Friday 6 September 2013

Up Close and Distant:

On writing about times and cultures not one’s own

A few years ago, I read Peter Ho Davies’wonderful novel, The Welsh Girl, set in North Wales during the Second World War. In the midst of a critical scene, the eponymous Welsh girl, under great duress and trying to stop someone doing something, says in Welsh, ‘nargois.’

Now, like Peter Ho Davies, I grew up with one Welsh-speaking parent, hearing Welsh around me but never learning to speak it properly. When I read the word ‘nargois,’ I could immediately hear the sound of the word in my mother’s voice. Phonetically, it was perfect. But something about it bothered me. I did some ferreting about and discovered three things.

First of all, the word we were both thinking about is not spelt ‘nargois’ but ‘nag oes.’ Secondly, it probably wasn’t the right word for the situation anyway. Welsh is a strange language, with no simple way of saying ‘no.’ You always have to say, “no, he hasn’t,” or “no, I don’t,” or whatever is appropriate in the context. In this case, what the Welsh Girl should have said was “Paid!” meaning ‘don’t!’ What she actually said was “No, I haven’t.”

The third thing I discovered was that Peter Ho Davies had written an article in the University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature Alumni Newletter 2010, in which he talks about his response to a reader who wrote pointing out the error. It wasn’t the only minor error in the text to have come to light after publication, he says, but it was, “the one that really nags, the one that nibbles away at the book’s particular authority over Welshness.”

It was with Davies’ experience in mind that I set out to find someone with a Punjabi-speaking South Asian background to comment on the manuscript for my novel, Ghost Town. The book is set, in part, among the British Asian community in Coventry – something I have no obvious ‘authority’ to write about. I have even used fragments of Punjabi – a language I don’t speak at all.

As an indie author, I have no publisher to help me with editorial support. The integrity of my manuscript is entirely down to the decisions I make during its preparation for publication. It's up to me to find the right people to work with to ensure that the book is not spoilt by any embarrassing (or worse, offensive) errors or cultural misunderstandings.

I was fortunate that, earlier this year, I’d met Kristine Landon-Smith, through her work with Freedom from Torture. Landon-Smith was, until recently, co-director of Tamasha Theatre, a group  set up in 1989 to showcase Asian-influenced theatre. It was Tamasha that first brought Ayub Khan Din’s brilliant East is East to the stage. Landon-Smith put me in touch with artistic director and co-founder of Tamasha Theatre, Sudha Bhuchar, who agreed to read the manuscript.

So was it worth going that extra mile to get things right?  Absolutely! I am pleased to say, I’d made far fewer serious errors than I expected. The silliest, probably, was knowing that ‘beta’ and ‘beti’ were endearments for male and female respectively, but not realising that they meant, literally, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ and were therefore entirely inappropriate between a husband and wife! Not catastrophic, maybe, but enough to spoil the scene’s authenticity.

Bhuchar also helped me add one or two vivid phrases – my favourite being, “Chak de Phate”, which means “raise the floorboards” – a rousing call used to get people dancing the Bhangra.

But most of all, she gave me confidence that I wasn’t being stupidly presumptuous to try and write about a culture not my own.

 An Author's Responsiblity

Just what is an author’s responsibility when it comes to writing about characters ‘distant’ from herself? I put the question to both Sudha Bhuchar and Peter Ho Davies.

“Authenticity implies a kind of straight jacket,” Bhuchar says. “It is more about making people uniquely themselves. I would say when a writer is from a background which is different to that or their characters, then it is their responsibility to get under the skin of those people, but also to check the nuances of speech, language, dialect and so on.”

Davies brought up a different point, in terms of authenticity of portraying historical events. For him, there are three strands to this – how ‘ethically charged’ a particular issue is, how historically distant, and how ‘fictionally distant’ – i.e. how many times it has been portrayed in the past.

“Getting something wrong, even accidentally, about the Holocaust, say, is an ethically charged issue,” says Davies. “On the other hand, at the other end of the scale, when I've written about historical figures like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I've felt much freer, in part because they've already been so fictionalized as to pass from the territory of history into that of legend.

“All of which is to say that the factual burden on a piece of fiction has a lot to do with what it purports to represent. If, say, it's the first representation of some ‘real’ event the burden is different than if it's the tenth or hundredth (in which case it’s in dialogue not only with the original ‘reality’ but also with intervening versions of that reality).

“I've been using the movie Zero Dark Thirty as a short-hand example of this. Some of the criticism (and perhaps praise) it received, I'd argue, came its way because, as the first depiction of those events, it seems (temporarily) definitive. In ten years, when those events have been depicted several times over, our relation to the first movie might be different, I suspect.”

The question of historical and fictional distance was of particularly relevance to me. The events in Ghost Town happened over thirty years ago and  fall into two strands. The smaller element of the book takes place in Brixton. The Brixton riots have been written about many times – in both fiction and in non-fiction – from the Scarman Report to Alex Wheatle’s novel East of Acre Lane. The media revisits the riots and their causes on every major anniversary.

On the other hand, the main part of the book takes place in Coventry, against the background of violent clashes between skinhead and Asian youths. Little known outside Coventry, these events have been portrayed twice, to my knowledge: in Bob Eaton’s play, Three Minute Heroes, at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 2000, and in the radio play by Sukhbender Singh, Concrete Jungle, broadcast on the BBC Asian Network in 2011. For most of the people who read Ghost Town, this may well be the first version they encounter.

I only lived tangentially through those events. Much of what I know was gleaned from comparatively thin newspaper accounts – the rest I filled in from my imagination. Inevitably, not every detail will be historically accurate – nor would it necessarily be right to try and do so in a piece of fiction.

So what is the writer’s responsibility?

Do your research, yes. Check your facts, yes. But ultimately, find that core of truth within the facts and portray that truth as honestly and sensitively as you know how.


  1. This is an excellent post, Kat. One which would be of benefit to every writer trying to portray peoples and cultures not their own.

  2. Excellent advice, Kat, very well put.

  3. Thank you, guys. As you can imagine, it's a topic that has occupied my mind quite a bit over the last few years!

  4. Completely agree with everything you've said here. Having spent two years trying to get into the head of 15-year-old Alesha from the streets of south London, I am all too aware of the temptation to let your imagination "fill in the gaps" in your knowledge, but it's so important that the foundations are formed from fact. I have a feeling your book is going to be well worth the wait...

  5. Thank you, Polly! I certainly hope so. It's all starting to feel horribly real now.