Voice and Ethnicity

Voice is labelled by Wikipedia a “combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc.”[1] However, the voice of a writer goes far deeper than just this literal meaning. It is their very essence, which is contained in their writing even when they try to adopt a persona very different from their real souls. “Voice is not style. It’s not technique. It’s not a decision to write in first or third person, it is the expression of YOU on the page.”[2] The irony is that voice cannot betray the writer no matter what garb it is hidden in. Thus, although the technical aspects of the story might not lack anywhere, the voice of an ethnic writer will come across as wanting genuineness in the story about the rich White Londoner, laying bare the inaccuracy of the entire experience. The writer may even succeed in portraying the lifestyle and the personality of the rich Londoner to an effective degree. However, if the very same writer then pens down a story from an ethnic point of view, that story would undoubtedly surpass the previous one, due to its unfailing truthfulness, that can touch a reader’s heart. The craft could well be there in both the stories, but the heart will be there in just the second.

I might come across as cynical to those ethnic writers who wish to disagree. However, my own cynicism was what led me to question this authenticity issue in the first place. When I joined the creative writing course, my first attempts were at stories that centred around characters who had absolutely nothing do with the way I have lived my life; rich New Yorkers with a jet set lifestyle, aristocratic British living in resplendent mansions, etc. In retrospect, they appear to be somewhat clichéd, and the characters appear to be caricatures, too stereotypical to be genuine. As my stories were commented upon by my peers, there was almost always the issue of authenticity, or lack of it, that was pointed out by my classmates. My tutor encouraged me to look closer to ‘home ground’ for my stories. I took the advice, and was glad to have done so, for the piece that followed, an ethnic story of a woman’s vengeance, was received with such applause that I was left in no doubt about the fact that authenticity was indeed something that could not be achieved merely via a good plot or sound technique; rather, it was something that was in-built in a writer’s voice, and would come out when the writer was true to their experiences. By that I do not imply just the immediately undergone events in a writer’s life. The woman in my story was not me, so I did not, in essence, live her story first-hand. 

What, then, is authenticity of voice? Writing is as much a conscious endeavour as a sub-conscious one. The experiences that bring authenticity to a contrived piece of fiction are as much subliminal, the truth of which comes out through the voice of the writer, as they are deliberate in the framing of a character. “The routes to which you lay your creative soul down must transact with your memories and experiences, those memories and experiences which only you have, and the authenticity of those feelings and memories are the tracks a reader sees.”[3] Experiences can be so varied that it can become difficult to pin them down; multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious, but ‘ethnic’ all the same.

That is not to say that an ethnic writer should only attempt ethnic stories, but that to attempt the story about the Hollywood actor undergoing depression, or the deranged serial killer torturing young prostitutes, or the young, high-powered French heiress searching for true love, the writer would have to discover a means to project their uniquely ethnic experiences into the stories, in order to bring them to life. If you have to immerse a story about a young, French heiress in your unique ethnic experiences in order to make it sound real, why not just write a real, authentic, ethnic story instead?  These role-transformational stories – if one may call them that – would surely allow the writer to showcase their skilful handling of writing techniques and their high-flying imagination. Yet, in order to truly touch a reader, there has to be something more than just skill and imagination that the writer is willing to divulge: his essence, the essence that is captured not by casting the “imaginative net wider”, but by letting the net sink much deeper, into that “treacherous minefield of ethnic Diaspora within you.”[4]


[1] Wikipedia, Writer’s voice, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writer’s_voice (accessed: January 15, 2011).

[2] Rachelle Gardner, What is writer’s voice, From On life as a literary agent, http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/07/what-is-writers-voice.html (accessed: January 12, 2011).

[3] Elaine P. Chiew, The Ethnic Writer: To Be Or Not To Be? From God shuffles his feet, http://elainepchiew.blogspot.com/2009/05/ethnic-writer-to-be-or-not-to-be.html (accessed: 10 January, 2011).

[4] Elaine P. Chiew, The Ethnic Writer: To Be Or Not To Be? From God shuffles his feet, http://elainepchiew.blogspot.com/2009/05/ethnic-writer-to-be-or-not-to-be.html (accessed: 10 January, 2011).

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About MariemAsif

A worshipper of words. Have a distinction in MA Creative and Professional Writing from Brunel University, London. Working on my novel.

Posted on April 4, 2011, in ethnic communities, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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