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 a must. Agent and Editor calls for ‘own voice’ narratives are frequent.
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 struggles I´m lucky to have never known.
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 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. To see your status diminish in other people´s eyes by mere virtue of nationality.
I don’t know what it feels like to be in detention, or a camp. But I do know what it feels like be trapped in a cubicle for forty hours every week; my bones itching with the knowledge that I should be being, doing and living a more humane experience.
Themes of immigration and movement touch us all. For writers, exploring them means balancing impeccable research with humanity, an ear for critique, but most of all the bravery to create fiction for our times.
Andrea Jones is a journalist and author. Her novel Offshore imagines a secretive offshore detention centre in the Channel Islands. One where love struggles to prevail; where nothing – and no one – is what they seem. You can read it free during Refugee Week 19-25 June, and imagine #OurSharedFuture. Free download: http://amzn.to/2sWptBi