Whose story is it anyway?

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CHRIST, IS IT NOT HARD ENOUGH just getting the words down?!

This week I’ve been troubled by three new worries to add to the ongoing horror of the blank page (and mind).

Firstly, I read an excellent piece in women’s writing magazine Mslexia (Issue 71) about plagiarism – not just the blatant variety, which is obviously easy to avoid, but the horror phenomenon of cryptomnesia, ‘the technical term for the process whereby forgotten material is experienced as new when it resurfaces in a person’s consciousness.’ In her fascinating piece, Debbie Taylor gives some great examples, including a thriller by PD James that turned out to have remarkable similarities to a Cecil Day-Lewis novel the author admitted having read (but had no conscious memory of its contents). Upshot: you might think you’ve had a brainwave, but it might not even be your own. Your untrustworthy brain might be passing off as its latest masterwork the plot of something you once flicked through at the dentist while waiting for a root canal.

Unhelpful. And before I’d recovered from that, the issue of cultural appropriation reared its head this week with the speech given by Lionel Shriver to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival (full text published here by The Guardian – in short, she hasn’t got much time for the concept). The issue caught fire on Twitter, the two sides unable to reconcile the right of the fiction writer to step into the shoes of any individual they fancy, versus thorny issues of privilege and trespass and the importance of appropriate representation. Writer Safia Moore flagged some good links to debate and commentary off the back of this speech, including this by Yassmin Abdel-Magied  Personally, Shriver started to lose me about half way through her speech too – up until then, I’d been on board about the right to explore any fictional experience. After all, the whole of historical (especially deeply historical, such as the Graeco-Roman novel I’ve just finished) fiction requires all of us to jump far from our own lives. But I do understand the point about privileged writers drowning out voices that need to be heard, and the need for immersively (need the word even if it isn’t one) researched, empathetic writing where we do step out on the edges of our own experience. It’s a tricky balance – we want to produce pieces that are representational (so not exclude characters outside our immediate identity) but do those characters justice. I wrote a story recently that included an asylum seeker who had recently arrived in the UK from Syria – they were intended to be a minor character, but I became so obsessed with doing their story justice, it derailed the whole piece and I gave up. This issue’s been rumbling around for a while – flicking back through Mslexia, I found a great piece in Issue 57 by Homa Khaleeli that attempts to guide us through this moral minefield, going as far as to propose a helpful ‘Trespassers’ Code.’ As always with Mslexia, you’ll have to buy it to read it, sorry!

So, there’s that too. And I suppose that leads into the last worry I’m having. If it’s not people outside your identity, is it ever okay to write about places you’ve never been? I have lots of children & can’t afford to travel much – does that mean I’m doomed to write about a small town in Gloucestershire for ever more?! Again, looking to historical fiction, you could argue that anywhere’s game – no-one’s been to ancient Rome, after all. And before cheap flights and the internet, I feel pretty sure some great novels got written without people leaving the comfort of their deckchair. Certainly it feels true in this day or age when some intensive research and good old Google Maps can make you feel like you know a place.

But some people feel very strongly (and I read another good article on this recently, but can’t find the bloody thing) that when writing you shouldn’t stray outside what you ‘know’, and that includes geography. It’s been praying on my mind a bit because I’ve got a story this month in the latest edition of the Woven Tale Press – it’s set in a (real) surrealist garden in Mexico,  and between you and me, I’ve never been there. I have been to Mexico (on a honeymoon that might have been more successful had I not eschewed the services of a travel agent – we spent too much time avoiding pickpockets, food swamped in melted cheese and riot police to fit in anything hugely cultural). But when I happened to come across a mention of it, the idea of the place inspired me, so I took the liberty of setting a story there. I hope didn’t take too much of a liberty, but see what you think…Las Pozas (unfortunately spelt wrong in the journal!)

Do you have writing angst this week? Let me know.

Until the next time,

Chloe

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2 thoughts on “Whose story is it anyway?

  1. Hi Chloe – thank you so much for writing about this.

    I too have been fascinated and challenged by the conversations this week, particularly where “outside your personal experience” relates to race. The anger on the first thread I came across has stayed with me (https://twitter.com/ClaireAllan/status/775066938015907840). Since then I’ve had some conversations of my own (https://twitter.com/rionajmc/status/775240837441654784). Comments from writers of colour have ranged from “Write about what you want but be prepare for criticism if you don’t get it right” to “writing the story of a poc is not something that as a white writer you should do. it’s not your story.”

    When I look back at the five or six short stories I’ve had published in the last two years, the primary character ranges from a black female South African to a white Afrikaans male to an older white Irish female to a mixed-race 13-year-old girl. I’ve been aware at times while writing them of my own hesitation, and certainly the fear of not doing these stories justice. But I never thought it was wrong to try.

    Am I telling someone else’s story? Yes, in the sense that this is what fiction nearly always means to me – stepping outside of yourself and putting yourself in a new place. A lot of the “it’s not your story” arguments strike me as being absolutely true in a non-fiction or political space, but I can’t reconcile that with my understanding of fiction.

    Someone on Twitter asked this week: why do you feel the need to write from the perspective you haven’t experienced (and particular of a person of colour)? The answer is hard in that it’s hard to speak about how and why stories emerge – the whole process seems mysterious to me. In most of these stories there was a nub, an issue I had witnessed, discussed, mulled over, something that grew, and the character I was creating grew with that.

    Anyway, am looking forward to more discussions, and discussions that involve writers of colour, writers with disabilities, writers from places or socio-economic realities that are not being heard much in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Riona, me too, and fascinating to hear your thoughts and experiences. I’ve read a couple of your stories and admired them hugely – thank goodness you have the confidence to step outside yourself and explore these diverse characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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