Adorno’s dictum – ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ – sounds a cautionary note for the socially-engaged writer. Against the impulse to respond with the tools of our trade, Adorno seems to imply that profound cruelty and suffering might repudiate the act of writing altogether. This sits uneasily with our instincts. If we, as writers, are to speak in and into the world, do moments of crisis not demand a response? Does responding not lend writing its value?
In recent weeks, I’ve had several opportunities to think about these questions. Asymptote, a journal I work for, is fundraising for a Special Feature on writing from seven Muslim-majority countries to protest Trump’s travel ban. In Oxford, I’ve also been curating a series of seminars at the Refugee Studies Centre featuring poets from migrant communities, or who work directly with refugees in the city. Both spark conversations that often return to two critiques of socially-engaged writing: concerns about the appropriation of experience, and the futility of writing as a response.
Both critiques are worth examining more closely. They hinge on the question of the writer’s place in responding to crisis, and mirror objections that anyone, more broadly, might face in engaging with suffering. But if it is the writer’s conundrum that highlights these concerns, I think, it is also the writer’s position that provides some answers, and suggests a more general ethic of response.
I use the word ‘place’ advisedly. Last year, Orange Prize-winner Lionel Shriver caused controversy at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival by claiming that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ challenged the ‘right to write fiction at all’. Her frustrations were directed at those who criticized writers for stepping out of place in depicting people of other identity groups, and at writers who knew their place – those who ‘pigeonholed [themselves]’ in their own identities.
While there was much to regret in her tone and posture, her arguments also failed to tackle a real challenge. All writers write from a place. We are unable to inhabit the lives of those we write about, and often embedded in circumstances which confer at least a degree of relative privilege.
Any attempt to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes, imagined or real, involves appropriating someone’s experiences to some degree. Any attempt to convince readers through poetic or dramatic personae relies on re-creating socially-embedded persons: and hence the actions, words, and relationships that define them. Because a fundamental gap in knowledge exists between a writer and her reader, she must strategically appropriate another’s experiences to breach that divide.
Intuitively, this presents some ethical challenges. Our discomfort over ‘blackface’ acting can be transposed to the act of creating characters by reproducing speech patterns, circumstances, or experiences – more subtle in practice, arguably no different in substance. This discomfort rests on a sense that we own our experiences, however relatable they are: when I trip and fall, no passer-by can claim to feel my pain on my behalf. Indeed, it is from this ownership that we derive an understanding of interpersonal justice: if I am wronged by someone, it is I, not someone else, who must be compensated for the wrongdoing.
Appropriating another’s experiences through writing strikes us as violating this ownership. A male writer celebrated for telling the story of a female character appears not only to claim the truth of her experience as his own, but to benefit from it. Putting aside writers’ self-interests, this seems to obscure the original ownership of an experience – as well as the right, which comes with such ownership, for anyone to tell their own story. Needless to say, motives such as financial reward, celebrity, or literary recognition only complicate the picture.
These tensions are placed in sharper relief when responding to crisis. Those facing intense hardship evidently possess an experience that is singular and irreproducible. Their ownership of this experience, moreover, may be especially important to them given other material or psychological losses sustained. There are, of course, various modes of response. A writer can simply choose to voice her sympathy for those in crisis, but – without reference to their experience – may come across as cold or removed. Conversely, if she chooses to voice the experience of crisis in some way, she risks appropriating it from a place of relative safety, not having suffered the same loss.
Related to the objection of appropriation is that of futility. Auden’s often misquoted line – ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – seems unfortunately apt if we compare losses sustained in crisis with the apparently immaterial gains from literary responses. Authors’ efforts to channel material proceeds to those facing hardship are often more encouraging in principle than in practice; writing rarely pays enough even to support writers. It builds no homes; resettles no refugees.
As Sasha Dugdale, Editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, put it recently: “I was anxious that publishing poems seemed an empty gesture. After all, I reasoned, what current refugees need right now is not poems, but aid: warmth, food and medical help.” This ‘empty gesture’ is problematic because a writer’s position is likely to be one of relative privilege. This is not to discount the fact that many writers are, themselves, disadvantaged: few, however, can be said to share in the crisis at hand. How could writing – which seems such a futile use of one’s privilege – be a legitimate response?
The notion of creative empathy, I believe, offers a plausible reply. It is neither an ideological nor technical standard but an ethical position, and rests primarily on a commitment to empathy: what Mary-Catherine Harrison calls ‘the act of “feeling with” another person’. This involves attending, first, to the losses experienced by the sufferer, imaginatively experiencing these losses as dealt to oneself, acknowledging the limits of imagination in reproducing that experience, and, finally, communicating to the reader one’s limited experience of that crisis. In this process, the writer creates a way for the reader to appreciate the magnitude of loss experienced by the sufferer, but simultaneously apprehends the sufferer’s experience as distinctive and irreproducible.
There is a fine but crucial difference between empathy and appropriation. The empathetic writer claims no ownership of another’s pain. Instead, by attending first to quality of her subject’s experience (whether by listening to a present-day sufferer or researching a historical one) the writer makes an empathetic leap by imagining herself in similar pain. Take the figure of a faltering long-distance runner. The appropriative writer would describe the runner’s blurred vision and sore feet; the empathetic writer would run alongside, and describe her own experience of doing so.
There are no costs in appropriation. In contrast, the empathetic writer strives to take upon herself the costs borne by others. She narrows the distance between herself and those she seeks to empathize with, and respects and preserves their ownership of a singular experience.
Importantly, ‘creative empathy’ also requires a commitment to creativity. A cynic might suggest that suffering with the sufferer is, at best, another expression of privilege; after all, those in crisis cannot choose not to know pain. Empathy, therefore, must be paired with an act of making new, of altering the circumstances of crisis. Writing cannot alleviate many forms of suffering. But while we acknowledge the limits of working in language, we must be alive to the possibilities of doing so: not least in critiquing and changing the terms in which crises are perpetrated or prolonged.
Writers attentive to the costs of crises are best placed to understand how crises are situated in our social worlds. The privilege of working in language is, consequently, best deployed in resisting the linguistic norms which sustain suffering. One recent example is David Herd’s book, Through, based on his work with refugees in the UK. The poems here not only bear witness to the ‘official hostility’ of the asylum process, but interrogate how violence is enacted in language that ‘[holds] intimacy at bay’. Creative work, at its finest, is humane in its treatment of suffering, while also being rigorous and inventive in challenging its circumstances.
Situations of crisis represent occasions of suffering that are also deeply personal experiences. They demand costly, creative responses that respect the owners of these experiences, narrow our differences with them, and change the circumstances that underwrite their suffering. A position of creative empathy thus provides some ethical grounds for the writer to respond to objections of appropriation and futility. But what can it offer us more generally?
We all experience anxieties over appropriating sufferers’ experiences, or indeed, whether our responses are futile when compared with their losses. Empathy, with its core ideas of preserving the ownership of an experience while suffering alongside, is both a means of narrowing gulfs of knowledge and privilege, while creating a sensitive way to comprehend loss. Equally, the writer’s commitment to creativity – with its demand of striving to change the status quo – is a call to hold ourselves to the knowledge that as long as we enjoy some relative privilege, however immaterial, we all possess some means of ‘making new’.