Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Before the end of Apartheid South African writers who questioned racial privilege were simply known as writers not white writers. Alan Paton, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink and J M Coetzee were great writers. The main protagonists in their novels were often white but engaged with their world in some way that countered the 'dominant discourse of white superiority'.
I read them all, admired them, loved them and learnt from them.
These writers still open doors onto new perceptions and new empathies. They still shine lights that illuminate the road to change.
Today writers who write about people different from themselves are questioned as to their motivation and authority. That may be as it should be. We want to hear an authentic voice but do we also want to prescribe limits to a writer's imaginative and creative abilities? If writers were to be forced to contain their intuitive and empathetic leaps into other states of being and other worlds then we humans will never understand each other. There will be no future Charles Dickens, no future William Shakespeare, absolutely no future science fiction or fantasy and a future Ursula le Guin will not be able to imagine a world where there is no racism or sexism. Autobiography might be the only acceptable literature or perhaps there would be a cultural apartheid where writers and books only served their own communities.
In a western culture and society which has largely legislated for racial and sexual equality but not yet achieved it, there is a vociferous and necessary debate about the complex ways in which privileged positions are maintained including those in literature. The safe position to adopt would be not to write, not to speak but to hide one's thoughts. The result of that position would be not to learn, not to adapt, not to develop ideas and not to hope to change the world. Writers must write, thinkers think and speakers speak out for their beliefs. Questioning whether a particular writer understands what it is to be without privilege and not white is quite different to saying either, that if writers are white they must not write on this subject, or if they do, what they write will be biased. All writers have a bias and their readers will take that bias into account and judge them for it. Readers have their biases too and the writer's task is to challenge this fact.
Good books have been written about Africa by writers who were not African. John Le Carré wrote two books set in Africa, 'The Constant Gardener' and 'The Mission Song'. Barbara Kingsolver wrote 'The Poisonwood Bible'. Should a literary version of the Bechdel Test for movies be applied to these books? For example the number of black protagonists who are not servants, the ratio of main black characters to main white characters, even the blackness and cultural authenticity of the characters. Would black writers have to have the same questions asked of their books? The Bechdel Test fails movies where female characters are objectified or reduced to stereotypes. Good literature will have fully drawn characters and good plots and also be well written. 
Good writers do not write to a dictated political formula.
Good writing may however be political.
There are therefore questions I have to ask myself and to keep asking myself.
How am I to write today? What am I to write about? Who am I to write about? What am I? What kind of writer am I?