It’s week two of Nano, and I’m up to 18,000 words or thereabouts, but I have a problem. It’s this: I’ve begun a story about an illegal immigrant, someone trafficked from a war-zone in Africa (haven’t decided what part and that’s another problem) with the promise of work. Her one thought is to send money home so her mother and aunt can buy medicine, but she ends up in a freezer-trailer where she and a hundred others nearly freeze to death and is then taken to a nail bar (this may have to be altered as I think nail-bar slaves are mostly East Asian, but I want her to be somewhere public where she can look out on the world but at the same time be invisible.)
The problem is this: not so much ‘getting the voice right’ which I think I can do, but whether it’s OK to do this in the first place. Is it inherently patronising to presume to write in that voice about experiences I haven’t had? On the whole I think yes, because fiction is about the use of imagination, and if I can put myself into the position of a homeless man why not an African slave?
But politics is a tricky business. And so I ask myself, suppose a man were to write in a woman’s voice, would I think that was ‘appropriation’? Or, if it were done well, would I be pleased that a man had been able to empathise so closely with female experience?
Take Phillip Pullman (I hope you’re all watching the excellent ‘His Dark Materials’ on Sunday nights.) Not only is his main character a girl, he also has a number of well-rounded female characters who are powerful in their own right: Marisa Coulter, the witches of the North and women like Hannah Relf who heads Oakley Street, an anti-Magisterium organisation. The women in his books are neither evil (as they almost always are in CS Lewis) nor wholly benevolent but individuals in their own right, wielding power for good or ill. There’s no suggestion of tokenism; no feeling that he thinks ‘I must put a woman in here’ – it all appears to be part of his world-view, for which I salute him. Therefore, to return to my book, if the African woman wants to come into the story I should let her (and yes, I’m aware that ‘African’ is far too general and that I need to give her a specific country, culture and context. Which I will.)
Comments welcome. Especially from BAME readers.