Cultural appropriation? No, the story in my head

Opinion - Books Monday, 10 July 2017

Clar Ni Chonghaile on why her new novel has a 22-year-old Rwandan protagonist

I was halfway through writing my second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, when I read an article about the scarcity of black heroes in Irish literature. I felt a frisson of panic. The main character in Rain Falls is a 22-year-old Rwandan, Theoneste Mukansonera. Theo survives the 1994 genocide and, aged seven, is fostered by a family in Dublin. As a teenager, he drifts into dealing drugs, eventually falling foul of a vicious gangster. But the book is primarily concerned with his struggle to fit in, or more accurately, to understand what fitting in means.

Was I doing something new? I didn't mean to, I explained frantically to my husband, terrified at the thought that people might think I was punching above my weight or, whisper it, getting notions.

It probably sounds stupidly naive - given the recent online debate about who can write what - but I had honestly never questioned my right to write Theo's story. And not just because I had spent nearly 10 years living in Africa: I moved with my husband to Ivory Coast when I was 28 and came of age, both professionally and personally, by covering my first gun battles in Ivory Coast and Liberia, and giving birth to my first child in Dakar, Senegal. I've never been to Rwanda though.

The main reason I believed I could, and should, write Theo's story was because his was the voice talking in my head. I can't remember exactly when he pulled out a stool and settled in for a chat, but sometime between finishing my debut novel Fractured and getting it published, he was nattering away in my brain, making me wonder how he was going to pull together all the threads of his life.

The article on the dearth of black protagonists gave me pause, but I kept going, partly because I thought, I'm such a small fish nobody will notice, even if I am inadvertently doing something new. A short while later, I stumbled across the online furore surrounding Lionel Shriver's speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The vehemence of the reaction took my breath away. Now, I was overcome with doubt. But I kept writing because I truly believed that I was not attempting anything radically new.

The only way you could argue that I was would be if you started from the assumption that people from different races or ethnicities experience life in fundamentally different ways. You would have to believe that a black 22-year-old would love, laugh and remember in ways that a white, 40-something, mother-of-two could never grasp. Isn't that assumption the real problem? The idea that where we come from and the colour of our skin determines the very tenor of our emotions? That somehow these things differentiate us more than what unites us?

That is not to say I took the task of portraying Theo's reality lightly. I researched Dublin's drug scene by poring over newspaper articles and police reports. I researched racism in Ireland. I researched the genocide in Rwanda, relying as much as possible on first-hand accounts and remembering the forested hills spreading below me as I flew over the country to land in Burundi in 2012. Then I set Theo free and started recording his story with as much accuracy as my still-nascent skills as a storyteller would allow.

I followed the same logic in writing Fractured. One of the three protagonists, journalist Peter Maguire, shares many of my experiences as a reporter in Africa, and yet he is a man and he recounts these moments as only he can. Abdi, the young Somali protagonist, was another challenge. I have never lived in Somalia but I have visited. I knew the landscape Abdi would see. I have met and interviewed young Somalis and I have travelled in a Casspir through the streets of Mogadishu, as Abdi does. Beyond that, I tried to transcribe Abdi's voice as accurately as I could. We can't divorce ourselves from our creations but the magic happens when they become more than the sum of our knowledge, empathy and research, when the subconscious kicks in, taking us, and them, down the rabbit-hole.

Did I have the right to give Abdi a voice? Should his story only have been written by a Somali? You might very well think so and I respect that point of view but I would argue that this is not a zero-sum game. There is enough space, I believe, for my book, and others. Fractured was the story I could tell, and I hope I told it well. It is not a definitive account.

When fiction writers fail, I believe it is often down to inaccuracy of emotion, the failure to respect the characters' essence. To avoid this, we must be true to our craft - chipping away until we have the perfect words to describe what our characters would really do and say. Then, we polish, and polish, and polish.

If you resolve to do these things, you have the right to go wherever your imagination leads you. Writing is an exploration, a journey to new lands, physical and psychological. It is the ultimate get-out-of-life card. You lose yourself in another's story and you do it so that others, you hope, will also lose themselves in another life too. At the heart of every halfway good novel you will find empathy. The author is trying to open a door into other lives. Will you follow? Will you walk away?

I feel the urgency of empathy today. This world feels ever more polarised, even as technology ostensibly brings us closer. In fact, the bleeping, burping mini-masters in our pockets often only bring us closer to the people we already know or want to know. People like us. In many ways, technology is pulling the duvet of righteousness tighter around us. We need books more than ever to counteract this homogenisation as the world shrivels to fit our tiny touch-screens.

This does not mean everyone can write about others with skill or elegance or even competence. That is a concern all authors must bear in mind, whatever or whoever they are writing about. We must get the art right: that requires research, thought, honesty. But we must never be afraid to open ourselves to the stories in our heads and then, without judgment or fear, try to tell them as accurately as we can. It's what I tried to do in Rain Falls on Everyone. It is surely not perfect, but I hope I'm getting there.

Clar Ni Chonghaile is an Irish author and journalist. She now lives in St Albans, England, with her husband and two daughters. Her second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, will be published by Legend Press on 15 July. Her debut novel, Fractured, appeared last February.

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