Monday 25 November 2019

Research and culture

As I write this, I’m waiting to be picked up to go to the airport to fly to Morocco.
It’s my fifth time. I love the place. I went  - originally - to surf, and that is still very much on the agenda… but it’s not what keeps pulling me back.
It’s the place you see; the Berber people, the dusty southern desert, the hush quiet fishing villages and busy towns.  History and culture, past and present.

As is the way with writers when something gets under their skin, the place has seeped into my imagination and found its way into my writing. Not only the place, the people; one of the main characters in my book, Girl, Boy, Sea is Berber. 

So, Morocco has been in my thoughts and writing for a fair while.  But ‘now’ is a different time, the past is another country and we are all being asked to question what we can (or can’t) write about, especially when it comes to cultures that are not our own.  And asking such questions is more than reasonable, it’s necessary, even if people have very strong, and it seems, very ‘certain,’ views on what everyone’s answers should be. I’m not so sure about that certainty, I think we’re only at the beginning of the conversation, and a conversation is what it needs to be, not a hysterical argument.

The one thing I am clear about is that overt policing of the imagination is a dangerous game and if we too strictly limit writers in terms of what is ‘theirs’ to write about, we will end up with writers only being ‘allowed’ to write characters that reflect their own colour, nationality, sex, gender, beliefs etc. and that would be a terrible thing for what I hope are very obvious reasons. Exploring, empathy and imagination are, sort of, the point, of fiction, if it has one at all, so if we can keep that freedom and exploration and balance of viewpoints even in single stories, whilst at the same time, increasing the diversity of voices; of writers of all backgrounds and experience then I for one, will be pleased.

And for my own writing? My first two books were – very much – a reflection of my own story, people I have known and cultures and places I grew up with  or know very well (Cornwall, surfing, English youth).  But I haven’t stuck with those tropes, for the simple reason that writing one alone thing gets stale for me, let alone any readers I’m lucky enough to have.

So the question is really ‘how’ you write about anything that is not what you were born with and/or live with. I don’t have definitive answers, perhaps there aren’t any, just a spectrum of approaches and ways of doing things, some of which are outright wrong, some more openended. Perhaps there are as many kinds of research as there are writers doing it? I can only really say what works for me:

Questioning: Reflection should be par for the course for a writer, but in truth don’t we all just sometimes simply write when an idea or a character insists upon it?  Well, we all have to take a step back once in a while and look at what we are doing and question how it might be interpreted.  It may or may not change what you write, and it certainly won’t please everyone, but being your own critic can have advantages.

Read:  Yes, obvious, I know. But whilst I personally swear by experience (see below), a bit of reading up, even on a place you may know reasonably well, can open up fresh avenues 

Go there:  Contentious one, this. Philip Pullman in more than one interview to promote The Secret Commonwealth (which I love beyond reason, even more than any of the His Dark Materials books), has said he didn’t travel to the east, but explored the territory (and presumably culture and people) via the heaving shelves of the Bodleian Library. I think if you’re Philip Pullman you can do that. I don’t have the confidence, I need to be there; in the place I am writing about, though it can happen the other way round; I visit a place, then decide to write about. For me that means finding a willing victim, who will sit with me for hours, letting me fire question after question, as well as sit quietly absorbing, when they hit a rich vein of information.  Mo is a Berber, and local surfer in the village of Tamraght, north of Agadir. He owns the house we’ll be staying in tomorrow night.  He and his family live next door. Over a beer (well, many, really) he’s taught me most of what I know about Berber history, Moroccan history and Arabic culture, North African colonialism, changing gender roles in Morocco, politics, the culture of story-telling… I could go on.  Finding a good story-teller is beyond value.

Write there: I don’t just mean whilst you’re there at a desk. I mean, about the sea from the shore, about the desert from the top of a dune.  Doesn’t have to be proper drafting, just furious note – taking!

Have a point: I think if you are going to write a very different character, and a very different setting to the one you live in, it can’t be to simply have a more ‘diverse’ in your cast of characters (though I’ve heard some publishers have been guilty of requesting that of writers– not me I hasten to add!). I put Aya (the Berber girl in Girl. Boy. Sea), for a story-driven reason.  The first draft began with an English boy, alone, in a dinghy, on the ocean, having survived a storm. A crit friend suggested Bill needed someone to play off, to relate to. I agreed, but I also felt if someone was going to share that boat – and the whole adventure – with Bill, they needed to be as different as possible, and for there to be contrast and conflict between them, because honestly? That’s a way more enticing set up.


Rowena House said...

This is fascinating, Chris, especially your robust defence of the right of writers to explore and imagine - and research, the how bit of writing 'the other'. I'm also intrigued by the why question: why we want to write about people & places far beyond our own lived experience. What it is we are looking to find in their stories and what do we, uniquely, bring to them? As a journalist, one is meant to be purely objective about reporting such observataions, despite it being - imho - naive (even duplicitous) to suggest that any but the most highly trained observer can set subjectivity aside and rise above our deep and often subconscious belief systems and prejudices. Like you, I believe we do have the right to travel in our imaginations - I'm off again into the far country of the past. One day I'd love to go back to Africa like you have, too.

Chris Vick said...

Wise words as ever, Ro.
As to the question: why we want to write about people & places far beyond our own lived experience.
One answer is; for the same reasons we want to read about such people and places. We can't experience everything we'd like to; time and physical limitations make it impossible. But with imagination, whether reading or writing, we can go way beyond the limitations of our own experience and history.
Another answer might be that we're exploring the unknown; ie. we don't know why we want to write about people and places far beyond our own lived experience and that's the point; it's a mysterious process this writing business and that's part of what keeps us going :)