Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Liar liar pants on fire

The other day, a lawyer called me a liar. Of course it was a joke (in self-defence at my casting nasturtiums at the integrity of the law profession), but it echoed an ongoing writing struggle that I don’t think I’ve talked about.

In choosing four Amerindians to write about for each week of Amerindian heritage month, I have begun and aborted many descriptions. First, take out the people who might read it and mind. Next, take out the venal, the drunk and the corrupt. Last, take out anyone about whom I have negative impressions on a slim acquaintance because, in my experience, it’s extremely easy to be unfair about people you don’t admire.

I slightly fear the resultant Dharma bunny accumulation. I do not want to glorify Amerindians in the way that so many people idolise Tibetans. Having lived in a 97% Tibetan town for a year, I will vouch for it that people are just people, and I believe that every city, town and village on the planet has its fair spectrum of inspiration, aspiration, ugliness and violence.

However, this is only the first, and easier, portion of the conundrum. The second is political. Guyana is, yes, a small society. On the coast everyone knows everyone, and even legitimate or verifiable criticism tends to go down like a chilli sandwich at an acid reflux convention. Double it if you’re a foreigner. Innocent of this at first, in the interior, on the one instance where I spoke unguardedly it blew up in my face like a blunderbuss stuffed with broken glass and rusty nails. I’m still picking the bits out. This limits not just freedom of speech but trust. And I can’t tell you about it.

So how can I sharpen the focus on what it is I’m not telling? I’ll give an illustration from that year on the Tibetan Plateau. The college president there is a grease of a man, who keeps his eyes half-shut to prevent their barrenness leaking into his permanent half-smile. A heavy gambler with a beautiful, silent, forbearing, unmanned wife. A heavy drinker whose favourite food is the gristly tendons from a goat’s back hock. A man who allegedly stole the whole of the college’s caterpillar fungus crop- he certainly rebuilt his house on the proceeds of something. One does not have altercations with this man; seabirds don’t have altercations with oilspills. The nearest I came was when I found a notice on a lamp-post downtown proclaiming that I would be staying for the whole of the summer vacation to give lessons in Business English to anyone who could pay (him, naturally, not me). As a VSO I was forbidden (and would also have refused) to give lessons for profit, even had I been lunatic enough to sacrifice my six weeks of hard-earned oxygen-rich air down in Xi’an. So VSO, bless them, had the altercation on my behalf. He was a significant player in that experience. My sister Ruth once accidentally made a cake with no flour in it: that’s pretty much what you’d get if I described that year without him in it.

But to a certain extent that is what I have been doing in Guyana. I have four people-descriptions tucked away that I would dearly love to load but know I never will. Cathartic to write, but Guyana will not forgive me if I make them public. Of course the contrast is partly due to the fact that almost no-one from the Tibet year can read English. But it is more than that. I think Guyana is extremely touchy about its dirty linen. Coming from a Britain where we practically compete with slagging each other off as a nation, it’s easy to fall foul of a sensitivity that is uncustomary to us. And I suspect there’s a kind of inverted disingenuous snobbery in the way a powerful country denigrates itself. I think I’ve learnt my lesson (a year ago I would have told you the Tibetan college president’s name!).
So self-censorship has run through the whole of 2009 and 2010. At one point, I actually started keeping a record of ‘the stories I didn’t write’. I look back through it now, and wonder with some amazement whether I have given any kind of genuinely evocative representation at all when I see the giant characters, the extraordinary frustrations, the pertinent and unnecessary obstructions that I have never described. It’s like expecting you to understand the dynamics of the Cinderella story with no ugly sisters and a curfew.

What is left? The truth, two-fifths of the truth and nothing but the truth.


  1. I think you ought to publish what you wrote. Not while you are on the firing line, of course, but soon after. If you don't owe it to yourself, then you owe it to those people who can never have the chance to do what you do. What you have is a freedom that those of us who live here don't have. Make use of it.

  2. ..."freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose....". Hmmmm. You sure about that? I'm not naive enough to think that just because I'm a foreigner I have undiplomatic immunity! Ramifications would smack round the back of other heads. (not to mention me losing friends and alienating people!) - I suspect that retreating from the firing line and then shouting one's mouth off counts as cheap shots, or even cowardice.

  3. Being "too honest" can always be hard, writing a blog is like voicing your opinion in public, a public that can very well be on the other side of the proverbial fence. Everyone has an opinion, keeping it to themselves leaves them unnoticed and unheard, voicing it opens them to praise or criticism. Ultimately the choice is the individual's but that choice is what will shape them from that moment onward. Fear of retribution can either be seen as cowardice or being pragmatic, in this case I say be yourself!

  4. In which case, publish sis, you are never a cowardy custard! If you wait until you write a book of blogs for publication here, it would seem very odd to leave half of it out, like a club sandwich minus chicken, ham and tomato..

  5. Graham Greene once said that writers need a ‘chip of ice’ in their hearts. While he meant novelists, perhaps this applies even more to people trying to write truthfully about the real world, being unable to justify their output as fiction. Anthropologists and historians have often fallen foul of this too – being honest when they’ve written up their fieldwork, only to find after publication that they had caused such outrage in the country concerned that it was actually unsafe for them to go back.

    I suppose it depends on how integral the ‘exposé’ element is to your central message, and to what extent the necessity and nature of the commentary about real people justifies the potential cost in terms of their response – (setting aside those instances where telling the truth actually puts lives in danger) – ranging from mere piqued pride to offence to genuine upset to personal devastation. Is it tough love, or a kiss-and-tell?! Is it at all possible to be both accurate and diplomatic? How severe would the short-term effects be, and what about the long-term – battening down the hatches, or opening up a portal for real change?

    Your dilemma sounds acute; resorting to pseudonyms or the roman à clef isn’t an option, and if you go down the route of appearing to criticise institutions, individuals will still (in some cases correctly!) take it personally. Your obvious real concern about this aspect of writing, together with 2 years of first-hand experience, suggest that any criticisms would be neither needless nor baseless. Also, if you write a bowdlerised version, what’s the point? A very, very tricky problem though.