Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't

This link, via rezendi, is very pertinent to the recent kerfuffle amongst many of my LJ friends regarding writing "The Other".

I have read many of the posts on the subject and I do think that people are trying to make it all much simpler than it is. It really isn't just a case of Evil White Western People Oppressing The Rest of the World.

I do sympathise a lot with what deepad had to say. (I thought hers was one of the most interesting and thought provoking posts.) And why did I think that? because as a girl growing up in a grim inner-city part of Manchester, an area that was largely pulled down in the 60s in the slum-clearance programme (no euphemistic terms like "urban regeneration" in those days!), I didn't see myself in the characters in the books I read as a child either nor did I recognise my home environment in the settings. OK, the characters where white, but colour isn't everything. Their lives were totally different to mine. And yet, to me, that was one of the joys of reading; it gave me access to worlds that were not my own and allowed me to "meet" people who were not like me or my classmates. I wouldn't have wanted to read books about kids like me doing the stuff I did because that would be boring. I knew all that already. That's why I still read a lot of SF and fantasy and classic novels and thrillers and crime fiction. I want to be taken to places I haven't or can't experience in real life.

Having said that, I felt a wonderful sense of release when I read Elidor. Whatever the merits of that book, it remains one of my favourites because Alan Garner, by setting part of the story in the grim derelict streets of the slum clearance area, made me realise that you didn't have to set stories in the bucolic South of England or London. (Note that he only set some scenes there. The characters merely passed through the area I had lived in, they didn't live there!)

However, I have no intention of getting into any sort of debate about a Hierarchy of Oppressions. When I did the women's studies course in the early 90s, that concept had been abandoned as both meaningless and useless. I was surprised to see people trying to use it in this debate. I accept that to some people I might be lumped in with the privileged, even though I wouldn't accept that label myself, or at least only with reservations.

What I did want to talk about was the one thing that deepad said that I don't agree with, namely: 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.

Firstly if Wales (which is a tiny country with an even tinier number of fewer fluent Welsh speakers) can sustain a literature in Welsh, then surely India can support a market in literature in her native languages? Yes, the Welsh literary scene is small. No, the writers cannot make a living by their fiction writing, but the books are written, published, read, reviewed, discussed and turned into TV dramas and films. It helps that we have the annual National Eisteddfod which awards literary prizes, but there is quality fiction published each year in Welsh and some of it is even SF or fantasy.

Secondly, in the words of the old proverb, "If you want something doing properly, do it yourself." It's no good just wailing, "You're doing it wrong! Do it better next time!" I'm a teacher. When I'm marking a student's work I don't just scrawl, "Bad work! Try harder!" on the paper. Just pointing out that something is bad is only step one. You then need to explain why it's bad and explain what is the correct way to do it. But far better than explaining is showing. Of course students are motivated to take note of what the tutor says and, with luck, will take on board the points raised. Writers won't necessarily have any reason to do so. If the books are selling well, then why mess with what works?

So the only way to guarantee that the story you want told is made available is to write it oneself. I can only speak for the British literary scene and that with only partial knowledge, but the rise of working class and women writers in the 60s showed that there was a market for a more authentic voice, so people who had been invisible before now became visible.

But that also leads me back to the Brick Lane controversy. When I did the short OU course on writing plays, we had to read some scenes from a play by Edward Bond called Saved. I hated the play. Not because it was violent but because of the negative portrayal of working class life. I felt that by putting such things before a middle-class audience, he was pandering to their view of what working class life was like, and I knew, having grown up working class, that he had taken one aspect and magnified it to make it seem like that's all there was. So I sympathise with Monica Ali, but also have the tiniest feeling of sympathy for those of the Bangladeshi community who condemned her. It is tempting to want one's community portrayed in a glowing light, but that's only making community sized Mary Sues.

Or in other words, it's not just the Western White writers who are damned if they do and damned if they don't. It's all writers.

The only thing you can do it just tell a story to the best of your ability and some people may like it and some may hate it, but it has to be the story you want to tell, whether that means writing about dragons and unicorns in a pale copy of Middle Earth or whether it's writing about people just like you in a setting just like the one where you live.

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