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A really long blog post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like

I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)
I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.
I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.
My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.
I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.
I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.
It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.
The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”
And I think, she has a point, no?
I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.
So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.
Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:
“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations – be they cities, countries or other planets – Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”
I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.
There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”
“No, it didn’t straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it’s not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn’t mean it’s straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It’s not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”
Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.
Anyway, like I say, I’m still mulling. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me. 
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62 responses »

  1. Um, you're hardly an oik, V! By the way, it is lovely to be debating with you again – these are the discussions I miss from the heyday of FW.

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  2. Oh blimey, I am so late to the party every one is pissed. At the risk of starting a discussion when everyone else is going to bed:Where's space in this discussion for multicultural society to be depicted? Why is this discussion running for pages without acknowledging that racial, cultural, religious and geographic barriers are constantly in flux, constantly merging and realigning. A lot of my stories have Asian or African characters because I don't live in or imagine/recreate in fiction a world in which there are tidy cultural demarcation lines. White people marry back people and Indians live in Africa and people who learned english by ear not at some language school dare to speak it their way and get understood. I read Kuzhali's blog extract in Sara's blog and blushed. A story I'm writing right now has Muslim pidgin English in it. Does the fact I worked for ten years in a cafe with illegal immigrants mean I have done my research and am allowed to portray the syntax as I heard it? Or am I just making fun of mad Muslims who speak like they have brain injuries? I blushed, I guess, because at root I must be aware that there is some strong feeling out there that as a UK writer born and bred I'm ill equipped to cover other cultures fairly. And perhaps I see some truth in that but sI don't submit to it without questioning it. So then I wonder why I don't want to bow out and leave Muslim culture or African illegal immigrants to the experts? Is this cultural imperialism? Have I nothing of interest to say about my own culture. Is it hubris or taboo to admit I assume as part of my culture, the cultures that mine assimilates with?I loathe stories where exoticism replaces insight. No need for in-depth characterisation, guys, he's wearing a salwar-kameez! But I'm equally reluctant to relinquish my right to write what interests me in case it's beyond my little white ken. And if there's a theme that compels me to keep writing it's this: that there are no demarcation lines in life. People make them and try to guard them and we all trundle along and step over them and blur them and shift them. I don't write about illegal immigrants because hey – that's so much more interesting than my little white life. I write about them, when I do, because they are part of the life I know. People interact. Blaft I'm very interested in your comment about fictitious countries. (Guilty.) In their defense, I'd argue that we naturally amalgamate when writing. We blend incidents or reactions we've experienced with thematic or dramatic constructs. To set a piece in Sierra Leone runs the risk of saying: Sierra Leone is Like This when maybe the writer is not writing about Sierra Leone per se but about the effects on one man of surviving imprisonment during civil war. Creating a fictional land which represents a real land has existed for as long as fiction itself has existed. I don't think in itself it's unsympathetic to a fair depiction of a given society.What a discussion.

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  3. The thing is that I can't see any problem with reflecting the society you live in. I think it's about respect though. Is your character in danger of being a stereotype? Sure, he may well be based on someone (or an amalgamation of someone's) but as writers, good writers, we always seek to have fully rounded non-cliched characters. In real life we can come across people who are stereotypes (the fat boozy cabbie, the tart with a heart) but generally we steer clear from writing them as such because we need to create less generic characters.Nobody is talking about only writing characters just like ourselves, that would be ridiculous.

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  4. Fascinating discussion, thank you all. I must admit when it comes to the fake misery memoirs, why they were not simply published as fiction. I suspect that for some reason the craze for "reality" has gone too far, as if everything we see on TV and read in autobiography, or even just consider in our memories isn't all somehow shaped and edited. For me the point of reading as well as writing is entering into someone else's experience. And even if I stick to my own life, it's not as if I am speaking for every woman of my age and geographical location and culture is it? And what about historical fiction – who has the right to attempt that? Can we really understand what it was like to live in Tudor times when you might be burned at the stake for your religious beliefs. I enjoyed Wolf Hall – and can understand why it took five years of research. Perhaps to do justice to anoyther culture it would take the same. The same issues come up in other arts too – should British textile artists embroider Indian style fabrics with shisha mirrors, can a painter use Australian aboriginal imagery, or a musician be allowed to incorporate another cultural style? I'm not sure why, but I felt perfectly comfortable with the Clare Wigfall story – and the Wicker Man, for that matter – but would feel somewhat more uneasy about a story set in fictional, imagined African or Asian location… Is it something to do with a power issue – a lingering effect of imperialism and colonialism…that the West has already had too much power to define how other cultures are perceived? I also personally feel some trepidation about going too far from my own experience, but it's also part of the fun of writing.

