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

 

The Leak

Sun-Through-Hole-In-Roof-of-Engine-Shed-at-Bahnbetriebswerk-Pankow-Heinersdorf

There was a leak in my ceiling. The ceiling paint chipped where the water pooled and the drops dripped heavy and glistening, straight into my bathtub. At least I wouldn’t need a bucket. The drops were consistent; I counted about 10 seconds between each. I was standing in the bathroom doorway brushing my teeth when I first noticed it. Every drop echoed in the porcelain bath and through the hallway.

I’ve lived in this house for four months, but every room already has a broken fixture or fault. The stove broke on the first day. The keys got stuck in both locks on the second. The next week, the tap handles in the kitchen broke and the week after that one of the floorboards snapped beneath my feet. In all instances, the real estate agent took their sweet time to act on the issues. That’s what you get for hurriedly signing the lease for an old Queenslander house for too-good-to-be-true weekly rent. But it was close to work and was as far away from my ex as possible.

I was having a rough year. And to top it all off, I hadn’t sold any of my pictures since I moved in. I just had nothing new and people just weren’t interested in my old stuff anymore. The house was bad luck and I blamed everything on the real estate.

I stared at the leak a bit more while chewing on a piece of toast. I would have stared at it all day if didn’t have to go to work. Staring at my ceiling didn’t seem like a good enough excuse to take the day off.

When I drove to work I couldn’t help but think about the leak. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had lived in an apartment on the bottom floor. Someone could have left a tap on too long, or a pipe could have burst. But I lived in a house. Sure, an old crappy house but there was no reasonable explanation for it. There was nothing above me but a roof and the sky.

I discussed the leak on my break. A few people came to a conclusion, that it was just left over from a previous rainstorm and had matured in my ceiling, slowly rotting the timber and curling the paint.

“Are you sure?” I asked them.

“Yeah,” said one co-worker, “it happened to my brother not so long ago. He just let it drip out – didn’t even need to call a plumber.”

“So I’ll just have to wait it out then?”

“I guess.”

When I drove home, I couldn’t help but notice the blue sky. It was an interesting contrast to the brown fields and crinkling forests. It hadn’t rained in this town for months. It flooded around the same time I moved in and my paintings stopped selling. Maybe I was cursed.

I stood in my bathroom doorway again, counting the drops. It was now 8 seconds between each, and the drips were no longer a hollow sound on the porcelain bath. The drips slapped into a pool of water that had grown while I was away. The plug was out of the bath (I don’t even think I had a plug) so there would have been blockages in the pipes as well. But with only 8 seconds between each drop I wasn’t too worried. It took only a day to fill a quarter of the bath. I could wait till tomorrow to find a plumber.

But just my luck when I woke up in the morning the leak had increased – now 5 seconds between each. And the bath, well, it was the first time I had ever seen it full. And the water was clear, beautifully crystal clear. If it had been manifesting in my ceiling I would have expected it to be dirty and full of rot. What sort of leak was this?

I rang the agent as I watched the drops splat into the bath. They put me on hold for five minutes. Then there was a cheery hello.

“Yes hello,” I said boldly, “I would like to get a plumber over my place as soon as possible please.”

“No problems at all, which house are you from?” said the too-cheery voice and I was a bit insulted that they didn’t already know me by now. A plumber was organised anyway and would be at my place between 11am and 1pm tomorrow.

The plumber arrived at 1:15pm and we both stood in the doorway of my bathroom, staring at the leak.

“That’s damn clear water.” He said.

“Damn clear.” I said. “Can you fix it?”

“The easiest thing to do is it just let it leak out.”

“How long will that take?”

“Depends on the size of water in the ceiling.”

“Ok.” I said and just stood around while the plumber fixed the blocked pipes in the bath.

“Really shouldn’t take longer than a week.”

A week?” I said, shocked that I would have to endure drips and splats echoing though the hallway and in my dreams for a week.

“Don’t stress yourself over it.” The plumber said and left. I think he stole my pen.

That night I drowned in my dreams and the next morning I woke up in a sweat. Maybe the plumber was right; maybe I’m just going insane. I got up and walked to the bathroom. Strangely, the pipes were clogged up again, and the bath was full. 2 seconds between each drip now. And the ceiling was almost curved a little… like it was only just now heaving under the weight of the water. And the bathroom floor wasn’t any better. I stepped on one tile and the whole floor creaked like it was screaming from my touch. This wasn’t good. But I had an idea, and I grabbed my camera. This was the first bit of inspiration I’d had all year.

