Writing Strategies to Negotiate Marginalised Identities and Narrate Minorities’ Histories.


Sabrin Hasbun

‘“You must get this book right”, my brother tells me’ (Ondaatje 2009: 220).


Writing about families’ pasts brings a responsibility to get it right. There is so much at stake. But it is not only about one's own family. As Edemariam (2018) says regarding her own family memoir, ‘in describing the specific detail of my grandmother’s life, her daily routines […] I began to see how an individual, unremarkable family existence could illuminate both a specific historical context and a way of being’.


Writing such stories taps into greater dynamics of community and political, social, economic forces. This is even truer when it comes to marginalized groups who rarely have access to the production of official historical knowledge considered valid and acceptable by the western canon.


In order to understand this issue better, Taylor’s differentiation between ‘the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e. texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e. spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)’ (2003: 19, emphasis in the original) is particularly useful. While the archive has always been considered the legitimate source for knowledge production, the performative knowledge of the repertoire, especially from marginalized communities, has often been dismissed as unreliable and folkloric, despite having ‘long served to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory.’ (Taylor 2003: 18)


Creative writing, as a middle ground between these two poles[1] can become an important tool of expression for writers from or working with marginalized communities, but it needs to interrogate itself about its own positionality. Creative writing, as mostly an individual practice, risks falling into what Pratt calls the ‘monarch-of-all-I-survey’ attitude, defined as the perpetuation of imperial rhetoric through narrative (2008: 197–204). Often, in first-person narratives (especially in many non-fiction genres based on the experience of the I), we see an opposition between the coherent I that gives an authorial account and the incoherent Other that is only an object of observation. Therefore, the question is: which narrative techniques can be used in creative non-fiction to avoid the monarch-of-all-I-survey effect and instead create a narrative partly rooted in alternative forms of knowledge production and community meaning-making?


In recent years, the debate around the representation of marginalized groups has become a crucial one. In the literature field, for example, under the name of artistic licence and fiction, authors often benefit, financially or otherwise, by taking stories from other people and cultures.[2] Under the common phrase that an author simply wants to ‘give voice to the silenced’, we often look at cases of cultural appropriation.


There are many objections to the idea that only members of a community can tell their stories, starting from the argument that this is limiting for creative possibilities, to the importance of putting oneself in other people's shoes as a way of building awareness and empathy.[3] Despite finding these objections in part valid, I am still uncomfortable with the imbalance that this may generate especially when the author comes from a more privileged background compared to the protagonists of their stories. This imbalance has been addressed many times, especially in the field of anthropology, ethnography, social studies, and oral history, and many ethics frameworks have been put in place by universities and organizations[4] to try to limit its impact, or at least take it into consideration.[5] 


Less has been done when it comes to artistic works and practice-based research. Despite this, I argue that creative writing can be used as a more nuanced methodology to explore the forces at play in personal and communal identity formation. At the same time, my own creative process was informed by an anxiety over the objectifying effects of narrative. This tension between the flexibility of creative writing in negotiating complex identities and histories on one side, and the fixed structures of narrative on the other, informed my research. I tried to resolve this friction or at least to consider its implications by using the following four strategies in my creative practice. These strategies — either used together or separately — allow a greater degree of agency in the narrative of marginalized communities’ identities and histories. 


·       Disruption of narrative coherence. Narrative coherence has been accused of forcing an idea of mastery and unity that, far from being universal, privileges certain modes of knowing and producing (Pollock 1998). This is particularly true when it comes to narrative of trauma: victims unable to coherently narrate are considered less reliable and their narrative excluded (Borg 2018: 458 and Smits Keeney 2014: 3–5). A creative writing that seeks for agency needs to disrupt the expected linear narrative, the hero-journey, in favour of more open narratives.


·       Fiction techniques inside non-fiction. When the narrative coherence is cracked open and the self loses its solidity, then the concept of what is considered fiction needs to be revaluated too. Narrative forms that explore the threshold between the fictions that made us and the fictions we made can become a tool to connect performativity-marginality-creative writing. They can also put under scrutiny the writing of official histories and demonstrate how any narrative that relies on the dichotomy archive/repertoire perpetuates a false sense of superior objectivity.[6] 


·       The use of performative and embodied elements to revendicate a space of community engagement. ‘Spoken language, dance, sports, ritual’, and so on are not only the embodied practice of the repertoire. They are also the everyday spaces where marginalized communities can carve out agency (De Certeau 1984: 37). In the balance of the narrative these elements become a way to explore the interconnection and influences between community and individuals, and a way to reclaim control through writing.


·       Code-switching. If we are made through language (Butler 1997: 4) and if we can narrate ourselves only through the language that made us (Butler 2005: 36), then the language we choose to write in fulfils an extremely important role. Different languages and codes bring with them different conventions, different performativity, and therefore different possibilities of agency. What happens if different languages meet? The use of multilingual writing is not a new thing, but it becomes new when the use of languages/codes is not only a stylistic flatter or exotic touch, but a way to reperform the performative (Torres 2007).


This theoretical framework was developed along with my creative writing practice during a four-year interdisciplinary project. Investigating my family’s transnational stories and my communities’ histories between Italy and Palestine, I put together creative writing, archival research, interviews, and extensive fieldwork, in the creation of a family memoir deeply rooted in community making. I developed my creative approach through exercises of free writing, paying close attention to feelings and reactions and reliving moments of family and community life through the writing and rewriting of the same scenes and motifs, and considering the performative value of language. As a result, I pin down techniques that can offer a viewing platform to the issues I have encountered since the beginning of my research: the inadequacy of the first-person narrator, the uneasiness towards the objectification of identity through narrative, and a need to connect personal and communal experiences.


As an example of this development please see the differences between a first draft and a final draft of the same scene. Please note that the final version became an extensive piece, and this is just an extract.

These methods have been extensively used, sometimes singularly, sometimes combined: one only needs to think about books like Midnight's Children (Rushdie 1981) or Small Island (Levy 2004) to see how these techniques are broadly adopted by writers of postcolonial and transnational literature.


It seems, however, that non-fiction is somehow shyer when it comes to experimenting with the performative. In my writing practice, I play around with these strategies: my aim is to explore their potential in ‘non-fiction’ writing, from life writing to historiography, and to see how they can help in giving an account of the complex interlace between identities-in-formation and historical discourse, especially when it comes to a context of marginality. 



[1] For an interesting take on this idea, see Michel De Certeau (1984: 79), and Jen Webb and Lee Brien (2010: 194–99). ↩︎

[2] One of the most recent cases is the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. For more details see Wheeler (2020). ↩︎

[3] For an overview on different opinions from published authors, please check Kunzru and others (2016). ↩︎

[4] See, for example Janke and others (2019). ↩︎

[5] De Certeau’s statement (1984: 25) is emblematic: ‘The Bororos of Brazil sink slowly into their collective death and Lèvi-Strauss takes his seat in the French Academy’. ↩︎

[6] White’s question (1984: 33): ‘How else can any “past,” which is by definition comprised of events, processes, structures, and so forth that are considered to be no longer perceivable, be represented in either consciousness or discourse except in an “imaginary” way? Is it not possible that the question of narrative in any discussion of historical theory is always finally about the function of imagination in the production of a specifically human truth?’ is very constructive in this regard. ↩︎