Speaking for the Other

Peter Polites

On one occasion, Sweatshop director Michael Mohammed Ahmad and I were having dinner at Volcanos. Sweatshop is a critical literacy movement that works within the western suburbs of Sydney. Volcanos is a steakhouse, and its customer base is the Arabic-speaking communities of Bankstown. Because the menu is halal, there are no pork ribs and the carbonara is full of ‘facon’ bits. You will not see Volcanos on any listings of Western Sydney food tours. Inner-west yuppies who come to Bankstown for its Arabic food will never go there because one cannot have an authentic or enriching cultural experience at a steakhouse.

The waiter who came to our table recognised Mohammed.

‘Are you that guy that does acting and does writing?’ he asked. ‘I swear you changed my life, bro.’

In the conversation that followed, the waiter recounted his identification with Mohammed as a member of his community, and discussed how Sweatshop’s workshop processes fostered his imagination and gave him access to university.

I recalled this incident when considering the question at the heart of this debate: can writers tell one another’s stories? The answer is yes, they can. But in the example above, what was needed and what benefited the waiter was not to be talked about or to have his story told by someone else. What served him were tools that empowered him and sparked his imagination.

This interaction is just one example of how Mohammed has empowered students in Western Sydney through critical literacy education. In schools where students come from diverse but low socio-economic backgrounds, critical analysis workshops have helped to foster imagination. For example, students learn to deconstruct the cultural backgrounds of characters in mainstream texts, a skill that then enables them to question what and why they read. This also enables students to question their own writing – who the characters are in their stories, and what the names and appearances of those characters might be.

In the documentary Cultural Criticism and Transformation, cultural theorist bell hooks speaks about the differences between the students she encountered when teaching at a ‘very fancy private predominately white school’ and the students at an ‘urban predominately non-white campus in Harlem’. She identifies them all as brilliant, but notes one significant difference: the students at the Ivy League colleges had, in abundance, a ‘sense of entitlement’ and agency. In contrast, the students from Harlem were encumbered by structural impediments and a lack of ‘imagination to a future with agency’.

Many members of the Sweatshop collective can relate to stories like this. When I was in high school, family members sat me down and tried to convince me to drop out. To them, university was not a part of my future because I would gain more economically from an apprenticeship. By late high school, I had become friends with the children of Anglo-Celtic radicals who said that the only place for someone like me was university. This sparked my imagination. When I went to Sydney College of the Arts, I came to understand that there were systemic gaps between the world in which my family lived and the world in which some of my friends lived.

It is bell hooks’ model of ‘coming to voice’, as outlined in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, that underpins the Sweatshop agenda. She describes coming to voice as being about ‘moving from silence to speech as revolutionary gesture’. When people tell their own stories, it is empowering. It roots people in place, in a geographic and social context. Sweatshop aims to give young people from Western Sydney the tools to publish and tell their own stories, in contrast to the stories that are told about them by the hegemony.

At the 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival, Mohammed outlined his ideology and approach. First he advised against focusing on consumable strategies, and then emphasised the importance of working with one’s own community, warning against the colonial approach that can often be found in working with people from other communities. Then he was attacked. One of the audience members called him naive because he could not understand how much she got out of working with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. ‘It enriched my life,’ she proclaimed.

This kind of statement is always the problem. In writing another’s story, the writer enriches their own life under the banner of advocacy, while reinforcing their own privilege. The people about whom they are writing are often from different cultural and social backgrounds, and don’t have the resources to tell their own stories. Being a writer needs to be acknowledged as a form of privilege. Despite the claims of many, writing is no accidental discipline: it requires access to resources, the learned (not intuitive) command of language, and an understanding of the social and cultural codes of communication. Thus, when a writer tells someone else’s story, they do it through the systemic and structural methods from which they have benefited and the Other has not.

Can writers tell another’s stories? Or, more accurately, should they tell another’s story? Whether they can or they can’t, they do it anyway. Helen Darville’s great literary hoax about the Holodomor (famine-genocide in the Ukraine) and the Holocaust is an example of this. Darville took on a fake name to gain cultural authenticity. After her identity was exposed, her defenders rallied under the banner of postmodernism. The result showed how the narratives of the Other can be used. It reinforced that a multicultural society is too complex to police because villains can be immigrants, and that well-meaning Anglo-Celts can be advocates for goodness against these villains.

In the question ‘can writers tell another’s stories?’ the framework already separates the writer and the Other. When we talk about writers telling the Other’s story, we have to examine who is the Other, what that means in popular and philosophical language, and how it is tied into broader notions of exploitation.