I waited for about an hour before the water in the ceiling finally broke through. It poured into my bathroom like a waterfall. The pressure from the water buckled the floor and the room crashed in on itself. The mirror smashed and the walls cracked and split. A palm tree fell in through the window. There was now a hole in the ceiling was the leak had been, and the sun was shining through.

I took a picture. I took a few. The rest of the house was still sturdy, but maybe not for long. Maybe I would sell the picture, and earn thousands. I would definitely get some sort of insurance pay out. But, either way, I’d have to call the agent and inform them of the situation. I hoped they would remember me by now.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

Are you sick about hearing about feminism in fiction?

Women, right? They’re always prattling on about something. Wanting something. A Black Widow movie. Equal rights. The ability to express an opinion online without getting death threats. So needy, amiright? Everyone knows once you’ve declared something has happened (gender equality), you’ve done all the heavy lifting and everyone should just carry on the way they’re going, with no further inconvenience. So what’s with the constant barrage of people tweeting/blogging/otherwise ranting about female characters in fiction? THIS IS SETTLED ALREADY. EVERYTHING’S FINE NOW.

Buffy-Willow-season-4-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-1272084-1859-2560Sarcasm aside, I’m a feminist but even I sometimes feel tired when I see yet another blog dissecting female characters in a book or film and bemoaning the state of the industry. Sure, you’ve got female characters, but are they strong enough? How’s their agency? Are they TOO strong – caricatures, or just men with tits? Sufficiently and realistically flawed? How about Joss Whedon, is he an ally or part of the problem? I mean, I googled something about Frozen the other day* and ended up reading dozens of opposing articles about whether it’s a good feminist movie or a bad one, whether the characters are good for women or not, whether it subverts tropes or reinforces them. It’s exhausting.** As a writer, it seems terrifying – so many chances to get it wrong.

But never fear, dear readers. I have a solution to all this agonising.

Just put more women in.

Seriously. It’s not that hard. Forget about obsessing over your female characters, trying to work out if they meet all the criteria. Spoiler alert: there’s no settled criteria and you’ll never please everyone.

I mean yes, your women should have agency (by which I mean, they should not be passive little lilypads bobbing on the sea of your plot – they should make decisions and take actions which drive the plot), but that’s about your writing, not about your women – ALL interesting characters have agency. No, they shouldn’t be clichés; but again, that’s because clichés are boring writing. If you’re writing stories where your characters have no agency and/or they’re all clichés, you might just be a shit writer, not a bad feminist.

If you can look at your own work and see common traits in most of your female characters that isn’t just the shape of their genitals, you’ve probably got a problem, and that problem is you’re being thoughtless and lazy. This is true whether that trait is submissiveness, red hair, sarcasm, massive upper body strength or bad BO. If you only write ‘strong women’ and you think that means ‘women who aren’t like those other crappy women – hey, I hate sewing!’ you’re contributing to the problem as much as someone who only writes women as props for men. You don’t beat this problem by writing women who epitomise traditional femininity or tear it down – you beat it by writing BOTH. ALL.  Gender isn’t the most important or interesting thing about a character – it’s not even up there in the top 10.

Just put more women in.

Write women into a bunch of roles in your story – God, maybe lash out and make it something like half the roles, since, I dunno, that’s the reality of the world we live in?***

Cos here’s the magic of my solution – you don’t need to panic that your female characters don’t perfectly embody the right amount of strength and the right number of flaws and are likeable but not too likeable!! and are sex positive but not all about the boobies if you don’t make all of this crazy difficult juggling act rest on the shoulders of only a couple of ladies. Spread the load! Write women in powerful and powerless and power-indifferent positions. Make them nice and naughty and jerks and generous and spoilt and clever and clueless and every other character trait that people routinely, without thought, apply to male characters. Write them young and old and fat and hot and thuggish and graceful.  Write them all over the gender spectrum. Write them from different backgrounds and cultures and with different priorities. Because the thing is, women are just people, and people are not all interesting in the same ways. They don’t have to each of them be perfectly imperfect if there are only enough of them.

Just put more women in.

