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What Are the Limits to a Writer’s Imagination?

February 13, 2014

Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKayLaura Jean McKay, Holiday in Cambodia, 2013, Black Inc.

How far can a writer go in writing about people who differ from them? Melissa Lucashenko thinks it’s a bad idea for white writers to write about Indigenous people unless they really understand Aboriginal sensibility (more detail here). Is there a similar danger of perpetuating ignorant stereotypes when writing about Cambodians who, like Indigenous people, have also experienced enormous trauma and loss?

Holiday in Cambodia contains 17 remarkably diverse short stories. Some are about tourists or aid workers, but nine enter the point of view of Cambodians, including a sweatshop worker, a woman clearing landmines, a little boy selling books to tourists, a prostitute, and a talented singer who is forced to work in the fields during the Khmer Rouge regime. The stories are scattered across time from the 1950s to the present.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Memorial Stupa

Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Memorial Stupa (Photo: Bryce)

The stories are gripping and affecting, the writing assured. But how well does McKay succeed in portraying Cambodians? Should she have avoided writing from their viewpoint, especially as she doesn’t speak Khmer?

Answering that question is difficult, but we have some evidence. Firstly, the Cambodians in the stories are not stereotypes – they are individuals, very different from each other. They do not feel like ‘The Other’. Beneath the culturally different ways of thinking and behaving we feel our shared humanness, even in a cruel Khmer Rouge cadre.

Secondly, McKay has worked in Cambodia on aid projects run by local people and through Asialink worked with the only independent literary organisation in the country, meeting many local writers. Later she did a masters degree looking at who can write about Cambodians and who can’t: “What does it mean when an Australian writes about Cambodian people, especially in the first person perspective? This was largely my focus point.” (Jacqueline Wright undertook a similar task – a mini-thesis on the representation of Indigenous people by non-indigenous authors – while writing Red Dirt Talking.)

A trekking guide and his family in Chi Phat

A guide and his family in Chi Phat (Photo: Bryce)

This experience did not make McKay confident. In an interview for Kill Your Darlings magazine, she spoke of how nervous she was about adopting the voice of another culture. She questioned her own motives for being in Cambodia and writing about it. She tried to “decentre the dominant white subject,” so that the stories focus on Cambodians, and Westerners are mostly seen through local eyes. She honours Cambodians, but in an unsentimental way. If she had simply written about the experiences of Westerners in Cambodia, from their own point of view, the book would have been much less interesting.

At the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival, Ann Patchett disagreed with the argument that Caucasians should not write about indigenous people. “You can if you do a good job – if you succeed and honour them. No one is allowed to tell me where the limits of my imagination are …You may tell me I have done a bad job … But you can’t tell me what I am allowed to imagine. That’s what an imagination is – limitless freedom. And what fiction writing is, and what fiction reading is, is an act of compassion and empathy … You are actually going into the character … It is a very healthy thing to go outside of ourselves and to imagine the interior life of other people.”

This is what McKay has bravely done in Holiday in Cambodia, and I believe her awareness, empathy and writing skill has enabled her to do, in Patchett’s words, “a good job.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2014 12:31 pm

    Women can write men, men women. As you say it’s just about doing it well and convincingly. As if people don’t have the empathy to see the world from other people’s eyes

    • Bryce permalink*
      February 13, 2014 12:59 pm

      Not everyone has that empathy, but I think it can be developed by reading and writing fiction. I always enjoy your stories, in which you inhabit the consciousness of all sorts of people, animals and things.

  2. March 1, 2014 1:01 pm

    I thought I’d commented on this, but clearly I didn’t! I like McKay’s comment that she tried to “decentre the dominant white subject,”. That’s something Merrilees alludes to in her essay on the topic though she focuses more on ensuring “other” has a presence to modify white dominance. Theoretically I agree with Patchett, but I also understand where Lucashenko is coming from. In situations of unequal power, theory may need a little tempering, but I would never go so far as to say “no, you can’t”. Give it a go I’d say to Patchett but be prepared for and gracious about the flak.

    • Bryce permalink*
      March 1, 2014 4:23 pm

      Elliot Perlman wrote in the perspectives of African Americans, Polish Jews and others in The Street Sweeper. In an author’s note he says: “In the writing of this book I was conscious of the possibility of causing offence by employing the idioms of cultures other than my own. It is my hope that no offence has been caused. On reflection, I think that possibility, in a general sense, is a risk more or less inherent in writing about anyone other than oneself.” Writers need such humility and awareness, and they also need someone like Lucashenko to pull them into line if they do a bad job.

      • March 1, 2014 9:26 pm

        Ah good catch, Bryce. It’s so long since I read the book that I’d forgotten that.


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