How to dissect a speech you have neither heard nor read

Maxine Beneba Clarke tells the story of how she and Melissa Lucashenko confronted Lionel Shriver the day after Shriver’s talk on cultural appropriation. She seems to think it reflects well on her; I think it doesn’t.

She starts with an overwrought account of Shriver’s talk, or rather, of reading tweets about Shriver’s talk in her hotel room…which is not quite the same thing. She didn’t attend Shriver’s talk.

She provides a long string of furious tweets, which is not a very dispassionate way of informing us about the talk.

“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.”

That’s a small sample – she included a lot of tweets. A lot of tweets, but nothing actually from Shriver’s talk, which she didn’t attend.

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.

I wonder how Clarke went about dissecting Shriver’s keynote speech when she hadn’t heard or read it. (It hadn’t been published yet.) Did she think the tweets had told her all she needed to know for the purpose of dissecting a speech she hadn’t heard?

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.

You can feel the rage building. It’s like a Trump rally. How dare Shriver cross her slim legs?

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.”

That scoff is rich – when she never heard the speech, and is shouting at Shriver anyway.

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.

What an absolutely disgusting display.

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