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  5. Respect is an important issue, and we all, surely, treat what we do as writers with respect. Even though we differ! Respect can include ‘inclusion’.There is a very interesting article here, from the African American standpoint, in case anyone is interested, about white writers creating black characters. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Writing+while+white+…+An+unprecedented+number+of+black+characters…-a0118954913The article concludes like this:"Few white writers can create black characters that strike black readers as vividly valued. Even more serious literary lights like Tom Wolfe often misses the mark more often than not.(…)The questions are do we as African Americans stomp on these writers for exploiting black characters and perpetuating negative stereotypes? Or do we applaud their efforts for at least trying to include people of colour?One African American, Bebe Moore Campbell hesitates to applaud, but she says, "It is a step forward when they try."

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  6. Sorry, the link didnt copy correctly:http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Writing+while+white+…+An+unprecedented+number+of+black+characters…-a0118954913

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  7. Coming late into this.I think I enter my own stories in some shape or form. Which is sometimes odd because I sometimes write about 'women only' in a story, or i write about a place I have never been to or ever seen, or ever consciously thought about until the point of writing.I don't write about big political issues or even big social issues, not usually, so perhaps this cultural tourism anxiety thing applies less to what I write. But the injunction to write about what you know and to write about what is only within your sphere of understanding and knowledge, seems counter-intuitive to what many writers write.Writing can be as much an exploration for the writer as it is for the reader. Neither necessarily go to fiction for truth. I wrote a story recently that has as its backdrop the Aberfan disaster in Wales. I read a little bit about it. I had some 'memory' of reading about it in newspapers and of the times. I wrote my story about a woman who had lost her son in the disaster. I entered the story into a competition where the judge said some very nice things about the story's sensitivity and it getting things right about life in a Welsh town in the 1960's etc etc. I have not been to Wales since I was about 7 and then only for a two week holiday. I am guilty here of that cultural tourism thing. I wrote the story in response to a black and white photograph I had seen of the aftermath of Abefan. I have taken what i wanted from the event and from the photograph and made a story out of it. I may have got something wrong in my telling of the story. But as to it being my story to tell or not… I have told it and it is a credible and good story. Its truth is in the feeling and the characters. Surely that is a truth that we expect from fiction more than historical or cultural truths.As for some stories not being mine to tell… if I am a storyteller, then that's what I should do… even if that means not getting it 100% right. A storyteller is not always about telling some social or political truth, he/she is sometimes just about telling a story. If I am reading a novel about a muslim village and I find it intrigues or fascinates me, I will then as a reader go and investigate the subject, not take as fact what I have found in fiction. That just speaks sense. As for being offended. I am from Scotland and we are known by the english as tight with money. And beligerant and pugnacious. I am none of these, I think (maybe beligerant?) but I am not offended by this stereotype. There are more important things to be worked up about than this. If I found examples of this stereotype in literature, I would not necessarily see it as a generalisation of all scots and be incensed by that, nor would I take it as a truth and believe it to be true of all scots… that would be absurd.I think whenever anyone lays down rules for what can and cannot, or should or should not, be done, then I (beligerantly) set my jaw against the rules. This is even more the case in writing than in most things I think about (there i go being beligerant again!).And getting it wrong in fiction is surely something that is allowed.Good discussion. But at the end of the day we should not expect that what will emerge from this will be right rules or right codes of conduct for writers; there are rarely such things as these… it is in the nature of art and literature for there to be few rules and what rules there are for these to be frequently challenged and overturned.

