As has so often been my experience, just as I was about to write something, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro beats me to it. There was I, gathering my thoughts on the creative “climate of fear”, when he discusses just that – and when I’m still recovering from the universal rejection of my class-divide novel, Remains of the Pay.
Sir Kazuo has nailed it. I know from the offstage conversations I have with kidlit creators from many backgrounds that there is a palpable terror of writing/drawing/saying something “wrong” and duly being summonsed for cancellation in the Court of Social Media. This is generating a pervasive creative paralysis as creators angst over what is in fact “right”. I hope no-one intends to cause offence, deny opportunities or appropriate someone else’s story. But good intentions make a charming herbaceous border en route to hell and simply to say “I didn’t mean to” won’t stand up in Trial by Twitter.
Now a degree of fear is healthy – change doesn’t come from a comfortable place. These conversations are necessary and belated and we should all be doing our due diligence all the time. I’ve devoted much of lockdown to an internal performance review and, like my most recent bra-fitting, it came out a disappointing D (extensive work required at structural level and an urgent need for better outward support). I am striving to better educate myself, explore and challenge my own defaults, amplify others and generally not be an arse. It’s very much a work in progress.
Own Voices is a vital long overdue movement, of that there can be no doubt. We need more and diverse seats at this table to ensure that, as a creative community, we are finally representing all readers. But there is a contradictory irony that an initiative rightly promoting creator inclusivity, risks creative exclusivity if the logical extension is that you cannot write beyond your own lived experience.
I have grappled extensively with my responsibility as an author not to appropriate stories that aren’t mine to tell, versus my responsibility to reflect the diversity of my world and my readers. I don’t want to deny work to others within my industry who have a greater entitlement to it than I. And I don’t want to propagate within my readership the notion that only certain children qualify as the headliners for Maz Evans adventures.
Ishiguro puts it almost as well as I would. "We do have the obligation to teach ourselves and to do research and to treat people with respect if we're going to have them feature in our work," he says. "If I shrink back from something it's because I would doubt my ability to be able to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it."
This is exactly where I wobble atop my creative tightrope - fairness. If I can’t understand enough about it, I won’t write it – any more than I would write a book in French, just because I can seek directions to the bibliotheque. At this moment, I wouldn’t feel comfortable nor confident writing from the viewpoint of a character whose physical, mental, spiritual or circumstantial self is so far removed from my own that I couldn’t responsibly honour those who share it.
But then again, as I can never entirely be any of my characters – otherwise they’d all be D-cup, middle-aged whingebags – for me, it really boils down to a percentages game. I have to feel comfortable and confident that I know and/or empathise and/or understand and/or have learned enough to feel, as Ishiguro says, that I can write them fairly. It’s a flawed stratagem, I fully concede. By my own logic, there is a good case for me not writing outside my own gender or ethnicity, yet I have done both. But I am listening and I hope, learning on the job. And I’m fully prepared to accept I’ve got it “wrong”. I just need convincing of what is entirely “right”.
When exploring my viewpoints, I put them in simplistic, ego-centric terms. As a cis female how would I feel about a cis male writing an experience we could never share – childbirth? Actually, I’d be fine, so long as he diligently researched and accurately reflected the experiences of lots of people who’ve been through it. But then of course, I have the privilege of that stance as a white cis female in the majority publishing culture. Would I have the same bonhomie were I trying to break into an industry from which I feel excluded? Of course not – I’d welcome it like forceps.
And therein, I suspect, lies the answer. There are two co-related issues to address, crucially, in this order: a) diversity of creators and b) diversity of creativity. Perhaps issue b) may be less fearful and more nuanced once the more urgent a) has improved. Personally, I think it will be a duller creative future if we all have to stay in our lane. But it will be an infinitely worse one if we don’t expand the motorway.
Until then, the best I can do is listen, learn, write fairly and embrace my fears.
But for now I need to get back to writing my flatulent supervillains – before Sir Kazuo beats me to it. Again.
Maz Evans is the author of the Who Let the Gods Out? & Vi Spy series (Chicken House), The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife (Hachette) and Remains of the Pay (unpublished – all rights available).