Dear Dr Darwin,
I’m working on a script that begins during the 1830’s. The central character is a fictional young Black teen, and two major characters are actual historical figures: a young Native American warrior and a mixed-blood warrior; the true purpose of the script is to tell their fascinating story. I, however, am White. I am confident that I can tell the story well, and am empathetic as to the struggles both the Blacks and the Native Americans had to endure, and still endure. But there is a part of me that feels like I do not have the right to tell these people’s stories. On the other hand, I feel ‘why not?’ Michael Blake wrote Dances With Wolves, Ezra Jack Keats’ characters were African Americans.
Are there multicultural boundaries we must not cross in historical fiction? And if so, what are they? Or turn the question around, how do we cross these multicultural boundaries without stepping on toes?
Concerned about Cultural Appropriation
Most writers rage against any suggestion that they’re not “allowed” (by a nervous publisher or the mobs of social media) to write anything they like. But most writers have also been enraged by slipshod, catchpenny or downright poisonous versions of things they have directly experienced, written by those who haven’t. Even post-Weinstein, a male-run Hollywood still doesn’t look much further into women’s lives than “Babe, District Attorney or Driving Miss Daisy”; on the other hand, a US editor I know of rejected a YA novel set in Spain on the grounds that the writer isn’t Spanish. So, can good, authentic, responsible and thrilling stories rooted in historically and currently disadvantaged groups only be told by writers of that same group?
This particular ethical minefield was sown first in Anthropology, by our modern, white, western and very well-founded guilt about cultural appropriation. If any readers think this is only a 21st century problem, just look up the furore over William Styron’s Pulitzer-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. But it’s been rendered creatively toxic by the ‘calling-out’ culture; there’s nothing more disastrous for creative work than having a political correctness censor sitting on your shoulder during that first draft, but you only have to spend half an hour on Twitter to have that voice in your ears.
You could create a fictional character who you do feel entitled to inhabit – presumably in your case a white character – and show us the world, tell that story, through that consciousness. But that may make some storytelling impossible, if events would be radically changed or hopelessly inauthentic: like trying to write an authentic men’s locker-room scene by putting a woman in it. More fundamentally, it would become a completely different project, de-centred from what you want to centre it on.
So what do you do?
First, tattoo on your monitor is that it’s your book and your rules, and you can’t libel the dead. Then think about your true purpose, the heart of why you want to tell this story, and what it will take, creatively speaking, to fulfil your purpose responsibly – which is to say properly – without cowardice or sloppiness. Use that to guide you in working out your personal rule-book: what you feel comfortable with in fictionalising away from the recorded facts; how deep you can go inside these imagined and real-historical heads; how strongly you want to evoke historically – and ethnically -inflected voices.
But that still leaves the question of how not to tread on toes. To think about general principles, let’s imagine that Earthling colonisers took over Saturn in a couple of centuries of genocidal, Martian-slave-importing fervour. Is a modern Earthling-descendant, arguably still benefitting from that historical dominance, entitled to write as if from inside the life of a fictional Martian, and about real-historical Saturnians and mixed-planet Satur-Martians?
Unquestionably, the command to ‘Write what you know’ is one route to authentic and creatively responsible writing, and it’s true that you can’t in that sense ‘know’ the experience of being inside a different ethnicity. But we all have many identities, and anyway, neither ethnicity, nor sex, gender, sexuality, class, age, education, nationality, disability, language and even marital status are necessarily binary. You may not have ethnicity in common with your protagonists, but you will have many other things which are just as much part of their truth: look for the truths that you do know.
And don’t forget that, by definition, the story of a novel never actually happened, however close it is to the un-reclaimable historical events that did. So the only viable command for fictioneers is actually, ‘Write what you like, and make me believe that you know it.’ If a good writer can make dragons believable, or Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, then anything is possible, and who that writer is, is arguably beside the point.
