She turned to face the crowd

Yassmin Abdel-Magied tells us why it was so important for her to walk out on Lionel Shriver’s talk.

As I stood up, my heart began to race. I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.

I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate. “Look back into the audience,” a friend had texted me moments earlier, “and let them see your face.”

The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against they grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

“How is this happening?”

Histrionic much?

Shriver said things Abdel-Magied disagreed with and disliked, but the histrionics make it sound as if she said something frankly evil, and she didn’t.

So what did happen? What did Shriver say in her keynote that could drive a woman who has heard every slur under the sun to discard social convention and make such an obviously political exit?

Nothing. That’s the thing.

On and on it went. Rather than focus on the ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had, the argument became a tirade. It became about the fact that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a “decent” job — in the eyes of a white woman — he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way. It became about mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.

Again – how does anyone go about asking permission to tell a story about someone from An Other Community? Someone fictional? If you’re to dense to notice that that’s not something anyone can do, because there is no Bureau of Community Permission, and if there were it wouldn’t be able to speak for any particular community anyway. This idea that one should get “a community’s” permission to write about a fictional member of said community is just an absurdity. Shriver made fun of it. No doubt that was annoying to many, but it wasn’t a crime.

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?

That’s not how that works. Preventing a white guy from writing the story of a Nigerian woman won’t get a Nigerian woman published. It won’t do anything. Whether or not a Nigerian woman gets published is a separate thing. It’s not like a place on a lifeboat that means someone else drowns. I want to see lots of Nigerian women tell their stories and get published, and yes I would rather read their accounts of Nigerian lives than the accounts of people who don’t know anything about it – but all the same an outsider writing about people doesn’t remove their chance to write about themselves. It’s not necessary and it’s not productive to make a ferocious rule about it, and then pitch fits when someone says the rule is stupid.

31 Responses to “She turned to face the crowd”