At a conference in Delphi – we were studying The Sophist, which turned my brain into spaghetti, with Plotinus and Sophocles* for light relief – our dialectic professor asked me at the evening plenary, “Tell me, are you an Australian?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. What a question! My outrageous Aussie accent was plain to hear, I had an Australian passport, I was born in a little Victorian town. What else could I possibly be?
“I am not Irish,” the professor replied in his delightful Irish accent, and I knew full well that he lived in Dublin and was as Irish as Yeats. “And we are now going to have a short discussion, at the end of which you will agree with me that you are not Australian.”
I considered his words. Here we were in Delphi, where the maxim on the nearby Temple of Apollo had read “Know thyself”.
We didn’t need the “short discussion”. The idea that I was Australian was patently ridiculous. “No, I am not Australian,” I said, standing tall and thrusting out my chest. “Nor am I a woman.”
He twinkled at that. What a darling man!
I was brought to this recollection by a discussion on Twitter in the #WritingCommunity, initiated by this wish:
I really hope people understand it’s okay to write characters that aren’t of your skin or culture. Fiction would die if all we did was write only what we’ve experienced. —Henry Antenor
Many interesting and thoughtful responses followed, including this one, from somebody who has been extremely helpful to me:
I quite often write with a narrator who is a thirty something gay white man. I hope it is okay, because I ain’t a gay white man at all —North London Tales
This is Ego talking. Ego tells us that we are a truckdriver, a writer, a husband, a daughter, a student, a piano-player. Ego tells us that we were born in a certain location, we have various skills and experiences, physical characteristics, relationships and so on.
This is nonsense. I talked about this earlier in Tattva, where I noted that life and death have no perceptible existence, unless you want to count the normal physical processes of chemistry and electricity as life, and their absence as death.
We are not life. We are consciousness, and this is part of the structure of the cosmos. An emergent principle, as science puts it. As such, it is nonsense to suggest that consciousness is bound by such things as birthplace or gender or physical characteristics of any kind. Consciousness experiences such things, but is not those things. We are not the things we observe. We are not a role we play, no matter how finely we perform.
Consciousness is supported by a complex collection of cells and neurones and thought impulses, to be sure, and that is contained within a body that can be described and assigned characteristics and issued with a passport.
So the lady who writes as a gay white man doesn’t have to be one to be convincing. She merely has to understand what drives that particular character, what skills and experiences they might possess. Play the role well enough, she can convince a gay white man that she is speaking with the same authentic voice as his own.
We don’t have to be murderers or police detectives to write about murders – was Agatha Christie a prolific murderess of pre-war England? Of course not! – nor do we have to be astronauts or Martians or robots to write convincing science fiction. (Then again, how many of our readers know enough to be un-convinced?)
In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I can give to others – writers or not – is to consider the experience of existence though eyes that are not their own. Because, if life itself is a fiction, and consciousness is what you are, you and they share the one self. As do we all.
* What do Icarus and Jocasta share? They both got a little too close to the sun.