Writing in his introduction to the 2014 edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Colm Tóibín relayed his 16-year-old self’s first encounter with the novel:
‘I had nothing in common with any of the people in that novel. I had never been in Paris or in Spain. I had never seen a bullfight or been fishing. I had never been outside Ireland. I didn’t know any Americans, nor any English people. I had never been drunk. I knew nothing, or nothing that I wish to repeat here, about sex. And yet the book overwhelmed me. It opened up a world for me… That world seemed more real and true and indeed more fascinating than the one I inhabited.’
Speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival last weekend, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin and numerous other novels, Lionel Shriver, was condemned for defending this very sentiment. ‘I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing’, she said. ‘Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.’
By today’s politically correct standards, Shriver’s speech was bold. But not everyone agreed. A young woman called Yassim Abdel-Magied walked out of Shriver’s speech and later wrote a piece for the Guardian in which she condemned it as ‘a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension’. Abdel-Magied argued that it was insensitive and exploitative to tell the story of people of other races, gender and sexuality. ‘It’s not always okay for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young indigenous man’, she raged.
Abdel-Magied’s article was quickly condemned for its ugly PC racialism. Indeed, it is worth considering that it wasn’t too long ago that a person of privilege, wealth and education wouldn’t have cared about the story of a young indigenous man. The fact that the boundaries of class, race, sexuality, nationality and gender have been infused through culture is something to be celebrated. But Abdel-Magied’s reaction was not an aberration.