Sunday 28 March 2010


Continuing the Really Interesting Elephant Trap Discussion About Creativity With Or Without White Peacocks Which Was Not Intended To Be A Debate At All, on Sara Crowley’s blog last week, HERE.

Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah adds a considered post to the discussion thread, and finally, we have an actual piece of work to illustrate the issues. Maiba's Ribbon, by meself.
Petina says this:
“the characters were Zimbabwean only because the writer (says) so, even their names were wrong, a sort of pidgin Shona in a country with no pidgin! I was not offended by the stories, but I was amused ... amused in the way I am when I read Dan Brown's plastic characters. My reaction was not about "cultural" authenticity, it was simply a reaction to (…) writing that seemed to want the exotic setting without going for any kind of truth in the characters.”

That is good feedback. And an important learning point, among other important learning points - not to trust one’s sources of info on the internet. The names were found on this rather jazzy website HERE which lists Zimbabwean children’s names and their meanings. If they are incorrect, that is bad enough, but if they are ‘pidgin Shona’ that is worse - no wonder Petina laughed. It is sad if there is no other truth in the characters in her opinion - which matters - and as always, this writer will try to do better.
But this raises the question, how accurate do we have to be in general, as writers? Does it matter, in general? If the story worked as fiction for a few editors and their readers, where is the issue? Yes, it matters to me, personally, because I don’t like to get it wrong – but I’m learning, here.
Edited to add: the piece Maiba's Ribbon is leaning very much on those names, to paint character. And if those names are wrong, it might not work. I asked Petina Gappah the obvious question: "Where can I find out the right versions of those names?" and Petina has pointed out that actually Godfrey and Elizabeth would be as authentic, because English is an official language... and that challenges the writer here, to look again, and see how 'authentic' the characters are if I give them those names instead. Hmmm.

A bit of history: This story was published initially on Foto 8 online, (Foto 8 is a photojournalism magazine) to illustrate working with images as prompts for creative writing. It was included in a special series on Notes on the Underground edited by Clare Wigfall. And performed at Whitechapel Gallery last week - I'd forgotten that, couldn't be there...The point is, the fiction convinced well enough, until it hit ‘home territory’. And sure, that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear.
Petina makes the point that the story probably wasn’t intended for Zimbabwean readers – and she’s right, in that it wasn’t ‘intended’ for anyone at all. I saw the photo, knew roughly what the story would be – looked up the names before I wrote the flash. Then I was asked to send work to Foto 8 and so on..
But, and it is a big but - I ask myself the question – would I have sent it to a publication in Zimbabwe? The answer to that has to be ‘no of course not’. Then I ask myself why that is.
There are a lot of questions here, and I don’t have the answers.
• If you are moved by something and seek to understand it - is it OK to try and write a character from another culture, get it wrong unwittingly and hope to do it better next time?
• Is it somehow more ‘respectful’ to assume that you will never get it completely right, that someone will be offended, and therefore you should (as a writer) avoid otherness completely?
• Isn’t it by making mistakes that we learn?
• If we worry about offending, we’d never write anything, would we?
• If we don’t worry about offending at all, are we just being exploitative?
• Where should we worry and where shouldn’t we? Where is the cut-off?
• Are there some mistakes that are less easily forgiven than others?

Clare Wigfall, in her interview in Short Circuit, talks about The Numbers, the short story set in the Outer Hebrides which won The National Short Story Award in 2008. She created a fictive world that worked well at the highest level. Having visited the islands where The Numbers was set, after the story was published in her collection, (The Loudest Sound and Nothing, Faber and Faber), she discovered that in terms of voice, things were not exactly accurate. She knows that geographically, too, there were things ‘wrong’ if one was looking for facts. But, she says, sensibly,
“I never aimed at correctness. I just wrote fiction.”

