Want to write outside your own culture? Carissa Lee explores why research is a collaboration, and why it’s about a lot more than heading to your local library
Understanding is viewed as being akin to measuring. As the ways we try to understand the world are reduced to issues of measurement, the focus of understanding becomes more concerned with procedural problems.
– Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies
A couple of years ago, I read an article by Jodie Picoult in which she described the process of writing her book Small Great Things. Among other things, it’s a story about a black mother. Writing the story led her to tackle her racism and to become more self-aware about her own white privilege, which involved taking the time to actually meet some black women and have a bit of a yarn about their lives. She also did a lot of reading to get a sense of the characters she was writing about.
But my real question is: why did she write this particular story?
As she says in her article: “I wasn’t writing Small Great Things to explain to people of color what their lives were like — I had no right to do that, and I never will. I was writing to an audience of people who looked and acted like me. I was admitting that it’s easy to point at a skinhead and call him a racist. It’s harder to realize that you’re one too — not because of deliberate bias, but because of the unearned advantages of being born white.”
Why we choose the projects we work on is a question that Wuthathi and Meriam lawyer Terri Janke pursues through her publication Pathways and Protocols[i]. She asks writers to interrogate their desire to tell a particular story that’s outside their cultural expertise. Is it to benefit the people you’re talking about?
I can see how Picoult might have ended up having a wonderful journey – learning about other cultures, self-evaluating and bettering herself as a person – but how did the women she consulted benefit from their generosity in helping her? Picoult is open that she is writing to increase the awareness of unconscious racism: but in doing so, she eliminates any possibility of a black audience enjoying this book.
In her review of Small Great Things, Dr. Roxane Gay says drily : “I trust that the next time she writes about race — and I do hope there is a next time — she’ll write about it in ways that will also be compelling for the rest of us.”[ii]
This kind of audience exclusion also happens in the theatre. For people of colour it can feel tedious, even potentially triggering, to have our own stories rammed down our throats. One example is last year’s production of Native Girl Syndrome, presented as part of the Yirramboi Festival. Every other show I saw within the festival appealed to a wide audience demographic, but this one felt like it had been written exclusively for white patrons. We were presented with two Native Canadian women who lived on the street. They were intoxicated, semi-naked, slurring their words. We were essentially forced to watch a segment of the raw, tragic, everyday reality that was these womens’ lives.
As Blak Critic Timmah Bell put it: “You can’t watch the performance without thinking of the ongoing impact and trauma of colonization.”[iii] But the thing is, Indigenous folks can’t leave our front doors without thinking of the ongoing impact of trauma and colonization. So you’re preaching to the choir, you mob.
When creating stories about minorities, there’s a real chance that some narratives may be detrimental to the people they are representing. With a white character, there’s a moment of ‘wow, that guy’s a dick,’ or ‘what an interesting character’, and we leave the theatre accepting that this was a a representation of a particular individual. When minorities are represented (POC, LGBTQI+ folks, women, people with mental health complexities, people with disabilities), it can come across, whether or not it is intended, as a representation of all of those people. Which means that the character being portrayed within a story can either add to or subtract from preconceived stereotypes that some audience members may have had when they walked into the theatre. Research and ongoing consultation with culturally appropriate people can help to resist the reinforcement of stereotypes.
When it comes to working with Indigenous content, a multitude of protocols have been put together to ensure that collaboration with Indigenous people is ethical and culturally sensitive. Examples are Terri Janke’s Pathways and Protocols, Australia Council for the Arts[iv] Indigenous Performing Arts Protocols[v], or Drama Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guidelines for Drama/Theatre Education[vi] A constant thread is that the consultation process needs to be a consistent process throughout the writing process, not just at the beginning or end.
An example of consultation as a pivotal element of the process of creation is Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day. Set in recently colonised Australia, it’s the story of Nora, a white woman living with her adopted Aboriginal daughter Obedience, who makes her living by taking in boarders. Three questionable men come to stay, leading to tension between Nora and Obedience. Elizabeth, a missionary’s wife, arrives seeking refuge after her church is burned down and her baby taken. An Aboriginal woman Linda is captured and accused, and her presence leads to Obedience wanting to know more about her people and where she comes from.