Made popular by Edward Said in Orientalism, the concept of the Other is a complex psychological and philosophical referencing of the subordinate. Treating the subordinate as the Other reinforces segregation and sustains hegemonic identity. How a writer tells the Other’s stories and why this happens historically requires an investigation into how knowledge is understood and interpreted. In Covering Islam, Said points out ‘that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation … for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.’

The interpretation of what the writer sees as important facts, within the complex power relationship of voicing the unvoiced, is a central premise of democracy. Narratives are cherrypicked by politicians in parliament to further their own agenda, and writers using the Other’s stories are in the same boat. People write the Other’s stories in parliament, they write the Other as ‘reel bad Arabs’ on Homeland and they write them as campy non-threatening gays on Sex and the City. But in writing the Other, the narratives of communities are appropriated, which constitutes an act of dominion over the subject. As Toni Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.’

Sweatshop is for the defined. Instead of writing the Other, we want to provide the Other with the tools to write.

Stephanie Convery

If literature is to be wholly representative, writers must be allowed to write beyond their own experiences: to write into, around and through the stories of others; to write, in short, from other people’s perspectives. This is not so they can take the place of other writers who are presenting their own experiences with their own unique voices but rather to complement those stories: to engage with them, to generate empathy and to acknowledge the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives in literary representations of the world.

This argument flies in the face of the identity politics that have dominated progressive debates for decades. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, calls for self-determination were made by a range of minorities and marginalised groups: feminists, queers, black activists, migrants and so on. These calls involved a recognition that speaking for others was fraught with the kind of complications that writer and theorist Linda Martín Alcoff describes as ‘a growing awareness that where one speaks from affects both the meaning and truth of what one says’ and that ‘certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous’. Writers, activists and academics, from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to Anita Heiss, have criticised colonial literary representations of the ‘Other’, whether that Other is an Indian woman, an Indigenous man or a transgender person. These critics – often rightly – see these stories as continuing the dominant (white) narrative. Such stories perpetuate concrete power imbalances in society because they have so often been written with received biases, informed and blinded by privilege and power.

It is therefore imperative that writers from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged and supported in their literary endeavours – encouraged, that is, to tell their stories in their own words, in their own ways, and for their own reasons. That the literary canon now includes writers across genres who once would have been denied the right to tell their own stories due to racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression is testament that this can be done.

But self-determination is by no means the end of the road.

Unfortunately, many conscientious progressive writers now step back from engaging with the Other in their work. Instead, they present other cultures at a remove from the reader – or they don’t write about other cultures at all. This can be an assertion of epistemological limits on the part of the writer, or an attempt to avoid what Spivak, drawing from Michel Foucault, calls ‘epistemic violence’ – the erasure of diverse knowledge and stories in favour of white stereotypes.

Most usefully, Alcoff calls it ‘the retreat response’.

While it is crucial that writers from diverse backgrounds are encouraged, supported and highlighted, this should not become an excuse for other writers to simply wash their hands of the problems of representing difference through art. To take a particularly contentious local issue: in contemporary Australia, the dominant voices pertaining to Indigenous Australia are conservative (most often conservative and Anglo, but sometimes conservative and Indigenous) and the market almost always trumps Indigenous rights.

There are powerful progressive Indigenous writers working on Indigenous issues in Australia and they should be read widely. But allies of marginalised peoples have responsibilities, too. If the progressive response by white writers to the continuing abuses of Indigenous people is to not say or do anything at all, then the relationship between Indigenous activism and white progressives has a dismal future.

If politically engaged literature by Anglo writers is to present truths about Australia, it must include truths relating to Indigenous Australia and Indigenous politics. The greatest problem with the retreat response is that it neither counteracts pre-existing negative discourses nor provides a counterweight to reactionary politics. On the contrary, it means that marginalised groups end up fighting their battles with no allies at all.

The issue is symptomatic of a much larger malaise. The politics of identity were not originally espoused as an end point so much as a framework to encourage writers to act more ethically, to counteract the presuppositions of privilege and to create possibilities for a better, more equal world.

That is why the project of fiction – and imaginative engagement with the Other – is crucial.