Sometimes, writing is a minefield. People will be offended, when no offence is intended. How many times have I cringed, when ‘my’ subjects – adoption/abandonment are the most obvious - are tramped all over by writers who have no idea? I may cringe - but I have not been ‘offended’. If the writers asked, I’d give them the facts as I see and experience them. For example, I spent a few hours talking to the author Nicky Singer, researching for one of her novels.
"Other" is part of why we write. There’s something pushing us to make up other people… whether they are people who live our lives, in our homes, lives like ours, or others – I do the latter. And sometimes, as now, you have to stand up and be counted.

If you want to find out more about writing ‘other’, here are two thoughts –Petina Gappah’s course on Writing Other Lives with Faber has sadly come and gone, but it sounded great – maybe they will run it again -
And thanks to N for this great article by black writer Leone Ross on tackling a black main character, (she is black). A black male main character (she isn’t a black male). A gay male main character (she isn’t a gay black male). An American gay black male. (she isn’t American, but Jamaican. She only visited the US once, as a tourist. Florida. Nuff said.)

Cultural tourism. A minefield. And a large one. I hope we are all allowed to walk the edges, if we are brave or daft enough.


Sheenagh Pugh said...

I had an undergrad (white, English, C of E) who had grown up partly in Alexandria. She wrote a dissertation piece set there; her main character, who wasn't a narrator but was definitely the PoV character, was a Muslim teenager discovering she was gay.

Now it was a cracking piece of writing, especially in its sense of place; I felt I was on the Corniche. I also reckon it is unpublishable, as long as the author is neither Arab nor Muslim; it will be seen as cultural tourism. I advised her, if she wanted to take it further, to keep her gay Muslim girl but not as the PoV character; instead I suggested having a PoV character who was a partial outsider like the author. This was pragmatic rather than moralisitc advice; I don't know if she got the details right or not but it felt like a safer option (you're almost bound to get something wrong if you pose as an insider) and certainly more publishable.

Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

Hey Vanessa -- I have not read this book, but I've heard it's quite a good resource on these issues:

Douglas Bruton said...

Interesting that this subject is throwing up such a big debate. I am especially glad to hear questions being raised rather than answers being given... answers seem hard and final and this subject doesn't seem to invite such easy clear answers. That's not to say that as individuals we can't feel our way towards some sort of answer. So, here goes:

YOU SAID: If you are moved by something and seek to understand it - is it OK to try and write a character from another culture, get it wrong unwittingly and hope to do it better next time?

MY ANSWER: I have no problem with that. Just as I have no problem with suspending belief to enter a purely fictional world, have no problem believing something happening in a magic realist novel, like someone floating off the floor when they are cross. So long as the characters are not, as Petina says, 'Plastic' and the writing poor. They can have the wrong names and not be entirely culturally right, and still work - if they are not plastic.

YOU SAID: Is it somehow more ‘respectful’ to assume that you will never get it completely right, that someone will be offended, and therefore you should (as a writer) avoid otherness completely?

MY ANSWER: There are never any real DON'Ts in writing. Writing starts with reading. Reading encourages the reader to enter into the otherness of the writer and his/her creations. Reading helps us to widen our understanding that we are all different but the same. How on earth could we avoid this otherness completely? I think we couldn't. So, strive to get as much of it right as you need to in order to do what you are doing in your work and don't worry overmuch about the rest.

YOU SAID: Isn’t it by making mistakes that we learn?

MY ANSWER: Yes. Please allow that this is so. In everything. Be forgiving in reading others' work and be forgiven in your own.

YOU SAID: If we worry about offending, we’d never write anything, would we?

MY ANSWER: Absolutely. Take it on the chin when you deserve it and move on. But moving on is the most important thing... for the writer.

YOU SAiD: If we don’t worry about offending at all, are we just being exploitative?

MY ANSWER: Or are we just admitting that we can never get it all right all of the time? And aren't we just being writers? And shouldn't we be more forgiving of each other as writers? Sorry - said that already. And sorry, too, to be answering a question with a question, or three.

YOU SAID: Where should we worry and where shouldn’t we? Where is the cut-off?

MY ANSWER: As Petina says: worry when your writing feels plastic and your characters feel plastic, too. Otherwise, don't worry so much, especially if you have tried your best.

YOU SAID: Are there some mistakes that are less easily forgiven than others?

