Literature Review: Tabooed Topics in Narrative

Article: Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things

Read full article here

Guntarik, O, Van de Pol, C, & Berry, M 2015, ‘Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things’, New Writing: The International Journal For The Practice & Theory Of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 4-13, viewed 19 August 2017,

Some stories are hard to swallow. They contain material that is taboo and some would say the taboo is forbidden territory (Guntarik et. al 2015).

How much of the truth should we mask in storytelling? (image: Tumblr)

What happens when the story involves suicide, murder, crime, war, death, incest or rape? What if these were part of our family stories? And as writers, what do we ‘do’ with these difficult memories? (Guntarik et. al 2015)

The article Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things investigates the difficulties of expressing tabooed issues in narrative. The authors suggest that the starting point for exploring aforementioned taboos is simply to start storytelling with care. They draw on their own ‘tabooed’ experiences to explore this.

Marsha Berry, a Senior Lecturer in creative writing and digital media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), shares her story of “exiles”; being the Australian-born child of a German woman who escaped Dresden after the atrocities of World War II. She explores how she shared her mother’s sometimes horrific life via post-memory; tragic wartime stories and photographs.

It’s often difficult to tell the stories of others with authenticity. How do we build their ‘truth’ using facts? (image: noupe)

Caroline Van de Pol, a lecturer in public relations at RMIT, completed her PhD on truth in memoir at the University of Wollongong. In Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things she reflects on the narrative of her sister’s suicide. She notes the ‘facts’; “as the dictionary states, (they) ‘are known  to be true and exist'” (Guntarik et. al 2015). These are the manner and fact of her sister’s death, but little else. Van de Pol goes on to question the relationship between hard facts and the truth, and how this is represented in narrative practice.

I find that the facts alone rarely tell the whole story . . . at times, this truth has often only been revealed when I have allowed myself moments of imaginative play . . . a space where I might pretend to be the inquisitive child again (Guntarik et. al 2015).

The intricacy of sorting between fact and truth made me recall Charlene Bose’s post, The Presentation That Never Ends (And How We Grade It)Charlene considers the complexity of self-representation in the era of social media connectivity. Everything posted online is accessible to a variety of third-parties; we seem conscious of this when choosing how to present ourselves. Given this, Charlene then poses the question of how to represent others in online storytelling. This links nicely to the article’s discussion of truth and fact. How much is okay to share about someone else’s life, especially when their story contains a taboo and may implicate others?

How do we portray the truths of others? (image: rebloggy)

This is also an issue I touched upon when I composed The Antagonist was a Good Man, a recount of the influence family violence has upon my life. What is okay to write about and what is too taboo to be spoken about? Undeniable facts include that my father physically hurt people in my family and that my parents are separated now. The impact of this damage, and the psychological violence which occurred are less straight forward and remain subjective in nature. This makes it difficult to claim it as truth.

As my family story took shape, transforming into a kind of hybrid, writing it continued to maintain truth as its source, but with imagination as its guide (Guntarik et. al 2015).

Van de Pol also considers how the limitations and biases of memory make writing more difficult, particularly when the narrative is composed after a traumatic event. Kris Christou explored the challenges of memory in his post Words are Powerful Entities which convey the Values of an Individual, through interviewing his mother and analysing the difference between his perception of his father’s diagnosis and hers; also noting his mother’s surprise at the words she chose to convey her version of the truth.

Olivia Guntarik, a lecturer in media communication history at RMIT, examines the role that death plays in our lives; in particular the way we portray others’ stories after death.  She also discusses the need for expression after a tabooed hardship.

The truth is not always factual (image: The Artroom Plant)

There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself (Guntarik et. al 2015)

I see this idea reflected in Brooke Eager’s post, entitled A Double-Edged Sword. This piece beautifully explores notions of dealing with the past and coming to peace with it. She explores, perhaps unintentionally, the aforementioned relationship between fact and truth. The fact – what happened to her – did not change, but the truth did over time; her realisation that the assault was not her fault changed her story and subsequently her values.

The storyteller will always see a particular version of the past; broken bits of the past … always pieced together after the facts of the event have taken place (Guntarik et. al 2015).

More questions than answers are raised in this article. This is powerful yet somewhat frustrating. It’s vital that a solution is reached so that these stories can be told. Although it discusses truth as authenticity, this article fails to recommend actual research values or appropriate methodologies in writing tabooed stories. Until a conclusion is reached, research and storytelling of this magnitude ought to be conducted with the fullest intentions of respect and honesty.



2 thoughts on “Literature Review: Tabooed Topics in Narrative

Tell me what you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s