Sarah Shaffi on who gets to tell our stories

As Elizabeth Macneal's richly imaginative new novel Circus of Wonders is published, Sarah Shaffi explores who the stories of the underprivileged belong to, who should tell them and how.

Circus of Wonders tells the tale of a young woman kidnapped into a circus, who is gazed at with fascination for the birthmarks on her body. 

The novel's author Elizabeth Macneal, has established a reputation for vivid, page-turning historical fiction, and in her latest work, she explores the question: 'who gets to tell our stories?'. Elizabeth poses this question to both her readers and herself; through her characters – who each have elements of their own experiences told by others – and through her own navigation of writing fiction inspired by those who have lived before us.

Here, Sarah Shaffi explores this question on a wider scale, can we tell the stories of others authentically? And when might narration and inspiration, become trespass?

Write what you know, goes the old adage. It seems, on the surface, a solid piece of advice, but give it a moment’s thought, and it’s ridiculous that it was ever given or taken seriously.

If authors only wrote what they knew, much of the fiction we know and love would not exist. There would be no Middle-Earth or Narnia or Earthsea or Westeros, since we can confidently say that J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Octavia Butler and George R.R. Martin didn’t know these fantasy lands. There would be no Wolf Hall, since despite all her research Hilary Mantel doesn’t *know* what it was to live in the 16th century. 

If authors only wrote what they knew, much of the fiction we know and love would not exist.

And there would be no Circus of Wonders, the new novel from Elizabeth Macneal, which is set in the 1800s in a travelling circus. Macneal’s protagonist is Nell, a young woman with birthmarks all over her body, and her face, that mark her out as different and attract the attention of circus owner Jasper, who 'acquires' her to become the new star act in his Victorian freak show.

Macneal is a Scottish author and potter based in east London, so she clearly isn’t writing what she knows. But Macneal, like any good author, taps into the universal emotions and experiences of humanity, regardless of setting or situation, and it’s those that she does know. It’s also those that attract us to a story, whether it’s set in space or on Earth, now or a couple of hundred years ago.

In her author’s note for Circus of Wonders, Macneal says: 'As with most fiction, the question I wanted to ask was, How would it have felt? How would a young girl like Nell have experienced and navigated such coercion, opportunity, fame and objectification, while also retaining a sense of herself?'

We might not know what it is to look like Nell, but some of her experiences are universal, or close to it. One of her earliest encounters with Jasper takes place in a small wagon; he takes a step towards her and we’re told she steps back. 'She has nowhere to go,' writes Macneal. 'The walls shrink. The dresser presses into her back. The wagon is so small, so dark and hot… He licks his lips, as if readying himself to kiss her. A kicking in her belly, a queasiness. He could overpower her, and easily. All her life, she has grown attuned to the scent of male violence, how to diffuse it, how to make herself small.'

In this moment, Macneal is summing up something experienced by so many women across the world, and regardless of our own personal experiences we understand and, to an extent, are Nell.

But that’s not the case for all literature, and we have to ask: at what point does imagination become appropriation? Should a white writer write a Black protagonist? Can a 20-something man convincingly write a woman in her 60s? Does an able-bodied writer have the right to create a character with a physical disability? Is it okay for a straight woman to write a story about a gay man?

. . . we have to ask: at what point does imagination become appropriation?

The answer to all of these questions, and many more, is that it’s complicated. It’s not just about creation, but about intention. It’s hard to say, for example, that a white author should never write a Black protagonist, but it’s also difficult to see when exactly it would be wholly appropriate, especially if it’s not done well. In writing that character, is that author taking up space that could have been occupied by a Black author? And what makes that white author the right person to write that particular story?

In a piece for the Irish Times, author Kit De Waal expanded on this point: 'We have to ask ourselves who we are and what we are trying to say in speaking as "the other". What are we trying to accomplish in our writing that needs that perspective? Are we the best person to say it? Have we examined our privilege and our attitudes sufficiently to give us the necessary perspective to be authentic, sympathetic and true? Are we sure that we are not dabbling in exotica, in that fascination with the other that prevents us portraying a rounded, rich culture with all its nuances, diversity and reality? By writing our story are we taking the place of someone better placed to tell it? Our aim should be not only to write well but to do no harm along the way.'

'Do no harm' is the key phrase there. A writer choosing to tackle an experience far removed from their own must write not only for entertainment, but with a sense of the responsibility they are taking on in sinking into someone else’s voice. They must write with respect, and with good intentions. 

'Before I started writing Circus of Wonders, I considered writing about real historical figures, especially those who are lesser-known,' Macneal writes in that author’s note. 'However, when I sat down to write, it felt like I was invading their privacy – these were real people about whom so many outlandish stories had already been spun by media and showmen, their voices silenced and their histories overwritten by those who profited from their lives. While, to a point, all of history is fiction, the imagination of the grey areas of their lives – impulses, desires, reactions – seemed like a trespass.' Fiction should be enlightening, it should create empathy, it should inform us, but it should never, as Macneal says, result in trespass.

In Circus of Wonders, Macneal asks those questions of trespass and of who gets to tell the story through the structure of the book itself. We see the perspectives of Nell and Jasper, and of Jasper’s brother Toby. And while sometimes they tell their stories themselves, all three also have their stories told by others. Jasper creates a narrative around Nell, marketing her to circus-goers as the Queen of the Moon and Stars. Meanwhile, our introduction to Jasper is through Toby’s eyes, and he creates a story of an idolised older brother from whom the sheen is slowly wearing away. Through these multiple perspectives, Macneal presents a microcosm of the questions fiction writers ask themselves every day about responsibility.

Through these multiple perspectives, Macneal presents a microcosm of the questions fiction writers ask themselves every day about responsibility.

In thinking about whether or not an author should write a story, whether they are trespassing, it seems apt to think of the last song in the musical Hamilton. 'Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?' sings the cast. In writing, there are no easy answers, but the question of who gets to tell a story should always be on an author’s mind.

Circus of Wonders

by Elizabeth Macneal

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living, set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Her father has sold her, promising Jasper Jupiter his very own leopard girl. It is the greatest betrayal of Nell's life, but as her fame grows, she begins to wonder if joining the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her. In London, newspapers describe Nell as the eighth wonder of the world. Figurines are cast in her image, and crowds rush to watch her soar through the air. But who gets to tell Nell’s story? What happens when her fame threatens to eclipse that of the showman who bought her? Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.