The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

The Woolf Quarterly held WriteCon Zürich Autumn 16 last weekend.

A wonderful, stimulating day of ideas and discussion where 30 writers came together to learn and share.

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Origami bookshelves by Sarah Buchmann

Lindsey Grant guided her group through the complexities of writing Memoir and Non-Fiction. This is a subject which requires an experienced tutor with an awareness of how traumatic some personal experiences can be.

Thankfully, as an ex Program Director of NaNoWriMo and memoirist herself, she steered a professional course between sharing individual stories and keeping the group focused.

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Memoir & Non-Fiction workshop

In the Fiction Masterclass, Jason Donald packed structure, story, plot and prose into one intensive day.

Tragedy begins with harmony and ends with chaos. Comedy is the reverse.

His insights into Plot v. Story, the difference between the Hero/Heroine’s Journey and the significance of subplots intrigued me.

Main plot carries story, sub plot carries theme

In the afternoon session, we turned our attention to our own writing. Jason asked us to edit 3-5 pages of our work in progress.

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Fiction Masterclass

First we weeded out all the bad habits (every author has a crutch in terms of words, phrases or sentence structure). Next we whipped out all those unnecessary filters.

Felt, wondered, decided, seemed are all filter words which distance the reader.

Finally, participants worked in pairs to create fresh, surprising prose.

This exercise was such a success, I’m sharing it here.

Write down ten words which express emotional states in your story. Eg, frustration, loneliness, jealousy, passion, triumph…

Write down ten words which appear in the environment of your storyworld. Eg, ice, sea-salt, wind, fur, shells…

Take one from each list and combine them into a sentence, using an image featuring the latter to evoke the former. Don’t mention the emotion, just hint at it. Write five sentences, sometimes a question or a negative. Amongst them, you’ll find one you can use or develop.

Hermit crabs scuttled their shells sideways at his approach, as if even they shunned him.

Her smile, sea-salt in his wounds, expressed nothing more than pity.

Swap lists with a partner. Give them your lists and see what five combinations they create.

 

Finally, writing workshops always result in such fabulous goodies!

Origami books, a syringe pen and a dead body pen holder. My kind of weekend.

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