Representation is fundamental to writing great fiction.
I take this edict to heart. That doesn't mean I tread without fear. Getting it right is very important. Crucially so.
In Plastic, I wrote about people who weren't like me in many ways. However, most of the characters were white North Americans, and we shared many cultural aspects. Even so, I went to California multiple times to do research. It wasn't just the places, it was the people and their culture that I needed to understand.
My current manuscript is set in Montréal, and I will spend many weeks in that city researching people and places. There are two narrators in the current book, and my challenge in writing this novel is that one of them is not like me at all. She is "other" to me in many different ways. I have been saying for months that I need to find her voice. I know her story. Now I have to figure out how to tell it.
She isn't North American, and my sense is that the narrative structure of her story should be different than that of the other narrator, who is a white Montrealer. Western storytelling generally employs a three-act structure: setup, confrontation and resolution. In my first full draft of the novel, that is exactly what happened for both narrators. Yet, it didn't feel right.
Over the past few months, I've been taking courses through the Writing the Other group. The first was a webinar on cultural appropriation. I had started asking myself if I had the right to tell a story from the point of view of a refugee from Africa. Why not cede the space to someone who knew it, lived it? The webinar posed the same questions. There isn't an easy answer.
The instructors assured us that the solution is not to give up, throw away the idea and move on to another book. The solution involves digging deeper. If I really want to tell this story, then I need to do it justice. I signed up for a second course, Deep Dive into Dialogue and Dialect. This month-long online course included a number of short stories and novel excerpts as examples of how to use dialect and to help us define for ourselves where to draw the line. What struck me was how many people in the course had not yet found the voice of their characters. I remember reading this line: "She sounds like me in my head." A light went on.
In early tinkering with the novel, my narrator had not sounded like me. It was when I sat down to complete the full draft that she morphed into a hybrid of me and her. In trying to work out the story, and cramming it into the three-act structure, I had lost her voice. The task is now to find it again. To let the story unfold the way she would tell it.
A writer's journey