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“How can playwrights tell refugees stories without exploiting or appropriating them?”

Notes from a discussion with lawyer and speaker Afsoon Donna Houshidari and playwright Andrew Kushnir, coinciding with the opening of The Container directed by Zachary Florence at Canadian Stage.

At Toronto North Public Library

September 2016

“How can playwrights tell refugees stories without exploiting or appropriating them?”

I had an early, memorable lesson in appropriation with the first short story I ever wrote. When my mother was a 13 year-old during the Second World War she was evacuated to Toronto, which was a very traumatic experience for her. She told many times the story of how in June 1940, after the fall of Dunkirk when a Nazi invasion seemed not just possible but likely, she was called home from school unexpectedly. Her father told her that she and her younger brother were to travel alone to Canada and stay there until the end of the war. My mother had probably never even been on a bus on her own, let alone a ship across the Atlantic being attacked by German U-Boats. So the whole family travelled to London to get the train to Liverpool, where they would get on the boat. The arrived at the train in good time and settled into a compartment. My mother’s mother said she was going to go and buy some oranges for the journey. She got off the train and disappeared. The minutes ticked by, and still she hadn’t returned. Anxiety grew. The time came for the train to leave – no sign of her. The train pulled out of the station, and my mother was unable to say goodbye to her mother. She didn’t see her again for three years. In fact, my grandmother had done this deliberately as she was so upset and fearful that she couldn’t maintain the stiff upper lip she thought was necessary.

This incident and its emotional impact was so vivid in my mind that I wrote my first ever short story about it, and presented it proudly to my mother. To my shock, she was horrified and angry. She said it wasn’t my story to tell.

I honestly couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong.

Only much later did I realise that I’d appropriated her story, without permission.

I have always been very aware of the dangers ever since.

So on one level, there is a simple question of ethics and methodology when writing about stories that aren’t yours. You have to make sure you ask permission, and that the person whose story you are using is happy for you to use it.

But you could very well ask, what are my qualifications as a white, middle-class Englishwoman to write about the experiences of Afghans, Somalis, Kurds and Turks fleeing persecution and war as I do in The Container? Isn’t it presumptuous, when there are people like Afsoon who are more than capable of telling their own stories?

I have two guiding principles when I’m writing plays. One is that the kind of theatre that interests me, and that I want to create is theatre which takes lesser-known or unheard stories and helps them reach a wider audience. You can read about all kinds of suffering and injustice in newspapers, but the difference between journalism and theatre – and I speak as a former journalist – is that journalism engages the brain, but theatre engages both the brain and the emotions. Theatre is an empathic artform. The reason that people run away to become actors is because it allows them to step into someone else’s shoes and become them for a while. Audiences can get a glimpse of the world through eyes they might not ordinarily even notice. Through eyes which otherwise they might cross the street to avoid. That is a very powerful thing.

Andrew puts it beautifully and eloquently when he says he writes plays about subjects that he doesn’t understand, and feels ashamed that he doesn’t understand. Writing plays, for him, is a way of learning more, and handing that learning on.

It’s the job of every serious artist to attempt to portray the world as seen through other people’s eyes. Not just to write about yourself. As a feminist I’m often frustrated by plays written by men which make no attempt to represent women. It’s to be applauded when men do take the trouble to write from a woman’s perspective, even if they don’t always get it right. And so, clearly, it’s imperative for me, as a white, middle-class, Englishwoman to write plays not just about white, middle-class, English women. Coming from London – which until I came to Toronto I believed was the most multi-cultural city in the world – that means writing about Afghans, Somalis, Kurds and Turks. And incidentally, this also means providing jobs for actors of different ethnicities.

I was first commissioned to write this play over 10 years ago. People had just started arriving in the UK, smuggled in the backs of lorries. All the headlines in the right wing press were about the ‘flood’ of ‘migrants’ sneaking into our country in order to steal our jobs and claim our benefits. I felt that the picture needed to be put straight. When I was in the middle of writing it, 58 Chinese students were found suffocated inside a locked container at Dover. When that happened, I wondered whether I could continue to write the play. Then, I realised it was more important than ever. The people inside these trucks and containers had to be known.

At the time, nobody else was really writing about the subject from the perspective of the people inside the container. Last summer, when hundreds of thousands of people were perilously crossing the Mediterranean, camping out in European capitals, walking across Greece and Hungary, I was attempting to write a screen version of The Container. At that point, it felt much less of a useful thing to be doing. By then, refugees were telling their own stories. Newspapers were getting personal stories. Broadcasters were giving cameras to people so they could document their journeys. The story itself was already in the mainstream. Sometimes, they can tell their own story better than I can. But sometimes it can still be useful for an outsider to tell these stories as Afsoon explained.

Afsoon has mentioned that for many years she felt herself to be unable to tell her own story, because she was worried about endangering her family members who remained in Iran. She describes how she felt nervous of engaging with the story she was almost too young to remember exactly, perhaps she too was afraid in some way of appropriating her parents’ story. Certainly she was tentative about asking her parents too many questions about a story which was clearly painful for them to recall. Now, enough time has passed for the subject to be ripe for appropriation.

But Afsoon is telling a real story. Andrew is telling real stories in his verbatim plays. The Container, however is a fiction, based on careful research.

When I was writing The Container, the first thing I did was to interview as many people as possible with first hand experience of being smuggled, and being refugees. Many of the people I spoke to did it on condition of anonymity, usually because they were waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, and were afraid that anything they said might be used against them. In that sense, I had to conceal the individual identities of my subjects, and disguise their stories, and not mention their names in the credits. But that gave me a freedom which was dramaturgically hugely important. The moment when you think, “this bit doesn’t really fit with my structure but I owe it to the lovely woman whose story it is…” is the moment that you are probably writing a flawed play.

So that brings us back to the question of appropriation. As a playwright, I would say that in order to write a good play you absolutely have to appropriate other people’s stories.  Theatre is a demanding artform, and if the play is bad, the audiences will disengage. Then you are doing no favours to your subjects. Appropriating people’s stories is essential for a writer. But it must be done consciously, respectfully and with the intention of making those stories known.