I learned about Bovell’s writing process during my time as an undergrad at Flinders University. My professor, the very awesome Murray Bramwell, lent me a recording of an interview he’d conducted with Andrew Bovell. As he is an Adelaide-based playwright, Bovell, along with director Rosalba Clemente, regularly consulted with Kaurna mob while they were workshopping the play.
Bovell recalled a moment in the play when consultation really mattered: when Nora uses cabbage leaves to bring on the expression of milk for Elizabeth. At first Bovell wrote that this was a trick she had learned from local Aboriginal women. The Kaurna mob told him that this wasn’t an Aboriginal tradition, and it was changed to an Irish folk treatment. The consultation process was rigorous, respectful, and consistent.
Bovell chose to not specify the mob that Linda came from, and didn’t stipulate its location, which avoided any preconceived cultural assumptions and added to the sense of its remoteness. He didn’t go into traditions, or try to disclose any cultural specificity about the Indigenous characters. Linda was a mystery and Obedience knew nothing of her heritage. The play becomes a bald account of a nameless, placeless massacre. It isn’t said where this massacre takes place, because essentially the massacres were everywhere: Bovell portrays a country of murder. As Obedience puts it: “This is our history.” And then she is silenced, by a white man. It’s an apt final jab at any audience member who chooses to leave the auditorium unaffected, because something as simple as congenital privilege continues to support the attempted silencing of us Indigenous Australians.
A lot of our mob are divided about this play. Some claim that the Indigenous women within this story function as a symbol of white people’s brutality, falling under the category of what Gillian Cowlishaw identifies as the “dominant images” of the Aboriginal, “savages, noble or ignoble”:[vii] Linda representing the ignoble savage, raging against her white captors, beaten and chained; Obedience, as her name suggests, the noble.
I’ve performed in two different productions of this play. For me, the lack of specificity is a safe choice, but the weaknesses of the white characters, as well as Obedience’s final monologue, her final condemning stare, is the ultimate “Fuck you”. They challenge the museum narratives that consist of noble savages and doomed “natives” that white audiences get to cry about in their seats before going back to their lives. Holy Day points the finger at the audience, holding them accountable, every time something horrific happens. Because it’s their fault that these crimes happen, and continues to happen, in our streets, our screens, and on our stages: not because they commit those crimes, but because they do nothing about it. This is why Holy Day is one of my favourite plays.
Immersion vs. Research
OK, books are good. Books are my favourite thing. Through reading you can get a real sense of what plays have already been written, and how we can learn from their successes and failures. Taking the time to read materials by the people you’re wanting to write about offers an invaluable insight into the world you’re wanting to navigate (Reni Eddo-Lodge, bell hooks, Stan Grant, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Toni Morrison and Bruce Pascoe are definitely required reading, FYI).
However, reading alone isn’t the same as talking to an actual person. Talk to elders and young people, and ask what stories they want to see on the stage. If you’re writing about a particular group, Indigenous or otherwise, it is essential to make contact with elders and community leaders. Be prepared for yarns with copious amounts of tea (or not, elders are busy folks). Establishing a relationship with this mob is essential, in life as well as writing.
Academic Shawn Wilson refers to a complexity in research that a lot of us mob carry with us everywhere we go. It’s called “relational accountability”. “Healthy relationships, be they with people or the environment, or with ideas, require mutual respect and reciprocity,” he says in Research as Ceremony: Articulating an Indigenous Research Paradigm. “In order to be accountable to all our relations, we must make careful choices in our selection of research topics, our methods of data collection, forms of data analysis, and finally in the way that we present information. I name this process relational accountability.”
You might say that this level of immersion isn’t realistic, that it’ll take up too much time, particularly time away from writing. But as Roxane Gay said of Picoult’s book, “preparation and eagerness to please don’t really detract. I’d rather read a writer who knows too much about the story she is telling than a writer who knows not enough.”
I’ve often bumped into a rejection of this idea that white straight folks need to tread lightly when writing about shit they know nothing about, from people within and outside the performing arts industry. A lot of the time, the comeback will be: “So does that mean people of colour can’t write about white people, or gays about straights, etc?”
