As an aspiring writer I’m always interested in what authors have to say about writing what you know, as that seems to be a constant piece of advice. Today, Andrea Jones, author of Offshore, tells me what she thinks about who gets to write what in fiction.
Offshore is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.
Girl Meets boy. East meets West. Worlds collide.
Two damaged souls from very different worlds meet in a secretive offshore detention centre where nothing – and no one – is what they seem.
Own voices: who gets to write what in fiction?
A Guest Post by Andrea Jones
The shadowy, shape-shifting possibilities of Brexit and the Trump administration have had some positive effects – in publishing at least.
Diversity is in demand. Agent and Editor calls for ‘own voice’ narratives are at an all-time high.
Some observers call it a trend, and that’s the wrong word. The movement is more well-intentioned than ‘trend’ suggests.
More likely it’s a way to resist. To prove that we don’t live in a monochrome, monosyllabic world. We have vibrancy, colour and nuance. And we want to hear, see and read these things in people’s own words.
It’s right and important.
But … as a fiction writer (whose job it is to put themselves and their readers into worlds they can never experience) ‘own voices’ presents some heavy existential questions:
Can/should you write what you don’t know?
And if you do, is it cultural appropriation?
I struggled with these questions for years.
Because I had two stories that I equally needed to tell.
One narrative was familiar: about a bitterly frazzled career woman, leaning out of the relentless and toxic 9-5 culture that we´re told defines us here in the West.
The other narrative was about a Syrian refugee. A Middle Eastern male. Someone with the kind of psychological fault lines I hope to never, ever know.
Ostensibly, he couldn’t be further away from my culture and experience, and so I told myself: you can’t do this. You shouldn’t do this. Why the hell are you doing this?
The answer was simple. I wanted (needed) to humanize beyond news spin and statistics; to create empathy in an increasingly dark world. But as much as I wanted to document, I was aware of the political tension on my page. I was scared to misstep, or screw up, or cross that fine, fine line between exposition and exploitation.
My character only came good when I pushed through doubt and learned this lesson: as writers, we need to focus on our common humanity, rather than the identity markers that separate us.
Research and verification are the foundations of documenting what we don’t know. But it’s digging deeper, hunting for the common threads, that gives us the confidence to write outside our own worldview.
And what you don’t know, you can almost surely extrapolate.
I’ve never been forced out of my home, for example. But I have voluntarily immigrated, and I know what it feels like to have to start again.
I don’t know what it feels like to be in detention. But I do know what it feels like be trapped in a cubicle for forty precious hours a week; my bones itching with the knowledge that I should be being and doing something else.
There are realities common to us all. Whoever we are, and wherever we come from.
So if you’re doubting your project, but can’t let it lie, just write it out.
Balance research with your humanity, and you might just have fiction for our times.
About Andrea Jones
Andrea Jones is a British journalist, author and outlier. She looks at the status quo and instead of just saying sure, asks: why?
The question that usually follows is what if … ? What if everything dark and destructive in our society could be challenged by the power of subversion and storytelling…?