What are you Perpetuating? or Brief Thoughts on Ethics of Representation and Creative Writing.

In her essay on creative writing pedagogy, ‘WRIT101: Ethics of Representation for Creative Writers’, Shady Cosgrove, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at University of Wollongong, ponders the question: “…should creative writers be expected to study the ethical implications of their craft?” (Cosgrove 134). She argues that creative writers, specifically fiction writers, have often “escaped” scrutiny because their work is of a fictitious nature, their characters imagined, yet it is because of the effects that these characters and their respective narratives as a whole have on the real world that make it “…imperative to the craft that students consider an ethics of representation” (Cosgrove 134). Her essay deals mainly with questions of “truth” in fiction, fiction often perceived, especially in the creative writing classroom, as being reliant more on imagination and life experience than research; a perception that conflicts with the relevance of research as being central to the craft of creating visceral and engaging fiction, in creating a narrative that moves well beyond the page.

My interest in ethics of representation lies mainly in my recent focus on writing fiction that deals with historically significant moments and in writing fictional autobiographies. “The Telling Lives” panels at this year’s Hawaiʻi Book & Music Festival provided great discourse on this type of writing, Wing Tek Lum’s new collection of poem’s The Nanjing Massacre: Poems is a profound and thought-provoking example of documentary poetry, and the Renshi Series Four Voices in Renshi: Revisiting The Massie Affair provides a poignant look inside one of the most controversial events in Hawaiʻi’s history. Although I cannot speak for these writers and their ethics of representation, I believe their work evokes the depth of research involved in crafting these narratives and responsibly writing lives and not just characters.

As a creative writer in Hawaiʻi, a place complicated by issues beyond the scope of this blog, I have often struggled to define my own ethics of representation: a way to responsibly craft narratives and characters; which I feel I have done successfully through a balance of research, awareness, and privileging of Kanaka Maoli culture. However, moving away from purely fictional narratives toward events like the construction of the H-3, The Massie Affair, and Statehood, I find larger stacks of books on my floor and desk, .pdfs cluttering my desktop, and more questions than answers as I begin to engage in work that speaks to controversies more real than imagined; fiction offering me a perspective to raise questions founded on this research, approaching the page with a more critical engagement in mind.

Yet one can never forget story and all the elements that make a work worth reading. Many of my friends and fellow writers have told me that they tend to stay away from theory, and it’s a perspective that I respect and can honestly say that at certain points I have also held. One professor in a writing workshop I took while in graduate school banned theory from the classroom entirely; the focus was on the page and nothing else.

But writing does not exist in a vacuum, it will find its way into places and hands and classrooms, it will be read by many different eyes, studied, forgotten, discarded, and loved in ways you cannot control or speak on. When you write about a setting, I feel it’s important to consider its history, its culture and its people, even if your writing doesn’t necessarily engage with these things directly, your story may eventually come to define your readers’ perceptions of that setting, of that place, of the communities and lives you base your story on. What it comes down to, for me at least, is the question: what are you perpetuating? For some it’s an uncomfortable query, but regardless of the quality of a story or the merit of the writer, it’s one that should continuously be asked, its larger effect and affect made aware of.

But where do you stand? What do you think? Please share your manaʻo in the comments section below.

Talk story

  1. Richard Melendez says:

    Great questions and a thought provoking discussion to be had. While I haven't written anything that deals with history, per se (though I've got a couple of ideas brewing that do), being accurate or at least respectful is something I'm sensitive to and often struggle with. I think I've lived in Hawaii long enough (21+ years) that I'm able to accurately and respectfully portray characters who are local (i hope I do) but i still worry when one of them slips into pidgin or references something that's a truly local experience. Am I doing this well? Should I go there? I do feel a responsibility to be true to the characters and to local culture, both out of respect to this island I call home and its people, but also because I know that there's a good chance that what I write will be read by family and friends who don't live here, thus my writing becomes representative of Hawaii to them, for better or worse. So to answer your question, yes, I think it's important. Regardless if the work in question is fiction or not.

  2. Misty says:

    Nice post Don, and some interesting things to think about.

    I recently sat in on a Skype session with a Korean-American writer named An Na. She speaks at conferences and gives authors advice about writing outside their ethnic group. It was encouraging. She said, you have to ask yourself why the character is a specific ethnicity, or why the story takes place in a specific time and place. How is it important? You can't just throw things in or create ethnic characters just because. If you find what you've written is stereotypical then you're not asking yourself the right questions.

    Even if it's fiction, if the character or place is meant to represent something that actually exists, it's the writers job to learn as much as they can and be mindful of what ideas you are perpetuating. If you've done your job then the reader will see the human problems and emotions behind your characters and not their race. Those are what are most important and resonate with readers more.

  3. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    Aloha to the both of you, and to those who’ve been reading, and mahalo for your manaʻo.

    Rich – You bring up some interesting points that I would love to discuss with you in person, especially in regard to writing local, which I think has become less defined as of late. Most local writers have been engaging more directly with their own particular ethnicities and positionalities and I really enjoy reading something like ʻEwa Which Way, which focuses more on the Portuguese experience rather than a more general local identity. Regarding “should you go there?”, always push yourself is my rule. Some of my writing as of late has been getting very heavy and very dark, and I’ve had those moments of hesitation, but I always find my work the most successful when I push myself deeper. One of the greatest feelings for me is when I end up writing well into the early morning and I go to bed with a sense of paranoia because I’ve become so engrossed in what I’ve written; that’s how I know I’m getting close.

    Misty – I was so happy to read your post as it offers so much wonderful advice. Especially in Hawaiʻi, the way you write a certain character’s ethnicity or a specific place can have real world effects, here I am thinking of Mokoliʻi or as it’s incorrectly referred to as Chinaman’s Hat, or consider the recent portrayal of Hawaiʻi in Mad Men, how about Hawaii 5-0? This is how Hawaiʻi is perceived, and more importantly how some will come to perceive what Hawaiian means, how moʻolelo is remembered or forgotten, but that’s a topic for another post and perhaps a cup of coffee. I think you really make some important points regarding the human factor when it comes to character, the ability for story to transcend the page and the narrative, engaging with larger discourses. Clearly, something you already demonstrate in your own writing.

    Mahalo to you both.

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