MY ANSWER: We are talking about writing... you can be forgiven everything except bad writing... and actually you can be forgiven that, too.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Sheenagh, that is really interesting to hear. Thank you. The logician in me says, hang on - if she can not only write, but imagine herself sucessfully into alternative cultures and psyches, not just repopulate her own back yard - doesn't that mean that she was arguably a very strong creator indeed? And why on earth should she be penalised for having the wrong name/breeding?
Your advice to her is great - I wonder if that book made it in whichever guise?

Sligght change of tack - a colleague reminded me that Jim Crace argued against research - said we ought to be able to convince through imagining. His novel 'Quarantine' set in Galillee 2000 years ago, does just that. A bit of dust and a robe or two and we're off. No idea how much research he did for the detal, or whether the names were historically correct, the names - it convinced me for sure.
And Golding - he did not research, either. Just used this marvellous thing called the mind. Somewhere... we find our level, I guess, where it either works or not.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Tim - thanks... I will check it out.

Rachel Fenton said...

There are several strands which are flapping about at the edge of this term "cultural tourism" and each one really deserves - indeed demands - explicating to actually make a clear point, a non-generalisation.

The devil, as always, seems to be in the detail.

I think Sara's debate was unfairly hyjacked. It soon degenerated into cultural generalisations and nit-picking. Sad. Petina - also disappointing for me to read - only seemed, in my opinion, to see a black/white polemic - where did the Zimbabweans go?

I don't think writing about other cultures/circumstances/experiences can be reduced to such simple stock. These are all wonderful and necessary debates but I don't believe a blog post does any of them justice. Essays needed.

I do adhere to my original opinion that the key word here is FICTION.

Emotional truth is also key.

If my writing is factually/culturally incorrect then I apologise. I keep writing. If it offends anyone, ditto. But I am happy to learn and discover and happier still if some walls of ignorance are broken down.

Always people look for - and jump to criticise - the difference in all things. And difference is fascinating - it's a major interest of mine - difference and otherness - however, it only exists because of its binary, SIMILARITY. It's a shame people aren't so quick to see the connections in all things.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks for posting, Rachel. I agree, the debate needs far more than a blog post or two, but at least it gets an airing at this level, and I hope the questions posed above make people ponder a little, as they do me.

I certainly won't be taking the stance that I know all the answers here, as is obvious!

Perhaps the issue polarises because of the subject and setting of the story used as an example. But also because it is the most difficult to sort out.
Petina mentions on S's blog, a list of marvellous writers who write 'other' very well. I'd like to add my mentor, Maggie Gee to that list - her character Mary Tendo in My Cleaner and My Driver is acknowledged by the critics to be a very good creation.

Sheenagh raised a good point in the first comment here - that perhaps, work is more publishable if it stays within boundaries, for the most part. (For those who don't know, Sheenagh taught on the Glamoragn M Phil in writing) But that point in itself raises another question. Do we just write deliberately only what might get published? Or do we write what we are drawn to because of other factors?

Because of trying to empathise, for one?

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Vaessa, I don't know if the girl took it further. I advised her as I did, partly because I could see n other way of getting it past an agent but also because I actually thought an outsider viewpoint might be a useful addition. I am still in touch but haven't heard from her for a while; I hope she's still working on it.

I do agree with P. Pullman that nobody has a right never to see something that might offend them.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Re J Crace - his comment is a bit simplistic. You can convince people who have never been there and know nowt about it, but in the nature of things some of your readers will have been there, and in their eyes you risk making a prize tit of yourself. See lionel Shriver trying to write about snooker; I never laughed so much in my life. Besides I just read my first Crace book for the Amazon Vine review programme and I only made it a three-star - OK but forgettable...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

It sounds like your advice was adding another layer and enriching the piece as well, Sheenagh - quite apart from the publishability aspects.

Love the Pulman 'quote' - and so right - there's been a lot of talk in recent years about sectors of the community being offended by certain things - and those things being pulled as a result - I'm recalling an incident not long ago where a play was removed from a stage because it 'offended' a sector of the population. And that is dangerous - isnt it?

but re getting things spot on: where's the line between accuracy and fiction? Brighton Rock is geographically inaccurate at one point, and no one cares. Its still great fiction....

