Writing across cultural boundaries in the contemporary era

Last week American novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she railed against ‘identity politics’ and the ‘concept of “cultural appropriation”‘, because they were hindering her ‘right to write fiction’. She argued that writing fiction ‘is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous’, while bemoaning the ‘climate of scrutiny’ and ‘super-sensitivity’ that was constraining the work of ‘writers from traditionally privileged demographics’ like herself. ‘[A]re we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong?’ she asked in a tone so disdainful, it comes through in the transcript. Little wonder audience members like Yassmin Abdel-Magied elected to walk out on her.

As it happens, at the same time Shriver was delivering her speech, I was recording one of my own, albeit for a much smaller audience: a lecture for first year university students, on the ethics of writing across cultural boundaries. My fiction is largely inspired by the years I spent living and working in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and they’d been set as reading my 2010 novel, The Half-Child. I wanted to locate my work in the wider context of Australians writing about Asia; this meant talking about the Orientalist constructs that dominated Australian impressions of Asia for the better part of two centuries, which Alison Broinowski documents in her often blistering critique, The Yellow Lady (1996). While I admitted that Australian writing hasn’t entirely moved away from prejudices and stereotypes, I talked about how factors like globalisation and the emergence of Asian Australian writers have contributed not only to cultural hybridisation, but also a new accountability when it comes to the business of image-making.

As I explained in the lecture, I find this new accountability exciting. I’m by no means put off the attempt to imagine myself into the hearts and minds of people whose lives appear to bear little resemblance to my own. I agree with Gene Luen Yang, author of graphic novel American Chinese that ‘our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.’ But I’m aware of the need to step with care and humility. I feel a strong sense of responsibility when I write across boundaries of identity. I’m compelled to be meticulous in my research, and scrupulous about including representatives from the communities I write about among my early readers. I’m aware of fiction’s capacity to cause pain, and I’m far more fearful of this than of public scrutiny and criticism (being read!). Nothing gives me more satisfaction – no, it’s stronger than that, more joy – than when a Thai reader tells me I got something right.

Following the outcry, then backlash, in response to Shriver’s keynote address, I questioned whether I was merely using different language to say the same thing – to justify my choice as a writer of fiction ‘from traditionally privileged demographics’ to write  stories set in Asian countries that feature characters from a range of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, and equally stories that reflect the pluralism of the Australia in which I live. But I believe it’s more than a matter of semantics. Where Shriver and I fundamentally differ – vast disparities in our sales figures notwithstanding – is that where she sees writing fiction as a right, I see it as a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility. As novelist Jim C Hines put it in his excellent rejoinder to Shriver’s speech,

As a writer, I do have the freedom to write whatever I want. But to my mind, with great freedom comes great responsibility. I have an obligation to get it right, to the best of my ability. To recognize the power of stories. To understand that publishing is not an equal playing field, any more than the world as a whole. To listen. To recognize that there are some stories I’m not the best person, or the right person, to tell.

This, too, is what I tried to say in my lecture: that both the process and the outcome of writing fiction is about initiating a conversation, a dialogue between the work and the reader, between author and audience. Yassmin Abdel-Magied recognised this when she questioned the intent behind Shriver’s speech: ‘Was it to build bridges, to further our intellect, to broaden horizons of what is possible?’ Brisbane Writers Festival volunteer and blogger Yen-Rong recognised this when she wrote:

We definitely need to have more conversations around the way we approach culture, identity, and all the bits and pieces in between. Responsibility does not just lie with the writer, because literature is, at its very heart, a collaborative effort.

It strikes me that Shriver does not want the dialogue. She wants to retain her right to offend, but objects when others want the right of reply. She wants to write with impunity like the colonialists of old, condemning the right of others to question her ethics – a point made by Juno Díaz on his Facebook page. She wants to write without being subject to criticism by the people she writes about – ignoring the fact that, as writer Omar Musa points out in a recent article, criticism is a fundamental part of this process: “There will be people who will tell you that maybe you didn’t quite get this right, and you just have to cop that flack.”

