Sunday – 2pm-3pm, The Royal Exchange
By Press Room Contributor Ashley Kalagian Blunt
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in Newcastle, but there’s a crowd gathered on the mismatched furniture of the Royal Exchange to listen to poet Kait Fenwick, playwright Yuki Iwama, and editor Adolfo Aranjuez engage in an empathetic and encouraging discussion about censorship and political correctness, moderated by writer Osman Faruqi.
It’s unavoidable, so Faruqi immediately brings up what’s known as the Lionel Shriver controversy. The panel agrees that between the two extremes of writing whatever you damn well please and only writing from your lived experience, there’s a reasonable middle ground: don’t be an asshole. As Faruqi summarises, ‘We’re saying just do it with respect’. One way of doing this is collaboration; another is through research and empathetic effort.
From the writer’s point of view, Iwama describes the experience of a lot of migrant children who grow up hating their own voices and wanting to be white. This came out in Iwama’s writing until they recognised it as self-silencing.
When writing, Aranjuez fears being attacked for his opinions. Attacks may come from majority groups but also from those who should be considered allies. ‘Because we’re from marginalised groups, we love this feeling of being empowered by calling someone out’, he explains. ‘But it’s toxic and poisonous when we turn it on each other.’
Aranjuez also describes his challenges as an editor with a pool of white upper-middle class writers. Deciding that he needed a Muslim writer to review a film depicting Muslims, Aranjuez went through a string of recommendations that finally led him to an excellent writer. ‘It’s always easier to use the people I know’, he said, but the extra work to find new voices is important.
Other revealing moments –
Faruqi: I don’t write a lot explicitly about race, but when I do sometimes, even jokingly, that’s what I cop the heat for the most, and it makes me want to not write about it. Sometimes it isn’t worth it.
Iwama: People can write about issues they don’t have experience of as long as they don’t assume they understand what this experience is like.
Aranjuez: Freedom isn’t just about doing whatever you want. Part of being a citizen is recognizing that your actions have effects on others. And when you choose to do something, that reflects on the groups that you’re part of.
Fenwick: While there might be [non straight cis white male] voices in the mainstream, they’ve had to work so much harder for their success.
An audience member asked how we can make others engaged in the process of unlearning the stereotypes and ill-considered perceptions that feel woven into mainstream society. As Fenwick points out, there’s a feeling of preaching to the converted when talking about these issues with the National Young Writers’ Festival crowd. But for those actually unlearning behaviours, it’s difficult and painful. Iwama has had negative experiences when attempting to talk to people with conservative attitudes – ‘but it’s worth planting the seed in their heads, if you don’t expect them to change their perceptions right away.’ Aranjuez agrees: if people are genuinely trying to learn, it’s important to be patient.