The power - and risk - of authentic narratives

The power - and risk - of authentic narratives
Comment: Minority storytellers are on the rise. The challenge for audiences lies in seeing them as creatives in their own right, not novelties, writes Amal Awad.
5 min read
06 Mar, 2018
"'Diversity' remains a disjointed form of progress" writes Amal Awad [Getty]
A litany of books with veiled women tropes haunt us Arab storytellers. 

I was reminded of this when I appeared at a recent writers' festival in Australia, and a woman asked a panel of us writers (all women of Arab heritage) if we had read the Jean Sasson trilogy on a Saudi princess. The books were famous decades ago for their slavish and supposedly authentic reconstruction of life in Saudi Arabia.

We had only read it in parts. None of us cared for it. The problem being that these weren't authentic tales told in the name of honest storytelling. It was exoticised fantasy, dressed up for a curious, western audience, dripping in saviour tones.

It's not generally our authentic narratives that interest people - it's our narrative told through their perspective. This is what stifles good story; it's not that we have ownership over our experiences, it's that we are best equipped to tell them, and yet, we're so often not trusted to sell them.

This is not to criticise the woman for asking the question.

The audiences at the festival were warm, interested and asked thoughtful questions. But the question pointed to the curiosities people are finally able to sate about Arab women.

Their curiosity filled me with relief; I've done more than one event where question time gets dark. Men have queried me on Arab women pointedly, as though they have a dog in the fight: One talked about "Arabs living in Israel" (the man refused to say "Palestinians"), while another asked me to explain how women feel about the treatment of Muslim women 1,400-plus years ago.

I wondered why he cared so much, but he didn't explain. He simply asked me the question as a demand, as though I owed him an explanation.
It's not generally our authentic narratives that interest people - it's our narrative told through their perspective
This is the risk you take in telling your stories, in amplifying previously-unheard voices. This exposure means your truth becomes fodder.

That man who refused to say the word 'Palestinians'? He wanted to know who had it worse: Palestinians or women in Saudi Arabia. In his mind, I suppose, I had given him permission to criticise and to point out the problems women face in the Arab world.

This would be fine if his interest was sincere, but it was difficult to see how it could be, under the circumstances.

The reality is that, while we are embracing 'diversity', it remains a disjointed form of progress. Because it disconnects us, emphasises differences and creates a sense of specialness that hinders more than helps understanding. Arab women do not have the luxury of telling stories without these stories taking on loaded meaning.

This is the risk I took writing Beyond Veiled Clichés, and it's the challenge facing anyone from the diaspora telling their stories.

And this is why women so often opted for anonymity when they spoke to me; they wanted to tell the truth, but not be linked to it.

The truth would exist, but they were aware of the potential for backlash, and the likelihood of playing into the mindset of racists.

Reading about the new book, Arab Women Voice New Realities, I feel an excitement that women are raising their voices. But I also worry that in speaking their truths, these women boldly telling stories, become a commodity for outsiders thirsty to exoticise the experiences of Arab women further.

And this is a crucial point to consider: When a story is truthful about the grim realities of life, who is the narrator? What is the purpose of that story?

When I was a child, it grew increasingly common to see ethnic minorities parodied in Australia, often by the people from within that minority themselves. Nick Giannopoulos, a Greek-Australian, decided to reclaim the racist term "wog", used in Australia to describe people of ethnic minorities, generally from the Mediterranean.

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He used it in his play, 'Wogs Out of Work' and a mainstream television comedy called 'Acropolis Now'. In the show, his cousin Effie was played by a talented actress who hammed up the accent and teased her hair to its outer limits.
This exposure means your truth becomes fodder
It was good fun, a long-running in-joke, but the difference was, it was mainstream, and people who weren't Greek were laughing along with them. It was permission to be in on the joke in a way, but in a country that was engineering its multiculturalism, it was also a powerful act. The self-parody took the sting out of the word.

While it was ground-breaking, it arguably also did the ethnic minority it represented a disservice, because it meant the only way in, for a lot of ethnic minority writers, was through self-mockery.

This is perhaps why comedy becomes an outlet for so many. It's an accessible way to unpack grievances and lighten the impact through the universal language of humour.

Arab women do not have the luxury of telling stories without these stories taking on loaded meaning

I did it with my first novel, and many continue to arrange their experiences in a way that unburdens the audience of its bias through lightness. This is because audiences will happily laugh with you as you poke fun at yourself, but it can be an uneasy alliance. Too serious a narrative, and you risk playing into the abundant judgments and misconceptions surrounding your culture and heritage.

I hope that we are truly moving beyond that now.

I hope that our experiences, shaped into fictional or documented narratives are given the space they deserve to connect and inform.

I hope that if we laugh at ourselves, it's not to endear people to us, it's because our voices can encompass the balance of light and dark - humour mixed with the pathos of life. 

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.