The right to write

My blogging friend Mary Smith commented last post, re Edna O’Brien’s Girl, on controversy surrounding white authors using the voice of black characters. Girl was so fast paced and compelling I finished it in three sittings. Then, looking it up on Goodreads, I found a question from a member:

Who else thinks a young, black woman would have been a better authorial choice for this topic/concept?

There were three very different answers (plus the point that authors choose topics for their fiction rather than the other way round).

1. If we start to say that only young black women can write about young black women, where does that eventually take us? To more constraints on what women can and can’t do and there’s more than enough of them out there already.

2. I feel uncomfortable with a white woman telling this story and making any profit from it whatsoever.

3. (recommending a non fiction account): Helon Habila may not be a woman, but he is a highly regarded author and poet from Nigeria.

46195759Girl is told from the point of view of one of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014, the best known of many such abductions. To me the novel is less about a black-only experience than one example of  what throughout history and all over the world men have done to women in the name of religion, power or both. Regardless of race or age, Edna O’Brien is a woman who, raised in Catholic Ireland, knows all about repression. Maybe this makes her a better “authorial choice” than a Nigerian man who would not experience rape or forced marriage in the same way, menstruate, become pregnant or breastfeed, all significant in the book? But, if we discourage men from imagining such lived experiences, how can we expect them to develop empathy? Maybe O’Brien’s just a different authorial choice. She’s quoted on the British Council Literature website: “Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.

I’m not sure you can open up the world with modern levels of migration and travel, then criticise eagle-eyed writers for using the material they find there. More stories become available. An author can only select one and write about that or the boundaries become too fluid. Even an author of the calibre and experience of O’Brien still needs a manageable story, a heroine, a resolution. She was 84 when the Chibok abductions happened; I do salute the research she did, her energy and will to shine a light on injustice in the way she knew best.

The example of male violence she chose is by black African men on black African women and children. If words are an alchemy and story does conduct lives, they should be a power anyone can develop. Black female writers are also theoretically free to use any subject matter they like, but they may have less chance of becoming writers in the first place, for educational and financial reasons, health, class, gender restrictions… all this will also vary depending whether they are rural, urban,  African, Caribbean or western black women. In 2019 they still have less chance of getting published by a wary, traditionally white industry than Edna O’Brien who was working for the publisher Hutchinson when her first novel, The Country Girls, was commissioned (!) in 1960. (Yes, dream on.) Were white people even having this conversation then, when authors were arguably less familiar with “other” cultures? Anyway after six decades of success no one was going to turn down her newest novel, whether set in Ireland, Nigeria or outer space. Whereas, any quick Google of publishing rates for authors of colour confirms the findings of this Publishing Research Quarterly article:

The narrative that there are just are not enough authors of colour writing is (…) used to explain their lack of inclusion in the publishing industry; however, numerous authors of colour have countered this, saying they have struggled to get agents or, if they do have agents, publishing deals. (…) many authors of colour felt pressured to write identity books (…) that reflected their ethnic or cultural heritage or to draw upon cultural stereotypes—in order to be, or continue being, published. (…). These books often had to cover topics such as “racism, colonialism or postcolonialism as if these were the primary concerns of all BAME people”. 

We all struggle to get agents, and if we are unknown as writers and not celebs in any other sphere the agents then struggle to get us published. But this and other research, for example carried out by We Need Diverse Books, confirms the more boxes you tick out of being minority ethnic, disabled, female, working class, unemployed, mentally or physically ill, LGBQT+, non Western, non white… the less likely you are to be published, and the more you are needed by readers.

When, in 1969, man walked on the moon, the boys at school were fascinated. I wasn’t: the protagonists wore boring spacesuits not pretty frocks, and I didn’t understand the physics. As a girl it made less impact on me, while my male contemporaries still remember it in great detail. I wasn’t reflected, didn’t feel I owned it. The closest the career suggestions I got came to astronaut was air hostess. So people of all backgrounds and abilities must appear in books. Everyone needs to be reflected and have ownership, everyone needs the opportunity to learn to write and publish them. The quality of writing is still paramount – you wouldn’t drive across a bridge built by hairdressers in a car designed by a first year apprentice, and equally writing is a craft that needs skill, training, practice and reward. It must say something interesting and say it well. There must be the freedom to write about anything and anyone, to use the “alchemy of words” to conduct anyone’s life or lives, and nobody should get published without redrafting, editing and perfecting. BAME writers should be free of having to write only about BAME people’s primary concerns, but if that’s true it follows that O’Brien too may write about what she likes.

