Lionel Shriver returns to Australia and doubles down on ‘fascistic’ identity politics

Three years after controversial speech in Brisbane, US author denounces cultural control, obedience and conformism

Three years after vowing never to return to Australia, author Lionel Shriver says she stands by her controversial keynote speech at the Brisbane writers festival in 2016, calling identity politics fascistic.

Sunday night marked the American novelists first appearance in Australia since that controversial tour, despite her having released two books in the intervening years.

Shrivers 2016 address on fiction and identity politics, in which she said she hoped the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad, received widespread backlash. Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of the event midway, later writing in the Guardian that Shrivers argument that fiction writers shouldnt need to seek permission to write on minority cultures became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.

But on Sunday night, Shriver, speaking to an intimate crowd of 150 at Sydneys Bookoccino event, said her only regret in the controversy was the way it was reported. Abdel-Magieds opinion piece sparked an international uproar and debate, with stories in the New York Times and the New Yorker. The Orange prize-winning novelist on Sunday reiterated her arguments from the keynote, warning of the dangers of a larger cultural cowardice.

So ultimately [for] this movement Im sorry to throw around what sounds like hyperbole but the end point is fascistic. Because its about control. Its about silence. Its about obedience. Its about conformism. Its about imposing a way of thinking, she said.

Best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (adapted for film in 2011) and books such as The Post-Birthday World and The Mandibles, Shriver is in Australia to deliver the John Bonython Lecture on Tuesday on the topic of Creativity in the age of constraint.

Presented by the Centre for Independent Studies, Shriver is expected to cover political correctness, identity politics and the hypersensitivities of the #MeToo movement.

She will also appear on ABCs Q&A on Monday night where she will be joined by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, dean of the Columbia University school of journalism Steve Coll, and writers Ruby Hamad and Benjamin Law.

During the Bookoccino conversation, hosted by journalist Helen McCabe, Shriver expressed her views on identity, pointing to a section of her Brisbane writers festival speech she thinks caught the least attention in the media storm.

She resisted the idea that people should be defined as part of the groups were a member of, and what order we are in the social hierarchy, saying she doesnt believe race, gender or sexual proclivity are forms of identity. This line of thought led her to penning a controversial essay in the Spectator in 2018, in which she expressed her disagreement with Penguin Random Houses diversity quotas.

To tell me that identity comes down to these little boxes that we were born into [is] depressing and also politically regressive, she said. I find that a really grim, ugly, flat way of looking at the world.

Shriver also spoke about the #MeToo movement, US and UK politics (including Donald Trump and her pro-Brexit stance) and called upon her fellow fiction writers to follow her lead to speak out against what she sees as anti-democratic restrictions on creativity.

What I find most mysterious is why, given the kind of person that is traditionally attracted to becoming writers why are more of my colleagues not also having the same response? Basically, its a fuck you response, and its healthy, she said.

She further denounced the notion of safe spaces, as well as words as a form of violence, saying cultural appropriation was antithetical to the spirit of fiction.

The identity politics crowd seem to have successfully installed an ethos whereby, to subject someone to an opinion which they disagree, is a form of assault. In which case, I am all for assault, she said.

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