Monday musings on Australian literature: On labelling writers

Today’s post was inspired by a tweet from Aminatta Forna which led me to an article she’d written titled “Don’t judge a book by its author”. The Guardian led the article with the following pull quote:

I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer …

It’s a fascinating article that raises some meaty issues. It is, I recognise, about writers and writing in general, not just Australian, but I’ve decided to  write about it in my Monday Musings series because it touches on some issues I’ve talked about here before.

But first, Forna’s main thesis … it’s that labelling (or classifying) is “the very antithesis of literature”. She starts with the practice of labelling writers. Now, I admit, I am guilty of this. I have categories and/or tags on my blog for “women writers”, “Australian writers”, and so on. I’m a librarian/archivist by training and I find classification useful to support searches for specific information. Forna would possibly ask why we might want to search by such labels or categories, but I’ll come to that later.

As a librarian/archivist, I also know the limitations of categorising. How, for example, do you categorise Forna herself? She was born in Scotland to a Sierre Leonian father and a Scottish mother. She has lived in several countries but now lives in London, I believe. I decided, somewhat uncomfortably, to opt for British writer. We librarians also know about the implications of categorising, and Forna explores some of this too. The white male writer, she says, is “the only one called simply ‘writer'”. This is all very interesting, but is just the entrée to her main point, and to the main reason I wanted to talk about her article here … so let’s move on.

She argues that labels are the antithesis of literature because “the way of literature is to seek universality”, while labels are limiting. She uses the example of China Achebe who is “often called the grandfather of African literature”. As labels go, she argues, it isn’t the worst that could have been “pinned” on him, but the problem is that he “often found his universal themes overlooked in favour of an ethnographic reading” of his novel Things fall apart. Forna’s point is that

Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places.

This certainly rings true for her own The hired man, which I reviewed last week. She provides very little detail about the particular war it concerns, but focuses instead on its impact on people.

This sense of limitation extends further, however, as Forna explains. She posted, she said, a question on Facebook:

Where did the new orthodoxy arise that writers must only set stories within their own country of origin or nationality?

If you’re a regular reader here, the penny might now have dropped regarding why I am writing about this article here. It relates to my discussion last year concerning white Australians writing about indigenous Australians. I quoted Margaret Merrilees expressing concern about non-Aboriginal writers fearing “‘appropriating’ Aboriginal experience”. Forna reports that one respondent to her Facebook post, British (ha, she labels this writer!) writer Linda Grant, suggested

it’s about authenticity … And probably came in with post-colonial studies. If white people can’t appropriate the experiences of the oppressed for fiction then it no longer becomes possible for anyone to write outside their own experience.

Forna then quotes another writer, the Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, continuing this point:

What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.

I think you get the drift without my going on. The political issue, as we’ve discussed before, has a lot to do with power. It requires sensitivity and awareness, if you’re the majority, but it should not deter writers from exercising their imagination. Forna talks about “authenticity” – and some writers’ fear that they can’t authentically write about a “culture” not their own. But what is authenticity, she asks, and who’s the judge.

I’m not going to continue with Forna’s argument here, because you can read it yourself, except to say that Forna concludes that “a novel is a work of imagination” in which the writer offers to take the reader on a journey. It’s a journey, she says, in which the novelist uses imagination to show readers something they have not seen before, and in which, readers, in return, bring their own experiences and imagination. I like it …

We have though moved quite a long way from the initial point regarding labelling and classification. Forna does return briefly to it suggesting that “sometimes we need labels just to describe the thing we are talking about”. I’d agree. I’d also say that sometimes we need labels for practical reasons, such as to identify issues or problems and right them. We Australians, for example, need to hear indigenous stories, but if disadvantage, prejudice and/or the commercial imperative mean these stories don’t get out, then we need to find those writers and support them. To do that we need to label them – don’t we?

42 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: On labelling writers

  1. Marvellous post, Sue.

    I don’t know that I can provide an ‘argument’ as such, only a few further thoughts to the shifting ground you’ve already so ably covered.

    To take Forna’s idea of universality a little further, I often think that storytelling (i.e. literature) continues because of this paradox: that we find ever more particular and unique and individual ways of rendering the universal. I also believe storytelling is subject to a further paradox (excuse me if I’m repeating myself!) in that, by accepting a story and passing it on (or writing a review or encouraging others to read a certain book), someone else’s story has passed into our own experience, our own identity. We forget and discard the stories that don’t matter to us, but with those we care about, we first APPROPRIATE, however respectfully, and then we RE-SHARE. In this way, storytelling and literature are both proprietorial and egalitarian. And this has been going on ever since mythologies were passed between cultures and modified in the process.

