As the writing trainer for Bright Lights, No City, you worked closely with a number of the participants—can you tell us a bit about your role throughout the project?
My role was to help the participants to feel confident about their writing. This meant giving them the freedom to write in a form of their choosing, and encouraging them to be open to the unexpected as they completed their drafts. I also stressed that there was no required word length; that the stories could be as long, or as short, as they needed to be. I gave participants short writing exercises to encourage them to use their imagination, and to think about the power of language to confront, amuse, disturb or console. I gave them examples of different ways of structuring a story and different kinds of language use, so that they came to understand that there was no ‘righ’ way to tell a story. My role also entailed giving feedback on the various drafts they created over several weeks, to encourage them to think about their creative choices. I also asked them to share their writing experiences—both the highs and the lows—with each other. Overall, my role was to guide them in writing a story that was meaningful for them. I also wanted them to enjoy themselves, on the understanding that we usually don’t learn much if the learning experience isn’t pleasurable.
To begin with, Centre for Stories found 18 individuals who were interested in participating. As you worked with the participants of Bright Lights, No City, what did you notice as participants progressed, or were unable to, through their storytelling journey?
I quickly became aware that most of the participants weren’t sure of what they wanted to write about, largely because they had so much they wanted to say. It was difficult for them to know where, and how, to begin. I asked them to focus on a particular experience or moment in time; or to begin with a single word that would convey their feeling about growing up ‘different’. Once the writers found their particular subject and began to write a first draft, some of them grew in confidence, but others felt stalled. The confident writers became better self-editors as they drafted and re-drafted; they were increasingly able to see what worked and didn’t, and why. The two writers who felt ‘stuck’ needed reassurance from me, and I was delighted that the group members were able to give this as well, both during the sessions and outside them. All the participants came to understand that overwriting—a display of one’s vocabulary for the sake of impressing readers—could spoil an otherwise engaging story. They also learnt to respect the reader’s intelligence; to give readers the challenge of working out possible meanings for themselves, instead of explaining meanings or telling readers what to think. They learnt about the importance of creating a voice that felt right for them and the story they wished to tell. The result was four writers who felt proud of what they’d produced, three of whom presented their stories in a public reading. It was a momentous occasion for them, and a very moving one for the audience.
Bright Lights, No City contains eight stories from LGBT+ youth from country towns in Western Australia, what are the stories about and what can readers gain from engaging with them?
The four stories produced in our group are all, in their different ways, about the experience of discrimination, misunderstanding and ignorance, and the struggle to find a sense of self-worth and identity when confronted by homophobia. Coincidentally, three of the four participants grew up in Kalgoorlie, so they shared a bank of cultural knowledge. One story centres on going back to Kalgoorlie and the effect this had on the writer’s sense of self. Based on the concept of ‘return’, the story is written in a series of fragments to evoke the writer’s attempt to feel whole and affirmed. Cleverly written, poignant, and leavened with humour, this story will encourage readers to understand how LGBT+ people can feel the need to suppress their apprehensions and desires in order to feel safe and accepted. Another story is centred on the experience of being misunderstood as a child and adolescent, and culminates in a confrontation with a ‘well-meaning’ high school teacher who felt the need to ‘out’ her student. The outcome was a triumphant declaration by the student/writer of his sexuality—in this case, his bisexuality. This story will encourage readers to understand the complexities of sexual desire—to move beyond the binary model which wants to put people into neat and ultimately constraining categories. It will also encourage readers to respect the right of LGBT+ people for privacy and dignity. The third ‘Kalgoorlie’ story is much angrier and more disillusioned than the others, using difficult moments from childhood and adolescence to show the psychologically damaging effects on a young person who is ‘different’. One of the strengths of this confronting story is the insistence that we all have a responsibility to use language sensitively; to be kind to others with our words. The fourth story is different again; it’s a poetic evocation of a longing for sexual satisfaction and a sense of belonging or completion. The writer has used heightened symbols and highly embellished language to contest the pernicious stereotype of homosexuals as exploitative, if not predatory. The story asks us to understand that homosexual desire can entail the desire to connect with another person and experience a sense of mutual trust.
