How Much Lived Experience Do You Need to Create Diverse Characters?

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“There’s a quote from Julius Caesar at the start of Area 7. I made it up. It says fiction on the back. A lot of the books – I stopped it in Scarecrow for the sake of pace – have the prologue at the start. Advantage Press doesn’t exist. W.M. Lawry & Co. He was a cricket guy. There are gags in there if you look closely enough. But it says fiction on the back.”

Matthew Reilly in Literati: Australian Contemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame by James Phelan

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Truth in fiction seems to be a big debate topic these days, at least some truths. Nobody seems to mind when Matthew Reilly makes things up in his books or when George Lucas writes about an epic resistance and the religion at the heart of it a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But when a writer wants to explore a real race or a real culture or a real disability that they have no lived experience of in a piece of fiction, it seems to be more and more of a problem. Verisimilitude, or the ring of truth, apparently isn’t good enough anymore. Some writers of those races or cultures or with those disabilities don’t want you to read a piece of fiction informed by imagination and (hopefully) a decent chunk of research. They instead want you to read their piece of writing about the same topic (whether fictional or not) so that you can read “the truth” or at least a piece of writing informed by their truth. Continue reading

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Infusing Your Characters With Cultural Identity: Does It Have to Be Your Own?

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In 2016, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Big Brother and The Mandibles, delivered the keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The topic was supposed to be “Community and Belonging” but she opened her address by admitting she would not be sticking to the proposed subject. Instead, she would be delivering her thoughts on “Fiction and Identity Politics”.

To boil it down to the most simple premise, her thoughts were that she shouldn’t be restricted from writing about cultural identities other than her own and that if she were, all her characters would be “an ageing five-foot-two smartass” and she would have “to set every novel in North Carolina”.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was in the audience listening to Shriver’s speech. An Australian born in Khartoum to parents of Sudanese and Egyptian backgrounds, she is a mechanical engineer, activist and founder of Youth Without Borders and last year released her memoir, although she is not a fiction writer. After twenty minutes of listening to the speech, she walked out, unable to listen to what she called “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”, continuing, “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal.” You can read her full response here. Continue reading