How to tell other people’s stories

How to tell other people’s stories

Fiction can shed light on our shared humanity, as long as it’s respectful and honest. Hephzibah Anderson speaks to the celebrated authors who are creating powerful ‘imaginative ventriloquism’.

Five years ago, novelist Colum McCann was nearing the end of a whirlwind trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. On his penultimate night, he found himself in a small office in Beit Jala, just outside Jerusalem. There, two men, an Israeli named Rami Elhanan, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, described how they’d each lost a young daughter to the conflict between their people, how they’d since become friends and how, together, they’d made it their life’s work to share their story in pursuit of peace.

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“They pinched every ounce of oxygen from the air,” he says. It felt like the first time they had ever told the story. “Of course it wasn’t. They had told it hundreds of times before. But I was forever changed,” McCann tells BBC Culture. Being a writer, he knew that he wanted to at least try to tell their stories in a book – a decision that would perhaps always have raised questions about entitlement and the ownership of stories, but one that seems especially audacious at a time when cultural appropriation has become such a pressing concern that publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’.

How to tell other people’s stories
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The result of that leap of faith is Apeirogon, a novel that has been widely praised even as it’s left one or two critics wondering whether there might be a point at which a sustained act of empathy becomes exploitative. For their part, Elhanan and Aramin gave McCann their blessing. In fact, they’ve even been accompanying him on his US author tour. He also showed them material in progress, a nerve-wracking experience, but while both found it extraordinarily difficult to read – a source of encouragement to McCann – neither requested any changes.

McCann has borrowed other characters from life for his fiction, including Rudolf Nureyev and high-wire artist Philippe Petit, but he admits that writing Elhanan and Aramin has stretched him. “Most of the other ‘real’ characters I’ve ever taken on were public figures. Rami and Bassam are private individuals. I had to try to find the small anonymous corners of their experience, and I had to be really true to them.”  

The key is to be as honest and respectful as possible – Colum McCann

This, he says, is where fiction excels. “Fiction has the double privilege of being able to be large and small at the same time, therefore it gets a different form of human engagement, or human truth. I’m not saying fiction is a higher form. It’s all about the proper word placed down correctly on the page, in an honest manner that hopefully opens people up a little bit. Good writing disrupts us, and makes us see the world just a little bit differently.”

How to tell other people’s stories
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Initially, his process resembled that of a non-fiction author. He read hundreds of books and poems and plays about the Middle East and made multiple trips, staying with the men and their families, talking and walking, and above all listening. “I rode on Rami’s motorbike.  I hung out under the Jericho stars with Bassam. And then I just did a whole lot of imagining too.”  

Ask McCann whether there was anything in his own lived experience that he was able to draw on, and he’ll tell you no. The central devastation of losing a child was something that, mercifully, he could only imagine, though growing up in Dublin, he did spend childhood summers across the border in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Universal story

His compatriot, the legendary Edna O’Brien, chose a similarly remote seeming tragedy to fictionalise in her latest novel, Girl, which has just been longlisted for the UK’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is narrated by one of the Nigerian schoolgirls who in 2014 were kidnapped and held as slaves by Boko Haram, and stands as an unfaltering triumph of imaginative ventriloquism. Inspiration came from a small newspaper item read in a London waiting room, about a very young girl who’d been kidnapped, and had escaped with her baby. She was found in a forest, starving and unable to remember her name. Along with pity, O’Brien’s response was: “I want to write that story.”

How to tell other people’s stories
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Already well into her 80s, O’Brien undertook careful research that she found challenging on many levels, travelling to Nigeria and meeting girls like her heroine. From each encounter, she sought to take “maybe one little thing – big thing, but little in terms of information – that added up to form the mosaic of the work.”

I gave voice to a particular, brutal and enormous wrong that is happening every day in the world… That’s a universal story – Edna O’Brien

Yet she also drew from deep within her own self, because while experience inevitably plays into a storyteller’s craft, what’s sometimes lost in the debate around cultural appropriation is the fact that experience can never be reduced to race, gender and age. The case of the girl found in the forest, O’Brien tells BBC Culture, “resonated within me as well as outside me. It corresponds to a gene in my own temperament. I couldn’t have written that book if it hadn’t been preceded by other books – The Country Girls, A Scandalous Woman, all sorts of stories in which women and girls had a rough time.”

Had she worried about being accused of cultural appropriation? “I wasn’t even aware of it, to tell you the truth. It never crossed my mind,” she says, her disbelief and outrage still palpable at the idea, voiced in some quarters, that she might be some sort of “bandit”.

