a man, whatever that means. An Aborigine in Australia would be equally powerless to control a racial identity that has been thrust onto him by whites.
Afterward, once I finally finished my own book event and walked into what was known as the Artist’s Den, a private hotel room the festival had rented out for the writers to relax with drinks, several writers congratulated me on my performance. No one was referring to the one I did for my book.
And not everyone was so supportive. Two authors, both white males who write about foreign cultures, shared stories of being the victims of bias. One author lamented that his book about Afghanistan had been unfairly panned by a “Pakistani woman” who, he claimed, was not qualified to review his book. The other writer talked about how his sister’s film was unfairly judged for not having any black people in it, and it was a black organization’s protest that effectively shut her film down. They asserted that my book had done well, that the reviews had been good. The message was clear: Stop complaining.
Two days later, a Monday, I was in Seoul, where I discovered that one of the writers had filed a piece with The New York Times titled, “Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival.” In it appeared a quote attributed to me, even though the quote came not from the panel (as is clearly suggested in the piece), but from our conversation in the Artist’s Den—which was off-limits to reporters. (The article’s author, Rod Nordland, was invited to the festival in his capacity as the author of his book on Afghanistan, not as a reporter.) Here’s the relevant passage: “Ms. Kim complained that books by white male writers on North Korea were better received in some quarters than books like her own. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013, though Mr. Johnson did not speak Korean and had spent only three days in North Korea, Ms. Kim said. She attributed that acclaim at least partly to racism from institutions dominated by white men.”
The merits of the argument aside, I would not have made a negative comment about this writer in a public context, nor would I have given such a quote to a reporter, but the article indicates that’s exactly what I did. This is how the article ended:
Ms. Shriver described the festival’s response as “not very professional,” and, at a later appearance at the festival, said she was disturbed by how many of those on the political left had become what she described as censorious and totalitarian in their treatment of artists with whom they disagreed.
Of course, Shriver was allowed to give her speech in full and was not censored in any way. Yet, the article helped substantiate the false claim of censorship by reporting that the festival had removed the links to Shriver’s speech on its website, while leaving intact the links to the rebuttal. But the festival had no such links to Shriver’s speech; for days, people had wanted to get copies of the transcript, and Julie Beveridge herself claimed that she did not have a copy. And the rebuttal page was, in fact, just a panel description, much the same as Shriver’s page consisting of her bio. (The Guardian later procured the speech from Shriver’s publicist.)
The article held out the possibility that Shriver was the victim. The festival’s organizers, the story suggested, were pandering to the writers of color who were policing them with their paranoid insistence on political correctness. All of this was backed by the might of The New York Times.
A day later, the public editor, Liz Spayd, published her column. “I found Kim’s argument and perspective compelling,” she wrote. “I believe Kim did have an expectation of privacy at this ‘artists-only,’ ‘private’ gathering—as the literature promoting the event described it. She was discussing books with a man she knew was an author and journalist, just like her. And there was no mention of any story.”
But there’s only so much the public editor can do. Even though Spayd found that Nordland and his editors had behaved “outside the bounds of good journalistic practice,” there will be no retraction or correction. Nordland insists that he was justified in publishing the quote because I knew he was a journalist, but neither he nor Spayd addresses the fact that he misrepresented my quote as coming from the panel discussion, when it was in fact made in private. Spayd herself succumbed to some bias: “she considers herself a journalist as well,” she wrote of me, as if it’s a subjective matter, not a fact. We’re back to that question: Who decides who gets to be a writer?
Meanwhile, I just found out I will be at yet another festival next month with Lionel Shriver.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated Rod Nordland’s book was “about Kabul.” It is about two Afghan lovers who hail from Bamiyan.