Studies suggest that reading some kinds of fiction makes human beings more compassionate, enabling them to see life through other eyes. We have centuries of opportunity imbalance to correct, but let’s do it by bringing opportunities for diverse writers up to the levels enjoyed by white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied financially resourced middle class writers, not by building barriers to what each group may write about. Not by creating exclusive pockets that only insiders may occupy, but by welcoming everybody’s efforts to write about everybody else, even if some of us have difficulty and even pain recognising what they produce.

I did worry whether I knew my characters when writing The Magic Carpet and published it in trepidation, opinions having become more forthright since I started it in 2016. Last year an Asian-American YA author withdrew her work from publication following fierce online objections to how it was perceived to depict slavery. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is embroiled in argument over writing judged racist. So I had grounds for worrying I’d be criticised (fine) or trolled (not fine) for representing characters from backgrounds not my own. Suffice to repeat my characters are fictional, from five different backgrounds which by definition can’t all reflect mine, and were researched with colleagues and friends from those backgrounds as well as other sources. I couldn’t have written about London children otherwise, since in 2016 when the book’s set, the primary school population, depending on area, had between 33-94% ethnic minority* pupils and between 14-75% bilingual or multilingual users. My intention was to respect and celebrate this, but if readers find factual errors I’m open to corrections and ready to discuss how I’ve made my fictional characters think and feel. Whew! *This means not White UK heritage and I’m not happy with the “otherness” of the term.

Zadie Smith brilliantly defended writing in and of different voices in the New York Review of Books in October. 3711Unlike me, she’s of Jamaican/English  mixed heritage; like me, she grew up in London. My school friends were Jewish, or of Indian, Turkish, Greek and Black Caribbean heritage; my plumber was born in Pakistan, my solicitor is Greek Cypriot, my doctor Australian, the man who laid my garden turf Moldovan. I have this hinterland to draw on for research which I wouldn’t have if I’d grown up in rural middle England. Does that give me more right to write about multi-ethnic character casts? Or should I have used a sensitivity reader? I may explore that another time.

Evaristo shared her Booker prize with Margaret Atwood.

Let’s hope as more diverse authors get through publishing doors, more points of view will be heard. There are creative writing programmes, scholarships and competitions open to specific age, ethnic and income groups as well as to everybody (good luck scrolling through the enormous list on the links above!) It will take a while for these to redress the balance – the Coretta Scott King Prize had already been going 48 years when the PN article I quote appeared,  the Lambda Literary Awards (LGBTQ) started in 1989, the relatively tiny Barbellion Prize (for writing by ill or disabled authors or on that subject) has only just launched. But doors once opened will not close. A young Nigerian undergraduate on the last writing course I attended was writing a fierce, passionate, difficult book set in the Biafran war and the present day. Perhaps her book will be published. Perhaps next year a black woman will win the Booker Prize all to herself.

What to conclude? It’s an inexhaustible topic and I’m exhausted. I think people should be able to talk, read and write about anything and everything, but it must be sensitive and not incite hatred. Subject to that, everyone has the right to write. If they intend to try publishing what they write, they must ensure they’ve researched it thoroughly. However, in a capitalist world we must be realistic. Every good writer has the right to self-publish, and every really good writer whose returns will cover their production costs should have an equal opportunity to be published by a traditional publisher. Some traditional publishers have started efforts to increase the diversity of both their workforce and their authors; it’s well overdue and the world is watching. The right to write is everyone’s; the right to publish should depend on quality alone.

