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Writing Lives Not Lived

Posted on 26/03/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Diana McCaualy, Writer In Residence, Commonwealth Writers

Once I was at the launch of the debut novel of a respected Jamaican scholar of literature. During the question and answer period, a member of the audience asked her why she had turned to fiction at that point in her career. She said, “I was tired of reading novels written by middle class people about lives they had not lived.” I remembered that remark when the story that became my first novel, Dog-Heart, started swirling around in my mind.

Is there such a thing as having “rights” to a story, by birth, by experience, by ancestry, by suffering? And conversely, are there stories particular individuals have no right to tell?

In the Caribbean context, these questions are inextricably bound up with issues of race and class, with privilege and deprivation. Me, I’m a third generation Jamaican – if birth is the thing that confers nationality, a question I still wrestle with – but I’m not of African descent. Look at me and you might think: (1) Descendant of slave owner. (Subtext: She’s an oppressor and she should be silent. (2) Upper St Andrew woman. (Subtext: Rich. What does she know about being Jamaican?) (3) Tourist. (Subtext: Arrived last week. Should stick to beaches and rum punches). The colour of my skin brings reflexive judgment about class, economic status and authenticity. Yet, here I was contemplating writing a book from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy from a Kingston inner city community. Surely this was rank arrogance?

At some level, it was. But it seems to me this is the kind of arrogance a writer must claim if we are not to be limited to that old saw, write what you know. What a strait-jacket that is, to write only what you know.

While Dog-Heart was still unwritten, the seeds having been sown by a workshop exercise to write what you don’t know, I thought of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, a classic about the American civil war whose writer had never been to war. Right, I thought. Permission to try. How to start, though? How to construct a character of a different sex and world, how to understand his inner life? I decided the place to start was with observation of boys on the streets of Kingston, where they lived, how they behaved with their friends, what they did with their time. Instead of backdrop to my daily life, they became foreground.

That’s the easy part, of course. After several months, I had pages of settings, descriptions, encounters and many telling interactions that would bring my story into full bloom. But I realized my notes resided at the end of a long, long lens – I was standing back from what I saw and my observations were photographs. I had to go inside lives I had not lived.

And so I reached for empathy. Writers know about imagination, but it takes something more to truly occupy our constructed characters. It takes a conscious process of empathy, of asking ourselves – how would I feel if I were a young boy bullied at the standpipe every morning? What emotions would this catalyze? How would my future look from the mud beside the standpipe? For many months I went to bed with potential scenes in my mind, seeking the feelings that went along with them, and I wish I could tell you I had dreams of my novel in embryo, but I didn’t. Trust the darkness, I would tell myself staring into it, channeling Anthony Winkler’s advice. And somehow, that conscious commitment to empathy brought me words when I sat at my computer each morning, seeking the mind and heart of a twelve-year-old inner city boy. Were they true words, the right words, in the end? That is for a reader to decide.

Over the years of Dog-Heart’s gestation, I learned that empathy was different to sympathy and I was far more familiar with the latter. In a place like Jamaica sympathy is frequently aroused. As I tried to understand my main character, I realized I needed more than sympathy. Sympathy is simple – something appears painful to me, and I feel sorry. Empathy seeks a more nuanced understanding of where another stands. Empathy is less willing to decide what is good or bad. My second protagonist was born, a woman like myself, familiar with sympathy, but lacking empathy.

So I reject the idea that there are stories we may not tell, characters we may not animate, worlds we may not inhabit. I claim all of human nature as my material and I am eager to explore all kinds of lives I have not lived.