Writing Beyond the Self

By: Sophie Constable, Blogger in Residence


Writing outside your own experience has received a lot of heat recently. This has been both distressing and compulsive viewing for me, because I find imagining the human experience in different contexts as an important way of reaching out and understanding each other, and humanity as whole.

I am compelled to do this by exploring the issues in writing, but at the same time, I am afraid, as are many of my peers I think, of causing harm.

How should writers go about navigating this? I decided to ask fellow historical fiction writers their views, because they have to navigate writing beyond their own experience on a daily basis.  Do their methods have resonance for other writers too?

‘You’re entering a thorny thicket,’ historical fiction writer Glen Craney warned.

I’m living in it, I wanted to reply—we all are, aren’t we?

‘By the very nature of their subject,’ historical fiction author Martin Lake writes, ‘historical novelists have to write outside their own experience. I think that because we are writing about times we can never truly know, complete accuracy is impossible; authenticity is achievable with research and empathy.’

I asked some what they understand as the harm of misrepresenting reality in fiction. For some it was a nebulous, subjective concept, for others, a daily reality.

I turned to Dr. Gillian Polack, historian and author, for a more in-depth explanation. Dr. Polack teaches both history in fiction and culture in fiction. She spoke with some 80 fiction writers to explore the links between history and fiction writing, publishing her results in monograph ‘History and Fiction’ this year, and is currently researching culture in fiction.

So, does fiction influence people’s views?

Yes, she responded unequivocally. ‘Readers get their views of cultures from fiction. They always have. Mary Mapes Dodge is responsible for a very popular view of Holland due to the popularity of Hans Brinker, for instance.’

And can this actually be harmful?

‘Hurt can be subtle when it comes from fiction,’ she replies, ‘but when a writer’s vision is achieved at the expense of others, this is a form of bullying: “My approach to this novel is so very important that it doesn’t matter if you get hurt.”’

But she says, ‘Like any questions concerning ethical behaviour, the answers are complex. Damage can be quite small. It can be niggling hurt. It can be a complete invention and not do any damage at all, in fact. This is the good news. The reason this is a complex answer is because the news isn’t always good. The biggest danger, at all levels, is to those whose voices aren’t heard or whose rights are being eroded. Not all people are equally vulnerable.’

Indeed, Hong Kong-based author Nury Vittachi expresses how people can feel vulnerability differently. ‘People on the Eastern side of the planet have long felt swamped by Western media,’ he writes in ‘Come Home YEH XIAN – reclaiming Cinderella which laments how Asian stories are being taken over by the West, ‘but the situation is turning into a crisis. Now we are losing the rights to our own stories’.

This echoes Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke, speaking at SWF 2010, when she said: ‘Stories are about belonging. They are title deeds to a culture … the right to tell stories and to link into that history, to that land, and that connection is an Indigenous cultural right. It is one that is fiercely guarded in postcolonial societies. …  All we have left is our stories.’

It is understandable that one might guard fiercely when there is a sense that so much has been taken away already.

But we aren’t simply talking about offence. Dr. Polack goes on with regard to history, ‘Some harm or danger from plausibly and consistently misrepresented history can be shocking. Terrifying. Appalling. The worst of the Holocaust can be clearly pinned down to a re-envisioning of the past and the development of a set of histories for Jews and for Romany. Eleven million people were murdered and people are still be persecuted using those stereotypes and histories today.

‘I can give you so many other examples, but I’ll give you just one more: Terra Nullius. Australia created a history that lead to massacres and abuse. Unlike the Nazi version of history, it was mostly done without malice, but it was a consistent misrepresentation and it led to loss of land, loss of culture and loss of life. Again, it’s still hurting people, even though we’ve said “We were wrong” and given a public apology.

‘Ethics matter.’

What, then, is the harm in misrepresenting other cultures?

Author and emergency physician Dr. Venita Muir cautions ‘There are bigger issues at stake, and generally we can’t know what they are when we’re not in that person’s shoes.’

