Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cultural appropriation in fiction

* I recently came across writing advice from A L Kennedy (I'm sorry, I can't find it on the web just now to provide a link) in which she insisted on that maxim, 'Write what you know', which often puzzles people: how does that not leave writers with only their own usually boring, humdrum lives at the desk to write about? Kennedy went on to clarify. You don't have to stick to your own life - how boring that would be, if writers only ever did that! - but what you have to do is immerse yourself so thoroughly in whatever you want to write about, that you do know it, emotionally and psychologically as well as merely factually, and it becomes thus part of you. It is only this way that you will write something honest, and humble, which for A L Kennedy are the two essentials in writing, and over which I strongly agree with her.

This is relevant of course to the recent debate about cultural appropriation. Two years ago, Lionel Shriver was castigated for bemoaning identity politics in her keynote address to the Brisbane Literature Festival, objecting to the notion that BAME people's stories are theirs alone to tell and that white writers writing them are guilty of 'cultural appropriation'. BAME writers responded in dismay and anger to what they saw as Shriver's expression of annoyance at the threat to the historical privilege of white people to speak for all. One of the writers critical of Shriver was Kit de Waal, but her response was more nuanced than that of others. For me one of the great political virtues of fiction is the ability to create empathy, and one essential, in the service of that, is an ability in the writer to wear other people's shoes', to 'become the other'. However, de Waal warned in a speech to the International Writers' Festival in Dublin, 'When we become the other we need always to act with respect and recognise the value of what we discover, show by our attitudes and our acknowledgements that we aren't just appropriating but are seeking to understand.'

This is the crux. I feel very strongly about the experiences of people who are discriminated against, and have a strong urge to write about it. This is mainly, I think, because I have suffered discriminations of my own - for being female and, when I was younger, for being perceived either or both as working class and Welsh. In fact I never felt entirely any of these things; things were much more complicated than they seemed. Later I would suffer reverse prejudice - for not being female (or feminine) enough; by the time I went to university I had moved with my parents to England and had lost my Welsh accent, and at my Welsh university I felt resentment from Welsh-speaking students for being 'Saes' (English) (and once a Welsh publisher turned me down because she had no proof, until I gave it, that I was Welsh, a condition of her publishing house); later, my working-class in-laws and the children I taught in a Glasgow comprehensive would mock and resent me as 'middle class'. But I also want to write about discrimination because of its history in the various branches of my family, which has seen the 'passing' of pogrom-exiled Jews as Roman Catholic, the vain attempt of my father, arriving from Ireland to wartime anti-Irish prejudice, to hide his Irishness, the gradual 'whitening' of generations originating from ancestors in a southern port who from old Victorian photos were clearly to me partly black (I must do some family history research when I get time!), and the exiling of members for interracial marriage, along with their mixed-race children.

For these reasons I do react almost with horror to the notion of fixed identity - it's just not my experience that identity is fixed in any way, and probably the fundamental reason I write fiction is to explore this. And I do have an almost somatic sense - like a crawling on my skin - of the feeling of being judged for who you are by people who don't actually know who you are.

Yet I have often hesitated to try to write my way into the heads of BAME characters, since I haven't personally suffered that particular direct discrimination: for the colour of my skin. I'm always aware that there is something in that direct and specific experience that I could miss. I have even hesitated to include BAME characters at all, afraid that I would give them inauthentic things to say and actions to make. Yet not to include them would often mean seriously misrepresenting the society I'm trying to write about - and indeed render BAME people invisible. When I came to write a comedy series for Radio 4 about a baby-sitting circle, the chief interest of which was that it provided a cross-section of an inner city suburb, it would have been almost criminal to leave out BAME characters, and at least in drama you don't have to tackle the interiority as you do in a novel, you can rely on your (empathic) observation. (And not only that, here was a chance to create roles for BAME actors.) Yet there was one really awkward moment during recording, when the black actor playing the young lad, about to read his one-word greeting ''Spect!' turned to me and asked me if I knew what that meant. 'Respect,' I replied, and he nodded and carried on, but I was left with the feeling that I had been suspected of simply parroting a stereotypical notion of black idiom I didn't even understand (in fact it was a word I was hearing young people, black and white, using to greet each other all the time), indeed of failing to show racial respect. Or maybe he simply saw me as an adult woman appropriating the speech of the young - or maybe he meant neither of these things, and I was just being fearful: in any case, I did feel the chill of identity politics in that moment, and that fear of treading on other people's toes rather than standing in their shoes.

