by Kim Kelly
This morning I woke up inside a dream – a nasty one. I was walking along a Sydney beach – Maroubra Beach – on a beautiful sunny day and, as I headed south, I passed two young men and their surfboards.
I saw the water glistening on their deep brown skin, their black hair still heavy with the sea, dripping onto their shoulders. I heard them chatting to each other about the waves. Just two young men who could have been any of the young men I grew up with in that part of the world.
Over my shoulder, I watched as two policemen approached them. There was a brief exchange, one of the young men trying to convince the officers that he was a student at the University of New South Wales, and then – BANG BANG – both of the young men were shot dead.
I stood there in shock, unmoving, a scream trapped inside me.
I woke up with my heart belting, my stomach turning, and my husband asking me: ‘What’s wrong?’
I know where this dream has come from.
There’s been quite a ruckus the last few days over Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writers Festival speech examining cultural appropriation and political correctness – howls of outrage that a white woman should think the preserve of fiction, and the strength of fiction, is to pretend, and to do so fearlessly. On all manner of social media threads, anyone suggesting Shriver might have a point in there somewhere has pretty much been told to check their privilege, get back in their white boxes and shut up.
Meanwhile, people of deep brown skin continue to languish on Nauru and die in police custody in Australia, their stories largely untold to the mainstream, or largely ignored. Facts too often drowned out by the relentless white noise of opinion seething from all quarters.
The greatest power of storytelling, of fiction in particular, lies in the way it can spread empathy into popular consciousness. An author can borrow another’s hat and shoes for a time to give readers an enlightening glimpse of what it might feel like to be that other person. But right now it seems we’re imposing rules upon what white authors should or shouldn’t empathise with through fiction – what characters, what identities and histories writers like me can write.
It’s affected me personally. I’m struggling with the ethics of having written a black heroine in a manuscript I finished almost two years ago. On the one hand, do I have any right to speak through a character whose skin and life experience are different from my own? On the other hand, can my conscience deal with being silenced when this character’s story might just have a whisper of a chance to broaden a narrowed mind?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether my story sees the light of day or not – I’ve let stories go before, because they’re not ready or not mine to be told. What’s got me caught up here is a deeper, more fundamental question of what I’m allowed to write. Should that even be a wonder? Am I being a coward in my hesitation? Or virtuous?
My heart can’t draw characters without love – that’s not a moral decision but just the way I roll. I’m no intrepid pillager; I know that my explorations of others’ points of view are never cynically undertaken, never gratuitous or exploitative. These are real people to me, these imaginary friends: never embellishments or trophies. My black heroine represents about forty-three years’ investment of thought. She is part of me somehow, in that way people who are important to you work their way into your soul.
And yet I’m so conflicted over the rightness of these explorations that I am, for the moment, stuck on that beach, struck mute – a guilty witness to crimes my silence will only condone.
The answer will come to me, eventually, at least for my story, but I’m not sure this shutting-up is a good thing for anyone generally. Is it really going to lead to better structural parity of creative opportunity for writers of all colours if white writers stick to writing only white stories, or will it tribalise us in ways that make divisions and misunderstandings worse? Will it only mean that some stories in want of telling simply won’t be told? I just don’t know.