"Opinion writing, all this [female] confessional stuff, it's the problem with journalism now," one white journalist colleague said to me.
I had just turned to personal essays and memoir-style writing after a decade of news reporting. I felt the charge electrically. Perhaps she was right. Maybe this was a self-indulgent form of writing. Maybe it was something that was interpreted as requiring less skill, limiting my scope and somehow clouding my objectivity.
On some level though, I bristled against it. Some of my favourite writers - Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Roxane Gay, Nawal El Saadawi - had written about their lives. Surviving sexual assault, growing up in Harlem, living within cultures and communities devastated by white supremacy (the term alarming for some, refers to the reality of systems encoded in law that officially privileged whites over others. For example, through the White Australia policy or Jim Crow laws, vestiges of which remain in our current judicial system through deaths in custody and incarceration).
They wrote of their experiences in narrative-style essays that were deeply political, weaving their lives and the characters in them, in storytelling that offered a socio-political analysis of the context they lived in. It preceded and often worked alongside their journalism and fiction.
In a world where we are increasingly examining authorship - who tells the stories and how - this idea of emotional excavation, or reading yourself and being transparent about where you come from, I felt, was honest and valuable. It busted the veneer of objectivity that protected the default status quo. Why did my experiences seemed to stick out like a sore thumb, when I observed the personal embedded everywhere in officialdom, hiding in plain sight, masked as neutrality?
Again there was a gender and racial disparity at play. Women wrote about the politics of relationships and family (often microcosms of power relationships in the state) and they were dismissed as 'memoirists' or 'saga writers'. Men wrote about similar topics and they were great chroniclers of the human condition. Writers of colour wrote about their communities, or cultures, and they were asked, as Jana Wendt famously queried Toni Morrison, "Why do you only write about Black people?" These questions and limitations were not imposed on white writers, for whom even in the particularity of their work, the universal experience (as well as skill and art) was assumed.
I had spent time in mainly white and male-dominated newsrooms and I could see how clearly news agendas and decisions were embedded in certain value systems, assumptions and priorities. It did feel like there was a certain double standard at play. Any kind of male-dominated writing - even sports - was automatically deemed serious. Features, (female) opinion or well-being was deemed softer, personal fluff with no real import or political value. I wondered if this was because of the topics covered, or was it the people discussing them that somehow made it of less value? Blak people and other people of colour were in a whole other boat entirely, mainly the subjects of disadvantage or unfortunate calamities in foreign climes.
I think now of how the biggest stories of the decade emerged from people telling their personal stories, from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter. I think of the rise of white nationalism and failure and machismo of authoritarian leaders during COVID, and how many lives had been lost because of this. These movements and stories blindsided much of the press because many of them did not live these experiences. And what was journalism except a catalogue of people's stories, of what it meant to be human in a world dominated by various kinds of institutional and social power, that it sought to make accountable?
There is a double bind that comes with being any kind of minority writer, which James Baldwin understood. A danger of feeling limited or pigeon-holed by your identity, or even in responding to the pigeon-holing. A need to address it, but a desire to escape it. Somehow feeling trapped in this conversation with a dominant majority that circumscribed the field, and didn't allow you a way beyond it, when moving 'beyond it', usually involved conforming to a standard that erased or compromised your authentic self.
"I was a Black kid and was expected to write from that perspective. Yet I had to realise the Black perspective was dictated by the white imagination. Since I wouldn’t write from the perspective, essentially, of the victim, I had to find what my own perspective was and then use it," Baldwin said in one interview.
"I couldn’t talk about 'them' and 'us'. So I had to use 'we' and let the reader figure out who 'we' is. That was the only possible choice of pronoun. It had to be 'we'. And we had to figure out who 'we' was, or who 'we' is. That was very liberating for me."
I understand the need for some people to stay clear of personal writing, to not feel themselves vulnerable in a commodifying media cycle loop, and to feel the luxury of being an individual and not forced into collectives we might not always fit into.
But I think if exercised well, with autonomy and control, writing your story can offer this very individuality, and a kind of freedom from being flattened in a group. The nuance words offer, the particularity of your voice and your experiences, can illuminate the whole without losing the specific. It can allow you to take back your life, projected back to you in alien ways in the news, or ignored or erased by those in power who have a vested interest in dismissing your experiences as inconsequential. Our stories matter, because we matter. Even sharing 'frivolous' and fun experiences can be political - a subversion and respite from the endless seriousness of problems.
Our personal stories can create revolutions and turn institutions upside down, tear down monuments and create new heroes and heroines. They are a way of saying: I exist, see me.
Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning journalist and SBS Voices senior writer and video presenter. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbmalik, Facebook or Instagram. Her work covers migration, feminism, domestic violence, representation and cultural diversity. To contact her for engagements, see her website.
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