In her Guardian response to Shriver, Yassmin Abdel Magied says:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity?
This is the same argument that was employed by feminists in the eighties objecting to men writing about women's experience. Basically, it's an argument that sees fiction simply as expression (the expression of an author's experience), rather than the exploration that Kit de Waal mentions, or the (political) exercise of empathy I have always held so important. It is not the right, this argument goes, of the group with power - the men, the white middle-class writers like Shriver - to speak for those whose experiences they do not share: it should be left to those with the experience to change the minds of others through testimony. You could counter that what matters is the text, not the author (as I have so often argued in my objection to the cult of personality in our literary culture): does it feel truthful, honest and authentic to the reader most likely to identify with the situation portrayed? But I suspect that in arguments like those of Abdul Magied there is an underlying assumption that no writer of privilege could ever portray the experience of the underprivileged as well as an underprivileged writer could. I'm not sure about this notion (I've read plenty of stories by women published as part of projects to 'create women's space' that fail to represent my experience as well as does some writing by some men). But as I say, it's what sometimes makes me nervous about writing black characters. And I do think we should seriously consider the possibility that in a white-dominated publishing world, in a publishing choice between a well-written fiction about black experience written by a white writer and a similar well-written fiction by a black writer, the fiction by the white writer is likely to win. Perhaps the key is in Abdel Magied's last words, in the provision of the opportunity. Perhaps it's not a question of making authors, black or white, stay for their writing in the categories to which society has designated them personally, but of creating better equality in society, and, in particular, greater diversity in the publishing industry, so that those with authentic stories to tell can indeed be heard.

Well, I started out this post intending to talk about a story I've been writing and for which I've had to do a lot of research rather than simply rely on what I already know, but as you can see I've been sidetracked, and that will have to be for another day...

*This post has been edited as I have developed my thoughts, tentative and exploratory as they are!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Return to blogging

Well - if anyone is out there reading this - I can't tell you how strange it is to be writing this blog again today. Apart from the monthly reports of our reading group I see that I haven't in fact written a post for going on for two years (and even those reports I've sometimes struggled to achieve). The reasons are several: I was working very hard on fiction that left little space in my head, or time in the day, for any other sort of writing, and there was personal stuff that made me want to pull in my horns and sit quiet and private for a while (but which is superb grist for the mill, of course!). I suppose also there was the sense that attention had moved on from blogs and the fact that a blog, which takes time to create, provides far less reward in terms of tangible interaction with readers than Facebook and Twitter.

Yet here I am, after a summer away from my desk - a summer completely taken up with trips and visitors and family, so that I have hardly written at all - with a yen to blog again (and yet with that initial awkwardness you experience when you've not seen someone for a good long time), to be able to contemplate things at greater leisure and with more permanence than the noisy, fleeting Facebook and Twitter allow. I realise too now that writing here about developments concerning my own writing provides a permanent record of publications, dates etc that can otherwise so easily get forgotten.

As for this last, this summer has seen the publication of two new stories, and a third, 'Kiss', was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize.

'The Meadow' appears in Words for the Wild, an anthology of poetry and prose fiction 'rooted in the countryside', edited by Amanda Oosthuizen and Louise Taylor. It's my first ever 'flash' and was first commissioned by Amanda for the Words for the Wild website, which was set up to support a campaign against development plans for executive-style housing on precious green space. 'The Meadow' tackles this situation directly and ponders the clashing issues involved (and is pretty autobiographical!). (I met Amanda in June 2015 at the Norwich launch of Unthology 7, in which we each had a story - we had a great time afterwards in the pub!).