Tim Love said...

where's the line between accuracy and fiction? - in the eye of the beholder. Some readers will be very nit-picky when reading a 1st-person tale about pregnancy once they find the reader's a man. Some SF readers can't wait to find faults in the science of stories. I've even heard readers say that certain writers have no right to write about certain topics. Other readers don't care so much.
As a reader I find howlers distracting too; they make me distrust other aspects of the piece. Alas, I find doing research boring, though I know I should do it if I'm to keep everyone happy. My biggest howler was to write that Judas was paid in gold, but I haven't learnt my lesson - recently I sent a story off in which I moved Milan's canals to Berlin without checking that Berlin has any canals. Fingers crossed that the editor's not an anal-retentive, or a German.

Anonymous said...

In 'Home and Exile' Chinua Achebe talks about the 'balance of stories.' He bemoans that so many migrants end up writing about the west - in other words places that have had their stories told again and again. So, in his case, he professes an interest in only writing stories about Nigeria.
I think this is interesting in that it points to how the West (particularly) has been telling itself its own stories for a long time and in infinite variety. Achebe is also pointing to whole sectors of the globe whose stories have not been adequately told and whose tradition (in English at least) is still re-building itself after the 'official' end of colonisation. He's obviously specifically asking for migrants to tell stories about their original 'home' rather than their adopted one but his point does leave a gap, I think, that suggests there is a whole world of stories out there beyond the west to be told and that have been neglected. From that point of view, with due research, field trips, interviews, whatever it takes, and perhaps with the proviso of speaking as an outsider, I think Western writers could participate in improving the balance of stories. I suppose the thing to always be conscious of is whether you are writing into a colonialist tradition whose purpose was misrepresentation or are you attempting to write something that counteracts that tradition. Good books that take that risk are Timothy Mo's 'The Redundancy of Courage';Barbara Kingsolver's 'The Poisonwood Bible';Nadine Gordimer 'July's People'. What's interesting about this is that when a second/third etc generation migrant writes about their original home country they are sometimes also approaching it from an outsider's perspective as well - they also have a distance from their material. Alot of Hanif Kureishi's writing has been about where the migrant orientates themselves in relation to their possible subjects - ie which 'home' to write about.

Minnie said...

There is no internationally-recognised human right NOT to be offended (mad UK libel law notwithstanding)!
As V suggests, if we were all to allow the possible consequences of what we say/write/do to inhibit us to a great extent, then little or nothing would get said/written/done!
PC & multi-culturalism have done untold damage. The human condition is universal - differences are simply cultural, although clearly highly significant. And a vivid imagination working in tandem with empathy and literary ability demonstrably enables writers to portray what is 'other'. Minor details may be incorrect; but these, surely, are the elements which can be most easily corrected?
That said, I've thrown a book across the room and never looked upon it again (first act metaphorical, second emphatically real) because some glaring error of fact has intervened, destroying contextual credibility ...
Fact remains, tho': an ability to depict convincing characters is key to successful storytelling - whoever's telling the tale.

Elizabeth Baines said...

My rule of thumb is, if I don't feel I know about it, I don't tackle it until I do, unless I think no one else will know about it anyway, or I'm deliberately playing with clearly made-up 'facts'. I think there's nothing worse than having the spell broken for a reader by a wrong note, which can be anything from a wrongly-named street to the whole cultural experience of a character. On Sara Crowley's thread Jenn Ashworth says that she can forgive such things if the rest rings emotionally true, but I can't personally - it makes me question the authority of the whole - and I know it's the same for a lot of readers, so I try to avoid that trap. In theory I really like Jim Crace's idea that you shouldn't have to bother with research, because what you're creating after all is a fictional world, but I have to say one of his books, which had a whole complex thing about flora and fauna, completely crumbled for me when he said something I knew to be untrue about swifts, and it did for someone else in my reading group too!