    Labelling is a vexed question, because it arises out of peoples’ desires to understand, on the one hand, and to control or subjugate on the other. The one does not necessarily imply or require the other, but they can also coincide if insufficient openness and respect is applied, as you and Forma have both mentioned.

    In a contemporary literary context, I understand, anecdotally, that British publishers will not accept manuscripts from Commonwealth writers whose works are set in the UK. There are recent examples, and I won’t call their literary merit into question, where the converse has been perfectly acceptable to the same publishers and, indeed, some of them have gone on to be highly decorated. And apart from the one very recent counter-example I know of (the very deserving Annabel Smith) the American market remains all-but closed to subjects that don’t deal with America. It’s a cruel world, isn’t it?

    Place, as such, means very little in literary or even personal terms (aren’t they the same thing?!) without that place informing a personal identity and viewpoint, which is then communicated through language. To receive that communication and respond to it, and to then perhaps go on and reiterate it, must always require empathy and sensitivity. Which is surely the basic requirements of any reader or writer of serious literature, and surely what Forna meant when speaking of writing about people, not places.

    • Wow, Glen, that’s a great response …

      I like your discussion of how we appropriate stories, take what we like, and re-share.

      I also like and agree with your comment on labelling … That “it arises out of peoples’ desires to understand, on the one hand, and to control or subjugate on the other”. The latter isn’t always bad, either, when it comes to information, but when it comes to people, then that’s a problem.

      I hadn’t heard that about British publishers, nor American. One is inclined to wonder whether the former might be about fashion and the latter about insularity. It will be interesting to see if anyone responds to your info.

  2. Great conversation to have Sue. Books need categorisation so that someone who loves to read, say, Australian historical fiction, can find what they are looking for with ease but I do find the classification of authors to be a little disturbing. It has a way of misleading readers. Oh, I remember writer X, they might think, I love the way she writes erotica. They’ll be greatly disappointed to discover that the book they have chosen by writer X is about a ghoulish crime that occurs on a fictional space station. Then again, some writers do like to be pigeon-holed and that is why they use an alternative name when they write something outside of their known genre. I would prefer book-buyers to have a good look at what the book is about and base their buying on that, rather than on what they may think they know about the author. Good to have this open for discussion to see what people think about the subject.

    • Thanks Karenlee. It’s a good thing to think about I think … And to target your categorisation towards a positive end though of course you can sometimes have no control over something you started for one purpose and ends up being used for another. But as you say, readers often like categories. Public libraries used to mostly just shelve alphabetically by author and maybe still do, but they might produce lists for genres. Book shops I’ve noticed vary greatly and can be most confusing! Their focus is first to sell … I find what they do fascinating, and sometimes mystifying!

  3. Aminatta FORNA is definitely onto something here. And brava, WG, for tackling it so well. (Kamila SHAMSIE btw a favourite of mine – for illuminating some aspects of Afghanistan/Pakistan I think – some years ago – when a nephew was in military service in the former.) Back to your discussion on labelling – if that is what it is to point out aspects of background and ethnicity and gender. In the early 1980s I was doing my own explorations of Australian writing seeking within that label writers who examined our society from within the skins of those many differences – to get the shades of understanding of our social history from those best placed to “see” it. I’m not talking of auto/biography – but of the literary re-working of that experience in fiction. Initially there were only a couple of other list-makers I came across: Peter LUMB and Loló HOUBEIN – both of South Australia and Sneja GUNEW then of Deakin U. To a very limited degree I joined them – my purpose being to alert readers – though strongly so in the educational sphere – to alert teachers – to the growing wealth of writers and stories reflective of the experiences of being an immigrant or refugee out of English-speaking but more particularly non English-speaking backgrounds – and extending to writers of the Indigenous experience. That was back in the early to mid-1980s and a little beyond. And then my personal focus became the study of Japanese (to teach it) and two decades almost in Japan itself. And when I came back to Australia – not quite six years ago – those labels and niches seemed to have disappeared. Australian writing in some senses seemed to me to have come of age – to have matured. This blog, that of Jonathan SHAW – the review pages of the major newspapers convince me of that. I still think that I want to know who the latest Australian writer – or Scottish-born and raised with a Sierra Leone parent – might be. As I am interested in the back-story of my new neighbour or my seat companion on the bus!