In 2012, Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie noted the near complete absence of American novels dealing with 9/11 as more than a single day of tragedy, of novels that looked instead at the broader international consequences (most obviously the wars that followed). Shamsie offered the following explanation:

In part, I’m inclined to blame the trouble caused by that pernicious word ‘appropriation.’ … I’m certainly not about to disagree with the charge that writers who are implicated in certain power structures have been guilty of writing fiction which supports, justifies and props up those power structures. I understand the concerns of people who feel that for too long stories have been told about them rather than by them. But it should be clear that the response to this is for writers to write differently, to write better, to critique the power structures rather than propping them up, to move beyond stereotype …

The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.

As well as writing the Other out, the strong version of this argument against writing other people’s stories essentially renders literature impossible. If one cannot write another person’s story, real or fictional, then one cannot write literature. Those making such an argument should be aware of the implications: they’re suggesting men cannot write about women nor understand them; neither can women write about nor understand men.

Indeed, the argument has implications beyond literature, for it renders the imagination itself problematic. If people cannot imagine, they cannot empathise.

The argument means representation of a multicultural community becomes impossible, and so does any prospect of meaningful communication. It makes history so inaccessible as to be unrepresentable. It means the only narrative that one can legitimately tell is one’s own.

The strong form of this argument – the assertion that it is not simply difficult to understand another (or even the Other) but that it is essentially impossible – comes very close to a biological essentialism, which is always reactionary.

We need to go beyond this. We need to understand the imagination as a legitimate space in which one may engage with the complexities of being different.

Peter Polites responds

In White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society Ghassan Hage discusses the way the voice of the ‘ethnic other is made passive not only by those who want to eradicate it, but also by those who are happy to welcome it under some conditions they feel entitled to set’. That is, the Other is welcomed into the debate based on conditions set by the definer. According to Hage, both white racists and white multiculturalists ‘direct the traffic’.

In the current debate, Convery polices national space and the boundaries of public discourse. One example is her claim about progressive and ‘conservative’ Indigenous voices. Historically, white Australians on the Left and Right, in government, community groups, business and activist circles, legitimise Indigenous voices based on their personal agendas. The act of attaching such labels is ‘directing the traffic’. We must analyse the positioning of Convery’s argument and how this voice assumes the power to choose which are progressive and conservative Indigenous voices.

Convery claims that the ‘retreat response’ is where ‘conscientious progressive writers now step back from engaging with the Other’. Retreat is judged here as negative disengagement. But retreat can also be seen as positive, for it leaves a space for the Other to write autonomously. We can choose to situate retreat within a long and complex tradition of non-violence, in itself an active form of resistance. During my time at university, feminists were constantly justifying the need for their own space to organise. Just as a man shouldn’t enter autonomous women’s spaces, so white writers shouldn’t write the Other. The ‘retreat response’ that comes from a man disengaging from a woman’s autonomous space, or from a white writer in the Other’s space, is legitimate.

Identity politics is an accusation that has been thrown at Sweatshop before, as recently as the Emerging Writers’ Festival mentioned above. Sweatshop is a group that acts in unity but also places importance on the diverse identities of its members, which include queers, Muslims, people with disability, feminists, single white fathers (think the kind A Current Affair love), people from commission housing, Indigenous Australians, people in exile and so on. Identity politics is not a fixed project with an end goal but rather a complex and ever-evolving need to identify collective and intersecting oppressions and strategies to combat them.

Sweatshop is unified for a number of reasons, the most obvious being our geographical location in Western Sydney and our common understanding of the workings of the political and economic environment in which we live and operate. There will always be a place for identity politics and the necessity for groups to organise around their own disadvantage and discrimination. As part of this process there will always be a need for the Other to write their own stories. We are also very aware of people, especially those claiming progressive motives, policing our boundaries and, often in more insidious ways, enforcing similar restrictions upon us as the hegemony does.

Convery speaks from the standpoint of Anglo/white writers differentiating themselves from minority writers. Her piece also notes that there are some minority writers now included in the canon. This response appears to assume that the Other’s main goal is to be accepted into the space created by dominant culture. Such a claim reminds me of Renate Zahar’s summary of Fanon’s theory of alienation:

The colonized man is handicapped in establishing contacts with his environment through his complexes and feelings of insecurity; by and by he becomes, in Fanon’s phrase, ‘the prisoner of an unbearable insularity.’ Any possible way out of this solitude inevitably leads him into the white world.

Similarly, Toni Morrison writes:

I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people. I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said this is all well and good but one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to the real responsibility and get mature and write about the real confrontation for black people which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.

