Kate Towsey

Earlier this term, student-written play Bastard was met with acclaim in the Cambridge student press. The play takes on a number of hugely complex themes, focusing broadly on masculinity and fatherhood, while also delving into concepts with greater weight: the discovery that a parent is not a biological relation; having a parent in prison; experiencing the death of a father at a young age. I’m someone who should be able to connect with Bastard in a myriad of ways: I’m a man the same age as the male protagonist, my mother is not biologically related to me (and I’ve never met my biological mother), eponymously: I am a bastard. Most significantly, my father died six months ago, an experience I and the writer do not share.

Death becomes a plot-device; grief a tool for character development

To me, Bastard is a play that illuminates a serious problem within student-writing: student-writers – young, and often without the resources or time needed to undertake meaningful research – tackling highly-charged substantive topics of which they have little direct personal experience. This produces pieces which can appear staggeringly insincere to those who do. Death becomes a plot-device; grief a tool for character development. This isn’t really an article about Bastard: it’s an article about different kinds of loss, and the relationship between writer and subject matter.

A Varsity reviewer gave Bastard five stars, writing that the author “nailed grief”, while in the same paragraph noting that they didn’t have a “shared experience” of what they were seeing. I speak only from my personal experiences and what medical professionals have told me, and I’m not claiming that this is somehow objective or “correct”, but I personally thought Bastard offered a clichéd portrayal of grief, divorced from my lived reality. Grief, to me, felt exploited and aestheticised in the pursuit of an emotional reaction. My issue with the play was nothing to do with the performance, presentation, or writing-style – all of these areas deserve the praise afforded by reviewers. My issue is with the choice of subject matter itself. This can be said for any of the parts of Bastard to which I have a personal affinity, but here I wish to focus on its portrayal of grief.

There are so many different kinds of grief, each complex in their own right, and impossible to map between

I sometimes wonder if I would be able to meaningfully explain what losing a father will feel like to a slightly younger version of myself. I’d use terms like “feelings of emptiness”, but these are just words, and a younger me would be incapable of translating them into cognitive understanding. He’s lost a few pets, so he would probably naïvely try and imagine those feelings magnified. I’d mention the things I know he couldn’t anticipate, like how much he was about to grow, in ways he couldn’t even begin to understand. In truth, he will be a different person afterwards. He’ll quickly learn the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and a lonely chasm will appear between him and his friends, friends who are fortunate enough not to have experienced the same life-changing event. Without losing a father at a young age, it’s impossible to understand how you would respond to it, because the you that is contemplating it wouldn’t be the same you afterwards. It’s not so much a case of “you don’t understand”, more “you can’t understand”. Before you experience it, the apparatus needed in your brain does not exist, the neural pathways untrodden. You can sympathise, but you cannot empathise. No amount of explanation or research can change that.

Who can blame an audience member if watching a play about such events triggers them to draw an isomorphism between what they are watching and the losses in their own life? It would be fine if younger-me watched a play about a father dying and was reminded of that time my pet died. Cry away, younger-me. But a writer projecting their losses onto other losses, and tackling these issues in the guise of understanding – that is problematic. Perception is fine, projection is not. If younger-me thought that, armed with the experience of the death of a pet (or perhaps a different relative), I could extrapolate and write about the loss of a father with any level of fidelity – that is absurd. The image produced will be blurred and confused. There are so many different kinds of grief, each complex in their own right, and impossible to map between. You can grieve the loss of a phone, of a pet, of an aunt, of a child, of a father or a husband.

Will you risk oversimplifying and misrepresenting things?

When writing about complex topics like the death of a father, without a subjective experience to draw from, you’ll necessarily be basing your writing on a murky cloud of hypotheticals: a meta-language surrounding the experience, formed from other people’s tellings of it. In the case of death and grief, there are so many of these. In a film, you can expect undersaturated colours, and sad music in a minor key crescendoing in. One thing that’s stood out to me is the disproportionate amount of emphasis our culture places on the exact moment of certain events, rather than the long aching stretches in between. A film will cut from diagnosis immediately to death, then straight to the funeral speech. This isn’t what real life feels like; this is what decades of a form’s cliché have told us real life feels like. Writing like this further propagates false truths, and builds warped perceptions into an audience’s psyche. Real life doesn’t skip from diagnosis to death, and I wasn’t expecting there to be a three-week wait from then till the funeral; only describing the edges does not paint a full picture. While research can certainly help, it would be impossible for a writer to view it in isolation of their own perception and all the misguided cliché surrounding a topic like grief.


READ MORE

Mountain View

A spotlight on systematic snobbery in Cambridge

Our identities shape our relationship with the stories we may tell. I recognise that grief is very different from these (and I’m not equating anything), but as a white man, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing something which implicitly proclaimed understanding and commented on racial or feminist struggles from a BME or female perspective. If I commented on, say, the nature of femininity, and a male audience connected with it and built their understanding of femininity based on that, I’d be appropriating and misshaping a narrative that isn’t mine to shape. While I can sympathise, I cannot empathise: I haven’t lived it. I’d argue that, while clearly not in a political sense, being someone who has lost a father at a young age is a form of personal lived identity. You carry the pain with you always, it defines you, it changes the way you look at the world. You’re in a tiny minority among your peers. It’s not someone else’s identity to toy with, exploit, and make into entertainment. Doing so amounts to grief tourism – using the pain that other people have lived through merely as a device in search of an emotive response from an audience.

To this, you might roll your eyes: “so what can I write about?” This line of thinking is reductive, and it is not a question I can answer; I only mean to highlight an issue seen from my experience. That said, there is so much we as humans all share, that each of us can draw from. We also have our own perspectives: individually, our lives are filled with profound beauty and sadness that only we have seen. Recent critical and award-ceremony hit film Roma is testament that telling a story seen through your eyes can be more truthful and moving than resorting to the unknown, perhaps to something thought to be stereotypically moving, like losing a father. That isn’t to say you have to be quite as literal as Alphonso Cuarón and write autobiographically. Ultimately, there is no easy answer. The best I can suggest is to be cautious and sensitive to what people who have lived through certain events would feel if they were sat in your audience. Do you have a good reason to be writing about their story? Will you do their experience justice? Will you risk oversimplifying and misrepresenting things, and upset or offend them?

If you write about something significant of which you have no direct lived experience, falling instead on cliché, you appropriate and re-shape a narrative that doesn’t belong to you. In using narratives like these to manipulate an emotional response out of an uninformed audience, you aestheticise them, all the while changing the way the audience views the issue. It wasn’t even really Bastard’s portrayal of losing a father at a young age that willed me to write this piece, it was that it left reviewers and an audience thinking that the author “nailed grief”. It was sitting in a room listening to the crowd applaud, all thinking they got it, thinking they got me. Should we be more careful about what we write about? This bastard certainly thinks so.