In September, novelist Lionel Shriver whipped the literary universe into an angry froth when she gave an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero and defending fiction writers’ right to cultural appropriation. Not long after, she followed up with a strident New York Times essay reiterating her thesis.
On Wednesday, acclaimed writer Zadie Smith, known for bold comic novels depicting the day-to-day lives of multicultural families and communities, weighed in ― and her response may surprise readers.
Smith has made no secret, in the past, of her frustration with being dubbed an expert in multiculturalism. In an interview discussing her new book, Swing Time, the literary possibilities of the Trump family, Brexit, male critics and parenthood, Smith told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, “I don’t think I’m a particularly political person.”
When it comes to multiculturalism, she said, “I’ve always dealt with it as a descriptive fact” rather than as “a kind of ideological principle.”
Asked to address Shriver’s explosive comments, Smith tactfully told Chotiner that “it’s just a question of approach. I would not take Lionel’s approach.” That doesn’t mean she entirely disagrees with the American novelist, however. “I [...] think there’s an enormous amount of pious cant spoken about it. [...] It’s a kind of fake piety.”
Smith, whose breakout novel White Teeth featured not only the child of a Jamaican mother and a white English father, but also a Bengali Muslim family, pointed out that she’s “almost never accused of cultural appropriation —why not? Because I’m brown and Bengalis are brown and so it’s all the same to white people?”
Some artists of color have been criticized, in the past, for appropriating trappings of other cultures ― and even Smith says she’s almost never, not never, accused of it herself. But in her Slate interview, she pointed to how much this critique tends to center white artists and lump all non-white artists together:
The whole thing is told from a white perspective, which is completely annoying to me. In terms of things that I borrow, of course I use things all the time. I have absolutely no defense apart from I love and am curious about other people’s lives and I am explicitly a voyeur. That’s why I started writing: because I wanted to know what’s it like to be a Jewish Chinese guy or an old black woman or a white professor or whatever. That is my absolute intention to get under the skin and do that.
Smith also noted, “I do resent the idea of being portrayed as such a vulnerable human that if you involved yourself in any aspect of my ‘culture’ I will crumble at the idea of you borrowing it from me.”
Is Smith right about cultural appropriation? She’s not one to oversell her expertise ― but she also doesn’t blink an eye at the prospect of ruffling feathers through pursuing her own artistic path. “I can be wrong,” she told Slate. “People tell me I’m wrong all the time. I get letters and people get grumpy, but that’s the risk you take.”