The Challenge of Representing Others’ Suffering in Writing

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bookdesign348My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.

I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.

This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?

I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.

So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?

For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.

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Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Representing Others’ Suffering in Writing”

  1. in addition to being “heartfelt and humble”, how much research went into your islanders Andrew? My novel involves indigenous americans, and I have been finding more research going into this that the magic system I had envisioned. Also there is the reality that while by and large we consider the native americans noble, research has shown me that they too were human; with the same motivators and distractors and short coming. It seems the topic you raised is an ever sharper double edged sword for my own particular approach. I want to capture that humanist element in a way that it must be done if I am to make headway at my conflict resolution.

    1. I have to admit, my research was pretty scattershot. I did some reading on the slave trade, which was what inspired a lot of that plotline, as well as on African art. I read up a bit on Dahomey for one of the characters. And whenever I found myself struggling on a particular detail or was worried about how I was representing something, I read up on it. But if I had the time, it would have been good to do research in depth. There’s always room for improvement.

      You can never be complete in researching anything. But if you try to get different perspectives, and in particular to get accounts from the point of view of the people you’re representing, then you’re likely to end up in a better place.

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