Bring Out Your Dead: The Ethical Dilemmas of Writing Family Secrets

By Natalie Kon-yu.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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Years ago, I was told the story of one of my ancestors. The tale was dramatic – filled with sex, scandal and intrigue as well as with inconsistencies, gaps, and silences. Fascinated though I was by this woman’s story, I was also aware that the piecemeal information resulted from the shame that my family carried about this woman. This sanction on telling the stories of some women’s lives, because of shame or fear of giving offence is not unique to my experience, and there are obvious ethical concerns that we, as writers, have to take into consideration when we tell stories based on real people’s lives. Although I was tempted to take the scraps of what I had found out about my ancestor and weave a story out of it, there were ethical considerations to confront. I knew my family might be angered, embarrassed or ashamed if I revealed the details of her life. However, I was mindful of the fact that many women’s stories are not told; either in empirically-based discourses like history, or even in fiction, due to this very lack of available historical information about women. Given this larger silencing, the biggest ethical problem seemed to be not telling the story at all. Fiction seemed the safest way to protect my family’s privacy. But, given the prohibitions I had placed on myself, I knew it would have to be fiction written differently. This led me to engage with a practice-led research in dealing with the black spots about the past. Drawing on this methodology, as well as the creative work of Carol Shields and Anne Enright, this paper will examine the implications of writing fiction based on real people, and discuss the ways in which practice-led research can enable the writer to tell authentic stories about the past.

Keywords: Ethics, Fiction, Women's History, Silence, Practice-led Research

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp.87-93. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 415.423KB).

Dr. Natalie Kon-yu

Lecturer in Literary Studies, School of Communication and the Arts, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Natalie Kon-yu was recently awarded her PhD in English and the Creative Arts from Murdoch University, Western Australia. She is living in Melbourne, and is currently teaching at Victoria University and the University of Melbourne. She is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University, and is part of a team which authors the weekly "Slow Living" column for The Canberra Times. Natalie was the recipient of the Emerging-Writer-in-Residence at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writing Foundation for 2009, and her manuscript "The other side of silence" was long-listed for The Australian/Vogel award. She is also a recipient of the Australian Society of Authors mentorship for 2011.