There is a certain irony, then, in what Shriver says towards the end of her speech – words that, amid the railing, resonated for me:

The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.

Surely the most effective way to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience is to invite others into our lives, not just our imaginations?




| Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The 2016 Australian Crime Writing Award Winners Are…

Fair Dinkum Crime

Although your humble correspondents have been woefully inattentive, this year’s Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Writing have been awarded this weekend as part of Melbourne Writer’s Festival celebrations. It seems we’ve both got some reading to do given the very few of these titles we’ve gotten around to (so far).

Davitt Awards (Saturday 27 August) Sisters in Crime Australia

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Adult novel
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, FALL
– Sulari Gentill, GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
– Bronwyn Parry, STORM CLOUDS
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review) Winner

FerrisRiskBest Young Adult Novel

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
Fleur Ferris, RISKWinner
– Ellie Marney, EVERY MOVE
– Maureen McCarthy, STAY WITH ME

xfriday-barnes-under-suspicion.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1XSQMpfW6IBest Children’s Novel


View original post 445 more words


Life’s a beach

I couldn’t resist sharing this photo of an anonymous handsome stranger (okay, he’s a member of my family) reading my novel The Dying Beach in Krabi province, southern Thailand. Most of the novel is set in Krabi, on the exquisite Andaman coast.

The Dying Beach readerA good book, Rita Felski writes in Uses of Literature, make you feel ‘sucked in, swept up, spirited away’. So if you’re not fortunate enough to be in a position to take a holiday in Thailand right now, for a fraction of the cost, you can be transported there by reading The Dying Beach.

“The Dying Beach is…the perfect escapist read.” (Good Reading)

What have you read lately that’s taken you to another place?


Posted in Thailand | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Works of ART: on creativity, infertility and Assisted Reproductive Technology

Reproduced from The Wheeler Centre, with permission.

IVF has a tense relationship with religion, a murky relationship with commerce and a confusing relationship with feminism. Thousands of Australian women undergo IVF each year so why, asks Angela Savage, is IVF a subject that is rarely broached in art?

PIC_HH_Control yourself

Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren) by Heidi Holmes. From the exhibition Control yourself at Kings Artist-Run. — Photo: documentor.com.au

In a gallery overlooking Melbourne’s King Street, artist Heidi Holmes has decorated the upper half of the walls with 20,000 pressed hydrangeas. She’s painted the lower half in a shade called Silver Smoke. From a distance, the blossoms rise like a cloud of butterflies, but up close you can see that each flower has been nailed in place, the nails sticking out like pins. In one corner sits a glass vase containing another 20,000 pressed hydrangeas, a potpourri scented with baby powder. The whole room smells of it. For all the work’s apparent prettiness, there’s a disturbing sense of decay. ‘It’s like a torture chamber I’ve made myself,’ Holmes says.

The artwork, entitled Control yourself (even if you feel dead inside, hurt and barren), explores Holmes’s ongoing experience of what she calls ‘baby-making, failing fertility and the resulting process of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).’ It took a year for her to press all the flowers, and 150 hours to install the work with the help of her husband. Time-consuming, labour-intensive, collaborative and ephemeral, the work poignantly reflects Holmes’s IVF experience.

‘There’s all this effort of work and labour that has no end, because there’s still no baby. Just this grief and loneliness.’

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle by Heidi Holmes from the exhibition I am woman hear my roar while I push out this Science Baby. — Photo: Christo Crocker

Control yourself is Holmes’s second work to explore her IVF experience. In her 2015 piece, I am woman, hear me roar as I push out this Science Baby, she transformed a decommissioned transvaginal ultrasound machine – ‘old, like me,’ says the 39-year-old – into a water feature, installing it in a pond liner and surrounding it with water-plants. Holmes laced the water with the same ovary stimulating hormone she was injecting into herself at the time. The plants withered.