And then of course you can feel you know about something but after you've written about it it turns out you didn't - and that's the whole scary high-wire thing about writing.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Tim: "I've even heard readers say that certain writers have no right to write about certain topics." So have I, and I suppose this is where this whole debate begins. What 'rights' are we talking about here? What rights do I have to use my imagination? Or are those rights only applicable when I operate within certain boundaries. Who sets them?
Its the creativity police at work, Orwellian in their scope...
It is also surreal stuff, readers not being able to enjoy a piece of fiction if the writer does not 'fit' the fiction itself. It is an absurd world.

A slightly different tack to the sticky issue of cross cultural writing. But ground that seems equally full of mines.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'm not so sure it's a different issue, and I guess it links to the things which happened to me over my first novel, The Birth Machine, which I talked about recently on my blog:

It seems to me that writing, as an act of the imagination, is our greatest tool for empathy, and therefore we do need to be able to enter other people's minds. But it's not the easiest thing in the world to do well, and we don't always get it right, which doesn't mean we shouldn't try - it's almost a moral imperative, I'd go so far as to say

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I am not ignoring the posts up there, but have rather pressing family stuff going on that stops me thinking clearly - I am grateful for the contributions, thank you, and will respond as soom as the fug clears.

E - what I found difficult to understand about the start of this particular debate was the obvious and barbed wrath directed at those who empathise and try to write but get facts wrong for whatever reason..., and that seemed cruel. Taken on the chin, though, and trying to learn, here.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, V is it is upsetting, when you've dared to put your head above the parapet - but that's what we have to do, I guess...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

But who invented this parapet? Is it something that has only existed in recent times? Someone said 'Write what you know', once, and I wonder if that is being taken far too literally? And that students of all types are being taught to only dare to write what they have direct experience of themselves. And the media encourages an unhealthy interest in actuality, not fictions.

I wonder that especially when I field questions after I do a reading - someone will look at me as though they are a bloody analyst, and ask veeery gently and full of ghastly empathy - whether the rape in 'Dodie's Gift' is based on a real rape (ie, was I raped?). Is the death of a son in 'Tommo' or 'Glass Bubble' or 'Irrigation' or 'Tasting Pebbles' based on a real death? (ie, based on my own son's death?) is that sex scene in 'Irrigation' based on real experience of anal sex? Huh? What the hell has that to do with the STORY? What an intrusion.

In a way, it is flattering, I suppose to think that the stories made them wonder. But how irrelevant. How rude. And how I would love to wait for a small silence, lean forward and say 'Yes.'

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it is both annoying and flattering...! As for the parapet - search me. I think we have stop worrying about all this and just write as honestly and empathically as we can.

Rachel Fenton said...

"I wonder that especially when I field questions after I do a reading - someone will look at me as though they are a bloody analyst, and ask veeery gently and full of ghastly empathy - whether the rape in 'Dodie's Gift' is based on a real rape"

I do think this particular line of questioning has a lot to do with some readers viewing stories as a form of autobiography - using readings to get closer to the author rather than the text. It's a celebrity thing rather than a readerly thing, I think. A sort of voyeurism. And, admittedly, some writers do use their own, sometimes graphic, experiences in texts but it isn't the reader's place to ask for what is not made explicit in a text.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

It can be quite hard to explain to the "did it really happen" brigade that (a) fiction is about making things up and (b) making things up is not only just as good as reportage, it is BETTER, as evidence of creativity...See this post:

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Lovely and relevant quote, scribbled at Bridport last year, during the Ali Smith and Jackie Kay double-act: “Imagination has no gender. It has no colour, no creed. No sexual persuasion. It is irrelevant what the writer is…”

Elizabeth Baines said...

Spot on!

Tim Love said...

In defence of the "did it really happen" brigade, I think it's worth pointing out that this type of "authenticity" is commonly used by practitioners instead of "aesthetic authenticity" - Sharon Old's poetry, Emin's Tent, Reality TV, etc. It may be voyeuristic to "prefer" watching a Dignitas documentary to mere drama, but it's human nature. Writers exploit this empathy and subsequent immersion to increase the impact of their work. Give your characters 4 heads and blue skin if you don't want readers to think it "really happened", or write L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. But beware, most people don't care about the art, the way it's said. Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".

