A couple of years ago I went to a talk about travel writing. Several travel writers sat on the stage and discussed their various successes. I was keen to lap up their experience, breath in their confidence, and think about how perhaps one day I would become someone sitting on that stage. As the discussion progressed, however, I became increasingly annoyed and unhappy. One of them boasted about how she never asks anyone for permission to write about them, even if she is in a country where a local could easily be put at risk if his or her critical views are made public. Apparently Bruce Chatwin held the same view – just write, don’t think about the consequences. But the consequences for the writer are one thing. Consequences for the subject are surely another matter entirely. It’s a great shame. I really liked Bruce Chatwin until that evening, and then I felt I had to revise my opinion of his work. It was said, for example, that someone was actually killed as a result of something Chatwin had written about them. They were identified in one of his books. Can this be true?
I think a lot about the potential betrayal of people I write about or simply want to write about. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Often, I find myself saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t.’ And so I never do. I know that I would hate to be written about without the author gaining my consent. Although, come to think about it, that’s not quite true. Someone did once write about me – as the protagonist in their novel – and all I felt was anger that I never received a copy. The author was, I think, a Dutch man, writing about diamond smuggling around Angola. So if that rings a bell to anyone out there, please let me know. I’m egotistical enough to want to be written about (good or bad).
Yesterday, someone said: ‘If other people want to keep their secrets, that’s their problem. But, Lara, the job of the journalist is not to protect other people’s secrets, it is to tell those secrets.’
‘Yes! Just write them.’
I think that’s probably bad advice, tempted though I am. I wouldn’t want to be talked about after my death as a journalist who left a trail of bodies behind her. I wouldn’t want to leave one body behind me, or my work. Did Chatwin really care so little?