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

Sunday, May 19, 2013 2:36 AM

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 Hawai?i 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 Hawai?i’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 Hawai?i, 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 mana?o in the comments section below.


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