    • Thanks Jim … Yes, that’s the main value I think, to bring to the fore writers who are not the mainstream and who tend to otherwise get lost in the mainstream. Specialised awards are a form of labelling aren’t they ie for women writers or indigenous writers. Those writers are eligible for other awards but I’m not averse to some affirmative action even if it means labelling.

      • Exactly! Ms FORNA’s views add another layer of thinking – yet we do need the broader categorisations to alert us!

        • Oh dear … I MUST NOT respond to comments using my iPad. I’ve just fixed all that gobbledygook. I can’t understand how it happens when I feel I’ve been watching what is appearing! Clearly not – or some gremlins get in between when I hit submit and when it appears here!!

          Anyhow, thanks Jim for the confirmation that at least something I said in there made sense to you!

  4. Categories are useful but only up to a point. And perhaps that point is where a reader opens a book and begins to read. Beyond that point, the categories cease to be useful and the text should be judged only on its merits. The categories might help us to choose what we read but it doesn’t seem to me that the categories help us to assess what we read.

  5. Great subject for debate! I think I disagree with Forna. I need to understand where an author is coming from to evaluate what they are saying. For instance, I really distrust McCall Smith’s rendering of a relatively unsophisticated black woman protagonist, however sympathetically portrayed, in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
    And I am sure white writers, and painters, should stay out of the Aboriginal space while they develop a voice or voices of there own.

      • Yes, good question Jane. I don’t think there can be rules about what sort of characters a writer can write but a sensitive writer will be aware of the ground they are treading on. Your indigenous character in Wrong turn was well done. A bit less controversial to take on, I suspect, because you set it in the future, but you still clearly thought about it – and wanted to show a future with indigenous people being, well, people, i.e. part of society with no particular notice taken of “difference”.

      • Short answer to Jane Rawson. No. But I definitely need to know whose eyes I am looking through. And I largely distrust, or at least discount, white men writing from any viewpoint not their own, ie. black or female. I have the same problem with historical novels, but that’s for another day.

        • Thanks for responding Bill … I have mixed feelings about “needing” to know the eyes I am looking through. It probably depends a bit on the circumstance. Also, how much can we ever know those eyes really – even if we have the real name and some amount of biography of the writer? I do understand though where you are coming from. It’s a very murky area.

    • I think Bill, regarding your second point, that’s where issues on power and sensitivity to what you are doing if you are in the space comes into play. You need to be very honest and upfront about it … Those literary and artistic hoaxes where a creator from a majority culture pretends to be someone else are a real concern. It’s less so in the reverse eg we accept George Eliot’s taking a male name in order to be heard, don’t we? The “rules” are slippery.

      I generally like to think my main focus is the text not the creator, though it is hard to completely divorce the two. McCall Smith is a tricky example because he is a white male writing as a coloured woman, and so falls into that sensitive power paradigm. How important is intention? How important is the fact that he has lived in Botswana? How important is the fact that we know who he is?

    • I meant to add, too, re McCall Smith, that there are two people in all this – the writer and the reader. I often talk about the need for “sophistication” in readers. We are talking about fiction and imagination here so we readers need to think about what that means, what the limits are, what we take away from a work as “truths”. I don’t generally read light fiction, but it was, for several years, a family holiday tradition to read the next Detective Agency book on our annual beach holiday. The “universal truths” I took away from it had little to do with notions of Botswanan womanhood, or of Botswana at all, but about things like wisdom, warmth, generosity and natural justice.

  6. Hi – on the subject of non-Aboriginal writers writing about Aboriginal stories.

    My name is Andrew Stojanovski, I’m a whitefella Australian who has written a book about working with my Aboriginal friends: Dog Ear Café – How the Mt Theo Program beat the curse of petrol sniffing.

    I lived in the remote Warlpiri community of Yuendumu for 11 years. When I first moved there the community was reeling from the experience of having a former white resident write a book about the community, which many community members were not happy with. I was firmly warned by community members : “Whatever you do – don’t write a book.”

    Twelve years later, one of my Warlpiri mentors, Tommy Jangala Watson said to me, “I’ve been thinking, about all the things we’ve done together, saving young people’s lives through taking them out bush. I’m thinking maybe you should write a book about that, to tell people our story.”