I’d say that our forced literacy in being white makes us kinda overqualified for the job. We are oversaturated with white discourse: on our televisions and other media, in how education is delivered to us as students, in our beauty standards, and in all other areas of our lives. We have to adhere to white culture in the ways we live, to stifle anything that makes us culturally different. In a world where we are often denied the right to exist as people of colour without negative stereotypes being attached to us (just recently, for example: the alleged ‘African Gangs’ fiasco in St Kilda, or our good mates at Channel 7’s Sunrise thinking Indigenous kids need to be put with white families for their own safety), white people still get to pick and choose aspects of other people’s culture in their creative work. Often it’s seen as a brave statement or an act of exoticism. Jordan Peele’s film Get Out illustrated the more insidious (and common) version of racism when white people wish to appropriate blackness. They think they deserve a medal for voting for Obama.
Michael Harriot puts it perfectly when addressing cultural appropriation in music: “Some might call it a double standard or reverse racism to demand that Swift and other white artists give a nod to borrowing from black music and culture while not requiring the same of black artists. However, being black means you are born into the legacy of the culture. I can walk into my grandmother’s house and open the refrigerator without asking permission. You cannot.”
In order to imagine what it’s like to be a straight white guy, all a person from a minority needs to do is to imagine what it’s like not to have to deal with prejudice. What it’s like not seeming suspicious to police or the general public, or not worrying if we’ll be judged for buying a second glass of wine. Or how many people in this store think you just stole something.
It’s easier to imagine when all you have to do is subtract.
Collaboration vs. Cultural Appropriation
What separates cultural appropriation from a cultural exchange or paying homage is when someone “borrows” an item or symbol of cultural significance without acknowledgment, attribution or permission. One of the other hallmarks of appropriation is using someone’s culture to demean, make fun of or diminish it.
When you look at Indigenous lives from a whitefella perspective, it might be harder to empathise if you’ve never had to deal with oppression. Which is why research is important. Fabricating and extending a lived experience is something that we certainly do as writers, but creative license can only take us so far. And even researching doesn’t mean that you can simply appropriate someone else’s story of suffering. As Roxane Gay points out, “research does not necessarily translate to authenticity.” [x]
Take the time to create the situations you want to take place within your story, and talk to someone who has been in that situation, and what it means to them. Simple. Better still, ask a couple of people if you can. Because, yes, one character in a story does end up being an indirect representation of an entire race, religion, or sexual orientation. Interviewing only one person also makes them solely responsible for your representation. As someone who is often viewed as a one-stop black shop or the token black friend, I can tell you it bloody sucks being expected to have all the answers. Although I suppose it’s better than asking a bunch of middle-class white people what they think about sensitive Indigenous topics (I’m looking at you, Sam Armytage).
What we’re talking about is not just research, or consultation with the selected “other” that you want to write about. Before anything else, it’s about relationships. Research is a creative collaboration, otherwise it becomes a writer hijacking someone else’s suffering to get bums on seats.
A good example is the The Shadow King collaboration between Tom E. Lewis and Michael Kantor. This re-writing of King Lear took place through friendship and creative partnership, with the all-Indigenous cast offering different perspectives and Lewis and Kantor tying it together. It used a well-known Shakespearean tragedy to create a familiar context for white audiences, but it also gave black audiences a chance to see the validity and importance of their existence in this world: it allowed them to be present in a Shakespearean story, and to see that missing ingredient in this play was them.
Being a part of a culture—whether one is born into it or not—also comes with the responsibility of being a caretaker of it. If we kept our mouths closed, non-black artists would suck our artistic heritage dry without caring what happened to who was left behind. [xi]
If you care more about the stuff you’re writing, then you’re less likely to fuck it up. It’s a good start if you remember that these characters you’re writing about are human before anything else, and that what you’re portraying is a human experience before it’s ethnically-specific. But, unless you’re wanting to work with an Indigenous writer/theatre-maker/collaborator who is Indigenous, I recommend you keep it general. The level of relational accountability that you will have towards the people you work with will never compare to the cultural accountability that these mob have. No one should be asked to disclose sensitive cultural content for a creative project.
Most of all, you need to do your research and talk to the people you’re wanting to write about. If you don’t have time for a million cups of tea or coffee, if the immense privilege of hearing stories that you will never be able to write about is too much, then don’t write outside your culture. That is what it takes, and this is our way.
[i] Pathways and Protocols- A Filmmaker’s Guide to Working with Indigenous People, Culture and Concepts
Terri Janke. Screen Australia page 24
[ii] Jodi Picoult’s New Novel Reviewed by Roxane Gay. The New York Times, Oct 11, 2016
[vii] Cowlishaw, G. K. (1988). The materials for identity construction.