Writing, Identity, & Misrepresentation

Musings in the wake of Joseph Boyden’s fall from grace, 2016.

One of the things I remember most from my first creative writing class with David Arnason at the U of Manitoba (way back in 1985-86) was his advice to aspiring novelists and poets to “write what you know.” I’ve long since switched to history and politics, and only occasionally still dabble in conscious dreams of fiction – unless one views my historical interpretations and utopian political visions as themselves products of a creative or even magical imagination. I won’t hold it against you if you do.

Even those who write science fiction and fantasy, and sometimes create entirely new worlds, religions, species, cultures, languages, and magical paradigms from scratch – and are thus freed from some of the constraints of both historical fiction and non-fiction – find that what makes their worlds compelling is often “the most ordinary ingredients” (to use Ursula le Guin’s own words). Trees. Food. Land. Weather. Character development. Dialogue. Relationships. Emotion. Plot. The worlds and peoples of Tolkien, le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Kim Stanley Robinson, or George R.R. Martin are still infused with what they know, or think they know, or have spent a great deal of time researching, about real world cultures and languages, feudal and medieval societies, religious pantheons, or technology and astrophysics. Their imaginative fictions are still built upon real earth and history, and very human experiences.

Arnason’s advice still resonates with me, and in important ways, it also holds truths for the historian and the journalist, and more broadly the “organic intellectual” (thanks Antonio) regardless of their focus. It’s a cliché to say the past is a “foreign country,” and it is certainly true that writing about the past can be as fraught with peril as claiming to represent a people or culture not your own. Hell, even claiming to ‘represent’ one’s own gender or culture is fraught with peril – a slippery slope that, more often than not, ignores very real class, ideological, ethical, and tactical differences between real people within an ‘imagined community’ or ‘identity.’

But it’s also true that some pasts are more “foreign” than others. Neither historians nor writers of fiction can write convincingly about everything –– and according to Arnason, nor should they try. What would Dickens be without his particular rootedness in Victorian London? What would Tolstoy be without the author’s sense of place in Tsarist Russia? What would Margaret Laurence’s writing be without her experience and rootedness on the prairies? Would her novels be the same if she hadn’t been born in Neepawa?

Writing often rings hollow when it purports to describe, let alone ‘represent’ something outside the author’s own sense of rootedness in place, in geography, in culture, in experience. The further outside that circle, the more certain kinds of narrative constructions, certain kinds of literary pretensions, purposes, and ‘representations,’ will ring hollow. Does this mean no one can (or ever should) try to write about other countries or peoples or religions, or for that matter, eras in time? Not at all. For starters, conscious immersion, study, travel, research, empathy, solidarity, and a lifetime of expertise can often compensate for one’s lack of rootedness. Furthermore, an “outsider” perspective can sometimes bring significant insights that an “insider” will never grasp. Experience is not everything. It can be prejudicial and myopic, just as the ostensibly “outside” and “dispassionate” analysis can also be partisan and inaccurate.

But even after years of research, study, and practice a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction – whether they are “outsiders” or “insiders” according to some definition – must be aware of their own limits. How can one write persuasively about the complexities of relationships, or about love and sex, without first having experienced love, loss, and heartbreak oneself? (I would argue this is as true for writing a novel, or a love poem, as it is for writing a newspaper advice column.) Every writer must be conscious of their limits – even science fiction and fantasy writers who can joyfully and sometimes successfully bend them or break them.

But when we are writing about a topic where we are, or ought to be, accountable for the impact of our words upon real, living people and communities – then we not only ought to be conscious of our limits, but we also ought to be humble when taken to task for our words and the impact of our deeds. This is especially true when the voices expressing concern are from the very constituencies one professes to be accountable to.

This is, I think, a universal principle. It applies to any topic – whether one’s topic is indigenous North America, or Palestine, or the women of Afghanistan, or the surviving kin of the Nazi holocaust. Don’t pretend to represent what you are not. And if you are driven to write or speak about a topic, whether you are from within that culture or not, then –– by the proverbial Gods of Westeros, “old and new” –– do not misrepresent yourself, and do not be afraid to acknowledge your limits.

Your chosen or unchosen interlocking matrix of identities does not determine the validity of your words, nor the merits or demerits of your arguments, nor the parameters of your heart. It doesn’t make you a great writer or a bad one. It certainly doesn’t tell us if you’re a good person or not. But at the end of the day, if you misrepresent it, few will care about anything else. The misrepresentation will become the Rosetta Stone that translates everything else. All the understandable uncertainties of representing a “foreign country” will begin to show, especially to those who might actually hail from there. And when that happens, one’s carefully crafted dreams and narratives will shimmer at the edges, like an illusion ready to dispel at the first curious touch.

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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