Vanessa Gebbie said...

But - (and there is always a but, isnt there!) - don't people distinguish between watching that Dignitas documentary and a drama? There are different responses to them both? And if someone asked them which was actuality, they could tell you happily, but still enjoy the drama? Not sure I can comment on the Emin bed. Is that really art? I remember hearing a fascinating debate with Ivan Massow about this - before he was forced to resign from the ICA. He described contemporary conceptual art as "all hype and frequently no substance" and "the product of over-indulged, middle-class, bloated egos who patronise real people with fake understanding". He called the ICA a "pillar of the shock establishment". He attacked Tracey Emin saying she "couldn't think her way out of a paper bag".

He has described the art world as bitchy and superficial - and sadly, the longer I'm in this game, the more I agree.

But also, we're agreed probably, that there are some constraints we impose on ourselves, and occasionally, on others, in the exercise of our imaginations. Or rather, in what we allow to be seen by others. And is this where the issue of 'who might see this, and will they not like it?' comes in? And 'Who may publish this'? as well. So the free flight we allowed our imaginations to begin with is tempered and begins to be weighed down by some little ball bearings - until some of us say, probably subconsciously, "right, nope, I'm not taking any risks. I want what I do to be liked, to find success and chances are, if I take risks, people will make fun/mock/ I may not get it right, even if I try. So I'll stick with safe ground" ?

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Litrefs, what I object to is not their thinking it really happened (or could do); it's their asking if it really happened to me - answer (a) none of their business and (b) irrelevant to the work and what it's trying to do.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I always just laugh and say I'm not telling and then explain more seriously why - but then there are those times when the audience KNOWS it's true about me, and that really is galling!

Tim Love said...

Litrefs [aka Tim Love], what I object to is not their thinking it really happened (or could do); it's their asking if it really happened to me - answer (a) none of their business and (b) irrelevant to the work and what it's trying to do. - I think your reaction is reasonable and understandable, but I also think that the audience's reaction is understandable. How are they to know that you're not a confessionalist poet or a creative non-fictionalist? If they judge a writer by the power of their imagination they may want to know how much was made up. Why did Carolyn Forche begin "The Colonel" with "What you have heard is true"?
It seems to me that in this post-Baudrillard age the cult of authenticity is stronger than ever.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

How are they to know that you're not a confessionalist poet

Libellous bastards! How dare they even think such a thing! I'd sooner be a critic...

Lauri said...

Hmmmm.... I will write what the hell I want.

I think it's nonsense to say we shouldn't research. If the topic we write on is grown from real life things, we must get those things right or it is distracting for the reader. But in the end most of that is window dressing, easily fixed and not that critical. If it is the crux of your book, you are writing disguised non-fiction.

Alexander McCall Smith's books set in Botswana have fairly bad Setswana with all sorts of mistakes. Batswana like to discount the lot because of that alone which is disingenuous. They are not Setswana lessons- they are works of fiction, highly entertianing works of fiction. It makes no difference if the names are wrong. NONE.

Dublin Dave- Nadine Gordimer is an African.

Sheenagh- All due respect, I find your advice to your student faulty. If she wrote about a gay Muslim teenager affectively she did her job. Why call it cultural tourism? If I write as a white man, am I to be dubbed accordingly? If I write about being a white man badly I write badly, if I write it well then I have succeeded. That's it.

I think Rre Achebe's advice is faulty as well. Each of us have a unique perspective on every story we tell and we have the RIGHT to write those stories, maybe even an obligation.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Lauri, my advice, which I stand by, was not that it was ineffective but that it was unpublishable; I don't think any UK agent would look at it. Whether you think that right is neither here nor there; it's a fact. Most of us don't just want to be effective, we want to be read.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

I'd add, btw, that as for "effective", I'm not in a position to know for sure whether it is effective or not, since I'm not a gay Muslim teenager who grew up in Alex. It looks effective to me, which means it is effective to white non-Muslim readers, but maybe she had ambitions beyond that?

