Am I allowed? by Sandra Horn

Recently, I was asked, by a Scottish Person, ‘What’s the connection? You wrote The Silkie and Tattybogle – what’s your connection to Scotland?’ I wasn’t sure if this was an aggressive challenge or what. In any case, the answer  - which I didn’t give because other things intervened before I could – was complicated. My name before I married was MacDonald and there is both Scottish and Irish ancestry there, but it was my name by adoption, not blood. I’m English with a dollop of Cornish, so I could claim a connection that allows me to write about The Mud Maid and The Giant, and I grew up in Sussex, so The Hob and Miss Minkin is probably permissible too. 

My play for children, very loosely based on the Aboriginal dreamtime myths, is apparently taboo, however.

Wait a minute, though: there’s the possibility of an ancestral name linked to Ashkenazy Jews who came over in the 17th century. Hooray! That opens up more possibilities!

Yes, this is me wading into the debate about who can write what, which seems to be increasingly in the air and which I, for one, am finding increasingly silly and irritating.
Write about what you know? What does that mean? If we could only write about our own direct experiences, we wouldn’t have most of the world’s great literature. Of course, if we write about what we don’t know, using this thing called imagination or creativity, we need to get any factual stuff right, but that’s a straightforward matter of research. If we want to write in the persona of a character from Outer Mongolia, or a nine-year-old boy, or someone suffering from dementia, say, these call for prodigious leaps of imagination and facts and technical skill, with a large dose of sensitivity in some cases, but are not impossible and not, in any sense, wrong. Then there’s pure fantasy, which needs to engage and convince readers but otherwise is not bound by rules about who can and who can’t.

Enough of this outrage, genuine or manufactured. Just, is it a good story, well told? Does it patronise, belittle, distort or demonise its characters?  Does it contain misinformation about them or their situations?  If it is an honest and engaging piece of work, does it matter who wrote it?

While I’m at it, there’s an increasing tendency for those requesting submissions of work to say that they are especially interested in writing from BAME, LGBT, disabled and ‘other minority groups’. This was taken to a further level at a recent call-out, when writers were asked if their CHARACTERS were from one of the groups. I was wryly amused by this. My submitted poems were about Eve, the Madonna del Parto and Scheherezade. Eve? Definitely BAME, although, curiously, often depicted as blonde. The Madonna? Hmm. Middle-eastern, but as painted by Piero della Francesca she’s pale skinned and sandy haired… Scheherezade might have been any colour from olivey to black, but she could be regarded as trafficked for sex slavery, so perhaps that ticks a box?  I finally ticked N/A because there wasn’t room to expand on all this, and anyway, they are mythological, by and large.

 As a writer, I don’t tick any boxes, alas. I’m a woman married to a man. I’m ‘white’ (or pinko-beige to be more accurate) and freckled. I’m short-sighted, a bit hard of hearing, a bit arthritic with a scoliosed spine but I don’t think that counts as it doesn’t hold me back, or not a lot. I’m old, but that doesn’t seem to count either; us wrinklies are far from a minority group. I’m unlikely to write about any of that anyway. It may be my direct experience but it would be no kind of fun for a reader. I’ll stick to mythological creatures and inventions.

What about this as an idea: all submission should be anonymous at the outset? Then the only boxes any of us should worry about ticking are:
Are you literate?
Have you got something to say?
Can you write a fantastically good story about it?


Jan Needle said…
You've got me worried now. I wrote a book called Wagstaffe the Wind-Up Boy, which Kneehigh are doing as a play later this year. The 'hero' -after a serious accident on the motorway - ends up with clockwork guts. Will they be coming for me, dost reckon?
I love this! It is indeed quite ridiculous how far some people can go in insisting on empathy being 'because I am that thing'. Jane Austen was never married - how can she be allowed to say anything through her work? Dickens and Shakespeare were literate white English men... how come Dickens could've been allowed to write about the dirt poor (Oliver Twist & the gang) or the French or Shakespeare about kings (black, white, or Scottish?) or for that matter fairies?

Bill Kirton said…
Just to say that I'm with you all the way here, Sandra.
Enid Richemont said…
Oh absolutely. And for publishers to be deliberately seeking submissions from certain groups seems demeaning to the groups involved. The only criteria should be whether it's an exciting/moving, well-written and original story. Unfortunately, though, the writer has become part of the packaging, and virtue-signalling makes great publicity.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Sandra, your post is similar to one from Debbie a short time ago - re cultural (mis)appropriation, so I'll amend my comment from that post slightly to address yours.

Although I'm from a visible minority group, (Chinese Canadian) I still enter into writing about other people (seemingly unconnected to me) with caution. Minority groups have had to live with erroneous, insulting portrayals of themselves all their lives, so understandably, it's a sensitive subject. That goes for all the arts, including film, paintings, theatre, and TV.

The whole point of fiction is that we make up stuff, so I never think about whether I can or cannot --- I think about how to do so with a sense of humility and responsibility. Every writer is free to write what they want, but it doesn't mean the work cannot be critiqued. It doesn't mean we can't do better.

I want to write stories that are as diverse as the world around me, and to do so in a way that does not perpetuate stereotypes. I may not always get it right, but it doesn’t mean I won't try.

As for publishers requesting specific subject matter from specific groups … I say - “More power to them!" It’s their shop and they can sell what they want.They’re in it to make money, so my guess is they’re tapping into what is trending at the moment. If they don’t get the submissions, they’ll have to rethink the call-out. If they do, then it’s expanding the market for something that has had little exposure in the past, and that is not a bad thing.

If I’m not writing the subject matter they want, then they’re not the publisher for me, and I need to look elsewhere.

Umberto Tosi said…
I agree, in general. But yes, there have been legitimate complaints about cultural appropriation and exploitation in creative works - particularly of profit-driven corporate, entertainment industry origin - and/or amplification. And there's no question those of the dominant ethnic origins have unwittingly-or-not taken advantage of their relatively easier access to publishing, etc. Anonymous submissions can help level the playing field (for example, in Submittable, apps), but they don't make up for past injustices. Freedom for the imagination is a value no one wants to lose either, however. It's a judgment call. You know exploitation when you see it most of the time... You also know a genuine work of universal imagination when you see it - usually. That should figure in as well. Go to You Tube and check old videos of symphony orchestras playing. You'll see that in those from the 1980s or before, the musicians were almost universally white and male. Than contract to modern orchestral clips - from our own times when orchestral candidates must audition from behind screens, and you see a healthy mix. That's a worthy goal all around.

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