September 2018: Free to write?

This week I have taken part in events at the Manawatu Writers’ Festival. One was called ‘Free to write’ and in it a number of people from migrant and refugee backgrounds told their personal story. It’s always moving and inspiring – and a large reminder of the global reality – to hear these stories.

The other event I took part in was called ‘The story collector’. And it focussed my mind on something else. Behind the stories that people tell, sometimes there is simply delight at the freedom to speak. In other cases there are reasons to fear speaking aloud.

In  each book I’ve published which contains the stories of migrants or refugees, there has been one person who does not want to be identified. Ngàn Hac Tráng, in I have in my arms both ways, has no photograph and does not use her real name. In Migrant Journeys, Nena uses only her first name, and has no photo. In The Crescent Moon, Mehwish Moughal has no photo. The reasons are often complex – fear of recriminations in one’s home country, fear of recriminations here, a desire not to seem to be speaking on behalf of a small migrant community. And maybe one can become trapped in one’s own story. Borany Kanal, whose story is told in Borany’s Story published 25 years ago, still receives letters from high school students, because the book is so enduring. But she is now a mother of three teenage children and living in USA, and the story, that in some ways she has wanted to move on from, still follows her.

Her story is also a reminder that the retelling of personal stories can be very painful.

I was involved with the editing of Tears of the Moon, by Guo Sheng, which tells the story of Guo Sheng’s high-profile family living through the Cultural Revolution in China. Guo Sheng is not the author’s real name, and there is no trace of her identity in the book. She was living in New Zealand, but was deeply afraid of recriminations against her family still in China. This seriously affected the outcome for the book, because it became impossible to market it. That was a huge disappointment for her. At the time I remember we had discussions about whether she was too paranoid about this – but we New Zealanders living in our security, and often our naivety, have no right to make any kind of call about this. Earlier this year we had a Chinese man staying with us for a week – 40ish, well-educated – and I talked to him about this book. I asked him if Guo Sheng’s fears were justified, and he said, absolutely.

All of this was a reminder to me that stories don’t always come lightly. They may also come with risk, and courage. But in all the projects I’ve been involved in, there’s been a shared passion, to shift people’s heads, to create better understanding. And personal stories do this.