When I worked part-time and mothered full time, my garden suffered. I frequently allowed annuals to go to seed and hoped that they would sow next year’s display. I later learnt that the term for this was permaculture, which sounds a lot better than laziness, which is what it was in my case, partly anyway.
A few years ago, I sowed a packed of poppy seeds and they provided a cheerful swathe of red flowers. I allowed the poppies to go to seed, the dried pods bursting and scattering next seasons’ promise of colour. They were red Flanders Poppies and they were prolific.
In World War I, where woods and fields had been churned into wastelands, wild poppy seeds were awakened by a combination of rain, upturned soil and sunlight. Those red poppies, swaying in fields littered with fallen men, inspired the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. The poem speaks of remembering the courage and sacrifice of soldiers. By simply responding to their natural surrounding, the humble poppy has come to bear witness to the tragedies and triumphs of a war fought over a hundred years ago.
In a similar way, I thought that I could bear witness to what went on in my neighbourhood, in the communities I was part of, in Adelaide where I live. It surprised me when I first realised that asylum seekers were not only housed in faraway detention camps, but some lived in my neighbourhood. We went to the same shops, our children to the same sort of schools. I thought I would seek out people and their stories, and write those stories. I felt that I could do that much.
So I spent four years interviewing and collecting stories, stories that originated from places like Romania, Iraq and Ethiopia. One of my interviewees experienced nightmares after recounting her story. It surprised me, partly because the events happened over thirty years ago, partly because in my years of interviewing and writing, I had not seen this happen before. She revoked permission to publish. I respected her wishes, of course. Later, two other people I interviewed would experience some sort of negative reaction when they recounted their story.
It was a wholly different experience when I started writing for the MY disABILITY book project because the initiative to record the story came not from me, but from John and Terri. From the outset, it was clear that this book would exist to serve the interest of their community.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that we should not be curious about other people’s stories. I am not saying that writers should not write about things or people beyond their own lived experience. What I am saying is that good intentions alone do not guarantee good outcomes. Through all this, I started thinking about the ethics of writing another person’s story: Is there equally a place for forgetting as there is for remembering? Should this story be told? Am I the one to tell this story?
These are the starting points of the workshop I will be conducting on Ethical Storytelling at Writers SA in June.