But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the practical writerly dangers. For what it’s worth, when my Saturnian friends grumble about how badly Earthling writers write Saturnian history and people, the ‘badly’ seems to come under broad headings:
a) The Saturnian characters are all the old, familiar stereotypes. If the stereotypes are negative ones of a historically oppressed group they’re particularly likely to offend, and particularly important to watch for, and interrogate. Notice that I don’t say necessarily ‘to avoid’. Historical accuracy or authenticity to the range of human nature may demand them: the fact that Earthling colonisers consistently stereotyped Saturnians as tight-fisted or melancholic doesn’t mean that no Saturnian was ever such a thing. But by definition even neutral or positive stereotypes – that all miners on Saturn were hymn-singing Presbyterians – are off-the-peg characters and can’t come alive for us: there will be nothing individual, fresh or new about this second-hand package of characteristics. You must refuse to buy any character off-the-peg, but imagine them from the ground up, complete with nuance and newness. Ethical writing and good writing, in other words, involve the same processes, just as unethical writing and bad writing are both caused by the writer being slipshod, lazy or unimaginative. And if you can’t help having a character who conforms to an established negative stereotype, it’s worth trying to balance them with others who run directly and convincingly counter to that. Make some Saturnians open-handed and sanguine, and see if you can find some jazz-singing Catholic miners there too.
b) The characters are just Saturnian in a superficial way, for modishness, or as a cheap bit of bolt-on characterisation, without the writer properly working at the individuality and nuance of what being fully Saturnian – or Satur-Martian – means for who they are and how they act.
c) Every single minute of every single scene among Saturnians is about The Issues. Perhaps in an effort to make sure he/she takes the issues seriously, the writer has lost sight of the fact that sometimes Saturnians are just people having dinner or sex, or disembowelling enemies or sewing curtains. This is particular egregious if your scenes among Earthlings, on the other hand, are about all sorts of ‘just people’ things, not particularly to do with The Issues of being an Earthling.
d) Even when the point-of-view is ostensibly Saturnian, Earthling characteristics and attitudes are the norm and default – which often means taken-for-granted and not evoked – while the Saturnians are busily evoked as Other. It may be an attractive, exotic Other, but their voices, clothes, food, colouring, manners and attitudes are always dealt with in terms of their difference from that unremarked-on norm.
e) All the Saturnians are painted as angels. The writer’s motivation may be pure – or simply fearful – but as well as being dull storytelling, it’s also offensive, it could be argued, not to grant Saturnians the full fictional-human right that you have granted your Earthlings to be villainous, stupid, awkward or just smelly.
So, how might you avoid these traps, and write something which you feel ethically comfortable with, and so able to ignore the shrieks of calling-out from the loonier fringes of the Twitterverse?
1) Be sure – I know you are – that you are telling this story for honest and responsible reasons, and because you respect the experience of those on whom you’re basing it.
2) ‘Research till your eyes bleed’, as writer Emily Gale, puts it, and that includes not only material facts, but the points of view, experience, voices and direct testimonies of Saturnians, Martians, and Satur-Martians. Walk many miles in those shoes – or bare, calloused feet – imaginatively speaking. It’s not just responsible and respectful, it also helps you creatively: the wider the range of stories, responses and attitudes you can find, the more material you have to choose between, and the more nuance and individuality you’ll be able to draw on. Again, good writing and ethical writing involve the same processes.
3) If you’re really worried, ignore the censor to let your first draft flow, and later double-check by seeking out a sensitivity reader. This is an experienced Saturnian reader or editor, who can reflect back to you their experience of how that group is evoked in your novel. It’s not to grant them censorship rights: they can’t represent the whole of that group (no one can), especially not its history, and you have to be the ultimate creative arbiter of what you do with their feedback. But it can open your eyes to what you, as an Earthling, just don’t know about being a Saturnian living in Saturn’s history.
4) If you are anxious about being ‘called out’ about fictionalising real people, then put an Historical Note at the end, to make clear where you’ve deviated from the record or imagined into its spaces.
And, finally, hold on to your confidence that fiction works by evocation, possibility and imaginative recreation, to tell a story that never (in the strictly literal sense) happened. Your job is not to represent the current arguments about history and ethnicity, or even the historical record of them, except to the extent that it serves your storytelling. And when it comes to non-fiction arguments about fiction, you don’t have to listen to, let alone pander to, anyone who doesn’t understand the difference.
Got a question for Dr Darwin? Email email@example.com. We can’t promise a reply but all questions will be considered for future columns.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now, and her forthcoming memoir, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, will be published on 12th February 2019. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and theSunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.