My ears pricked up recently when I heard about the spat between Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Lionel Shriver.
Forgive me, I'm a bit late to the party on this one.
As far as I understand it, Shriver, in her keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016, had argued against 'political correctness' in fiction. She'd argued that all fiction writers should have the right to create characters from 'other' cultures - that a writer will always wear many hats and attempt to walk in many different shoes. Abdel-Magied walked out. She was disgusted that priveleged white writers still have the power to do this - and be heard - while many non-white writers do not. She was angry that many non-white fiction writers still do not have the same opportunities to represent themselves and their own cultures. She was probably also angry with Shriver's dismissive 'tone'.
Immediately I thought about a monologue I wrote MANY years ago for a black Caribbean character, in patois. It was actually performed by a black actress at Nottingham Playhouse. I shudder with embarrassment when I think about this. I'm astonished that no one took me to one side and said "Darling, you don't know your Trinidad from your St. Trinian's. You're a spotty white boy who hasn't lived his life yet. Stick to what you know!" At the same time I wrote a short play called 'The Secret Lives of Asylum-Seekers', about Balkan refugees in Nottingham. Again, I'm cringeing, here, now, some 20 years later, that I could have had the audacity to pretend that I knew what I was talking about. (I was teaching lots of Kosovans at the time, so I felt I could say something worthwhile, but in retrospect I think I was definitely kidding myself).
I'd done some research, and what I wrote had its heart in the right place, but I'm sure the results - in both cases - were pretty ignorant and pretty dire nevertheless. Thankfully, this was all pre-YouTube...
I still believe, however, that no one owns a culture. Not really. No one, surely, has a culture which is so small and one-dimensional that it CAN be known. I'm white and British. Am I therefore privy to - and do I have a deep knowledge of - all the complexities and differences WITHIN that white Britishness? NO. Do I therefore believe that I've bagsied the rights to writing about being white and British? Absolutely not. OK, I'm more likely to get it right than an American who's only seen Downton Abbey. But I could, conceivably, get it just as ickily, horribly wrong - as wrong as I'm sure my Caribbean and Balkan pieces were.
Fiction writers have the right to write about anyone they choose. (And, I would argue, so do poets). Yes, that right brings with it many ethicial responsibilites - because books have effects in the real world. Yes, it brings many possible pitfalls. It immediately opens that writer up to criticisms of ignorance and insensitivity, of lack of research, of one-dimensionality, of inauthenticity, of stereotyping, of 'getting it wrong', of appropriating - yes, even 'colonising' - another culture. And yes, it requires enormous knowledge, skill and moral depth to get it right.
But it IS possible to get it right. And if it can be got right, then why not?
It's possible to get it right precisely because any writers worth their salt should be at one remove from their own identity - or at least should have the imaginative capacity to waive ownership of their own culture, to let their own identity go, at least temporarily, in order to understand other identities (and their own) objectively, and in order to see the wider picture. This holds true whether that writer has an identity perceived as one of 'power', or not. I agree, this might seem like the sort of controversial and luxurious nonsense you might expect a priveleged white man like me to cook up. I agree, minority identities still desperately need more representation - I even agree that persons with those identities are the ones who should be representing themselves - and whose voices should be actively promoted. But only because they are the ones who are more likely to get it right, factually and imaginatively. Not because writers whose identity is perceived as 'majority' or 'priveleged' shouldn't - ethically speaking - go there, or because they're incapable, ontologically or technically, of pulling it off.
Plus, if fiction writers - whether they be white British or Native Australian - must only write about their own experience / culture / ethnicity - isn't it deeply limiting? Isn't it censorious and impoverishing? (And would you be comfortable saying "You're a Jewish writer. So really you should only write about Jewish stuff."? Abdel-Magied isn't saying that, but her argument seems to lead in that direction...)
Fiction is fundamentally an empathic, othering genre. It is a genre of generosity and enquiry. Of allowing the reader to slip into many, many, many other shoes.
So if I want to write a monologue for a Caribbean woman - or a poem about her, or one which pretends to speak in her voice, I should never feel barred from doing so. There might even be a chance I'd get it right this time... OK, a very small chance.
OK. A very, very... VERY small chance.
Thanks for reading,
Welcome to The P-Word (where I hang out to dry all my blogposts about poetry: writing it, reading it, performing it, teaching it).