As writers we mix our experiences, associations and stories in a unique way. No-one else will tell a story like each of us does even if it is on the same topic.
So why did Lionel Shriver offend so many people in her recent speech “fiction and identity politics”? In it she said that writers who “include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc…” should be able to without seeking permission.
When we use cultural material we have not grown up with, we are probably not aware of the nuances within a cultural practice or story. For this reason alone we owe those from whom we borrow the respect of, at the very least, acknowledging them. It is common courtesy.
This topic frequently came up at a recent writers’ symposium I was fortunate to attend. There was a group of about 15 of us in a room surrounded by highly successful New Zealand writers. It was inspirational and the knowledge they shared left me keen to rush to my computer to start my next writing project.
I have just completed a set of 15 short stories. They are not coming out until next year but within that collection are several stories that use Maori myth, Maori characters and Maori settings. In fact, of all the stories I write, the ones that come most naturally are those with themes about culture and the impact of colonisation on indigenous people.
However, Lionel Shriver’s comments and the ensuing debates set me wondering about whether or not I should release these stories.
Despite giving me pause to think, I decided I will release them because I believe passionately in the themes I write about. Why? When people meet me they are surprised to find I am Pakeha. They expect someone with dark skin because my name, Suraya, is Arabic in origin. My parents chose that name and I believe it tells me a lot about, how much they cared and what they expected of me.
However, my ancestors were English and Australian so, according to the people Lionel Shriver was referring to, I should only be writing on themes that reflect my English background, informed by Shakespeare, Shelley and other writers.
So how does growing up in an isolated rural community, the Hokianga, where Pakeha were a minority, married to a Maori (for a short time) with a part Maori daughter affect that heritage? Greatly. That experience influenced and shaped who I am. Does that entitle me to talk about Maori culture? Only just, I would say. It does, however, entitle me to ask questions and to seek answers.
My background leaves me in a very strange position. I hover somewhere between the writer who tells only Pakeha stories and the writer who tells only Maori stories. I am writing from the perspective of an immigrant who did not experience life in a culturally English world. I was deeply affected by the people I grew up with. I was, in many ways, an observer who could slip through the net that catches most Maori and labels them. And the only thing that enables me to do this is the fact that my skin is white and my eyes are blue.
Yet, as a wise woman once told me, I can tell their stories and people will listen because I have those racial credentials.
However, when I wrote Bend with the Wind I was terrified that I would cross a cultural line and tell a forbidden story and get criticised for that, so I made sure I sought advice from respected Maori. It gave me confidence that I was getting what I said, ‘right’. That was all part of research and ensuring my own credibility remained intact.
The consensus opinion of the writers at the Michael King Writers Centre Residential Workshop was that we should write about people with respect. Most characters are, after all, an amalgam of the many people we meet. However, if we do write a portrait of someone who will recognise him or herself, we must be able to look that person in the eye, should we meet them.
There is a writing rule, ‘write what you know about’. Writing about cultural connection and engagement is what I know. Some of it is painful and some of it is a source of great joy. But, above all, it is who I am. If others are going to want to read what I write then I must, above all else, be authentic. Authenticity is what the reader responds to and if we are writing about culture in a counterfeit way, the reader will spot that and stop reading.