Broadly speaking, at least here in fairly progressive, egalitarian-ish, freedom-of-speech-y Canada, my right to write just about whatever I want, however I want, is not in dispute. Which is great for me, because when I cannot communicate or am not being listened to, I shrivel up inside and a little part of me begins to die.
Which is why it is important to consider both what I legally have the right to write and/or publish, and what I should MORALLY have the right to write and share.
Legally, I have the right to publish just about anything except hate speech, another person’s work, recommendations that people cause harm to themselves or others, or slander. Fair enough. I don’t want to write any of those things anyways.
Morally, the waters of artistic freedom become quite a bit muddier. Do I, for example, have the moral right to incorporate recognizable traits of real people in fiction, in doing so assuming or inventing their motives and private thoughts? What parts of a person truly belong to them? Their life story? Their thoughts/feelings? Their physical appearance and behavioural ticks? What parts of a real person, place, or experience am I allowed to use? Assuming that some of my work will always adapt or be influenced by people, places, and experiences that I encounter either in my own life or through the media, what would be the more moral course? Representing people, places, and experiences exactly as I perceive them (or exactly as they perceive themselves), or using artistic license to transform these things, creating something that I can bend to my narrative? What are the responsibilities that come with my rights to write, and to seek publication of this writing?
I think any conversation surrounding what I, as an artist, have an ethical green light to incorporate into my work needs to begin with a recognition that I am writing from a place of comparative privilege. Though I am a woman, and young (two strikes against me in a western literary canon still dominated by old males), there are many cultural privileges that go along with being white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, and dare I say, reasonably photogenic. Because of this, there are also some limitations as to what I can ethically and skillfully represent in my work.
For example, can I ethically or skilfully represent (in fiction) the experience of a culture or race different from my own? Maybe, but doing so would require not only careful and comprehensive research, but also an examination of my own motives for telling a story that is not mine. Do I want to tell this story because I feel a kind of personal connection to it, and feel that this is the story that is burning inside me to be told? Or do I want to tell this story because I want praise for writing about a “difficult” subject, or because I just want to expose the “beauty” of the Other, or because I believe that the true owners of the story are not equipped to tell it themselves? If my motives fall into any of the latter categories, I am not “engaging” with material or “exploring” it–I’m exploiting it. And that’s not okay with me. As I mentioned, when I cannot communicate or am not listened to, part of me shrivels and dies. Many cultures and marginalized groups have for centuries had the stories ripped from their mouths, and I don’t want to be part of the machine that consumes others’ stories, but never listens.
In some ways this is very freeing. It liberates me from the paralyzing idea that good or provocative writing cannot come from inside me, that it must be centered in a world (real or imagined) that is more “exotic”, more action-packed, or more thrilling than the one I inhabit. It also liberates me from the idea that my writing must contribute to some kind of social good by deliberately telling the story of a marginalized group. Don’t get me wrong–stories that have been relegated to the fringes need to be told, however, as my old theatre school chum (and literature PhD candidate) Lucia Lorenzi pointed out recently, what makes us think these marginalized groups aren’t capable of telling their stories themselves? If I want to do social good through my engagement with literature, it may, in fact, be a great idea for me to get out of the way and let people tell their own stories, and then, to make sure I read them. It is not necessarily for me to be the privileged mouthpiece of an unprivileged group. Maybe I just need to listen.
That said, I still want to write about that which intrigues and moves me. And even if I take some obvious topics out of the equation (at this time, for example, I do not feel even remotely equipped to tell a story about Indigenous people and the legacy of colonialism, or about the slave trade, or the effects of racism in the southern United States), I still find there is so much to explore that I haven’t personally experienced. I don’t personally know what it is to be physically or mentally ill. I don’t know what it is to be pregnant. I don’t know what it is to experience physical violence. I don’t know what it is to grow up without a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a parent. I don’t know what it is to be a man (or a boy). I don’t know what it is to be elderly, or to look a different way, or to be illiterate, or to be homeless. Does this mean I cannot tell stories that feature characters that have had these experiences? Am I relegated only to stories of white middle-class navel-gazing?
I hope not. I hope that when I write the empathy that I feel for my characters will allow me to tell their stories with fairness and grace, neither sanctifying nor condemning them, never relegating them to the role of the “mystical African American/Indigenous person/elderly Asian person/prostitute with a heart of gold/homeless person” who swoops in and solves the whiny protagonist’s personal crisis with some grand/folksy/poetic pronouncements on life. I hope that my ability to feel pain, fear, doubt, shame, anger, disappointment, love, joy, and grief will guide me through, even through those stories I’ve never experienced myself. If they can’t, I can’t see how I will grow as an artist.
I must remember that no one (not even a biographer) writes real people. They write a representation of them. There is art there. And art, at least in my practice, comes with both aesthetic and ethical responsibilities that I have no desire to eschew.