Writing Other Cultures When You’re White

I was going to start this off with some mealy-mouthed title about power differentials or marginalised voices or other intersectional stuff or the like, but decided all that was just being evasive. Because what I’m doing is writing a book narrated by a person of colour, and I’m white. There’s been a lot of discussion about people doing that recently. So I wanted to address it.

I’ve been following the American Dirt controversy and not gonna lie, it made me nervous. My thoughts, for what they’re worth: I feel deeply sorry for the author, who, I believe, surely wrote her book with the best of intentions and intended no malice or hurt, but has dealt with a lot of controversy. This threatens to overshadow the good that might be in the book. I feel equally sorry for the overlooked Latino/a voices who were there before her, have written compelling fiction about migration, but never got the benefit of a seven-figure advance. If I were in their position, I’d be boiling mad.

(To be honest, I think the seven-figure advance is a very large part of the problem.)

The #OwnVoices hashtag had popped up on my timeline every now and then, but I really viscerally experienced it when listening back to the White Feathers audiobook. Having an Irish author, and Irish protagonist and an Irish actress meant that when Eva finally loses and calls the love of her life a “fucker”, it was pronounced in the deepest bogger accent you could possibly imagine, in spite of the rest of her dialogue being RP. I didn’t have to attribute the dialogue. The actress knew. That’s the power of Own Voices.

When going outside that boundary, I’m conscious of the need to research properly, employ appropriate beta readers, check language, be edited well and also be mindful of well-worn, clichéd paths and stereotypes to avoid. I’m also happy to be publishing Lucia’s War myself, at my own (considerable) expense to ensure quality. Not traditionally publishing means that I am blocking no gates, nor filling any space a more marginalised author might deserve to take in a white-dominated industry. Furthermore, Lucia Percival as a character is not new – she already had a significant presence in White Feathers. She is not downtrodden; she is a musician, and a survivor. Not to mention that Black British history around the period in question, 1917-1919 and beyond, was a joy to read about.

I’ve also read, and been inspired by, the works of Andrea Levy and Lola Jaye. I’m checking out Nalo Hopkinson too, and enjoying her lyrical narratives.

I am aware that many people nowadays feel that it is not acceptable to write outside the lines when it comes to protagonists, particularly if you are in a very established group. I respect that opinion – and absolutely respect the preference of those who might not read such books as a result – but I don’t agree. Because I feel this is a worthwhile endeavour – when done with care and attention -and I hope the fruits prove my instinct right.

If you are interested in reading a work of mine that is not Own Voices to see how I get on, feel free to subscribe here to get a free story set in WWI and the eve of the Sudeten invasion, featuring romantic love – and friendship – between men. I hope you enjoy.

Mailing List, Freebie Story and Other Sundries

Well! It’s been a busy and enjoyable few weeks since Margaret Madden kindly hosted the cover reveal for Lucia’s War, a new story of music, motherhood and racial struggle during WWI. During that time I pretty much parked on Twitter promoting the ARC giveaway, now closed. There is more work to be done before the ARCs will be ready, but they should be available in March.

(Book bloggers, if you are interested in an e-ARC and have not already contacted me yet, please comment here, @ me on twitter or facebook, or drop me a mail at contact@susanlanigan.com)

I also started up a mailing list for everyone who would like pre-order info. It has gained a few users, but I made the classic marketing error of not having any gifts available for tempted subscribers. While I am working on another, unrelated project at present, I do hope in the next fortnight to have a free story available from a piece I have already written. It is set during a counter-attack in the Battle of Loos in 1915, in the White Feathers universe, entitled “Finding a Common Tongue”. An injured German second lieutenant encounters a traumatised English lance-corporal on the battlefield; they struggle to communicate at first, and then confess their stories to each other and form a real bond. This will only be available to subscribers on the mailing list so do sign up if you are interested!

Thanks to all here and looking forward to having more updates available soon 🙂

Now You Know: Writing Historical Fiction In a Dangerous Present

Audio of this blog entry available here:

Should we or shouldn’t we? That is the question.

I’m sure I’m not the only author who questions her moral right to create fiction in a world where facts and events are coming at us hard and fast. I am not going to mention any distressing items in this post, but the merest glance at the news sites, or at twitter, will provide sufficient enlightenment, or endarkenment, as the case may be. We are inflicted with “garbage leadership”, to use Elizabeth Gilbert’s phrase, exactly when we need strong guidance at the helm. A particularly unsavoury example among all the muck waded through – and there is a lot of muck – has to be the Prime Minister of Australia, whose response to the plight of his stricken country was to put up a fundraising link that went straight to his own party.

As for me, my inner critic is harsh and relentless, and that’s before I’ve written a word: How dare you, she hisses. How dare you presume to tell escapist fables, instead of squaring your shoulder to bear the load of responsibility that now falls on you? How can you presume to do something as frivolous as write romances, or historical tales, or siren songs to readers desperate for escape? How dare you even consider escapism? You coward. You shirker of moral duty. You waster of time when we need to be alert, ready, fighting the enemy. You switcher-on of electric lights, you skipper of zero-waste meetings, you boiler of water in the kettle, you worthless, car-dependent parasite. How dare you?

Yes, I am Mrs Humphrey Ward in my own head. I belabour myself with endless white feathers. What a lovely inner landscape to carry around.

But another voice, beyond this screaming virago, susurrates gently in my mind. Now you know, it says, now you know. All the more important that you write now. Continue reading “Now You Know: Writing Historical Fiction In a Dangerous Present”

Why We Are Not Done with World War I

Audio of this blog entry available here:

I was at a lovely dinner with some other novelists recently (after a long hiatus from that world) and one of my dining companions, whose sharp narrative style I admire a lot and envy a little, told me: “I can’t publish my Victorian novels traditionally because publishers keep telling me that they only want World War II.”

Not only Victorian novels. World War One has apparently gone out of fashion too. Of course the centenary – the one the Irish Times said I “got out my novel in time for” – has passed. White Feathers did indeed come out in August 2014, bang on almost 100 years after England declared war on Germany for the first time. But now the centenary of the 1918 armistice has passed, as has the 101st anniversary of a post-war snap pre-Christmas general election, which was marked almost precisely on the day by the holding of…another snap pre-Christmas general election, the less said of which the better.

(The first election features in Lucia’s War, btw, as a background detail. I don’t bother mentioning the outcome – Tories lost by a huge margin – as protags are far too busy doing… other stuff.)

So, we’ve all moved on. Readers don’t want all that WWI stuff any more. It’s too long ago. Too irrelevant. Too often repeating the same themes. Is that right?

I insert exhibit A into my argument for the contrary: Continue reading “Why We Are Not Done with World War I”