Here is a question: should a writer create and delve into the lives of characters outside their gendered, sexual, racial, and/or cultural experience? Before you start nodding and thumping your writing desk with privileged conviction, consider how fraught this dilemma is, at least, for us contemporary writers. When so many people have experienced suppression and discrimination, do we have the right to speak/write for them?
Once upon a darker time, when imperialism, colonialism, racism, misogyny, religious elitism and white supremacy (sigh, how little the world has changed) were all the rage, writers – who for the most part where white males (or white women necessarily masquerading as white men) – wrote stories about whomever they damn well pleased. Every experience was available to their mighty quills: of women, of people from every cultural background, of homosexuals and lesbian, of people living with disabilities and psychological instabilities. Largely absent from the reams of narrative that spilled across those centuries were the authentic voices of writers who actually lived such experiences.
Virginia Woolf, in her essay from 1928 on the place of women in fiction, A Room of One’s Own, neatly encapsulated this issue when she discussed the absence of women writers from pre-eighteenth century English literature. Woolf writes of the ‘perennial puzzle [of] why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet’ (2013, p. 43). Woolf goes on to point out that English novels, plays and poetry were rife with the experiences of women; that indeed, ‘Imaginatively, [a woman] is of the highest importance… [pervading] poetry from cover to cover… [dominating] the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction… (2013, p.45) yet, it was not women writers who imagined such women, but men. This leads to the question, how can a man authentically write the experiences of a woman, which leads further to the question of how any of us can write the experiences of another with authenticity?
This is a dilemma I’ve encountered and struggled with in the writing of my fourth manuscript, which has two Indigenous Australian characters, one of whom is the ‘hero’ of the work. When I was researching for this story and in the early stages of writing, I had a conversation with another writer about the characters. At this point in my thinking, a young Indigenous woman was to be the central character and the voice of the work. My writer friend, however, suggested that my decision might need further consideration as she felt it was time we (that is, those of us who are part of the dominate culture) stopped co-opting the experiences of groups who have, traditionally, been silenced. It is time, she said, that we allow such people to tell their own stories.
Is she right?
I don’t know – it is a question I still wrestle with: is it okay for writers to write any character we want, or should we vacate those cultural and gendered spaces that don’t belong to us?
For me, I took the road of compromise. After reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I shifted the white female character into the role of the central narrator, who relates her experiences and encounters with the main Indigenous female character. In doing so, I hope to capture the authentic engagement of the two main characters as they deal with the reality of their shared world, while also maintaining an ambiguity around the Indigenous character’s past and cultural experiences of which I have limited knowledge. Well, that’s the plan anyway.
But do I really need to consider these things? Yes, I think I do, and I believe other writers need too as well. Note that I wrote ‘consider’; I don’t believe writers should be censored or limited in the scope of their writing, but I do believe we have an obligation to write as authentically and respectfully as we can if we are going to write beyond our own identities and experiences. Without this obligation, all kinds of travesties are committed in the name of fiction. As a woman, the easiest place for me to observe such travesties is in the portrayal of female characters and their experiences as written by male writers.
Let me preface the following by saying there are numerous male writers who beautifully capture the complexities and nuances of their female characters. Gabriel García Márquez always comes to mind in this respect. However, there are many other male writers who just don’t get the female experience at all. My most recent encounter with this was during the reading of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976), which is the story of an Englishwoman, Mrs Ellen Roxburgh, who sails to Australia to visit her husband’s brother, and is, subsequently, shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland on her return voyage. For the most part, I enjoyed the novel – although White’s portrayal of Indigenous Australians is certainly problematic – however, it is evident that White had little idea about the experiences of women at a physical, emotional and psychological level and, therefore, could not write about them authentically.
One clear example of this from the novel came when (spoiler alert) Ellen miscarried in the fifth month of her pregnancy, while on a lifeboat. After an ‘Ohhh!’ and a ‘Aw, my Gore!’ (p.227) from Ellen to indicate the onset of the miscarriage, White instantly shifts the narrative to the perspectives of her husband (who says with unwitting irony: ‘It is unfortunate but neither of us will die of it’) and Captain Purdew (who quickly conducts the final rites), while Ellen is silenced during the ordeal and after. Indeed, although a miscarriage is one of the most traumatic physical and emotional events a woman can suffer, Ellen ‘like any other beast of nature’ promptly forgets her pain and lost, and re-devotes herself to caring for her husband. Truthfully, what has happened here is White, as a man, has no idea what this experience is like for a woman (or indeed it would seem, for an expectant father), and as such, my engagement with the characters, and with the novel itself, was diminished. This, I would argue, is the antithesis of what any writer worth their words wants for a reader.
Does this make A Fringe of Leaves a ‘bad’ novel? No. Does it mean that men can’t write women characters? No (see Márquez). Am I suggesting that women writers always get their portrayal of male characters correct? Certainly not. What I am suggesting is that writing outside our lived experience is difficult, and exponentially so when we add other factors to gender such as race, religion, and other aspects of culture or experience. As such, while we can write about characters from all walks of life, past, present and future, we must do so only after careful consideration (does the story need this character and, am I in a position to write about them authentically?), after observation and research, and – before we foist our work upon the world – after cross-checking with representatives from those groups who are living the lives we have chosen to portray.
To fail to do so, it seems to me, is to rob our characters of authenticity, our readers of an opportunity for understanding, and to silence (again) those who have been silenced for far too long.
Happy authentic writing,