© Jessica Norrie 2020

26 thoughts on “The right to write

  1. well said, Jessica. it seems like the desire to express ourselves is not only a basic human need, it’s a basic human right. diversity of thought is what makes the world, and books, interesting. And I don’t think you have to “be diverse” to have a diversity of thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, but I do think there’s an important distinction between imagining a voice and writing it from what’s called “ownvoice” experience. Perhaps one reason there have been so many objections to people appropriating voices is sometimes they haven’t fully researched or recognised their own limitations and present their work as just as truthful. But that said, if you shut down imagination you shut down empathy, narrow horizons and crate divisions so as long as people are sensitive they should write whatever world they like.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jessica, I like the way you have described the need to be heard…whatever the color, race or ethnicity. Each person who possesses the skill to write has the right to see through his/her eyes and share the thoughts/stories. People would criticize, as it is easier than writing a book. Words don’t discriminate and till we have them on our side, we can confront our critics.
    Thanks for this inspiring discourse and thanks to Sally for sharing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read your insightful post and the subsequent comments with a great deal of interest, as I have thought a lot about the concept of cultural appropriation as I’ve encountered various perspectives on the question. What it comes down to for me as a writer is asking myself whether I have the life experience and the writing chops to portray a particular human experience. In some instances, the answer is yes, but in many other instances, the answer is no.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you describe is a good way of setting about it (or not). Since I wrote this somebody on another forum has asked if the Lambda prize is going to be limited to ownvoice writers. To me that seems logical, for conditions for entry for a prize (although tricky to monitor). But for general writing purposes I don’t see why anyone shouldn’t try and put themselves in the head of anyone else- that’s called imagination. The difficulty arises if the writer then represents it as ownvoice truth, which of course it isn’t. But who’s responsible if the reader assumes it is? Oh dear – that’s what I meant by an inexhaustible subject! Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I found your post most interesting, Jessica, but I will not, however, express any view or opinion on what you have said here. I find it better to keep my thoughts to myself on certain matters as everything and anything you say could be misconstrued and found fault with, even if your intentions are completely pure.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said. Writers have to write what they want to write as well as they can. And unfortunately markets have played along – publishers hope for the maximum profit from the books they choose, and it is a very difficult thing to break through.

    I’m missing something here: readers. They come in all varieties, and look for so many different things in what they read.

    In my mind, I have to satisfy MY readers, who will decide if I do what I do WELL. If I’m horrible at something, someone WILL notice, and complain, possibly very publicly – so I have to do my due diligence and research and maintain standards.

    But the proof is the PRODUCT – and, unless it is withdrawn from the market and every copy destroyed, it is going to be out there even if I’m not.

    If you write racist works, or misogynistic ones, or ones which somehow say one group of humans is superior to others, it’s your own fault if it blows up on you.

    One easy example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The author never declared that the protagonist is autistic (IIRC), but many readers have assumed that was the intent. Read the reviews on Amazon to see how some people who identify as autistic do not appreciate the portrayal.

    Another is historical fiction: many authors are unhappy when someone who really knows history points out how bad their research is – possibly their target audience doesn’t care (or isn’t aware) about the anachronisms; and on that one, some things sound anachronistic when they actually aren’t.

    We need to reduce the vitriol in some of the callouts, and to distinguish between ignorance and malice better, but no writer should be surprised when readers have their own version of things the author takes for true.

    I have my own problems: I’m disabled, one of my main characters is chronically ill, and I write indie MAINSTREAM fiction, making marketing with my extremely limited energy a constant uphill battle. Oh, well – when I snag a reader, I sometimes get amazing reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right that I’d left out the readers; my reason is that I try not to exceed 1000 words on my blog posts and this was already way, way over that. Massive topic… and you’re right about the vitriol too. It should be possible to dislike and criticise any body of work without descending into the malice that is all too commonplace nowadays. Re “Curious Incident” I knew that Mark Haddon never said the protagonist was meant to be autistic. Shame it offended some on the autistic spectrum as others found it helpful – I guess that says it all about individuals reacting differently and being different! I’m currently reading “The Shock of the Fall” in which the narrator lives with schizophrenia. I wonder what reactions have been to that. Thank you for reading and your comments.