How to tell other people’s stories
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“I did what I did and I did it with all my will and all my writing intent, and I don’t feel I have appropriated anything. Anyone can write about anywhere. I gave voice to a particular, brutal and enormous wrong that is happening every day in the world, and that is the using of women and young girls as weapons of war. That’s a universal story.”

O’Brien hopes that there will, among the thousands of women who’ve been captured, be an Electra who eventually tells her own story in her own words. She’s alluding, of course to the Greek mythological heroine, a pointed reference since she drew, in her writing of Girl, on a long admiration of the way that Greek drama combines simplicity with gravity.

Cultural celebration

So much of a writer’s arsenal is borrowed. Culture, as has been said elsewhere, is appropriation, but in recent years that seems to have become a negative point as publishers scramble, belatedly, to vary the range of voices that readers can access and make it more representational. As Zadie Smith wrote in The New York Review of Books last year, “The old – and never especially helpful – adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”

The novelist Matt Thorne, who is senior lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University, has noticed a definite generational shift among his students. “The biggest change is that while in the past I might encourage students to write from a different perspective from themselves in order to help transmute lived experience into fiction, I don’t think that would be appropriate (or welcome) any more. There’s a thirst among students to tell their own story first,” he observes. “It used to be that in class it was inappropriate to assume that anything a student was writing was autobiographical; now it’s unlikely that it isn’t.”

Inevitably, this triggers fears that we’re weakening our culture’s creative muscle at a time when it’s never been more needed – a policing, if you like, of the imagination. Thorne himself admits that while his first novel, Tourist (1998), was written from a first-person female perspective, he wouldn’t choose to do that now.

“I think that what I was looking for in writing from a female perspective was a kind of emotional honesty, but now readers are looking for a different kind of emotional honesty.” He points, for instance, to the vogue for autofiction, like Karl Ove Knausgård’s series, which suggests that readers are looking for a more direct connection between writer and character.

How to tell other people’s stories
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As actor and author David Duchovny well knows, these are all questions that have been simmering in the world of acting for a while already. You want a role that will take you as far outside yourself as you can go. “That’s the challenge of it – that nothing human is foreign to you, you can try it all,” Duchovny tells BBC Culture. But the reality is increasingly complex, and with good reason – or good political reason, which, he points out, isn’t always good artistic reason.

Even so, he’s tried to rise to the same challenges on the page. His first novel, Holy Cow, was told in the voice of a cow; he’s since written from the perspective of a woman, and is just completing a fourth novel, which features a Mormon cowboy.

“Aren’t most of the gods of art tricksters and thieves? Why are we holding up the mirror of truth to what is all lies?” he muses. “There’s a heartbreaking history of abuse of women, of people of colour, of religious difference, and that’s being addressed and uncovered, and it’s about time, in history books and the educational system. Though there’s a long way to go still, but there’s a difference between art and history – artistic appropriation or aggregation is how culture moves and changes, but there’s a difference between appropriation in art and in life.”

We shouldn’t lose sight of cultural celebration, which seeks to expand our understanding, to shed light on our shared humanity

For McCann, while cultural appropriation is very real and the discussion it sparks both necessary and welcome, we shouldn’t lose sight of “cultural celebration”, which seeks instead to expand our understanding, to shed light on our shared humanity. The key, McCann says, “is to be as honest and respectful as possible”.

There are, of course, ways of telling to avoid, but sometimes the problem is novels simply aren’t as good as they’re hyped to be, as was shown by the recent controversy that engulfed Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which follows a mother and son fleeing Mexico for the US. Cummins, who is a white Latina raised in Maryland, received a seven-figure advance and her novel became an Oprah Book Club pick. The backlash kicked off shortly after publication, beginning with accusations that it relied on racist stereotypes and culminating in a cancelled book tour and an open letter, signed by 100 writers, urging Winfrey to rethink her choice (she declined). To see a book that was at best middling get so much attention when the people it depicts are continually underrepresented in the literary sphere was just too much for many. 

How to tell other people’s stories
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In another context, having McCann’s subjects along on the book tour might perhaps smack of roadshow hoopla. In this particular context, it’s vital: as McCann says, “If there’s a solution anywhere, it’s in the elemental simplicity of what Rami and Bassan are saying, and that is we need to know each other. If we don’t know each other above ground, we will know each other below ground, six feet under. That’s not the alternative that any of us wants.”

Fiction remains one of the best ways of doing that, and if a story belongs to anyone, it should be the person who can tell it best. To do that, a writer needs sensitivity and integrity, but also fearlessness and an uninhibited imagination.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury, and Girl by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber & Faber.

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