The Humanising Power of Story

Thursday, January 10, 2019
By: 
Arnold Zable interviewed by Deanne Sheldon-Collins

Photo of Arnold Zable
Arnold Zable

2019 Summer School: Writing and Advocacy

Advocacy is very often about telling stories that struggle to be heard. An experienced advocate and storyteller both, Arnold Zable spoke to Deanne Sheldon-Collins about some of the issues he was to cover in his February 2015 workshop, including the importance and complications of writing for social justice.

DSC: Your ‘Story and Advocacy’ workshop will look at story and advocacy across genres, from investigative features to fiction. Do you think that particular genres are more suited to advocacy than others?

AZ: The emphasis in the workshop will be on the craft of story across many genres. For exposing and responding to human rights abuses and injustices in the short term—perhaps columns, blogs, investigative journalism, feature articles, published in the mainstream press or social media, are arguably more effective. They have the power of immediacy. In the longer term, all the genres come into play. What unites them is the humanising power of story: John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Franz Kafka's The Trial, and very recently, Richard Power’s magnificent novel, The Overstory, among many other titles, confront injustices in subtle and imaginative ways. They contribute to the development of a culture that is moved to confront inequity and injustice. There are also many great works of creative non-fiction, some of which employ fictional techniques, such as Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains. Published in July this year, Boochani’s searing work, exposes the brutality faced by asylum seekers on Manus Island. The memoir is an effective means of documenting personal injustices which also resonate more broadly as case studies of various abuses. The memoir can also empower the writer, and give an authorial voice to the voiceless.

DSC: Writers throughout history have often addressed social issues subtextually rather than explicitly, especially in cultures where censorship is a constant threat. Do you think that this approach is as effective as writing openly about social justice?

AZ: Sometimes, as you suggest, addressing issues sub-textually enables a writer to overcome censorship restrictions, and perhaps also, dire consequences such as harassment, exile, imprisonment, or worse. Whether issues are addressed sub-textually or directly, it requires courage to write in repressive societies, and in all societies, there are also great risks for the whistleblower. There are great examples of writers contributing to the development of a subtle literature of protest as, for example, in Eastern Europe during the cold war period, and in subversive works produced in many countries today. Stories, memoirs, poems, songs and novels circulating underground, have created sub-cultures of protest, fueled by dissidents who keep the flame of freedom alive. Contemporary strategies include the use of Facebook and social media aliases to get across dissident views.

DSC: Freedom of expression is still an enormously topical issue, and one that you must come across often in your work with PEN Melbourne. Are there any situations in which you think censorship can be justifiable?

AZ: This is not a question that can be answered in just a few sentences. There are race hate laws in place in Australia for instance, that attempt to define the boundaries, in order the protect those individuals and segments of society who are subject to bullying and to inaccurate, false and defamatory assertions, that stir up hatred and division. Defining the boundaries is very difficult. PEN International, which has been defending freedom of expression for almost a century, has its own definition, stated in its charter. PEN defends writes who have been persecuted for the peaceful pursuit of their vocation. At any given time, there are upwards of 1000 PEN cases, worldwide, of writers, ranging from journalists and bloggers to poets and novelists, who have been harassed, exiled, imprisoned, and even murdered for the peaceful expression of their views.

DSC: Your workshop will explore storytelling as a craft that unites genres and purposes. Do you think that a story is ever ‘just’ a story, or does it always have a deeper meaning?

AZ:A story does not necessarily have to contain a deeper meaning. I love many aspects of the craft: playing with language, imagination, the craft of story, and the challenge to keep a reader engaged whatever it is you are writing about. There are also many stories that may have been written without an explicit intention to push a cause but nevertheless take the reader into worlds they do not know or imagined. The choice of subject matter, itself, can have deep meaning: choosing, for instance, to write stories set in the diverse communities of Melbourne's western suburbs: e.g. Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke. These works bring new voices and perspectives into the public domain, and confer dignity and humanity on their subjects. One of the exciting aspects of current Australian literature is the emergence of writers from many communities, including a renaissance in indigenous writing featuring writers such as Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe, Tony Birch and Melissa Lukashenko.

DSC: Which works have left the greatest impression on you, as pieces of advocacy or as stories?

AZ: The works of Kafka come to mind immediately. His novella, Metamorphosis is in my view the most powerful, darkly comic story I know of. It speaks to the bullied, the neglected, the disabled, to those who do not fit in, and to human neglect and cruelty, yet does so subtly, metaphorically and with dark humour. His novel The Trial speaks to countless universal instances of bureaucratic and political cruelty. I admire the humanism that memoirist, essayist, novelist and social advocate John Berger brings to his work across many genres. Vassily Grossman's extraordinary novel Life and Fate and his final work, Everything Flows, expose the brutal injustices of Stalinism, and the horrors of war, and explore what it means to be human. Writer’s such as Afro-American, James Baldwin employed both fiction and non-fiction to explore racism and homophobia.

There are many powerful works of creative non-fiction, such as Alexis Wright’s Tracker, the books of Henry Reynolds, and W.E.H. Stanner's The Great Australian Silence, exposing the history of social injustice against indigenous people, and Rachel Carson's seminal Silent spring, documenting the devastating impact of unregulated chemical pollution. Note the use of the word silence in the titles. The most powerful stories that address social injustices often break long held silences, and bring to light the darker aspects of our collective past and present. Emile Zola's J'accuse published in the daily press in 1898, as an open letter to the president of the Republic, is a model of impassioned, well documented and effective writing exposing a gross injustice. We are speaking of a long, and ongoing tradition, of works such as Thomas Clarkson’s An essay on the slavery and the commerce of the human Species, 1785, which set off a chain of events that led to anti-slavery legislation in Britain. We will touch on these, and other examples, in the workshop. Again, the emphasis will be on practice, on putting pen to paper, of using these works as models for creating the participants’ own work, in whatever genre they are most drawn to.

About Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is an acclaimed writer, novelist and human rights advocate. His books include ‘Jewels and Ashes’, ‘The Fig Tree’, ‘Café Scheherazade’, ‘Scraps of Heaven’, ‘Sea of Many Returns’ and ‘Violin Lessons’. He is the author of numerous essays, columns, features and co-author of ‘Kan Yama Kan’, a play in which asylum seekers tell their stories. Long active in the Melbourne Centre of PEN International, and on a range of social justice issues, Arnold recently received the Voltaire prize for human rights advocacy and the advancement of freedom of expression.