In response to Convery’s use of literary creation as some kind of amorphous place of equality, I would suggest there is no such thing as the neutrality of imagination. Imagination is framed by what we know and the structures of power that govern us. As I pointed out in my initial response, bell hooks has identified that imagination and privilege are interchangeable. The idea that white writers use imagination to somehow entitle them to write about the Other does not have any roots in the realities of the Other. Again, it is a refusal to acknowledge the privileged positioning of the Anglo/white writer.

Australia is founded upon the violent dispossession of Indigenous nations. The project of multiculturalism is a response to an economic need for a vast and compliant workforce. The injustices that stem from this history are ongoing and have not been resolved. The Anglo/white writer still enjoys societal, political and economic privileges that stem from these sites of oppression. It is for this reason that the white writer penning the Others’ stories or ‘directing the traffic’ is untenable.

With an eye on broader social change, Sweatshop teaches critical literacy and fosters spaces where the Other can write, perform and publish their own stories. As Chinua Achebe says, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.

Stephanie Convery responds

In response to the question of whether or not writers should tell the stories of others, Polites talks about Sweatshop: a collective which, he says, aims to empower people from marginalised communities in Western Sydney. I am not familiar with Sweatshop but I am happy to accept his word about the role it plays in encouraging writing in the area. But to conclude from this, as Polites does, that writers in general should not write from the perspective of others is problematic in the extreme.

Polites claims that ‘in writing the Other, the narratives of communities are appropriated, which constitutes an act of dominion over the subject’. Here, Polites is arguing that any representation of the Other is an act of colonialism, one that entails the writer establishing unwarranted ownership over somebody else’s property – namely, their story. But ownership of narrative is by no means a simple matter. For a start, which narratives is he speaking about? The ‘ownership’ of an individual’s life story or even the specific history of an immediate family might be easily agreed upon (though that’s not always the case); ownership of the tropes, myths, characters and traditions that develop within a community much less so. How is membership of such a community established? By skin colour? By birthplace? By sexual orientation or gender expression? By what markers do we then adjudicate who is a legitimate owner of which narrative? As Alcoff writes:

The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. On what basis can we justify a decision to demarcate groups and define membership in one way rather than another?

Such discussions quickly lead into assertions about racial and cultural authenticity, which inevitably elide the differences that exist within communities, even as they essentialise identity. This is even before we consider the imagination, something that further problematises the question of narrative ownership and authenticity. Indeed, it renders it redundant in many ways, for who could possibly own narratives from the imagination of another?

Polites implies that the only stories that those people in marginalised communities are (or should be) interested in telling – the only stories they might deem relevant to them – are those stories drawn from their own immediate experiences. What of the stories of their friends and peers – who may or may not be from the same cultural background as themselves? Should writers simply omit such characters?

Indeed, the argument seems based on an (unstated) assumption that the only legitimate genre is a conventional realism. What of science fiction, fantasy, speculative or historical fiction? What does ‘ownership’ of narratives even mean in those contexts?

Indeed, as I have said, Polites’ arguments border on a moralistic argument against fiction entirely: if the only way to write ethically is to write one’s own story, then works other than a first-person, memoir-based realism become unethical by definition. Does Polites, for example, include women in his work? If so, he is writing the Other. To claim that he cannot (or should not) do so is to argue that he must deliberately exclude half of the population from his work. More specifically, it is to argue that it would be unethical not to exclude them. This is clearly absurd, and literally sexist. Identity and voice in literature are far more complex than he thinks, and progressive writers must take into account such complexities.

Symptomatically, Polites misrepresents the Darville hoax. The scandal emanated from Darville’s adoption of an imagined authorial identity to legitimise her reactionary interpretation of the Holocaust in her fiction. The Hand that Signed the Paper was widely denounced as historically inaccurate and anti-Semitic even before Darville had been unmasked; it was her claim to authorial authenticity that justified its right-wing politics. In other words, the Darville case illustrated a tendency for some readers to accept reactionary ideas simply because those ideas were seen (falsely, in this case) to come from the mouths of the oppressed.

How progressive activists should respond to such appropriations is an entirely different question to that of whether progressive writers ought to attempt to present complex, considered and believable characters from marginalised groups in fiction. We should, obviously, encourage marginalised peoples to write and to be read, and we should speak out against reactionary and stereotypical representations of the marginalised. But we also should encourage progressive representations of those groups in the stories of progressive writers, irrespective of the identity of the authors.

Peter Polites

Peter Polites started writing at the age of 27 when he joined the early incarnation of Sweatshop. He recently edited a publication Ornaments from Two Countries where members of the GLBTIQ community from Western Sydney and regional NSW wrote their experiences.

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Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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