Identity and Literature

Identity and Literature

Event: Sceptre Salon: Identity and Literature 

Venue: Waterstones Piccadilly 

Report by Julie Vuong

Identity. It’s quite possibly the most talked-about and tweeted topic right now.

It was timely, then, that imprint Sceptre Books rounded off its 30-year anniversary celebrations by getting beneath the skin of how who we are shapes what we write.

It is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who says we are in danger of telling the same story. And her rallying call to writers who have hitherto felt marginalised or misrepresented is shaking many publishers out of their stupor. The baton has been picked up by social media, which has helped to provide a platform for untapped voices: transgender, immigrants, refugees, escapees.

It was on this fertile ground that a crowd as diverse as the subject matter filled a room in the sweltering bowels of Waterstones Piccadilly, on one of the hottest days of the year. Chaired by literary journalist Suzi Feay, the panel featured writers who have placed identity at the very heart of their novels, particularly the immigrant experience.

Peter Ho Davies’s new novel The Fortunes is multi-generational and unpicks what it means to be an American in non-white skin. Andrew Miller, meanwhile, is an author unafraid to get inside the heads of characters from far-flung places and times, most notably in One Morning Like A Bird, which is set entirely in Japan. Rounding off the panel was Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, a twenty-something PhD student at UEA whose haunting debut Harmless Like You – which follows a young Japanese girl growing up in 1960s America – is going some way to remedy the lack of vanished immigrant voices.

The true self 

Ho Davies, with a friendly glint in his eye, kicked off proceedings by talking about how much of his own experience of being Welsh and Chinese was channelled in to his debut, The Welsh Girl. But his comments came with a note of caution. “How authentic can your voice truly be?” he asked. “We change our behaviour in different circumstances and towards different people.” Going further he said. “We also believe we have access to the true self of those closest to us. And we can feel almost betrayed seeing them act not as they would do normally.” Writing on identity can extend to objects, too, as Davies explained. “I read a memoir recently where the first 30 pages described the subject’s house. It went into great detail, right down to the layout of the building. It told me how important this place was in shaping him as a person.”

A story or the story? 

On a similar note on authenticity, Buchanan – part American/British/Japanese/Chinese – raised the notion of how characters can also be untrue to themselves. “My characters lie to themselves a lot,” she smiled. Chair Feay went on to ask if one character could or should be representative of a group of people. “I don’t write about man with a capital ‘M’” continued Buchanan, “but I can write about Jay [a POV character in her novel] because he was in my head for months. He might not be Man but he is a man.”

Honest perspectives 

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Miller, whose protagonist in his new novel The Crossing, Maude, even confounded him at times, touched on how carefully authors must tread when embodying an identity wholly different from their own. “People questioned me on what authority I could write a Japanese character in One Morning Like A Bird,” he revealed. Having lived in Tokyo for years, Miller felt able to write an authentic voice. “I insist that someone is able to write from another person’s perspective.”

The anticipated readings from each author didn’t come, but it was a hugely satisfying evening – mainly thanks to the rich subject matter and the warmth and openness of the authors. In particular Buchanan who, at just 27, more than deserved her seat amongst such seasoned writers as Ho Davies and Miller, and never buckling under the pressure.

Which rounds off the final and thought-provoking Sceptre Salon for this year, with more, hopefully, in the works for 2017.

Report by Julie Vuong

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