How did this project effect you personally?
As the mother of a gay son, the experience of working with young gay people affirmed my belief that a person’s sexual identity is simply one aspect of their character. The young participants in this project were smart, sensitive, articulate, politically aware, with a great sense of humour, and so supportive of one another. Working in the project thus reminded me of the injustice of vilifying LGBT+ people because of their sexuality, instead of valuing them as thinking individuals who have so much intelligence and passion to contribute to the community. I was also reminded that LGBT+ individuals can and do have very different ideas, and that we mustn’t assume that their views are uniform simply because they’re gay. For example, the participants had different ideas about Mardi Gras: some thought it was a wonderful expression of pride, while others thought it perpetuated the stereotype of gays as hyper-sexual, if not sexually promiscuous. I was also impressed by the willingness of the participants to work diligently on their drafts, to improve their writing and create stories that would make a difference in the world. Finally, I was deeply moved by their public performances: a preparedness to show their vulnerabilities, and tell their stories to people they didn’t necessarily know. I’ve since learned that sending their stories into the world has had a profound effect on members of the community; this has re-affirmed my faith in the power of stories to engender empathy and encourage understanding of those outside mainstream culture.
There have also been a number of conversations in the literary community about the voices that are published, who gets to write who, and what efforts the publishing industry is taking to contend with systems of power that privilege some at the expense of others. What are your thoughts on this subject?
I think the dominance of white, male heterosexual writers has been contested—and rightly so—since the advent of the gay rights movement and feminism in the 1960s. This contestation is evident in publishing lists all over the world, and in the prizes awarded to writers who don’t fit into that dominant category. It’s ethically crucial to hear the voices of difference, in the interests of creating a more respectful and egalitarian society. However, I don’t subscribe to the view that writers from that powerful group have no right to imagine what it might be like to be a victim. To use Shakespeare as a quintessential example: this white male playwright created the character of Othello, a black man in white Venetian society, in a way that engendered profound sympathy for him as a victim of racism. Writers, after all, are often in the business of imagining what it might be like to be different from them, and the best writers do so with ethical circumspection and ideological subtlety. Nor do I think that a writer should necessarily be rewarded (through publishing contracts and prizes) simply on the basis of belonging to a marginalised group. I’m aware that white Western standards don’t necessarily apply to writers of difference; nevertheless, I don’t support the belief that we should reward bad or mediocre writing simply because it’s written by a socially powerless individual. In my view, a writer’s primary obligation is to write well: to use language thoughtfully, subtly, evocatively. While content and perspective are important when making judgements about publishing and prizes, so too is the quality of the writing.
Speaking personally as a fiction writer, one of my main interests has been the creation of characters who are very different from me—a white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual female. I’ve created characters, and speak on their behalf, who are working-class or gay, male or adolescent, precisely because it makes me think beyond my own experiences. It’s an act of the empathetic imagination to create a character who is unlike me, and it also encourages readers to understand, instead of making easy judgements of, difference.
Having said all that: I can’t abide those writers who pretend to belong to a victimised group in order to gain a publishing contract and/or boost their sales. There are numerous recent examples of such literary fraud; it’s both appallingly dishonest and outrageously opportunistic. Publishers also have a moral obligation to ensure the authenticity of writers and their work.
Susan Midalia is the author of three collections of short stories, all shortlisted for major literary awards. Her debut novel, The Art of Persuasion, published in 2018, explores the interconnections between three of her favourite subjects: contemporary politics, romance and reading. Susan also has a PhD in contemporary Australian women’s fiction, and has published on the subject in national and international literary journals. She is an experienced mentor and workshop facilitator who enjoys working with writers at different stages of their development. She continues to believe that reading good literature cultivates the capacity for self-refection and reflection on the complexities of the world.