Iain Maloney: Is it acceptable to turn Piper Alpha tragedy into fiction?

THE world is alive with discussions of appropriation and authenticity so when it was first suggested that I should turn my background in Aberdeen and interest in the Piper Alpha disaster into a novel, I refused. That isn’t my story, at least not directly, and the fear of offending, of being disrespectful to the memory of the 167, to the survivors, and to the families, stayed my hand.

The story of Piper Alpha has been told. First in the Cullen Inquiry, then in a comprehensive book by Stephen McGinty, and a moving memoir by survivor Ed Punchard. The facts are out there. But facts are never the whole story. Not when people are involved. Not where trauma is concerned.

However, much of the debate around who has the right to tell stories misses the point of why we do fiction. Authors don’t write books because they have something to say – at least the good ones don’t. They write books to learn. To answer questions. To expand our horizons and discover what it is like to be someone else.

I grew up in a city scarred by the disaster. Everyone knew someone connected, someone involved. In Aberdeen, Piper Alpha is never far from people’s consciousness. While the story of that night is on record, the story of what happened once the fire was out, once the cameras moved on, once the report was published, hasn’t been fully explored. I wanted to understand my city better, and I wanted to understand, if I could, what it means to survive a trauma like that.

Trauma is perhaps one of the most difficult things for others to comprehend. Every survivor of Piper Alpha had a unique experience. Each family member suffered in their own way. I couldn’t tell their stories because they aren’t mine to tell. I hope they do tell those stories: we need to hear them.

I was telling a different story: My survivor, Marcus, is a fiction, an extra man on Piper Alpha that night. His daughter, Carrie, is my invention. They aren’t based on anyone; their lives aren’t borrowed from others. But to tell their fictional stories I had to get my facts straight.

I read academic papers. I spoke to survivors, to family members, to psychologists and trauma experts. Once the book was written, I ran it by fact-checkers, sensitivity readers, more survivors, more family members. I ended up with a PhD on representations of trauma in the literature. And still there will be mistakes. Still, it’s never enough. Because all those other stories are still to be told, and mine is just a fiction, my attempt to understand.

Above all else this is about respect: Respecting their memories. Respecting the truth of their experiences. Respecting how raw this all is, 34 years on.

Part of the treatment process for trauma involves externalizing memories of the event – ​​giving testimony, talking about it, writing about it, sharing the experience. This holds true for cities as well as people. For Liverpool after Hillsborough, for Dunblane, Lockerbie, and Aberdeen. These stories should be told, respectfully, humbly, with due care and diligence, before they are lost. The more we learn, the more we understand. Empathy begins with curiosity.

Iain Maloney is the author of The Only Gaijin in the Village (Birlinn, 2020), a memoir about his life in rural Japan. He has also published three novels and a collection of poetry. In 2013, he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for The Guardian ‘Not The Booker Prize’. Iain was born and raised in Aberdeen and he lives in Japan. His latest book by him is In the Shadow of Piper Alpha, published by Tippermuir.

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