Insufficiently Woke

It’s not easy to be blindsided. That is, of course, a lie: it’s the easiest thing in the world. Dealing with it is another matter.

I took a piece of writing to my writing group on Sunday. I hadn’t really thought anything of it; it was simply the next chapter of the novel I’ve been gradually unrolling. And (I thought) I didn’t really care what people said – this work is getting beta-ed as we speak and I only really took it as I had short notice and wanted to read something.

I’d have been quite happy for a nice simple ‘Yeah, it’s great, no problems here.’

The piece I took was a hot section describing a slum clearance. Lots of nice descriptive language, a few deaths and a bit of emotional trauma. It’s been workshopped before, this piece, and, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much except for a little sharpening here and there.

I got taken to task.

The piece was described as a Westernised, colonialist’s view of the world; it was too nice, too polite; it was an insult to anyone who’s experienced a real, genuine slum clearance, where they run the bulldozers through people’s houses at night and deaths are uncounted, uncared for.

The passion, the anger in my interlocutor’s face was shocking. I was completely taken aback. I still don’t quite know what to feel. I was upset, to put it mildly; thinking back now I still feel the tremors and the anxiety.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about cultural appropriation. I believe in being sensitive to experiences beyond my ken. I’ve watched Twitter arguments play out about unconscious ‘white’ writing and perspectives that erase the experiences of the ‘native’. To be accused of doing the same thing myself? Painful.

So what do I do? I don’t think I can make the scene any nastier, crueller, as it would be out of place in this novel and would probably turn the scene into melodrama. To paraphrase another member of the group, doing ‘better’ would make the novel worse.

And do I believe this person is right anyway? No-one else (and the novel has been read by around a dozen people, though the vast majority are white-British) has commented or complained. Can I make big changes on the back of one person’s objections?

I don’t know that I can. I might add a sentence or two to ask if this slum clearance is typical, if it’s overly mannered, or if it could represent the tip of the iceberg. I will look at doing that. I will also make sure to ask my beta-readers what they think of the scene in question. I will ask them to check me, as I am checking myself.

In the meantime I am trying to get over the shock, and I am looking at myself in a different light, and I am worrying about what this episode says about me as a person. I am deeply flawed, insufficiently Woke; that is not news, but never has it been brought to my attention so baldly.

I suppose I should look upon this as an opportunity to grow.