Authors at Hay festival weigh the meaning of authenticity

Who can write about whom was a running question, tackled by writers from Rose Tremain to Damon Galgut

“Authenticity” is a word that gets bandied about in the cultural sphere quite a lot just at the moment, so it’s perhaps no surprise that discussions around how “authentic” a work of literature should be were something of a theme at this year’s Hay festival.

When it comes to fiction, according to Julian Barnes, there is kind of a grey area, with it being “a strange mixture of something that is very personal, and also something very objective”. Is it a novelist’s job to imagine characters from all walks of life? Or should autofiction become the only option?

Rose Tremain told the audience at her Hay event that she felt left “in a total dilemma”, having spent her career writing about characters she is curious about rather than ones to whom she can personally relate.

“There would be an absolute outrage” if she wrote her novel Sacred Country now, she said. The story of Martin, a child who discovers he is transgender, was published 30 years ago when, to most cisgender people, the idea of gender dysphoria was a “very mysterious” one, she said.

Some authors have indeed come under fire for writing about experiences outside their own. Jeanine Cummins, whose grandmother is Puerto Rican but who has identified as white, was widely criticised for her novel American Dirt, which follows a mother and son as they flee a Mexican drug cartel. But the real problem, the Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik argued at the time, was not that Cummins was writing about an experience outside her own, but that the book “simply isn’t very good”. The racial stereotypes in the novel, Malik suggested, were due to bad writing rather than lack of personal connection.

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo at the Hay festival.
Ayanna Lloyd Banwo at the Hay festival. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

These two things can go hand in hand, of course. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, who was promoting her debut novel When We Were Birds at the festival, said that sometimes “what allows you to do something well” is “authenticity, or belonging, or intimate access to the community”.

Kate Mosse, discussing her latest historical novel The City of Tears, told an audience at Hay that a well-formed understanding of the community you’re writing about is essential, even if you don’t personally belong to that community. When doing research for her novel, she spent 10 years travelling back and forth from its setting of Franschhoek in South Africa, until she felt she understood the people and place she was fictionalising. “I’ve never not written somebody that I want to write,” she said, but she believes there is a level of responsibility required when writers depict characters from minority groups.

There are sometimes positives to writing outside what you have experienced, Mosse added, noting that some of her South African friends had suggested she may even be better suited to writing about the country’s conflicts than a local because she has “no skin in this game”.

Perhaps being an outsider can sometimes enhance a story rather than inhibit it – it has been argued that James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room offers a far more piercing portrayal of its white characters because it has been written by a black author. Baldwin’s publisher Knopf rejected the novel in 1956 because he wasn’t “writing about the same things and in the same manner” as he had previously – ie there are no black characters in the book.

This demonstrates a key part of the problem: that writers from minority communities are often expected to write about those communities, while more privileged writers have historically been given more scope to write about all kinds of people.

Damon Galgut at the Hay festival
Damon Galgut at the Hay festival. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

The white South African writer Damon Galgut was aware of this issue when writing the Booker prize-winning The Promise. He decided to write only from the perspectives of his white characters – but to “do it in a way that made the reader uncomfortable”, he told his Hay audience, explaining that the omission of one key black character’s voice was intended to reflect the fact that the white characters never notice her.

In Monica Ali’s latest novel, Love Marriage, there is a character who believes the only fit and proper subject for the novelist is himself – a view his creator does not share. “For me the joy of being a novelist is reserving the right to explore every aspect of the human experience,” she said during her event. While stressing the importance of “doing the research when necessary” and “approaching it with humility”, she said imagining other people’s lives and allowing people to empathise with them is what fiction writing is all about. “That to me is the job.”

Perhaps, then, the question for fiction writers is not “Is this your story to tell?” but, as Mosse suggests, “Do you know this well enough to write it?” Or more crucially, “Do you know this well enough to write it well?”


Lucy Knight

The GuardianTramp

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