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  8. Sarah … sorry this is going to be long:)Thank you so much for this wonderful blog post. It could not have come at a better time. At the end of this week, I am teaching a Faber Academy course, with Christopher Hope, on the subject: Writing Other Lives. We will discuss writing across cultures, what works and what does not work, how to write about places without lapsing into tedious exoticism, how to write about people foreign to you in a way that makes them real and not ciphers or stereotyped cliches. If it goes well, I might take to the course to London next year.I am a Zimbabwean writer … I read everything and love to read widely. I do not necessarily look for myself in what I read, the pleasure of reading comes from experiencing the lives of others. Besides, in the lives of others, who are different from me, I often recognise something that illuminates my own life.This experience is spoilt if the plot is unbelievable, the writing shoddy, and if, and this is the subject of this post, the characters or setting are off in any way. I read two stories, purportedly about Zimbabweans written by two white women, one of whom, Vanessa Gebbie, is a participant in this discussion. To me, the characters were Zimbabwean only because the writers said so, even their names were wrong, a sort of pidgin Shona in a country with no pidgin! I was not offended by the stories, but I was amused … amused in the way I am when I read Dan Brown's plastic characters. My reaction was not about "cultural" authenticity, it was simply a reaction to two pieces of writing that seemed to want the exotic setting without going for any kind of truth in the characters. Vanessa, I am sure, will not mind me saying this as she has alluded to her own mistakes. Happily for these two writers, there was no real problem because the stories were, I am sure, not intended to be read by Zimbabweans:)In contrast, there is James Kilgore, a white American who has written one of the best novels about Zimbabwe ever published. He lived there but his perspective is very much that of an outsider … his book is damned good because he did not sentimentalise his subject, or assume all Zimbabweans are one thing or the other, and he made the staggeringly astonishing discovery that black people are just people, and pretty messed up people too, like everyone else, and not suffering voiceless victims or repositaries of ancient wisdoms:) So it is not to say that whites can't write about blacks at all. I am astonished that what is actually a critical discussion about believability and "truth" has been turned into a discussion about censorship and authenticity. Of course a white writer can write about whatever s/he likes. If what is written is not particularly good, however, for any reason, brown people, yellow people, black people, other white people and people of all shades in between have every right to say, ummm, white person, your story sucks in a million different ways, and one of those ways includes, to quote Khuzali, the freaking flamming flying white peacocks:)On a more serious note: oerhaps it comes down to this: maybe not everyone is a good enough writer to write about everything under the sun? This is not to say that writers should not try … but there are not many Michela Wrongs, and John Peels and EM Forsters and Lloyd Jones among us. It takes huge imaginative gifts and most importantly, sensitivity and compassion, to enter into other minds, let alone minds of other races and cultures. Maybe not everyone is equally endowed?

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  9. Petina, thank you so much for your comment. And yes, how timely. The course you are running sounds extremely interesting.I think I agree with everything you say!

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  10. I'm delighted to see that there are some serious attempts to help writers with this sticky bit of craft, if they are drawn to try.

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  11. Trying writing plays, folks – and see if your black actors playing your black characters turn round and put you right!Sorry to come so late to this discussion. It's a serious point I'm making there. One great thing about the collaborative nature of plays is that you are prevented from making such cultural mistakes. Writing prose fiction is a scary thing to do, because really, you're on your own, and the most important thing, as so many people have said here, is that we don't spoil the emotional truth of what we're writing by making such mistakes as misrepresenting other people's emotional truth. Really, personally I do find it scary, and the older I get and the more I understand about the world the scareder I am, because I really do want to embrace the complex truths and situations of this world. And sometimes 'research' just doesn't hack it – it's the emotional experience of others you need to know.

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  12. Peacocks and front lawns…does get you sniggering at that.And, yes, I agree–I'm looking for some level of truth in fiction. A reality that resonates, an understanding that deepens mine, or just a whopping good story that never slips me a wrong note to throw me out.But then we have James Frey–would he have been so crucified if he'd published first off as fiction? Or would he have been ignored as just another writer, or told he couldn't possibly write about drug use like that since he wasn't a druggie like that? Why isn't he lionized for being such a fabulous imaginative writer? It is that we want to be told up front that these are lies?Or maybe fiction just is more honest that real life.Good post–very thought provoking.

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