    While I wrote the words of the book, it was very much firmly entrenched in the mind of the community and myself that I did not own the story, that it was a collective story, owned by all of us. This meant that my manuscript was poured over and edited by Warlpiri people, the co-owners of the story. The result was a book that Warlpiri felt proud of, that they felt embodied our shared journey, a story that they wanted to share with the world.

    It was not that I as a whitefella did not have the ‘right’ to write about Aboriginal people and their experience, what was important is that I acted with respect that acknowledged I was not the only owner of the story, and that I got permission from the other co-owners of the story to publish what I had written. Some stories were very personal, they involved tragedy, trauma and suicide attempts. I was surprised that people were OK with me to share such painful stories, sometimes with no anonymity, or with only the protection of pseudonyms. Had I not asked for permission, people would have felt used and betrayed. What was important was to adopt the Aboriginal ethic of “always ask.”

    • I’ve been googling Dog Ear Cafe and it certainly looks interesting. My point is that you (Andrew) are upfront about being a ‘whitefella’. This is not the case for instance with B.Wongar who, maybe with all the best intentions in the world, wrote Aboriginal stories while pretending he was black.

  7. Thanks so much for this post. I have to say that I agree with Forna’s points about labelling literature.
    I taught Chinua Achebe’s wonderful novel for many years and it was his profound and subtle understanding of human nature that always astonished me. The pre-colonial African setting is incidental to the tragic story of a flawed man who is destroyed by pride and fear. I always compared Okonkwo (the protagonist of “Things fall Apart”) to Oedipus – two powerful men who fall because of hubris. As a diasporic Australian, I have often been expected to teach or write about my culture. I have never been quite sure what that actually entailed. Some years ago I wrote a story titled “A Chinese Bowl and a Summer Dress” where I tried to explain the complex nature of the diasporic self. Here is a small excerpt from that piece: “This is the reality for those of us who migrated here as children or teenagers. We are not just caught between physical worlds but between imagined worlds and remembered worlds. Shifting from one world to another means that we start to accumulate a different set of dreams and memories. We become new selves. The wistful recollection of my teenage self in an Australian beachside suburb is as inextricably tangled with my sense of place as is my reflection on childhood in my grandmother’s Malaysian house. Part of me sits forever on that park wall in Cronulla
    (long before that strident white chick scandalised the world with her appalling racist antics) eating chips in summer sunshine and dusting the sand off my bare legs and part of me remains in a garden full of orchids waiting for Ah Mui to feed me my breakfast egg from a beautiful Chinese bowl.”
    Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks Anita … I’d find it hard not to agree with Forna. I like that description of being caught between imagined and remembered worlds. That makes a lot of sense to me, particularly for someone who migrated before adulthood. Glad you liked the post.

  8. What a great conversation you have inspired!

    Humans label things and those labels can empower or they can belittle and because of that the labels we create are important and should always be discussed and reviewed and changed when the old labels are no longer valid. I mean, heck, we label literature by genre and look at all the arguments that spring up over that. Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood are still going at each other over Atwood’s comment a few years ago that she (Atwood) doesn’t write science fiction.

      • Interesting issue – readers need some signposts to find new writers that they might be interested in but that signposting can pigeonhole those writers perhaps in a very restricting way. Its a genuine dilemma but what I can’t stand is the publishers blurb that says if you love x you are bound to like y. That sort of thing tends very much to put me off a book….but then sometimes comparisons can be useful so in the end I don’t know!

        • Haha Ian … that’s the challenge of categorising isn’t it, somehow teasing out the pros without letting the cons get too out of hand. In one of my old Internet Bookgroups we used to always be amused when we’d go buy a book on Amazon and discover those “People who bought this book also bought …” Funnily enough what they also bought were not similar books at all but other books we’d lined up on our next schedule! Guess who’d been ordering books! Someone else ordering any of those books at the same time might have been led astray if they’d taken those recommendations seriously.

      • Yes, Atwood calls hers speculative and Le Guin says that’s just malarky and Atwood trying to avoid the “taint” of genre. And Atwood says not true, she loves SF and has since written a couple essays about SF and how much she loves it. It’s a both a serious and ridiculous argument.

