I listened to a very interesting talk on the ABC podcast “The Minefield” about literary fiction, non- fiction and which format is more conducive to truth telling. Given that my work is in academic research, which centres on truth and justification through evidence and rational reasoning, I was very surprised when the guest Christos Tsiolkas, a novelist and playwright said that it’s fiction that can tell more truth than non-fiction.
One of the reasons that Tsiolkas gave is that through fiction, the specific experiences and emotions of the characters are made known in a way that evoke the truth about those experiences and emotions for the readers. In that way, it is not so much about the actual characters, plot, stories shift, settings and voices that are the “truth”, but rather, that these elements speak to the truth in a more generalised way. Tsiolkas’ premise is that truth is something that is not universal, therefore can be objective or objectified typically through non-fiction. Truth, rather, is dependent on the mind and can be subjective or relative to the people to whom the stories are told.
I have been thinking about Tsiolkas’ claim for a long time.
I want to first explore this idea of “truth” telling in the context of “cultural appropriation” in fiction writing.
There are those like Lionel Shriver that argue it is okay for fiction writers to write on minority cultures and that “cultural appropriation was opposed to the spirit of fiction”. Then, there are those, like Yassmin Abdel-Magied that argue in doing so, fiction writers “celebrate the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”
This debate on cultural appropriation is about the issue of identity of the minority groups. Shriver would argue that the problem of cultural appropriation is identity politics. It stifles the freedom of writers and narrows the scope of writing and creativity. Abdel-Magied would argue that telling stories about minority groups rob the voice of the minority writers who could not write or publish. It is not appropriate for white writers to ride on the coat tails of the experiences of the minority groups that are marginalised and profit from it, thereby perpetuating the hegemony by allowing the former to continue to have the stage and the microphone.
I can’t help but sense a familiarity to anthropological research practiced in the early to middle twentieth century, that usually involved an Anglo-American or European working in a small isolated community in a remote area of the world, often in Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East with a group of people who often lived without modern amenities, had little or no formal education, and existed at a modest if not impoverished economic level, and then they reported on that cultural group as exotic stories from the Far East.
There is a deep moral issue here between the freedom to write and the responsibility to others when one chooses to exercise that freedom. The question is more than about representation of the people whom writers write about but who can be represented and who can write the representation and for whose benefits? This is also the point that Tsiolkas was trying to make in that there is something to be said about literary fiction and moral life. It is a philosophical question that never gets debated because of the politicisation of cultural appropriation itself.
I now want to draw on my own experience as a writer and a reader to ponder on the ultimate question: “How we can know an experience we have not had?”
Given my Vietnamese refugee background, whenever I read literary fiction about Vietnamese refugees written by Vietnamese authors in the diaspora, there is always something that strike me deeply. Perhaps, it’s the use of words, Vietnamese words woven into English words; or descriptions of small incidents that immediately take me somewhere back into my deep chasm of memories that I thought I had forgotten. It is almost as if the words are written for me.
There is also a sense of alliance between the Vietnamese writer and me because they have been where I have been. As writers and readers, we connect deeply through the real world. I recall Nam Le’s life at sea, what the child saw on the boat, or that the word “boat” resonates a familiarity that is deeply experiential about that time we di vuot bien (go across the sea). I also feel a sense of embeddedness within Emma Cao’s reflection on father-child relationship as nuoc duc (murky water) to nuoc trong (something is better than nothing) as my own fishing for memories about my father.
These experiences speak to me because I have lived them, and I know the authors have lived them. Somewhere in that space of reading, we share the language of experiences that is more than just words that have been crafted to stories on those pages. For me, the world is not imagined. It is real.
As a writer, and I have only written on the experiences of Vietnamese people that came to my research. As written in an early blog, I could only write on these people’s experiences as I imagined them to be, but I can only do so because I too have travelled the journeys that they have. The idea of representation becomes not methodological problem but an identity problem of what is and can be represented or who can represent or be represented. I could not tell their stories if I was not also a Vietnamese who struggled with identity issue, cultural norms issues and geographical and geopolitical positions which I was put into.
So, as a writer, I grappled with the idea of identity as a moral as well as practical problem. How can we not as writers who create characters and tell stories? Unless we see ourselves as outside the stories that we write, and that literary fiction serve as mere instruments for the craft of writing to which we bear no responsibility for.