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.

Single Poppy
A poppy in my garden

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.


    10 replies to "Red poppies and ethical storytelling"

    • Stephanie Rockliff

      Very thought provoking May. If people do not share their stories then their suffering becomes invisible and the atrocities against people are not recognised as such. Of course for some it will bring back memories they wish to forget and we can respect that. Others will be glad to have a voice through you. As a society we must not be blind to what happens. We retell war stories every ANZAC Day. It serves to remind us of the human cost of war.
      It is certainly a worthy discussion to have.

      • May Kuan Lim

        How true,Steph. It would be terrible if war were stripped of human stories, and yet, there are no easy answers as to how such stories should be found and written. It has been a great experience getting to each one of those whose stories I have written. The more I wrote, the more I realised what a generous gift it is, the gift of story, especially when the gift was given at a substantial cost.

    • Jeanette Grant-Thomson

      Good post, thanks May-Kuan. I’ve included a lot of someone else’s suffering in a recent story but chose to omit details I felt were demeaning to him.
      I LOVE red poppies. Grew them for many years.

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thanks, Jeanette. That is a good measure, if the details are dignifying or demeaning. I also ask myself if the details are essential to the story. Yes, beautiful flowers, and so hardy 🙂

    • Julia

      We can see this in the different responses of soldiers and their war experience. Some have told their stories – to friends, family, biographers, in memoirs, in blogs, in anthologies. Others have never told anyone. Others have only shared in mutual storytelling around a beer on ANZAC Day. I went through a minor trauma (a cyclone) many years ago, and for a while wanted to tell everyone the terrifying details. Then I never told new friends or acquaintances I’d been there even when it was mentioned, and stopped talking about it. It’s whatever is right for that person at that time.

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thanks, Julia, for your wise words: whatever is right for that person at that time.

    • Noel Mitaxa

      Great idea May, and great follow-through on it.
      Everyone has a story – some being more demeaning than we could ever imagine. Being given time to tell their story allows people with traumatic pasts the cathartic release of realising they’ve outlasted the events – if not the memory – and of being respected regardless of how much the past may try to victimise them. It’s this respect that helps them to recognise how much they can still bring to their world, especially as we allow God’s grace to permeate the process, for then Romans 8: 31 – 39 starts to wrap itself around everyone involved

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thank you, Noel for your comment. God’s grace is a wonderful thing indeed.

    • Rosanne Hawke

      Yes this is a good topic to discuss. We may have a legal right to write about anything that is also part of our own experience, but if others are involved is it ethical to do so? It’s good to honour a person’s decision as you did.

      • May Kuan Lim

        Thank you, Rosanne, for pointing out the difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Doing what is legal gets us on the right side of the law, while doing what is ethical gets us on the right side of people, and makes it possible for the story sharing and relationship to continue.

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