Whose voice is whose?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voice Array, Subsculpture 13", 2011. "Recorders", Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Voice Array, Subsculpture 13”, 2011. “Recorders”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Writers have a platform. A platform is a voice. Voice is influence.

Whether your audience is one or one million, what you say (and the way you say it) has lasting impact, not only in the minds of those who consume it firsthand but also as a fleck on the wider canvas of cultural commentary.

We live in an age immensely conscious of voice, arguably more so than any era that has come before. This is the time of struggle for equality; of wrestling out the vast complexities of privilege and poverty, the established and the transient, the dominating and the dominated.

As such the concept of voice is under greater debate now than ever before. This creates a vast shifting tension between points of difference, as we dig deeper to unveil the true core of the conundrum of inequality.

What is privilege? What does it mean to be represented, faithfully or otherwise? Who has the right to tell what stories and how? These are questions shaping the way we engage with narrative of all kinds, moulding the way writers write and readers read.

At the National Writers’ Conference in Melbourne last year, two authors sat on a panel titled “Voices on a Page”, both young; one female, one male. One Arab-Australian the other Anglo-Australian. One spoke about dialogue and the other about rights. Even with only two artists weighing in on the topic, various and completely alternate interpretations of ‘voice’ were explored.

The discussion about privilege took precedent, eliciting the strongest emotional reactions from the panelists and the audience. It became clear that one writer was writing with the mission to proclaim identity and while the other wrote to explore it. Questions of narrative ‘rights’ and responsibilities became heated, not just between the panelists but between audience members as well. There was a point where I glanced around to make sure an exit was nearby, in case things got out of hand.

Now, riot-inducing panel sessions are not something we expect from writing conferences these days (though maybe we should) as people tend to steer clear of these raw issues for lack of a concrete grasp of their own thoughts. Because when we burrow down through the politically correct lingo and vitriol, we must ask ourselves, and each other, what we really mean by terms like ‘privilege’, ‘rights’ and ‘identity’. After all, whose voice is whose?

One author went as far as to say we are not entitled to write from any voice except our own, that when we try to interpret the world of others, we undermine their authenticity.

Do you agree?

The other emphasised the scope available to writers in observing and understanding other worlds and other voices, in interpreting them through the multifaceted lens of society and in doing so exploring alternate perceptions.

Again it comes down to this concept of representation, a topic I explored in greater depth in this article about Patricia Arquette’s now-infamous Oscar speech.

While I agree that representation should be wider spread, I believe this is a fundamentally complex issue that is only just now beginning to unfold and take shape. If we are not open to other perspectives on our own voice I fear we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be part of a diverse community, finding our own identity within the wider collage of lives and voices that make up our society.

Writing, in its essence, is art. Art is not only life, it is the lens that enables us to see ourselves from angles we can’t reach on our own.

Could Vladimir Nabokov write from Humbert Humbert’s eyes without being a pedophile? Could Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina’s without being a rich society girl? Could J. K. Rowling write the voice of Harry Potter without being a 13 year old boy? Could George Martin write Cersei Lannister without being a female, a mother and an incestuous sibling?

When artists toil over ‘voice’ and ‘narrative rights’, are they only referring to gender, race and class? Or should we accept that the discussion simply isn’t that straightforward, and that privilege and voice come in all shades of grey?

We need to maintain an open mind when it comes to deciding, as a global artistic body, what we can and can’t do. Without a solid definition of this slippery concept, we cannot, in all honesty, accuse one another pell-mell of discrimination and inauthenticity.

I agree that there is no black and white solution. What some people call archetype, others will call stereotype. What some people call privilege, others will call restriction. What some people deem authentic, others will denigrate as derivative.

So where is the middle ground?

In the end, as I’ve said before, good writing is good writing. A good writer will not take on a voice that they are unable to faithfully render, or at least render in a fresh and valid perspective. There must be a cohesive balance between creativity, observation, and respect. Yes, we need greater diversity in our narrative casts, but not by means of forced contrivance. Yes, we need to find representation for a wider span of voice, but not at the expense of stripping others of their right to creative expression.

In Robert McKee’s brilliant discourse on Story, he discusses exactly this universal application of characterisation, and the responsibility story-tellers have to render authentic human experiences.

“Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity…to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.”

Exploring voice is one of the primary reasons humans read and write, and engage in the act of telling stories. Voice should not be a restrictive category; it should enable authors to explore the nuance of worlds that are both far and near to our own, to mine the complexities of life and in doing so find the answers to how our own life should be lived.

McKee goes on to articulate this.

“Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?”

As authors, let’s not use voice as a way to marginalise, but instead to open up, to ourselves and others, the incredibly vast spectrums of human experience. Let’s commit to authentic and deliberate renderings, to considered and thoughtful approaches, and provide the world with the profound and delicate emotional experiences that come from stepping into another mind.

Your voice is valid. Use it.

 

Elise Janes

 

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