Thomas Keneally: 'Cultural appropriation is dangerous'

Speaking at Vivid Sydney debate, Australian novelist says artists can ‘enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off’

In an old and now-converted cell of Darlinghurst jail, Thomas Keneally had come to make peace. Speaking at Borrowed Voices: Freedom of Expression vs Cultural Appropriation – a debate hosted by Vivid Sydney – the author of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith told the audience he was sorry for “assuming an Aboriginal voice” in his 1972 novel, while standing metres from where the real-life basis for his protagonist, Jimmy Governor, was hanged.

“I have apologised before this for writing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith from the point of view of an Aboriginal,” he said. “I am here to make peace with the ghost of Jimmy Governor, who was imprisoned in this jail and hanged within a short walk from here.”

Keneally, whose Booker-nominated novel told the story of an Aboriginal man driven to revenge by a series of racially motivated injustices, echoed comments he made over 16 years ago: that in hindsight he would not do it again.

Like many other speakers at the event, including Indigenous artist Bronwyn Bancroft and New South Wales Australian of the Year Deng Adut, Keneally stressed the importance of permission in cultural exchange.

“We can enter other cultures as long as we don’t rip them off, as long as we don’t loot and plunder, as long as we treat them with cultural respect.”

He cited the long-running phenomenon of the Australian literary hoax as cultural appropriation made real, pointing to Helen Demidenko, a Ukrainian author who was actually the English Helen Darville; Billy Wongar, a fake Indigenous writer created by the Serbian Sreten Božić; and Elizabeth Durack, who signed her art with the name of Indigenous man Eddie Burrup.

“That is cultural appropriation and it is dangerous,” he said. “I don’t think it should be the subject of jail sentences, but it should be subject to some opprobrium.”

In reference to Lionel Shriver’s excoriating address to the Brisbane writers’ festival in September last year, and the protest from Sudanese-Australian activist Yassmin Abdel-Mageid, he said the issue was one of tone and respect.

“[Shriver] was going to ride a horse no matter who held up the barriers, no matter who uttered cautions or suggested carefulness,” he said of Shriver’s tone at the event. “She was going to ride the heavy cavalry of her fiction right over every cultural shrine, through every sanctuary of other cultures and that is not permissible.

“But that is as far as the controls of cultural appropriation should go. We should approach other cultures as if they are equal to ours, with affection and respect. If we move into them, if we write our characters from them, we should be fully informed.”

The debate, which had promised to be divisive, also featured comedian Chris Taylor, Quadrant contributor Daisy Cousens and Sky News anchor Caroline Marcus.

But the decision to frame it in a “reverse” format – “Artists shouldn’t be restricted by cultural boundaries when creating their work” – prompted widespread confusion.

Speakers were encouraged to argue against their views to “highlight the shortcomings” of their opponents, yet only Taylor, Cousens and Marcus took up the mantle, pushing the debate into pure, mocking irony that jarred with genuine sentiment, and made telling the two apart at times difficult. In contrast to the sincerity of her team-mate Bancroft, Marcus compared bans on wearing sombreros to the Nazi destruction of Jewish books that we should “bring back”.

In the words of the judges: “It was a reverse debate, it had a double negative – people were so confused.”

Speaking more earnestly, Deng Adut, a South Sudanese former child soldier turned lawyer, added that cultural ideas should be freely shared, but only in good faith.

He told Guardian Australia afterwards that “anything that is a mockery or a joke, or with bad intention, is wrong”.

“Everything has a source. If we don’t acknowledge the original source, that is where it is inappropriate. But if it is a matter of humour, with intelligence, with a sense of respect and permission, then that is when you can actually say yes. The ideas are free and should all be shared.”

The Indigenous artist Bronwyn Bancroft approached the debate as a visual artist and a Djanbung woman of the Bundjalung nation.

“I am a firm believer in maintaining cultural boundaries and creating within that realm,” she said. “The country was stolen and sovereignty never ceded so it would be great if our art was not plundered.

“The world is not a better place for Elizabeth Durack’s deception. Surely a real Aboriginal man should have been offered any opportunity to take his art to the world.”


Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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