The curious incident of authenticity of voice

Yesterday was my 27th birthday, in which I turned 27 on the 27th and felt pretty great about it. I was at a book club that afternoon, in which nobody knew it was my birthday but it was all right because I brought my own cake, casually dropped into the conversation that it was my birthday and then there was some amusing and good-natured awkwardness to follow. It was a good birthday, nice and low-key.

Anyway; at this book club we were discussing The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Night-Time. It is written, ostensibly, from the POV of 15-year-old Christopher, who we are to assume has Asperger’s Syndrome. I did some quick Googling and found out that not only did Mark Haddon not know anything about Asperger’s Syndrome when he wrote it, but he also did no research, saying that “imagination trumps research”.

As a result, we got into a discussion about the intersection of creative licence and authenticity. As somebody who’s spent the last two years writing about a 17-year-old high-school girl, the issue of authenticity of voice is certainly something I’ve had experience with. The issue is not just where, but why to draw the line. It is clear to me that, with a book like Curious Incident,  a line must be drawn. People with mental disorders exist in real-life, and stigma against and misunderstanding of them, including humiliating and dehumanising stereotyping, also exists in real life.

Here’s the thing: it was a neat idea, if you remove the real-life referent that wasn’t. If Christopher had instead been, say, a robot or an alien or a demon (actually something I’ll talk about when I eventually review The Demon’s Lexicon), then his distinct world-view would have been just as interesting, and the offensiveness would have been avoided – and the damaging misinformation. When I brought up the results of my research to my reading-group, nobody else was aware that he hadn’t done his research, because Asperger’s is not something that the majority of the population is able to readily identify. People don’t really know about it. It doesn’t help that Curious Incident is very humanising to Christopher – it’s hard not to get into his frame of mind and really experience what he’s going through, so it’s undoubtedly written well, but it’s not written ethically. Getting to understand Christopher is not the same as getting to understand somebody with Asperger’s, and yet that’s what it’s advertising. Obviously people shouldn’t believe everything they read, but people also shouldn’t make fun of people with disabilities, of other ethnicities or genders/sexualities/ages/religions, and yet they do. There shouldn’t be prejudice and a lack of understanding and massive political inequality that leads to systems of social injustice, but there are. Which is why writing a book about an underrepresented minority with little to zero political power of their own without even making an effort to understand them as people is despicable, work of fiction or not.

Now, where this gets tricky is the whole creative licence thing. The conventional wisdom and mantra of artists everywhere is that art should not be censored, because self-expression should not be censored. Free speech and all that. But free speech does not give you the right to hurt other people.

The first time I really started considering the implications of this oft-cited ethos was when I heard the story behind the song “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I like the song, but what makes me uneasy about it (and songs like “Polly” by Nirvana) is that they’re based on real events – in the case of Jeremy it’s a school shooting (two in fact), and that means that the other people involved in that incident could be triggered by it. Same deal with Polly; that girl had a family and, due to it being a Nirvana song, it’s highly likely that they heard the song. Did either victim’s family get to sign off on them? Were they consulted at all?

Art kind of has to come from real-life inspiration, so in a sense you can’t avoid appropriating the lives of others every now and then. It could even be that the families of these kids (or, in the case of “Polly”, the girl in question) appreciated the fact that these famous bands were using their platform to spread awareness of the fact that these things happen and we should be aware of them. But if they weren’t consulted, it’s kind of like having somebody spread rumours about you or talking about you behind your back – only it’s world-famous rock bands doing it, and making money out of it. It’s somebody speaking for you; Curious Incident is at least not based on somebody specific (that I know of), but it is talking about an experience that many people live with, and it’s an experience that the artist admitted to not understanding or even trying to understand.

Yet if something sparks your imagination, don’t you have the right to express that through art? That inspiration at least is your experience, and we all have the right to self-expression.