'The Next Stop Will Be Didsbury Village' was published in the Spring 2018 issue of the literary journal Confingo. This story was originally commissioned for another project. Last summer (2017), the writer Sarah-Clare Conlon produced a performance for Didsbury Arts Festival, Re/Place(d), for which several of us - Sarah Butler, Adrian Slatcher, David Gaffney, Nicholas Royle, I and Sarah-Clare herself - wrote and performed stories inspired by various sites around Didsbury. I chose Didsbury tram station, which is on the site (more or less) of the old Victorian railway station, inspired by the sense it always gives me of people's comings and goings through time, and the shifts and yet permanences through the centuries. I don't usually write site-specific stories - or, at least, if I do I work hard on making them universal rather than specific (sometimes not even naming the place or changing its name): it seems to me that if you don't you risk making readers who don't know a place feel excluded. But I did find this a great project to do, and really enjoyed trawling through old photos of the station and taking photos of my own, and the way they formed ideas and a story in my head.

We read in the great atmosphere of Didsbury's Parsonage (which is supposed to be haunted) and old footage of Didsbury showed on a screen as we read. It was a great evening with a packed house. Confingo editor Tim Shearer was in the audience and afterwards asked to see my story with a view to publishing it. Here I am chatting afterwards with him (centre) and Nicholas Royle:

Well, it's taken me some time to write this blog - to provide the links and upload the photos etc, which reminds me why I found it so hard to keep going while working so solidly at other writing. Perhaps I won't achieve what I used to - I used to blog every day, or most days - but I do hope now to keep in touch with it.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Reading group: Harvest by Jim Crace

Some plot spoilers.

Clare suggested this historical novel about a rural English community that has been peaceably conducting subsistence farming under the benign supervision of a manorial landlord but is suddenly threatened with a new owner and enclosure for sheep farming managed for his own profit. It is told from the first-person viewpoint of Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer who arrived in the village with the current landlord, Master Kent, when the land fell to Master Kent's now deceased wife, but who, on falling in love with a village girl (also now deceased), left his master's service to embed himself in the community.

Thus Crace creates a narrator with a two-fold perspective - a keen, somatic insight into the lives and perspectives of the villagers and an objectivity and insight that they in their rural innocence cannot have into the seismic historical changes about to engulf them.

It's an atmospheric novel, opening with what seem like smoke signals of doom: smoke from a newly-erected hut just outside the boundary of the village - which, ironically, will turn out to have been erected by a family ejected themselves from land newly enclosed - and from Master Kent's stables, a fire for which the newcomers will be blamed. Thus begins a series of tragic events that will end in the total destruction and evacuation of the village.

Clare said she found it an engrossing read, and most people agreed with her. There are vivid descriptions of the village and countryside that make the place almost tangibly real, and at the same time a down-to earth linguistic pithiness. What John and I found most impressive was the rhythm of the prose: there was a fluidity binding together all the elements - events and themes - and a propulsion that not only kept you reading but also created a sense of the unstoppable, formally enacting the theme of inevitable change.

People were struck by the novel's theme of contrasting and relative perspectives. The first sign of the coming change is the appearance during the harvest of a man dressed in town clothes, watching and writing things down with a quill - he will turn out to have been sent by the cousin of Master Kent's dead wife, who is now claiming the land. Walter Thirsk, having burned his hand in helping to put out the fire in Master Kent's stables and being therefore temporarily unable to do farm work, is assigned as his assistant as he surveys and maps the land. Thirsk is shocked and taken by the new perspective on the village afforded by 'Mr Quill' 's map - a completely new way of looking at it and experiencing it. He is also shocked by Quill's desire to name its parts - its fields etc - in descriptive or romantic ways rather than simply according to their use, and more generally by his romantic-aesthetic view of the landscape, which is divorced from its gritty realities. However, Thirsk remembers that this is how he too once viewed it as a newcomer from the town himself, and towards the end, when it becomes clear he is going have to leave the village, he is able to see it in that light again.

