In Chapter 16 of Cryptal’s Champion (Book 2 of the “Songs of Si’Empra” series), Pedro reads a story that Ellen’s written. While he’s getting ready to start the reading, Ellen remembers the story is a long one and that it’s probably not suitable because it’s “dark”. But, too late, Pedro starts to read. At its end, there is a silence and Müther eventually says:
“Where on earth did you get an idea for a story like that?”
I don’t know whether the editor of my draft of Cryptal’s Champion wondered the same. She said including the story in the book would disturb the flow of the narrative and suggested I remove it. I did but, if you want to know what the story was, download it from BookFunnel by clicking here or on the image or use the button below.
But there’s an extra layer to this story … the lesson I was taught about the difference between what a writer thinks they are writing about and what a reader perceives.
So, the main problem I had when fiddling with the story was how to make a long story short. At the time, I was booked to attend a summer school on writing at Rutgers University in the US. Each of us had to bring along a story to share and I thought The refugee would be ideal and I could get advice on how to shorten the narrative.
The refugee is a story set in Africa. It tells the tale of an English woman caught up in a refugee crisis with her baby, settling in a village, and, over the years, using her knowledge of mechanics to help the villagers set up a prosperous business repairing trucks and buses. The father of her child was a rebel soldier and is not part of the story.
Over the two weeks of the summer school, a few hours of each day were dedicated to discussion of our individual stories. My turn came on day five. The allocated time for discussing the story was one-and-a-half hours. The rules for these sessions were: the story is distributed to all classmates (there were fifteen of us) before class so everyone has a chance to pre-read; during class, the author reads the story; classmates critique the story and the author must stay mute during the critique period; the author comments on the critique; the convenor of the session (usually a published author – this changed daily) comments on both the story and the critiques; all classmates return the pre-distributed pages to the author with their comments included.
At the end of my reading, several of my classmates erupted in anger. The crux of their anger was that I had used the word “Negro”; had implied that dark skin was dirty skin; as well as implying that black people need “white” people to prosper. So vehement was the reaction to the story that it took up most of the class time. The anger also spilled over into the fact that I used English (no US) spelling and words.
I was so stunned by the apparent offence I had caused that when it came my turn to speak all I could stutter was that I had not even thought of the issues raised (I didn’t dare ask – in fact forgot completely – for pointers on how I could make the story more pithy).
Thinking back, I suspect that the convenor was also taken aback by the anger because she had little to contribute to the discussion – or maybe, at the time, I was so confused I don’t remember what she said. I think that others may also have been nonplussed because the comments on the pages I received back from most included editorial issues rather than comments on cultural insensitivities.
Regardless, I certainly learnt one lesson:
What I think I say and write may not be what a listener or reader understands. Culture, history and language are powerful filters.
As an author, I now often pause in the process of creation and try to imagine what a reader from this or that background might make of what I am creating. I am at the constant decision point of whether to include or not … and sometimes I include because I want (or hope) my readers to consider another point of view.
In any case, I hope you will like and not be offended by The refugee.
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