Lauri said...

I wrote a story about a young, black Motswana girl - I am an old, white woman. The story was published in Mslexia. I don't get your point. Is that not a UK magazine?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

We seem to be circling the point that started this particular discussion.

Sheenagh gave considered advice to her student, based on what the publishing industry seems to accept/not accept. I know an author who is non-Muslim, who had a 'controversial' YA novel published in the UK, written from a Muslim POV. The US publishers preferred to break a contract rather than publish it over there as agreed contractually. So S was doing her job as a mentor/tutor, pointing out the elephant traps. Im sure the student was grateful, and could go off and make her own decision from a standpoint of more knowledge than before.

But I agree - as a writer, the writer's skills seem to be greater if tackling a different subject, and managing to convince.

It is an interesting one, though... one 'audience' will accept a piece of work while another may not... as is painfully evident in the example of 'Maiba's Ribbon'. What was OK for UK audiences, is not for a Zimbabwean.

and there again, the author's name is important.

I wonder if S's student had used a suitable pseudonym, whether the piece might have succeeded? And whether Mxlexia thought L. Kubuitsile was probably a black writer? We'll never know!

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Yes, but it depends what the POV was. There is, I'd guess, a difference in the minds of most editors between "a story about" and "a story in the voice of" or "from the POV of". Also I'm going by what folk trying to publish novels, or reading them for editors, have told me; I can't answer for the policy of individual mags, especially one I don't read or submit to because I don't hold with sexist exclusiveness.

Lauri said...

We will know since in the same issue of Mslexia they did a sidebar interview with a photo of me, where I was decidedly white.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, and this point really does relate to what happened to me over the first edition of my novel The Birth Machine: A feminist press accepted a story narrated from a woman's point of view, in fact published it, and then found out that the author was a man. They were horrified and felt totally violated. for them the story was suddenly a horrible thing, no longer an insightful view into a woman's situation, but a total cynical con. It was not the words on the page which mattered, but the author, and which gave the story its essence. At the time my novel The Birth Machine - a novel which deals with a woman's experience of hi-tech childbirth, and needless to say informed in the actual birth elements by some of my own experience - had just been accepted by another women's press. When the women's press found out that the man involved with the other feminist press was connected with me, they doubted that they could publish my novel, and one of the things they said to me was, What if it's really he who has written this novel?

To some people it does matter who has written the novel, and to many publishers it does. For instance, I recently briefly had dealings with an agent who suggested I should publish my next novel under a new name, because I'm not as young as I was and most publishers are looking for The Next New thing.

There are many things that publishers are afraid of in authors, of the many different ways in which they could alienate, or at least fail to wow, certain sections of their markets, and so I think Sheenagh's advice was rational and wise, merely pointing out the potential problems, as Vanessa has said.

Not all publishers have the same worries,though, and literary magazine publishers are far less concerned with the mass market, and it is great, Lauri, that MsLexia published your story.

Anonymous said...

Lauri - Nadine Gordimer is a white South African writer. I realise this. And that is a more complicated identity than 'African.' It certainly is for her, at least, as her work is often about the complications of that identity. She often writes about the guilt of white South Africans in her work but she does imagine her way into black South Africans lives too and that is an important part of her project. I suppose it was one way, culturally, of attempting to see across the gulf of Apartheid.
I mentioned her in my post in a list of writers who I felt had taken the risk of providing representations of places or characters from colonised parts of the world. She 'knows' South Africa from a particular angle obviously, but it is still a challenge for her to represent black South African characters - there is still the risk of producing a racist stereotype. So, I suppose I mentioned her because she is an example of a writer for whom empathy and imagining other lives very different from her own is a key aspect of what she does.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

