The disgracing of American novelist Lionel Shriver unfolds live to cyberspace, in blurred snaps and scathing profundities of 140 characters or less. The first tweet is scene-setting. “The calm before the (creative) chaos,” the Brisbane Writers Festival says. “Looking forward to our official opening later with Lionel Shriver.” With the tweet is a snapshot of the empty venue. Ominous orange light illuminates rows of perfectly aligned white plastic chairs. Thick metal poles prop the tented roof. In cached retrospection, the scene seems pre-show-Big-Top: eerily carnivalesque.
As evening rolls in I can feel the uneasy anticipation: even through my laptop screen, from my hotel room a kilometre down the street.
The first keynote punter live-tweets her festival approach: “In-bound to #BWF16. After an epic workday, I’m sure some Lionel Shriver will perk me right up.”
“Full house for Lionel Shriver at #BWF16.”
“Lionel Shriver has arrived.”
“Excited to be here for the Lionel Shriver opening address!”
As the thumbs of the seated-expectant madly whirr over phone keys, I quietly weigh the benefits of heading out to join them. A second snapshot now, from the back of the room: seats all occupied; eager mostly grey audience awash with green light. I decide against attending.
At first, it’s just quotes that filter through the Twitter feed: abbreviated insights from the acclaimed and indisputably talented author of Big Brother, The Mandibles and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
“Belonging to one group shouldn’t preclude us from exploring another,” reads one.
“The spirit of fiction is one of exploration and generosity.”
“Fiction allows us to behold the astonishing experience of others’ reality.”
“Writers should seek to push beyond the arbitrary characters we have been dropped into by birth.”
I stare at the posts, as they materialise one by one on my screen. She’s going there. She can’t be. She’s going there.
“Any story you can make yours is yours to tell.”
“Lionel Shriver is hopeful ‘cultural appropriation is a passing fad’, since it makes fiction writing impossible.”
“Lionel Shriver discusses safe spaces, political correctness and cultural appropriation.”
Discusses? What do they mean by discusses? What is Shriver saying?
There’s a pause in the commentary. The feed’s dropped out. There’s a deafening several-minute gap. I pick up my phone, in case it’s my laptop internet connection that’s faulty.
“Wearing a sombrero while discussing her right to be a bigot.”
“Lionel Shriver suffers from a common disease: white arrogance.”
“Lionel Shriver seems to have decided to cosplay ‘Ignorant and Contemptuous White Privilege’.”
“Lionel Shriver wearing a sombrero… Fitting end for her racist rant.”
“VERY IMPORTANT, Brisbane Writers Festival: did Lionel Shriver bring her own sombrero or did you supply it?”
“Many people have walked out of Lionel Shriver’s keynote.”
“I just walked out of Lionel Shriver’s opening keynote. Never done that before.”
“Finished her opening speech in a sombrero.”
“Lionel Shriver’s keynote was cringe-worthy, scary, and sad: because racism just is.”
“Shriver said some awful stuff.”
“She donned a sombrero and morphed into ten angry white men.”
“Lionel Shriver said some gross things.”
“Shame on you, Brisbane Writers Festival.”
“Lionel Shriver has become toxic.”
Over the next 24 hours, Shriver’s speech – advocating cultural appropriation and publicly sneering at those who ask for consultation and sensitivity in the telling of others’ stories – is all any writer on the festival circuit can talk about. When we’ve tired of dissecting Shriver’s keynote speech, we talk about how desperately Shriver wants to be talked about. Then we stop talking about her at all.
After hours of official silence, the festival director responds. “Lionel Shriver – by her own admission – did not speak to her brief. The views expressed during her address were hers alone. Tonight I will open the floor for a Right of Reply, led by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Rajith Savanadasa and Suki Kim.”
Swift mitigation. The damage, though, is done.
When I finally see Shriver in the flesh, a day or so later, it’s as if all of the air has been sucked out of the packed green room. I’m walking with Melissa Lucashenko, Walkley Award-winning Goorie writer, when I spot the novelist.
Suddenly, despite all of the people between us, all I can see is Shriver. Shriver, and what she represents. Shriver from my Twitter-feed: slim legs crossed, perched centrestage with a sombrero on her head, smirking.
She turns to face us: cedar-blonde hair scraped back into a severe bun; stern blonde face; blonde neck disappearing into a pale yellow top.
I don’t know if it’s me saying it, or Lucashenko. It doesn’t matter. I either mean it, or agree wholeheartedly.
The emotional exhaustion from the past three days of festival conversations with local high school kids about writing race, writing black, collect in my stomach – into a seething bundle of rage. The anger travels up my throat.
“How dare you come here, to this country, and speak about minorities that way! How dare you?” says Lucashenko.
Shriver steps forward. Moves towards us. “You weren’t there,” she says dismissively. “You didn’t hear what I said properly.”
“How dare you come to this country and behave like that?”
“When I come to your country,” Shriver’s chin is raised now. Her voice is strict, as if she’s speaking to small children. Though she’s shorter than I am, she somehow still manages to peer condescendingly down the bridge of her nose. “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.”
Lucashenko and I lock eyes, in disbelief.
“You don’t even know what I said,” Shriver repeats, raising her voice slightly.
I can feel my blood pressure rising. “The entire Australian writing community has a fair idea of what you said,” I scoff. Then softer, in disbelief, almost under my breath. “You’re a disgrace.”
The whole exchange happens in fewer than two minutes, but is absolutely crystallising to me. The monster from the Twitter feed: come to life, but not in the way I imagined. Less commanding. Without the backlighting of a screen. Off the stage. Small now, uncertain, and kind of lonely-looking. Chin still raised in righteousness but nevertheless, standing completely on her own.