Read the rest of the article here.

| Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Melbourne Writers Festival 2016

mwf---gleam-imageThe Melbourne Writers Festival 2016 Program is live and I am thrilled to be chairing several sessions at this year’s festival.

In the main festival program, I have the great (and terrifying) honour of interviewing my friend Christos Tsiolkas and Tony Ayres about Barracuda, highly acclaimed both as a novel and a TV series.

Later that afternoon, I’m delighted to be chairing a talented panel of authors — three debut novelists, Rajith Savanadasa, Cath Ferla and Briohny Doyle, plus novelist and poet Lawrence Lacambra Ypil — on Asia-Pacific narratives, a topic close to my heart. Details of these sessions are below.

I’m also be chairing two sessions as part of the schools program. Stay tuned…

Barracuda: From page to screen
Sat Sept 3, 1.00PM, Deakin Edge, Federation Square

From the makers of The Slap comes Barracuda, an affecting new TV series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel. Tsiolkas and producer Tony Ayres talk through the process of taking the story from page to screen, as well as discussing its themes of failure, class and adolescence. With Angela Savage. Tickets here.

Asia-Pacific Narratives
Sat 3 Sept, 5.30PM, ACMI, The Cube
What does it mean to live in the Asia-Pacific in a literary context? Join Briohny Doyle, Cath Ferla, Rajith Savanadasa and Lawrence Lacambra Ypil as they discuss how connections between Asia and Australia have influenced their narratives and writing voices. With Angela Savage. Tickets here.

The full festival program can be downloaded here.

Posted in Literary Festival | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

EWF: What right do I have?

Roj Amedi, Michelle Law & Wendy Chen, EWF

Roj Amedi, Michelle Law & Wendy Chen, EWF

Being a writer means leaving the fields we know, and transcending direct personal experience to tell a story. But what if the realms beyond these fields are already populated? What are the boundaries when writing about experiences that are not your own? This week I attended another Emerging Writers Festival panel to hear Roj Amedi, Michelle Law and Wendy Chen discuss the reponsibilities of writers who represent others, and ways to do so more mindfully. As someone who writes characters from diverse range of cultural backgrounds, I was eager to learn from this session and I was not disappointed. While not doing justice to the wide-ranging discussion, I wanted to capture in this post some of the points I found most helpful.

One of the panel’s messages was that there’s no ‘right answer’ when it comes to writing across cultural boundaries. While, as Roj pointed out, this is not licence for toxic language or ill thought out ideas, it is important for writers to take risks and, if called out, to reflect and learn from it. ‘Bite the bullet, be brave, it’s okay to be wrong,’ as Michelle put it.

The panelists talked about using fear as a force for ‘good’ in writing. ‘Fear can be powerful,’ Wendy said, ‘because it reminds you to listen to others.’ She quoted Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang:

This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities. After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.

(I loved this quote so much I chased Wendy after the session to make sure I got it right!). Wendy added that there’s a difference between fear of being criticised and fear of hurting others. She said, ‘the latter can be useful because you’re recognising the power of fiction, and if you recognise that, then you are also aware of how meaningful it is when people do see themselves represented.’ On the other hand, fear of criticism ‘is counterproductive because you’ll always be criticised.’

All three panelists emphasised the importance of meticulous research in developing a nuanced understanding of cultures that are not the writer’s own. They also suggested finding respectful sparring partners — on Twitter or IRL (in real life) — people who don’t share your ideas and force you to justify your own beliefs. As in actual sparring, Roj said, the aim is to build trust: ‘you’re not supposed to get bruised!’ Building networks among the people you aim to represent is also important, though you need to acknowledge their ’emotional labour’ as cultural informants.

Another take-home message — something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately — is the importance of humbling yourself, recognising that the dominant view is a ‘clouded lens’ that can obscure the lived reality of experiences outside our own. For those of us fortunate to appear on panels from time to time, this means sometimes passing the microphone  to someone better qualified to speak on the topic at hand.

