Houston, We Have a Problem…

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.

Kirk out

2 thoughts on “Houston, We Have a Problem…

  1. I have no sympathy whatsoever with the school of ‘thought’’ (inverted commas very much necessary) that holds that an author can only create an imaginative world that relates to their own experience. William Styron was pilloried by the Afroc-American intellectual establishment in the sixties for presuming to write about a historical black American slave (in his superb ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’, a book that should be more widely read outside the USA). It was held aginsat him that he was a) white b) a southerner and c) from a relatively prosperous family, three things that had sod-all to do with his ability as a writer.

    I gerenally find people disappointing so my work involves the creation of people I would like ot know in real life if real life didn’t so frequently come up short. My female characters – and they are usually my central characters – tend to be ‘oddballs’. My current heroine – whom I have fallen deeply in love with, I’m afraid – is a sort of ‘ideal woman’: she’s very attractive but fails to form relationships because she refuses to play games and will not flatter the male ego. Her failure in that regard lands her in all sorts of trouble.

    What I do is not that different, in principle, form what Ayn Rand did – she described her work as ‘an attempt to project the Ideal Man’(as you may know, Rand believed that women were lesser than men). Although I think Rand was (probably literally) mad, I enjoy a lot of her work – and her short story The Simplest Thing in the World is a good description of the creation process. Can’t find the text version online, but here it is read by the author no less:

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