'[W]hat are the rules of telling someone else's story when they come from a world so very different from our own?' This is the tagline for Stowaway, the play I saw at HOME, Manchester, last night (Thursday 6th May). Stowaway is the story of an Indian man who gets trapped in a labour camp in Dubai. He attempts to escape by stowing away in the wheel well of a flight bound for Heathrow. When the plane comes in to land, his frozen body comes loose and he falls into the car park of a B&Q store in London. The horrific scene is witnessed by Andy, a rather jittery and inarticulate dad from Richmond. All that is left are unanswered questions. For the remainder of the play three of the four actors, who are on stage throughout, tell his disjointed story. Often it feels like hearsay, sometimes it feels like it's coming from the horses mouth. But the stowaway's life is a mystery, his true story going to the grave with him.
The play deals with some large topics. There were attempts to highlight race relations, poverty, corruption, modern slavery, people trafficking... the list goes on. But one question stood out for me: what are the implications of telling stories about people who are different from oneself? One of the other characters, Lisa, is a crime writer. She takes it upon herself to visit Dubai. She wants to tell the stowaway's story. But she is ridiculed. She has to answer the question of why she, as a 'privileged white woman', thinks that she can tell the story of an Indian man whose life of hardship has lead him to an early grave.
Now, if you've ever attended any kind of creative writing workshop or tried reading a book or article about releasing that inner voice we're all supposed to have, you may have been told to "write what you know" or something a little more vague like "be true to yourself". Both of these instructions make creativity synonymous with concepts of authenticity. To be creative, you must be, on some levels, writing about yourself or something that you've seen. But why does it have to be that way? Surely the whole point of being a creative person is that you should be free to explore the extent, and the variety of human histories and experiences, despite not having first-hand experience of everything there is? Isn't there something valuable about imagining events we will never directly see? I think new and varied perspectives enhance what we know about the world we live in... past, present and future.
My recent experience of writing, Celluloid History Songs, a collection of new songs inspired by footage of the northwest between 1920 and 1959 was a liberating experience for my songwriting. It allowed me to explore different themes, reimagine other peoples' lives and dreams. These were the images of mainly white, working-class, northern residents who had suffered all the turmoil of two world wars and crippling economic depression. The exploration was three-fold for me. First, I could explore new material as a writer and creative person. Second, I could write from the perspective of a northerner. Third, as a first generation black-British resident, I could write from the perspective of an outsider too. Really, I can't imagine how much we'd lose as a community if as artists we are only allowed to comment on what we "know" or create new work from things we have directly experienced. It would be a dull world. Creativity would quickly stagnate. Actually, could it be called creativity at all, as it wouldn't require a great deal of imagination now would it?