Well, yes – but it really does depend on what that inspiration is. Does it involve other people? Because if so, then I don’t think that you do have the right – unless you do. For instance, if you’re a survivor of abuse of any kind, that obviously involves more than just yourself, yet I’d say you absolutely have the right to write about it and name names. It may not be safe to do that, but it would be within your rights, at least as far as I’m concerned.

If you’re the abuser, though?

Ultimately my metric is one of respect. If it’s not respectful, then in my book you don’t have the right to do it.

An example I like is the NZ tv show Mataku, which used Maori mythology as the premise. It was an entirely Maori-produced show, and the show’s two creators not only had their own personal experiences to draw on but also worked with tribal elders to make sure their use of these cultural resources was respectful.

This of course brings up the issue of who has how much say on the final product, and compromising artistic vision for the sake of being “politically correct”.  I don’t like people using disdain of “political correctness” to excuse disrespectful behaviour, but there is definitely that tension, and as an artistically-inclined person I am incredibly protective of my creative ideas.

However, there’s a difference between somebody just trying to take over your project because they’re a entitled prick and somebody protesting against your use of their personal experiences, including their cultural heritage, because it’s offensive or misinformed. There is a difference between somebody telling you that X thing in your story needs to be changed because they prefer something else, and somebody telling you that X thing in your story needs to be changed because it’s offensive and hurtful. Indigenous peoples have not exactly been given the fairest of depictions in the media, as the controversy surrounding the recent Lone Ranger and Star Trek: Into Darkness films highlighted. The same goes for people with disabilities, people with “alternative” sexualities and gender identities, and this mirrors a cultural underrepresentation in terms of policies, legislation, and how and when they are upheld, and for and by whom. In this political context, it is only ethical to defer creative impulses to the experiences and will of those who your ideas are representing – unless you don’t mind being an asshole, in which case, hey, at least you’re being honest about it.

So then what if you want to write about something and, for whatever reason, you can’t do research on it? Can you still write about it?

I think this is the most important thing to realise: at least if you’re a white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class-or-higher man, there isn’t much you can’t get away with, compared to other people. As Mark Haddon proved, you can write about something you know absolutely nothing about, and even openly admit to not giving a damn about your own ignorance, without anything harsher than a minority of (completely legitimate) criticisms from people who were hurt by it. The irony is that these people who actually have Asperger’s syndrome’s voices have gone largely unnoticed, while the offending book has become part of our contemporary literary canon.

It’s an issue of privilege. If you have the privilege of writing whatever the hell you want, getting it published and having only harsh language coming your way as a consequence, then the question is not whether you can do it – it’s whether you should. If you’re in a position where nobody can really stop you from doing something, it becomes your responsibility to make a judgment on whether it’s something you have the moral right to do.

I’ve been fairly lucky in that I’ve been able to do ‘research’ for Tallulah in terms of having a lot of women friends who were generous enough to offer feedback on my zero draft. I am probably never going to send out a zero draft for feedback again, but that’s just because a zero draft is not really something that warrants feedback. The other stuff is supernatural in nature and I’ve done some research into selkie folklore, as well as research (very light research) into nursing home staff work-hours, lesbian relationships, what actually goes on at high-school, and how houses are designed (the Kitchen Triangle continues to fascinate me). My point is that I’ve had a pretty great run in terms of getting the authenticity that I wanted, because I was able to do the relevant research and get the relevant feedback that helped make it authentic. It’s an authenticity that ultimately has to come from me as the storyteller, but part of that is respecting that it also goes far beyond me, because I do not tell stories just for myself.

There are a lot of other things that I don’t know how I’d go about researching, and they’re the things that I am pretty scared to write about. I’ll cross those bridges when I get to them, but for now I’ll just say that, when the time comes, I hope that I practice what I preach and actually do the necessary research, whether it’s informally just talking to people or using Google like everybody else. Because without research, without ethics guiding your creativity – well, even the Nazis were creative. And authentic. It doesn’t mean anything on its own.

Don’t be a Nazi. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, let it be that.

No but seriously, do your research. Be a good person and a responsible, respectful, politically-conscientious artist. When it comes to authenticity, always go straight to the source.

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