Shaun Levin

Writing the Tribe

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

What happens when you write outside your tribe? No, what I want to ask is, why write outside your tribe, outside of your people, your landscapes, the parts of the world you are familiar with? A Jew writes about a Buddhist monk. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian businesswoman, a Muslim skateboarder. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian writer. Why? Is that writer’s motivation a desire to stretch the imagination, to see where their imagination will go if they try to put themself in the shoes of someone slightly different, or seemingly slightly different.

This question rose out of an incident recently in a workshop where a Nigerian male writer (I have created a fictional workshop participant to ensure confidentiality) read out a story about a white middle class woman, a mother, an actress. He is none of these things and neither is his girlfriend. The story was okay, but I knew that if he’d made the story’s protagonist a Nigerian woman, that something much more interesting and complex would have happened. Even if she, like in the original version, was called Jennifer. I wasn’t sure what to say to him about these thoughts, so I didn’t say anything. I focused on other elements of the story. But the question has nagged at me. There was the issue of what he thought were legitimate topics for stories. I had a feeling, though I might be wrong, that he didn’t feel it was valid to make his characters, or even just one of them, someone who was deeply familiar to him. The gender question was also there in the mix.

This isn’t just a question about race. I feel like it’s a question more about the range of topics we assume are available to us, that are legitimate. I don’t know if he wanted to write about Nigerian characters, but hadn’t read enough literature by Nigerian writers, come across enough stories with Nigerian characters in them, to realise his choice would have been valid. His decision might also be linked to the fact that he was one of only two people of colour in the class, and to write about characters so close to him would have felt too intimate a thing to share.

And it’s not a question about whether writers with difference – Jewish writers, writers of African descent, Asian writers, queer writers, blind or deaf writers – should only write about characters from their worlds. It is, though, a question of distance, and a question of connectedness, and a question of depth. How deep can we go into a character that is fundamentally different from us. But then, writing is also about pretending. Don’t we have the capacity to go anywhere with it? Aren’t we – now I risk sounding like a liberal – all in this world together?

Which reminded me of this…



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