For those not familiar with the film, Philomena is about a woman who was sent to a Magdalene asylum as a teenager in the 1950s, and subsequently forced to give her child up for adoption. Where the film picks up is fiftysome years later, when a journalist offers to cover the story of what happened to her and help her find her son. The story is undoubtedly hers'- it revolves around her life and her feelings- but it's primarily seen through the eyes of the reporter helping her. At one point, he explodes at the nuns who took Philomena's child, furious at their actions. She reprimands him, and when he responds "what happened was awful," she replies "Yes, but it happened to me. I'm the one who has to deal with it."
Obviously the story in the film (which is based on true events) is not a one-to-one analogy for people like me, who write fiction- all my characters came out of my head. But no character, fictional or biographical, comes without social and historical baggage. My current play, Sister Veronica, is about the Inquisition, queerness, and faith- none of the characters would do the things they do had I not been influenced by the existing history of all these things. Unless you're writing about an undiscoverd planet populated by an alien species that shares no morals, history, or social structure with humanity, your story is going to cross over with someone's real, lived experience. Maybe not directly- almost certainly there are no living survivors of the Inquisition- but thematically. The Inquisition no longer exists, but certainly queer people struggling with their faith do. Women who try to make a place for themselves in male-dominated religion do. And with these people existing, and potentially seeing my play, it raises the question of who has the right to tell a story so close to their hearts.
I read an article recently about Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy's "Pig Girl," a play about the serial killer Robert Pickton and the final days of one of his victims. The article's author praised the play for being an amazing, provocative experience, but raised the issue- also raised by audience members- of why white Colleen Murphy chose to write a play about violence against Aboriginal women and call it "Pig Girl."It was disrespectful, the audience argued, for Murphy to try and speak for women who have advocated in their own community- a community that is frequently overlooked in Canadian culture and politics. What right does she have to tell that story? What right does her entirely non-Aboriginal cast have to tell it? When does artistic freedom become artistic recklessness? Murphy, for her part, abjectly refused to answer any of these questions, citing her artistic vision as the reason the play was written. But just because you think of something doesn't mean you have to write it down. If we accept that art is powerful, then we also accept that it has the potential to cause harm, and we have to weigh that harm against the potential benefits. Not doing so is irresponsible.
Last year, I read a play called Leave of Absence by Lucia Frangione. It was the story of a young woman in a small, conservative town struggling with her sexuality as the adults around her tried to figure out what to do with her. I'm going to be honest with you: I found it abhorrent. Firstly because the young queer girl was not truly the focal point of the play- the main character was the priest who worked at her school and agonized over his duty to his parishoners versus his church. Secondly, because of the ending. Leave of Absence ends with the young lesbian, Blake, being brutally and graphically raped to death, after which a grieving priest packs up and leaves the school and all of Blake's (heterosexual) adult authorities wring their hands over what happened. It, like Pig Girl, is meant to be about the complacency of people who should have stepped in to help a victim. It, like Pig Girl, shows its "othered" character (racially othered in Murphy's play, sexually othered in Frangione's) being brutally murdered. It, like Pig Girl, hurt and offended the people it tried to represent by not fully grasping their viewpoint. It's brutally offensive, for precisely that reason.
As an artist, I don't ever want to be Colleen Murphy or Lucia Frangione. I like to think I'm someone with a solid sense of self, but that sense stops at the point where I run the risk of hurting someone else. I'm smart enough to know I don't know everything. I'm also smart enough not to claim otherwise.
Everyone has a story. Not everybody has a right to someone else's.