The group were a little puzzled by what seemed like some moral ambiguity. Master Kent spends most of the novel as a sympathetic character: he has been a benign landlord; he is impotent against his wife's cousin's claim on the land and is cowed by him; he appears to be crucified by the cousin's horrific effects on the villagers. (It is true that he keeps doves that steal the harvest gleanings, but the impression is that he does so in innocence, and he does have the two strangers blamed for the fire put in the stocks although their crime hasn't been proved, but then this seems naive adherence to custom). Yet when he rides away with the cousin, village women and a child accused by the cousin of witchcraft following on foot and tethered to horses, Thirsk, watching from a hilltop, sees Master Kent and the cousin amiably chatting and laughing as they ride. And Thirsk himself, too, seems morally ambiguous: after all, he has looked to his own safety above all else - understandably, perhaps, because, once the villagers are inflamed and incited to violence, his outsider status comes back to haunt him and is a danger to him. On reflection, it seems to me that these things are intended as sad but inevitable morally ambiguous consequences in a situation where people find themselves at the mercy of unstoppable and capitalistic historical forces.

People wondered in which century the story was meant to take place (the English countryside underwent enclosure from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries) and where in England. Neither of these things is stated. Some assumed it to be the earlier period, as the village was so very primitive and isolated. Others thought later, since isolated pre-enclosure rural communities stayed the same for centuries, and felt that some of the hints about town life smacked of the eighteenth century. The descriptions for me very much conjured southern England, but then some of the characters' names sounded Northern to me, in particular of course Thirsk. I think the uncertainty is the point: Jim Crace is famous for creating mythic places and situations that exist outside real-life geography and time (and although people in the group marvelled at the seeming accuracy of his research here, is also famous for saying that he doesn't rely on research but makes things up for his own fictive ends). What he does is create a dream into which one can interpolate oneself, and his novels are nearly always allegories of trends in our own time. Master Kent stands with Walter Thirsk surveying the land:
'This land,' he says, gesturing, 'has always been much older than ourselves.' ... this ancient place would soon be new, he wants to say. We're used to looking out and seeing what's preceded us, and what will outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both ... we'll look across these fields and say, 'This land is so much younger than ourselves.'
A situation in which people are exiled by capitalist forces from homes they thought would last forever is both historically universal and crucially characteristic of our own global world.

John pointed out that much of the action takes place off-stage, due in the main to Walter Thirsk's removal from things because of his burnt hand. An interesting effect of this is that Thirsk, having to imagine scenes and fill in the blanks, keeps attributing better motives to people than they turn out to have, which creates dramatic irony and which I found poignant. John, however, said it made the novel rather dull for him. Pulled on by the rhythm, he was engrossed as he read, but he said he admired the book (finding it in fact very clever) rather than enjoyed it. He also said that, vivid as the details of the countryside were, he felt that they were rather coolly and even academically presented, in comparison to, say, those of Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13 (discussed here) where they carried a strong emotive charge. Ann, who had not said anything so far, now said that she was afraid that she hadn't like the book at all. She had found Walter Thirsk's 'eighteenth-century' register entirely fake and frequently interspersed with anachronistic modernisms - quite unlike the unique register devised by Francis Spufford for Golden Hill (discussed here) which felt entirely eighteenth-century-authentic and accessible at the same time. (I had noticed one or two modernisms in Harvest, which had brought me up short.) And because she had been very busy with other things, Ann had lost patience and given up on the book.

Clare now said something with which everyone else who had read the book agreed: that, engrossing as it had been as you read, in the end it trails away. The action reaches a climax which is then followed by a long hiatus in which Thirsk gets high and then ill on mushrooms, which not only seems out of character but holds up the action, dispelling the narrative tension, and which we suspected was merely an authorial stratagem to keep him out of the way while the final events, which he would otherwise have prevented, play out.

And that was the note on which we ended: a good read (for most of us) that disappointingly 'fizzles out'.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.