The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Mandibles pulls no punches when it comes to race, sex, or economics. Katherine Mangu-Ward interviews Lionel Shriver in the latest issue of Reason.
When Lionel Shriver took the stage at the Brisbane Writers Festival this fall, her speech was billed as a talk on “community and belonging.” And in a way, it was. Modern writers, she argued, have been put in an untenable position. In our age of “super-sensitivity” about identity politics, we insist that novelists populate their books with diverse casts of characters, while simultaneously warning that writing a character from a different background than their own may carry the taint of “cultural appropriation.” Shriver raised the specter of being “obliged to designate my every character an aging 5-foot-2 smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina,” which would surely make for dull reading. “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats,” she said in closing.
She then produced a sombrero, popped it onto her head, and left the podium.
Shriver has made a career of writing about things she’s not supposed to write about. Whippet thin, she chronicled her sibling’s morbid obesity in 2013′s Big Brother. Childless, she explored what it means to dislike and fear your own offspring in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 and was subsequently made into a chilling film starring Tilda Swinton. In 1994′s Game Control, she sends her white protagonist to Nairobi with a modest proposal to deal with overpopulation. Her most recent book, The Mandibles, is a near-future dystopia in which the United States has finally, and catastrophically, defaulted on its debt.