This essay was circulated prior to a reading programme class, so we had discussed it briefly prior to my actual reading of it. From the way the essay was summarised – that a key point of it was that it’s problematic to assert that writers should only “write what they know” and never try to write from the perspective of a race/gender/sexual orientation etc. that they are not – I already had a strong reaction of disagreement to it. I had been pretty firmly in the camp of writing what you know– for example, I would strongly argue that if you’re not Māori, then you shouldn’t be writing a story about, say, a Māori person discovering their whakapapa, or their experience in the justice system. Those are not non-Māori stories to tell. But after actually reading this essay for myself, I am much more unsure about my position.
Zadie Smith opens by talking about her childhood and the strength of her imagination. This is a key to writing, really – imagination – and I relate to Smith on this because I too had (and still have) an imagination that seemed to be working overtime all the time. The only difference was probably that I would imagine fantastical worlds where I was brandishing a sword while riding a motorbike. Smith writes that her imagination allowed her to place herself in the shoes of any person from any background. And she admits that none of this would be imagined correctly – “I’d never had a friend die of consumption or been raped by my father or lived in Trinidad or the Deep South or the nineteenth century” – but that she had felt sad or lost or desperate or confused, and it was based on these experiences that she would extrapolate how any one of those characters would feel about those experiences. This, she argues, is fundamentally what fiction is about.
Smith then acknowledges the reason why she’s even writing about this – because of the rise of attitudes like mine. She rails against the idea that we should write only about people who are fundamentally “like” us: racially, sexually, genetically, so on. And she says that she could not have written a single one of her books if she did.
The more I write about this the more I feel like I could write a full breakdown of the essay and possibly my own response to it, but I don’t want to fill this journal with a mini-essay of my own. Instead I’ll cut to the point – after reading Smith’s essay I am less sure about my position. Using Turncoat1 as an example, who else could write about a white-presenting Māori’s experience working in Government other than someone like me? Well, anyone could, but could they write it with the same depth of experience, feeling, and passion that I have? The same accuracy? Conversely, could I ever write the story of a Ugandan child soldier? I could try, and I could do all the research I possibly could, but I would still feel like theirs isn’t my story to tell.
I accept that that feeling is problematic though. How far do you take it? I want to write a novel about my iwi in the 1820s – but how could I write about the experiences of, say, Rangi Topeora when I’m not a) a Māori woman, b) a Māori woman living in the 1820s, c) a Māori woman living in the 1820s as a rangatira of my people? Of course I feel a sense of ownership and right to tell those stories because I feel they belong to me, in a way, as the descendant of them.
Where I think I’m landing on all this is similar to what I expressed in the reading programme class where we discussed this essay. There are experiences and emotions that are universal to us all as humans; love, hate, despair, inspiration, and countless others. These experiences allow us to appreciate fiction that is from a perspective we don’t have or are unfamiliar with – it’s our empathy and our ability to recognise those experiences in the characters we read that allow us to enjoy fiction. The same must be true of writing fiction, then, just as Smith claims. But where I think I disagree with Smith is the idea that all human experience is relatable and comparable. Human experience is so much more complex than just broad emotional markers like sadness or desperation. There are experiences that are unique to certain demographics, and the importance of allowing those experiences to be represented by the people who have personally experienced them is to ensure they are represented accurately. How could Zadie Smith ever capture the experience of attending a kura reo in my own rohe of Raukawa, where I expected I would be safe in my personal pursuit of reclaiming the reo that generations of colonisation took away from me, only to be instructed by a wealthy, powerful Pākehā woman to give a mihi that I didn’t feel confident or comfortable enough to do? How could she ever imagine the depth of shame and self-loathing I felt when I let myself be pressured into doing it, simply because I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell this woman that I thought her assertion over me as an uri of Raukawa in my own rohe was offensive? How could anyone faithfully recreate that experience if they haven’t lived it themselves?
Why does accurate representation even matter? Because we are in a time where it is more important than ever for the experiences of minorities to be understood. And it is only by understanding them that we can engage meaningfully with them. I don’t think this means you can never write “outside your lane,” but it means you need to take the utmost care if you are telling stories that aren’t yours to tell. Do your research, obtain permission from people who have had the experiences you are writing about. And my personal view is to always ask yourself, as the writer, “Why am I writing this?” Why do you even want to write about whatever it is you are writing about? Fiction is such a powerful vehicle. If you are going to use it, you have a responsibility to use it well.