Oh lord, Vanessa, this is but one strand in an argument that's been raging on Livejournal and the related Dreamwidth for what seems like forever. On LJ it goes by the name of RaceFail and says, more or less, that white writers are liable to have all sorts of racist attitudes and misapprehensions they aren't aware of and need to educate themselves if they even go near writing about the Other. (On the other hand, excluding the Other from your writing because you feel you don't know enough about it is also wrong. Don't ask me what the answer is; as far as I can see you could spend so much time doing the research that you never write anything.) It started off in the SF world, i think with criticism of Elizabeth bear, hwo had written a fantasy world like the US but without any native Americans, cos they didn't fit her concept so she just edited them out of existence, much as the European colonists tried to. but it then widened exponentially. There are accounts and summaries at and but personally I gave up trying to follow it ages ago cos it made my Hed Ake.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Sorry Sheenagh, I deleted the post your are replying to – with the stresses of what is going on at home, I felt I didn’t want to bring down the wrath of the Race Phail crew on my head, when all I am trying to do is lay out some platform for discussion without the anger and invective that seems to surface against the west.

However, here is that post, again. And a few quotes.

But I am smiling at the same time, as one of the noisiest voices in the debate (not the writer of this article) is a writer and ex-colleague whose work I admire hugely. And whose work I sent a couple of years back, on HER request, to a Western publisher, who rejected her MS.

But I was interested by this other post, linked again below. I also quote from it for others who missed it… but it is worth reading the whole, if you want to see the real invective faced by anyone trying to steer a logical path through this stuff.


This is from here:

“One of the most frustrating arguments I’ve encountered is—If you hate it so much, stop bitching and write your own.
This naive position stems from the utopian capitalist belief that all markets are equal, and individuals are free to be what they can driven only by their inner divine spark.
Yes, writers create from the richly populated inner world of the imagination, and writers have evolved said imagination in many diverse corporeal circumstances of hardship and difficulty. However—no writer, I repeat my sweeping assumption—no writer is created from a vacuum.( …)
Now let me point out that I grew up speaking Marathi with my family, and Hindi with schoolmates and neighbours, but the only children’s books I read were in English. Less than a handful were written by Indian authors about Indian characters. (There are some good Indian language children’s books. You will not find them in the average Indian bookstore.)
I grew up with half a tongue.
Do not tell me (…)that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it....

Vanessa Gebbie said...


And also, do not imagine that making it to print is some idealistic winnowing of quality. Someone once said to me, when I told them how much smaller the publishing industry in India was compared with the American one, that they supposed that what was published then, must be of the highest quality. It is not an equal playing field. This is like assuming that the one runner in India who perseveres in the face of poverty and institutional neglect and governmental lack-of-infrastructure will by virtue of her drive and passion be as good as the team of runners culled from the tens of thousands of children sent to athletic training camps in China for the express purpose of creating Olympic medallists.

The Western publishing industry has the luxury of being able to support the base camps of crappy first novels and cliché-ridden genre fiction hacks and niche-marketed speciality books that creates the momentum for the breakout book, the genius author. If you grow up in a country where every child has held a crayon in nursery school, you are at an advantage.

And just to make it absolutely clear—the Western publishing advantage was derived from the economic wealth those nations enjoyed by virtue of stripping the resources and talents of other peoples. I do not consider it an accident of fate that it is in America that the art of children’s picture books evolved (which I consider one of America’s most exquisite cultural gifts to the world). These books, printed in China on paper from Brazil—they cost (when they are imported at all) more than a full length Penguin Classic in an Indian bookstore. The books available in one fourth grade classroom at a low-income Minneapolis charter school where I have worked outnumber the entirety of books my private primary school in Delhi made available to me (And I reiterate, I am nothing but privileged in India). Remember on whose backs the resources for your public libraries were built."

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks too for your contributions, Dublindave. You have made me want to go to all the works you cited in your first post, to read for myself.
The question of our right as writers to explore other identites has to be sacrosanct, doesnt it? Whether or not the results do, or indeed should, get published is another matter.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

A comment regarding upbringing, culture, education.

I am a displaced person. My education was very patchy, fragmented. I owe my imagination to the challenge, to the tensions, to the differences, the unhappinesses. It is a gift. To say that American kids have somehow 'better' imaginations because of the books they had at school might just be missing a point - kids with nothing invent their own games far better than those who are given expensive toys.