      1. It was an excellent post. There is so much to say about the topics.

        I tend to think about how specific readers of mine will react. There are two sets: those who share the illness with one of my main characters (and, since it can be more or less severe, may find my portrayal different from what they live with); and those who’ve at best heard of it, and whom I don’t want to scare away with a focus on the constant pressures of living such a life.

        Balance is hard when the readers are so different.

        As for schizophrenia, there will probably be a few readers who wrote a review because they have the illness and do or especially do not like the portrayal. Assuming there are a decent number of reviews. ‘Curious Incident’ had a LOT of reviews.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think in your situation (or any situation) you write what you want and feel you have to write. If readers are scared, feel reflected and supported, or even indifferent or angry is to some extent not under your control. Once the book is out there, as you say…As for the book I just looked – “The Shock of the Fall” won the UK Costa prize a few years back and has over 2000 Amazon UK reviews at 4/5 stars. The author is a registered mental nurse and his answers to the book club questions at the back seem really sympathetic. But I’ve spent so long on screen today I must stop! Thank you for your very kind remarks and enjoy the rest of the weekend.


  6. It’s not an easy topic, is it? Sorry to have exhausted you 🙂 I think you’ve covered all points extremely well here and I agree with what you say here (and Sally with her assassins and pink elephants!). I can’t help feeling we are moving into dangerous waters if we start to think we shouldn’t write something because we have the wrong colour of skin or the wrong cultural/ethnic background – providing, as you said, we are not being racist or inciting hatred or stereotyping people from different backgrounds than our own. I’ve just been looking at the Tessera Editorial site and the group of sensitivity editors – haven’t quite formulated my thoughts on that.
    Things like diversity move slowly – look how long it took for women to be taken seriously as authors (and we’re still not on an equal footing). As for cultural stereotyping: As a Scot I grew up being depicted by non-Scottish writers as being very mean with money, saying ‘Hoots Maun’ an awful lot, drinking copious amounts of whisky and living on a heather clad mountain in a but and ben. That has changed.
    Thanks for the link to my blog.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for all those thoughts Mary. Things do indeed move slowly, but at least they move. I did start looking at the whole sensitivity reader thing but will leave it for another day as this got too long as it is (and it’s a sensitive subject). Perhaps you could be a Scottish sensitivity reader, not forgetting to sup a wee dram as you count and recount your earnings in your tweeds and brogues…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. That will put the cat among the pigeons… I have pressed for Sunday….

    I am not a man, assassin for hire, 90, an actress, widow, fairy, nun, conman, dog, cat or a French speaking elephant but does that bar me from writing about them? Writers create stories from experience both personal and observed, research and their imaginations. I believe that especially when social and moral issues are concerned, and particularly when men or women, whatever their colour, religion or culture are treated abominably, that it does not matter what gender or ethnicity you are, you have a right and in some cases an obligation to write about it. As to opportunities in publishing, I agree that there are some barriers but isn’t that the case for many within our society.. ageism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled, and racism are all equally unacceptable when it comes to writers, as it should be the quality of the work that is judged, not who wrote it..

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Crikey that is a post and a half.
    Why shouldn’t anyone write what they like, unless it incites hatred or is discriminatory?
    I am a member of a writing group who’s members are of shall we say, advanced years, we write about whatever we want and the vast bulk of it is excellent. To bar someone from writing from the point of view of someone who’s gender or ethnic background is not their own is as illogical as excluding someone from writing as an Alien or a dog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you – am now lying down in a dark room or would be if I wasn’t trying to rewrite half of Novel 3 on agent’s instructions!

      I don’t think anyone can actually formally bar anyone else from writing whatever they like (subject to the law) but levels of criticism and trolling have reached pretty challenging levels recently and that IS a way of stopping freedom of writing. It’s difficult as a white woman because of course I can’t and shouldn’t tell other races what reactions and feelings they’re entitled to have. They may be deeply and genuinely hurt by something I’d barely registered (see reasons for changing the name of the Wilder Medal for Children’s Literature in the US, for example). It’s not for me to say that hurt isn’t legitimate. But generally speaking I think creating barriers is another way of isolating ourselves from others and that is never good for human understanding or progress. Crikey that was an answer and a half! Thank you so much for your comment and happy writing.

      Liked by 2 people

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