We wouldn’t need to scrutinise every word Black Widow says if there were dozens of female superheroes on screen. We wouldn’t have to worry about Bechdel and Mako Mori and teeth gnashing about writing strong women if women were just routinely given as much screen/page time as men. Every woman in Buffy didn’t need to be free of problematic traits from a feminist perspective, simply because there were plenty of them in there, and they were all different. If you’re sick of all the constant analysis, know this: we all have the power to actually make this issue retreat, not by getting every female character ‘right’ but by having enough of them that it’s absurd to even lump them together just because they’re women. The discussion would just go away.

Like magic.

Now go forth and populate your stories with so many ladies I never have to think seriously about whether Elsa is a triumph or a disaster.


 

  • Don’t ask me why. I have 2 small boys and Frozen is part of parenting now.

** Yes, I know, I could have NOT kept reading. Shut up, I have poor impulse control and the internet has a hold on me, all right?

*** I too am a fantasy writer so yes, you could make up a world that has a different gender balance – but you should probably only do that if it’s a genuine part of the ‘what if’ associated with your story. Don’t just do it because your default position is ‘white man’. There shouldn’t be a default position. (But that’s a rant for another time).

 

Sam Hawke

 

Sam Hawke is a Canberra-based author who has recently been signed with agent Julie Crisp, formerly of Tor UK.

This piece was originally published on her blog, samhawkewrites.com

A Family Of Wolves

My family is loud. They’re the ones you hear howling across the restaurant, spilling drinks and laughing at their own jokes. They’re the ones who growl in movie theatres, and feel the need to yell during phone calls. No emotions are held back in my family. If you are upset you explain why and crying is done in waves, not ripples.

My mother is the loudest of them all. Her laugh can be heard through oceans, her voice strong, not shrill. But by some strange fate I was born an introvert into this family. My heart grew in a box, and my voice slid through my throat like a rusty piece of wire. In large crowds I would shake and stammer while my feet sunk into the dirt.

When I was young with a stutter my mother was my guide. She would finish my struggling sentences with a confident string of elegant words. She wouldn’t consider herself a poet yet in my young eyes she was.

But shame crawled under my skin when I was forced to speak on my own. I was not one to pull words together quickly, and when I struggled I could see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of the time my silence and short sentences were mistaken for idiocy.

I still have rust in my stomach. I still can’t howl. Where did this weak blood come from?

My dad is not the loudest of the pack, but when he talks, people listen. He knew mum couldn’t be my poet forever, but he didn’t want me to learn to howl the way she had learned.

So dad told me a story.

When he was growing up he saw a man get stabbed outside a coffee house in broad daylight. Dad was 15 and had never ridden his bike so fast home in his life. But he said that still wasn’t as bad as what my mum had been through.

Your mother wasn’t always loud, dad said, she wasn’t always a poet. Her voice, too, was once confined by vines, and other voices had choked her own words in her throat.

Animal-Black-Wolf-Extinct-Pennsylvania-AnimalsDad said while mum never saw a man brandish a knife, she knew a man that was similar in character. At the time she had called the relationship complicated, like oil and water. She loved to preserve peaches and cherries and artichoke hearts in mason jars, but she hadn’t known how to preserve herself. She would tiptoe over eggshells to be the Rose for this man, but this man only offered up thorns. My mum was lost in a pit of despair and false love but it was not my father who pulled her out of it. Dad said there was only one other in our family who had smelt the oncoming storm. She was the only one who had intervened.

I used to hide at the very end of tables at big family gatherings. But there was another who hid at the other end. My grandma was always under a shadow. My proud Welsh grandpa would always growl a comment on everything in the conversation. My grandma would just nod and sit in silence. I didn’t know that she had a howling bone in her at all.

But my grandma snapped when she saw the bruises on my mums face. So my grandma began to hunt at dusk, stalking the man through the back streets and searching for weaknesses in his house of thorns. She spent many nights creeping in her familiar shadows. She was the one of the best, dad said.

One night with a full moon above her head, my grandma crept out of her shadows. The man was limping home and smelt all bloody and bitter. Although my grandma’s howl was quiet, she was efficient in snapping bones, slashing tendons, and tearing flesh. She torched the house of thorns and growled at my grandpa until they moved across the country.

Even though my mother was safe, she still had thorns in her. It took a long time for her to heal. But my grandma never let her forget that she was a wolf and that she should howl like one.

Your blood’s not weak, my dad said. You can howl loudly or you can howl quietly, but you always have the choice. He said, don’t ever forget you’re a wolf too.

 

Ashlee Poeppmann

 

The Cringe welcomes writer Ashlee Poeppmann to the team! Look for more of Ashlee’s short fiction in the coming months.