Why we need to talk about 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'
I’ve read two of her books: The Mandibles, a satire set in the future about total disintegration, a subject naturally attractive to me, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is her most famous work, a cult classic that I read over the last three days.
I enjoyed both works. The Kevin book is about a school shooting from the point of view of the killer’s mother, a woman writing letters to her estranged husband, laying bare her life, and given our new propensity as a species towards mass killings, it’s an issue worth contemplating. How can you not know your son is going to shoot up the place? Were you asleep the whole time? Were you complicit?
It’s an interesting story, a slow meander through (the narrator) Eve’s life, establishing that she is her own person, not simply an appendage of her son, a dilemma all parents confront I suppose, even if their children turn out perfectly functional. At what point do you cease to be? When are you supposed to abrogate your potential, to become so-and-so’s mother?
As a child and then a young adult, you expect your parents to be parents. They are supposed to box themselves into those roles, they are to cease being individuals and embrace a role which precludes any kind of erratic behavior, whether emotional or physical. You’re old now, stop making waves, just settle down and finish your life in a dignified manner … It’s frightening, this negation of elderly people, which I suppose starts right at the cusp of parenthood and continues to chip away at identity until death. I get that panic from Eve, and as I get older, I fully appreciate it.
It’s a peculiar skill, to be able to humanise the horrible, to make a narrator relatable whom everyone is predisposed to hate
Eve’s story gives us all of this, while wandering through some horrific events involving a child psychopath, into the full inferno of a fictional school shooting. It’s a peculiar skill, to be able to humanise the horrible, to make a narrator relatable whom everyone is predisposed to hate. The pace of the book draws you in, the letters talking about the regular minutiae of a married couple, sometimes ill-suited, sometimes perfectly matched, and you know Kevin is looming in the back and all around, but Eve retains her own identity, and perhaps that is the whole point of it.
It is of course identity that is important to Lionel Shriver. There is, though, the small issue of cultural appropriation, of a speech in Australia and the backlash against it. The charges against her were that she was making light of cultural appropriation, the seizing of identity of some other race by the white woman, the stealing of stories, the final insult in the long sordid story of colonialism and exploitation.
As a person of colour, I recognise that there aren’t too many seats at the table for me, and now it seems my necessity can be removed altogether. It’s a kind of theft, isn’t it? Surely, this usurpation, when you know that the deck is stacked in your favour, that if you and a POC write the same story, the odds are much higher that your one will see the light of day. I get all that, I get the rage of the POC in the face of unfairness.
But then I think about myself, as a writer, and I imagine those rules being applied to me, that straitjacket of cultural appropriation. They wouldn’t let me write about Baghdad. How dare I? I’m not Arab, I’ve never even visited the region, I’ve never fought a war. So, who the hell am I to tell a story like that, what right do I have?
And I would have to say, back off, I’ll write about whatever I want, the entire world belongs to me, I’ll scour every corner for what I need, and I’ll write for an audience of ten if need be. And if seven out of those ten don’t like what I say, then I’ll write for an audience of three.
See, that’s the only reward for fiction writing; we don’t get paid much, we certainly don’t expect wealth and fame although it might come to a miniscule few … but we get to create the world as we see fit, we get to make characters that live and act, and if our worlds and our characters are good enough then people read the books.
Saad Z Hossain is bringing out his second novel, Djinn City, from Bengal Lights Books and The Unnamed Press. He is also a DLF speaker this year.