As an academic in creative writing, I attend a lot of literary events. One question I can always count on being asked is, “can I write characters of other backgrounds?” This has been a growing concern since Lionel Shriver at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival unleashed a tirade against what she called “censorship” in writing – referring to criticism of her book The Mandibles.
The recent ABC Q&A episode, Stranger Than Fiction, in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, showed the many sides of the “write what you know” debate. Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Sofie Laguna argued that space should be given for marginalised groups to represent themselves. Maxine Beneba Clarke pointedly discussed when appropriation can be harmful, as was the case with Shriver’s representation of Latino and African American characters. Meanwhile, Trent Dalton argued that appropriation leads to a good story, which also takes empathy and care.
But is taking a walk in other people’s shoes as effective a writing method as many authors believe? To find out, I wrote a novel manuscript about four people from refugee backgrounds. I did it in three drafts, each using a different method. I wrote the first draft while observing and empathising as a volunteer working with asylum seekers, and refugees. I wrote the second after interviews with 15 people from refugee backgrounds (some of whom I had observed) and the third after getting feedback from three of the interviewees about the manuscript. Then I compared the drafts. The findings were very interesting.
Even before I had begun my interviews I had an interesting instance regarding the fallibility of my own memory. I had kept a journal while I was volunteering. As I sat down to write the novel manuscript, I remembered an instance when a young girl, who happened to be in the same public place, approached the group with an origami boat she had made. She offered it to one of the volunteers. It was beautiful – with crayon scribbles on the outside and three different sized paper cranes lined up in a row inside. In my memory, the attendees recoiled and anxiously said, “we hate boats!”
I began to write this into the manuscript, when I remembered the journal. I opened it to the day of the event, and found I’d recorded that the attendees were not anxious at all, nor did they recoil. They were joking and laughing about how they hated boats.
One criticism of stories about refugees is that they tend to show refugees as helpless victims. Was I drawing on existing stereotypes when I remembered this instance? Another possibility is that my feelings about the highly emotional issue of asylum were influencing how I interpreted the conversation.
In another instance, I wrote a character that was verbally and racially attacked on public transport. White Australians came to her rescue. I was thinking that was what I would have done. But after interviews with refugees, I discovered the instances of racial abuse were much more violent and common than I imagined.
One interviewee related a story about an apple being thrown at her head; another described how her foot was stomped on. Contrary to what I had written, they expressed resilience and stood up for themselves.
I once watched author Claire G. Coleman in a debate by ABC RN on the topic of writing what you know. She said that cultural appropriation is dangerous because authors can only “contextualise that character as a version of themselves”. That certainly seemed to be the case. I was just writing what I thought would happen, from my perspective – not theirs.
So how can we get it right? It’s difficult to tell unless we ask someone from the background we are writing about. In getting feedback, I found that there were parts of my manuscript that resonated with interviewees’ experiences, such as an instance where an Iranian man was told that he was lucky to be here by a white Australian. The character didn’t feel that he was lucky. One interviewee said that he felt the same, that he had everything in Iran, including education and a job, and now he had to start over.
But even gaining feedback from interviewees did not mean they were going to tell me everything I “got wrong”. Those giving feedback wanted to give advice, not to criticise.
Walking in someone’s shoes is useful as a method, but it is far from perfect. As writers, we need to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to the oppression of a group of people by speaking for them, and reinforcing racist stereotypes as we do so.
This is not to say that we should never write characters from other backgrounds, just that we need to accept criticism by people who identify from that group rather than dismissing it as censorship (as Beneba Clarke also pointed out on Q&A), and to be more realistic about our own limitations as empathetic writers.