Write What You Can’t Know

Bedtime stories

Nothing like a good, kind voice reading an endless story to soothe the irritations of insomnia. The sagas of Trollope saw me through 2017. Since then, Elizabeth Jane Howard‘s Cazalet Chronicles, War and Peace, Homer’s Odyssey, Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy and many other tales that go on and on and on have drifted with me through some very long nights to the too-bright beach of morning. Right now, I’m doing fairytales.

My favourite fairytales

In The Red Shoes, a girl called Karen (ahem) loves her fancy new red shoes way too much, so she has to have her feet chopped off or die from their relentless dancing. Now she has to hobble about on wooden feet, but her amputated actual feet in their divine red shoes follow her everywhere, especially to church, still dancing. Eventually Karen is so sorry she dies and goes to heaven, where no one mentions her gorgeous red shoes. On the other hand, The Handless Maiden had her hands chopped off. Then a king who marries her gives her hands made of gold. Eventually, because of her exceptional virtue, she grows new actual hands. Bluebeard’s latest wife opens a forbidden door and finds a lot of other wives hanging up dead on hooks in there. She drops the key in the ankle deep blood on the floor, and can’t get the stain out. Just as her husband is about to murder her too, she waves her hankie and her brothers save her.

From Rumpelstiltskin to Japenese ghosts

Philip Pullman’s witty retellings in Grimm Tales for Young and Old, read by Samuel West for Audible have taken me back to the wriggling deliciousness of the macabre, the cruel, the spectacularly transgressive in the fairytales of my childhood. But six weeks of Rumpelstitskin on repeat is enough. A hasty Audible search – it was bedtime – delivered a collection of Japanese stories. I was tired. I listened to the sample to make sure the reader wouldn’t drive me nuts. She wouldn’t. I hit BUY. I hit the sack. I skipped the introduction.

A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land …

So opens the first story, Of Ghosts and Goblins, in the Penguin edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese Ghost Stories. The next story, The Dream of a Summer Day, goes like this …

The hotel seemed to me a paradise, and the maids thereof celestial beings. This was because I had just fled away from one of the Open Ports, where I had ventured to seek comfort in a European hotel, supplied with all ‘modern improvements’. To find myself at ease once more in a yukata, seated upon cool, soft matting, waited upon by sweet-voiced girls, and surrounded by things of beauty, was therefore like a redemption from all the sorrows of the nineteenth century.

Bamboo-shoots and lotus-bulbs were given me for breakfast, and a fan from heaven for a keepsake. The design upon the fan represented only the the white rushing burst of one great wave on a beach, and sea-birds shooting in exultation through the blue overhead. But to behold it was worth all the trouble of the journey. It was a glory of light, a thunder of motion, a triumph of sea-wind – all in one. It made me want to shout when I looked at it.

Between the cedar balcony pillars I could see the course of the pretty grey town following the shore-sweep – and yellow lazy junks asleep at anchor – and the opening of the bay between enormous green cliffs – and beyond it the blaze of summer on the horizon. In that horizon there were mountain shapes faint as old memories. And all things but the gray town, and the yellow junks, and the green cliffs, were blue.

Then a voice softly toned as a wind-bell began to tinkle words of courtesy into my reverie, and broke it; and I perceived that the mistress of the palace had come to thank me for the chadai, and I prostrated myself before her. She was very young, and more than pleasant to look upon – like the moth maidens, like the butterfly-women, of Kunisada.

And I thought at once of death; for the beautiful is sometimes a sorrow of anticipation.”

Swoon.

But … Lafcadio Hearn?

“Hearn changed, as if magically, from one person into another, from a Greek islander into a British student, from a penniless London street ragamuffin into a respected American newspaper writer, from a journalist into a novelist, and, most astonishingly, from a stateless Western man into a loyal Japanese citizen,” says Andrei Codrescu in the Paris Review in July 2019.

Hearn’s lifestory and literary work got me thinking about who can write what about whom. About writing what we know. About cultural appropriation.

Write What You Can’t Know, Highveld’s 10-week online writing studio, combines readings and discussions with writing exercises designed to challenge your beliefs about what and who you can write about. We’ll read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lionel Schriver, Bantu Steve Biko, Toni Morrison, Damon Galgut, Jeffery Renard Allen, and others. We’ll explore the boundaries of our representational ethics and test the possibilities of writing successfully about anything or anyone. You’ll come away with your own credo clarified, bolstered by writers who’ve charted your chosen terrain. You’ll use the tools of literary craft to extend the scope of your imagination and bring to life consciously chosen uncomfortable content.

Find out more about Highveld’s 10-week online writing studios.

What We Take From Others

“Appropriation is an undeniable fact of human interaction,” says Jeffery Renard Allen in his story for Eat Joy: Stories and Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers. “What we take from others we make our own and in so doing craft a unique transformation.”

What? India?

In his novel about EM Forster, Arctic Summer, Damon Galgut gives us Forster’s thoughts and feelings about writing about India in this exchange with Forster’s Indian friend Syed Ross Masood:

“Of course,” [Masood] said, you will write a novel about it.”

“What? India? That’s not very likely is it?”

“Why not? From the very first moment I met you, I knew that here was an Englishman who didn’t see the world like the rest of his countrymen. You don’t realise it, but you have an Oriental sensibility. That is why the book you’ll write will be unique. It will be written in English, it will seem to be from English eyes, but its secret view will be from inside.”

“If my mind is so like yours, why do I still find you so peculiar?”

But Masood was serious today. “You are offending me. If you can write about Italy, then why not about my country?”

Morgan considered it. An interesting notion, perhaps, but so far outside his own experience that it seemed impossible. He had read a few novels about India, but they were all of a breathless female variety. Doomed to love on the Frontier, that sort of thing. And there was Kipling, of course – but Kipling was always singing the virtues of the English and the inferiority of the natives, to say nothing of the gory glory of patriotic death.

They were walking in the street, a light rain falling, but the dampness and the slippery cobbles disappeared as his mind travelled elsewhere, either deep inside or far away. “My Italian novels,” he said at last, “are really about the English. Italy was merely a backdrop.”

“What of it? Write about the English in India, if it pleases you. Though I can tell you, they are a self-important, silly lot out there. Not the stuff of which heroes are made.” But then, a moment later, his tone changed to one of affected outrage.”I demand to be a character in your novel! Or are the English the only worthy subjects? Oh, I wish I had lived at the time of the great Oriental despotisms – I would have ordered you to write me endless books, with no English characters in them.” He want stalking ahead in pretended injury – or perhaps, for the moment, it was real.

This conversation stayed with Morgan. A novel about the English in India, one in which Masood also featured: it wasn’t an unattractive idea. Though he would, of course, have to pay a visit to the East, and that seemed like a monumental endeavour, one to which his life wasn’t equal.

Do you need your subject’s permission to write about them? Must you have the same sensibility as your subject? List some of the failings of novels you’ve read in which the culture is not the writer’s culture. How do you define culture? What are the differences between culture and identity? Does a writer have to visit the culture she wants to write about if it isn’t her own? We discuss these and other questions in Write What You Can’t Know. More importantly, through our writing experiments we each develop our own credo for successful cross-cultural art.

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