If writing influences reader’s views, and, as Dr. Polack found in her study, influences other writers as well, I see that the harm might be misunderstanding at a societal level. For example, it might validate a stereotype that leads readers, and voters, to a simplistic idea of another. This can affect how people talk to you, whether people hesitate before sitting next to you on the bus, or how people are treated in job interviews.

Sometimes small things, but when experienced over and over again, build social isolation, mentally as harmful as physical pain, as well as resentment and perhaps an impulse to hit back. Misunderstandings at the societal level might influence government policy, which voters may support, as they share the same view. And it can be hard to turn the tide: Dr Polack’s study found that though historians continually tried to correct popular misconceptions, it had virtually no effect on writers continuing to propagate them.

With this risk in mind, should writers even try to interpret the ‘other’?

Dr. Polack argues yes. ‘When it’s done well, the reader has a path to something they may not otherwise be able to understand. Fiction is immensely powerful. Stories change us.’

Historical fiction writer Elizabeth Bell says, ‘Do not appropriate another culture on a whim, without respect, without doing your research, or without considering what impact your work might have on the members of that culture. But if a story calls to you, answer to the best of your ability.’

Dr Muir responds, ‘Some people are vehemently opposed to cultural appropriation, but I think the majority just want people to think it through morally & ethically.’

Professor David Cole is a professor of Law at Georgetown University, U.S.A and was recently  interviewed on Radio National on the limits to free speech. Interestingly, Professor Cole is in favour of people expressing their perspectives on other cultures simply so that ‘we know we need to have this discussion.’

And author, editor and journalist Nisi Shawl writes that exclusion is the biggest mistake of all.

How, then, to attempt it?

‘As writers, we should try, at the very least, not to create characters who might be construed as clichéd, tokenistic insults,’ Dr Muir writes in her article “A Question of Who’s Taken Offence”. ‘That seems a basic moral stance to aspire to.’

Nisi Shawl discusses the basic do’s and don’ts of writing minor characters, in her article “Transracial Writing for the Sincere”.

Dr Muir goes on to suggest: ‘Do research. Make friends with people who are “like” the character. Engage readers who are “like” the character and be open to fair and unreserved criticism or praise. Have the humility to realise when offence is taken and be prepared to either cop the flak or change what’s caused offence.’ She recommends the ASA and Australia Council guidelines about writing about Indigenous Australia. The ASA guide is written by the aforementioned Terri Janke and the Australia Council guide has many useful case studies from contemporary authors.

In her book, Polack uses the idea of historians and historical fiction writers as interpreters of the past to explain how they conceptualise the past and present it to their readers. For me, this comparison has currency in the broader fiction writing context too. We can write about cultures beyond our own experience fluently, word-for-word but without the cultural context, haltingly, or we can stay mum, ignore it. In both cases, the use of experienced interpreters can help avoid misrepresentation in the experience the writer is attempting to translate.

I see it like this: I have a lot of freedom to move. What I feel like people are asking is for me to have an awareness of whose toes I’m stepping on and whether they have any room to move. I can choose what I do and I can also choose how I do it.

All fiction writers, and many others, are writing outside their own experience of life. We need to consider what the effects of this might be—sometimes, not much. Sometimes, it can do very real harm. And perhaps the only way to be sure is to ask, with respect, the people concerned—they are the only ones who can tell you how they feel.

Not one person, a person does not a people make. If you are really concerned about harming others, do this before you publish. As author Merlinda Bobis so vividly said, ‘words are like an incantation. Once spoken, you cannot take them back’.


Sophie ConstableSophie Constable has worked as a veterinarian and Antarctic researcher, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities. Throughout, writing has remained her passion. She was awarded the NT Literary Award for her short story “Khmoc” and shortlisted in the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award for her novel Bloodline. This year she is excited to be part of the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY program. Sophie blogs at www.dogeared.com.au

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