The Right to Write

Unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, examining any other way of life is always difficult when you’re on the outside looking in.  Last week, I toured west Belfast in the area where ‘The Troubles’ were rife and although our guide was excellent in giving us an insight into the violent and turbulent times, there’s no way that I could claim to have a true understanding of the reality of being a resident on the Falls or Shankill Road.

I’ve also visited the ‘red light’ areas of London, Hamburg and Amsterdam as a tourist. Again, I was interested in the issues associated with these areas but I can’t begin to appreciate what it’s like to be a woman (or man) working in the sex industry just by walking down streets and gawping in windows.

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That’s why I was intrigued by Kirstin Innes’s debut novel, Fishnet, and me and my pal Jill headed into Glasgow for the launch to hear more about it. The novel is “about sex work, sisterhood and everyday economics, and is the result of three years’ worth of research.”

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Kirstin in conversation with Kaite Welsh.

During the Q and A, Kirstin admitted that she’s still not convinced that she has the right to write about such controversial subject matter with authenticity. But she did extensive research which challenged her notion of feminism and her preconceived ideas about prostitutes, or sex workers as she prefers to call them.  Words such as “empowered” and “choice” were used in the discussion but neither of these words sprang to my mind when I read The Herald newspaper report today of the brutal murder of Romanian-born Luciana Maurer and rape of two others by Steven Mathieson.

I haven’t read Fishnet so I can’t comment on whether it’s a true reflection of the world I read about in newspapers,  like Kirstin, I wouldn’t know. But to say that Kirstin doesn’t have the right to write about the complexities of being involved in sex work would mean that writers would have to stick to ‘write what you know’. If this was the case, the world of fictional novels would be a very dull place indeed.


There seems to be a theme from this post and the last one – me in a stripy top and drinking!

The event was thought-provoking, it prompted Jill and I to reflect on labels such as ‘sex worker’ as opposed to‘prostitute’ and also our feminist stance on the way women and sex are depicted in fiction. But our evening wasn’t all about deep and meaningful discussions; we don’t see each other often as Jill moved to Michigan 12 years ago so we made sure there was time for lots of laughs over dinner and drinks.

Do you feel there are any subjects that are ‘off limits’ in your writing?

7 thoughts on “The Right to Write

  1. I think given Kirstin did 3yrs of research adds huge credibility to her work… and I agree if we only wrote what we knew it’d be a dull task.

    I’m busy researching events in El Salvador that play a key element of my hopefully debut novel – I will only incorporate this element if I feel the extensive research provides an authentic context… difficult but hopefully not ‘off limits’… Indeed the essence of the story is often perceived as a taboo subject but I’m hoping handled appropriately will expel any off limits preconceptions.

    Sounds like a great night Helen – and I’m sticking Fishnet on my wishlist 🙂

    • Yes, I agree that as long as you can say that ‘hand on heart’ you’ve been faithful to your research then that gives you ‘permission’ to write about sensitive subjects. Looking forward to hearing more about the progress of your novel.

  2. Really interesting post Helen. I think the point is not so much about the subject itself, but how you approach it; of the angle you take. Writers should not be stopped from shining a light on an issue.

  3. I thiNk a) the research makes it as authentic as possible without actually living it (a step too far for most authors I’d guess) and b) i couldn’t bear to read it. Nothing wrong with stripy tops and drinking by the way!

    • Agree Anabel that research backs up any claims you make in a book e.g. without having to actually test how a body decomposes for a crime novel. Agree also about my fashion sense and socialising, 🙂

  4. Good post and good question. The only things I’d rule out would be topics that didn’t interest me. After that it’s a blend of personal experience, reflection and research – then over to the reader.

    I like the stripy top/drinking combo – but I thought my stripy top was an exclusive little number – will be suing John Lewis 🙂

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