        • Interesting. I’d prefer ‘speculative’ myself because the term seems to allow room for allegory and metaphysics, unlike ‘science’, which surely (?) requires an emphasis on technology and/or natural phenomena. But perhaps I’m labelling inappropriately myself here. It does seem, though, that the two aforementioned heavyweights are engaging in barrow-pushing, and pushing all the harder because each feels that their barrow is being slighted at the other’s expense!

        • As a reader of SF I can totally understand where Le Guin is coming from since books labeled SF have for so long been pushed to the margins and considered not worthy to be called literature. Speculative is a fairly recent term that, depending on who you ask, has different meanings. I think it works great as a catch-all umbrella label for books that don’t quite fit under the realist umbrella.

          I can see both Atwood’s and Le Guin’s side. Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is very much SF because it deals with genetic engineering and the uses of technology and its affects on society. But in other ways it is not SF because, as Atwood has said, she has simply taken tech that already exists and pushed it to the extreme to explore what might happen — speculation. However Le Guin takes Atwood’s refusal of the SF label as an insult to her own work and the genre.

        • Well put, Stefanie. Thanks for the clarification.

          I haven’t traced the origins of the term ‘speculative fiction’, but I remember thinking it had the ring of apology about it when I first encountered it. As in, it was perhaps coined as an alternative and supposedly more correct or worthy term than ‘science fiction’; a new term that would allow the genre to slough off the critical disdain that had it had previously been accorded.

        • Perhaps that’s how it originated but I did, and still do, like it. We use it in our Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in order to keep the categories broad.

        • Thanks Stefanie … as I’ve just said in another response, I like Speculative Fiction because I see it as a broader church. I remember when Speculative Fiction started being used – perhaps around the time of The Handmaid’s Tale – and I remember liking it. My understanding is that Speculative Fiction can even include Fantasy. Surely Le Guin is being a bit sensitive? On the other hand, I think Atwood can be scarily fierce at times (whether or not she knows it) so I can imagine Le Guin’s reaction too.

        • Or is calling it all (?) ‘speculative fiction’ a way of getting past the ‘humanitarian’ prejudice about people of scientific backgrounds and interests: that they’re too utilitarian, too clinically precise and, thus, too soulless, to appreciate ‘Great Art’ i.e. the preserve of the unfettered Subjective Human Self?
          I’m contradicting my earlier argument and yours, Sue, but only to run with another idea. I think the root of the Sci Fi stigma must have been/must still be that Scientific People are Too Unreflective and Dogmatically Quantitative for the so-called Literary Establishment to let them and their literary predilections to hold sway any Court of Artistic Taste and Merit.
          I speak as one who had a predominantly scientific and engineering training, but who eventually recognised their greater affinity with the art world. But there is a whole philosophy that springs up almost unbidden around scientific abstraction and technological innovation. Michael Frayn’s play ‘Copenhagen’, constructed as a dialogue between Niels Bohr, Margrethe Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg, taking place after their involvement in the Manhattan Project, is a case in point.

        • That’s possible I suppose Glen … But I think there is a literary stigma on all genre fiction, whether it be SF or crime or fantasy or romance or historical fiction, etc. And it’s based on the formulaic nature of these genres. Some readers love the formula, the satisfying of expectations. But as we know not every SF or crime etc book runs to formula. Those that don’t – or even those which do but are top examples of the formula – struggle to be recognised by the establishment hence the controversies when a crime book won the MF or historical fiction the Booker.

          So I think the Speculative Fiction is really an attempt to make the genre more encompassing. But I may be wrong and it may also be that the impetus came from that but other ideas have crept in.

          Atwood’s impetus for The handmaid’s tale had nothing, as I recollect, to do with science but to do with increasing fundamentalism and conservatism. However it was set in the future.

        • I agree Glen. I like Speculative partly because it feels more encompassing and I think the broader the category usually the better. A broad category enables people to see like books without there being too much of that narrow pigeon-holing problem.

  9. That should have been “each barrow is being slighted by the other.” Or, even better, some other metaphor that isn’t so abominably mixed!

      • RE: Atwood/ Le Guin. I think that speculative fiction probably does fit their cases at least most of the time. So might political fiction or philosophical fiction…and indeed science fiction. At least no one is lumbered with the original term for SF – Scientifiction!

        • Thanks Ian … well, I didn’t know that one, Scientifiction eh? I guess we could have got used to it.

          In one sense you could argue that all fiction, almost by definition, is speculative – but I decided not to go there! You, though, went halfway there, so I like it …

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