Wendy reminded us that ‘there’s a huge range of experiences within one community and/or identity’. Roj noted that ‘tokenism can be a problem if you’re writing from a politically removed position. If you can imagine a person of that [character’s] background cringing when they read, it’s probably tokenism.’ Michelle said, ‘I don’t like tokenism, but I think it’s better than nothing because it starts a conversation.’ All the same, she urged us to ‘write well-rounded characters, not foils.’

Thanks to Roj, Michelle and Wendy for a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion. I hope you won’t mind it if you find yourselves being quoted in my PhD…


Posted in Literary Festival | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

EWF: Characters Behaving Badly

What’s the value of having characters who behave badly? What techniques can you use in creating badly behaved characters? And can you go too far writing badly behaved characters in YA (Young Adult) fiction?

EWF_1These were some of the questions considered at last week’s Emerging Writers Festival Lunchtime Lit: Characters Behaving Badly, featuring YA authors Gabrielle (Gab) Williams (The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex), Nicole Hayes (One True Thing) and Amie Kaufman (Illuminae).

Apart from the general consensus that badly behaved characters are the most fun to write, Amie suggested, ‘It’s not a good story if nothing bad happens.’ She said stories need to be ‘seasoned’ with bad behaviour, poor decision making and bad judgment calls. Similarly, Nicole suggested that ‘all interesting characters start with deliberate or unconscious deception’. Drama comes from the reader seeing what the character cannot.

One of the most interesting part of the panel discussion for me concerned the how bad behaviour functions specifically in YA literature. Amie said ‘stories are a place we can go to rehearse our fears’, to experience intense grief or danger, for example, as ‘practice for real life’. This is particularly relevant for younger, less experienced readers. Amie referred to reading a good book as ‘downloading life experience’. Nicole added that literature can help readers ‘test a few propositions’, while Gab said for young people, books help ‘develop their gut instincts.’

From a technical point of view, how do writers avoid creating characters who are, to use the cyberslang, TSTL (too stupid to live)? Gab said she loves her characters, which makes readers care for them. She likes to throw in an ‘opposite something’ – an unexpected act of kindness, for example – to show they are ‘not all bad’. Nicole, citing her screenwriting experience, added that badly behaved characters need ‘moments of humanity that we can connect with’, often revealed through their relationships. For Amie, the escalation of bad behaviour can be used to expose the failure of those who should be looking after the kids in her stories.

On the question of whether it’s possible to take bad behaviour too far in YA fiction, Nicole suggested that young readers process information on the level that they’re capable of. She illustrated this with a very funny anecdote about childish love for Oz rock band Skyhooks and their song You Just Like Me ‘Cause I’m Good In Bed, which she thought was about kids who went to bed on time and fell asleep without making a fuss! At the same time, the panelists felt a responsibility not to avoid certain issues so much as to contextualise them, especially in terms of addressing the fall out of bad behaviour.

‘Stories are always more interesting if there are consequences,’ Nicole said, adding that it takes craft to avoid alienating readers by preaching. As Gab noted, writers need to keep the story firmly focused on the characters’ perspectives.

During the audience Q&A, a question came up about why it is that parents are often dead or absent in YA fiction. Amie noted that having the parents physically or emotionally absent requires the kids to step up in terms of agency. It can also be a way of scaling up bad behaviour. ‘Poor decisions come from lack of life experience,’ she said. ‘If parents are supportive [of their children], this is another way kids can download life experience.’ But if the parents are absent, there’s no safety net.

The icing on the cake of a terrific panel was for me hearing the panelists recommend great books by other local YA writers, as well as other great books about characters behaving badly in general. The three tweeted their recommendations after the session, which can be found here.

Kudos to Amie Kaufman for excelling at the tricky balance moderating and participating, and thanks to all three speakers for a thoroughly enjoyable discussion. Looking forward to this week’s Lunchtime Lit: What Right Do I Have?

Posted in Literary Festival | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments