Who can write what about whom?

In the news recently, Anthony Horowitz reveals that his editor has warned him off writing a black character into his next book. As he comments, that would be a pity, because if he only wrote characters that he represented himself, he would be restricted to 62 year-old white, male, Jewish men living in London! https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/21/anthony-horowitz-i-was-warned-off-including-black-character

As writers we cannot possibly be restricted to our own gender, race, age group, nationality. We need to be able to write about anybody, anytime, anywhere. Obviously, we owe it to our readers to research whatever area we choose, whether it is part of our own inheritance or not. Some years ago I was asked to review a book of poems by Micheal O’Siadhail called The Gossamer Wall. It is a sequence about the Holocaust and results from a series of interviews of Holocaust survivors carried out by O’Siadhail. But as a Jewish reviewer, and I was reviewing for the cultural journal, Jewish Renaissance, I suddenly felt indignant. What was this probably Catholic Irishman doing with my history? And then I remembered the poems I had written about Ireland and Irish history. I had lived in Belfast for two years so at the time felt involved in questions of Irish identity, coloured by being asked more than once if I was a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew. In the end, I somehow let O’Siadhail off my ownership hook, because Irish people and Jewish people have a common heritage in being the victims of persecution. But in fact, that wasn’t a good enough reason.

I’ve more than once been in difficulties dealing with race and religion but I decided a writer has to face this out; otherwise our own identities become strait jackets which restrict us and prevent us from exploring more widely. One of my pieces of advice to myself and students who are at a loss about what to write next, is to suggest we say to ourselves, what if? So we might be writing about a white woman in her seventies based on a grandmother who has dementia. But what if we change that and write about an Asian grandfather who is still active and thoughtful. There are some things which are difficult to write about if you haven’t experienced them: at least the old have been young, though they may have forgotten, but the young have never been old; and most of us probably stay the same gender and race through our lives. It’s not patronising to write about people different from ourselves: it requires research, imagination and empathy.

Nathan Englander, American writer, says although he finds his stories contain a lot of Jewish characters because those are the people he knows, his writing is about people, and he doesn’t choose Jewish characters on purpose: “I came to understand that if a story is not universal, it’s an utter failure to me. I always use Voltaire as an example. I’m not dead, I’m not a Frenchman, I’m not 400 years old, but I can read a translation of “Candide” and laugh out loud. That’s what universal is.”


But that is reading, of course, not writing. You write what has universal appeal to readers through your knowledge of the particular. But I would argue that as writers we can all learn to make use of each other’s particular histories and personalities. Colum McCann’s article in the Guardian Review, So you want to be a writer? advises us: “Don’t write what you know. A writer is an explorer…… The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy.”


So if we want to grab other people’s histories and stories we have to let other people grab ours and hopefully we should all be the better for it. There are risks: we may not get it right, we may offend but who said writing was a safe and comfortable occupation. McCann quotes from Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” You have to do your best to develop those wings and be prepared to face the consequences if someone, as in Anthony Horowitz’s case, tries to pull the wings off you before you’ve even jumped.

Image Credit: Katherine Jasven


  1. Mary jupp 18 July 2017 at 9:58 am

    Advice to Anthony : ditch your editor. Great piece Liz

  2. Barbara Henderson 18 July 2017 at 9:58 am

    Hi Liz, this is a very interesting issue. The fact that we should be able to write what we like is indeed a compelling argument. But I can see why there are people who feel that – for example – a white writer is not the right person to tell the story of an oppressed black person. It’s a very tricky one.

    1. Akande Johnson 23 July 2017 at 7:43 pm

      That’s true.. But on the deeper side, Our differences sometimes pave way for our uniqueness..the accepted fact is that we are all human with blood flowing through our vein. If we can lay every other factors aside, then we can equally write about the other side.

  3. Josie Thomas 18 July 2017 at 10:18 am

    Thank you for writing “different from”…. It makes me feel less like a dinosaur. Prepositions matter to me. And thank you for your thoughtful post. I do agree that all creative people have to ask “what if I tried ….?” and put themselves in a position of trying to imagine taking a risky step, outside previous experience, and then follow up with “…if that, then..what?” You have to think through the consequences that arise. Isn’t that simply what we mean by “outside the comfort zone?” While I paint (I’m a painting student), I listen to novels on cds from the library. One by Elizabeth Haynes, Human Remains, is written about two people who have many of the obvious signs of autism, although that is never mentioned. The plot is very cleverly crafted – a really good thriller. She has asked herself: two people with these personality characteristics, socially isolated, strangers to friendship, – the consequences of those characteristics play out in very different ways through the plot. The next is “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. Zusak is an Australian, which surprised me, until I read that his parents fled from Germany, and his tale of the rise of the Third Reich and WW2 from inside Germany is part of his own history. He must have done a lot of research to make it so real.
    Haynes, Elizabeth: 2013: Pub: Sphere, ISBN9781486239559
    Zusak:2005: The Book Thief: Pub: Picador: ISBN: 9780552773898

  4. Linda 18 July 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Absolutely agree, Liz. Your piece made me smile because I am a ‘Catholic Jew ‘- mother one, father the other – and this has been an interesting position from which to explore and challenge stereotypes. I live in the midst of an Islamic community, so there goes another one.

    I’m tempted to say that all one needs is write about people who are different from us – which great writers have always done – is to be human. And have loads of curiosity and imagination. One of my mentors has a great definition of empathy – standing in someone else’s shoes with the laces undone: that’s what I try to do when I write. I also keep in mind that people who are different from us may also be different from each other.


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