Who Can Tell Which Stories?

Ideally, the authority of a work of fiction should be judged against the standards of the world that it creates, not by its alignment with a rigid notion of reality. – Gracie Jim

Yesterday, my friend Alexandra Moffett-Bateau posted a link to this article about how writers of color are called out more often than white writers when they write outside “their” culture.  This is a question I’ve thought about a great deal because, well, I’m a white writer writing about antebellum slavery, a topic that many people from many cultures would argue is a “black” topic.

Brandesi, a Jewish-American woman, writes from the point of view of a half black, half Korean-American woman.

Brandeis, a Jewish-American woman, writes from the point of view of a half black, half Korean-American woman.

After I commented on Alex’s post saying that I thought white writers were often called out for writing on “black” topics, at least that I am, another person said she felt that white writers should not ever write about people of color, that to do so is to perpetuate a dominant paradigm where white people take advantage of people of color for their own gain.  Her comment gave me great pause.

The conversation was part of a fairly sleepless night for me, and it should be. This is important.

When I posted around and asked people to comment on the question of who gets to tell which stories, most of the writers I know said that anyone could tell any story, that the key was empathy and a genuine desire to represent that community well.  Many cited the need for good research to back up our statements, and others pointed out that it’s up to readers to decide if something is authentic and real.  I take comfort in these answers because they speak to what it is to be an artist – to have a story to tell that you cannot let go. Their words echo what I heard Achy Obejas say many years ago – that the point is to write with integrity, to honor our subjects, to write them well; then we can write anything.

And yet, there is a question of commodity here.  Books are sold, and so if we publish, then we make money off the stories we tell.  And then, isn’t it true that white people writing about the stories of marginalized people  a continuation of colonialism/oppression/subjugation?

I think of writers like Rebecca Skloot or Harper Lee or Gayle Brandeis – people who wrote stories not about their community – and wonder what criticism they received for doing so, even as they did so well.  I wonder if their work even stood to scrutiny of this nature simply because of its power. Were less artful works simply ignored because they carried no weight in their mediocrity? And where do questions of power come into play in all these discussions?

I’m nowhere near the end of thinking about this. I don’t want to further contribute to the marginalization of any community, nor do I want to speak for anyone beyond myself. So I will think long about how my work could perpetuate systems that need to be torn down.

And yet, I have stories to tell, stories I feel I need to tell, stories that are very much my stories, even as they are about people some might say are “other” to me.  Right now, my spirit and mind are telling me to write these stories because they need to be written and because – in some very real senses – I am the only one who can write them.

Right now, I feel like any person should be able to write any story s/he wishes – as long as the intention is art, is authenticity, is empathy.  In other words, as long as the goal is to write a good, real, powerful story.  And isn’t that just what we hope for all stories?

What do you think? Who can tell which stories?

  • http://slateriver.wordpress.com/ Joanne Yeck

    Last time I checked, Shakespeare created some pretty amazing women. If he had not been “allowed” to write about women, no Portia. If it had not been “okay” for him to write about persons of color, no Othello. The list goes on.

  • http://culturalsavage.com Aaron Smith

    Thank you for telling your thoughts here.

    This matters to me. I’m a man, white, and Christian. Yet, I am compelled to write about stories of feminism, sex abuse survivors (my wife is one), and other people that are marginalized and feel unsafe from church. Some of these stories are not mine in the sense I am writing for “others” that I stand with. So often, I keep hidden drafts or ideas I have because I am fearful of the lash I may get from people for writing as a white male to/about these people groups. Yet, these are the stories that intersect with my theology, my mental illness, and my family life.

    This is an important topic. Much to chew on here. Again, thanks.

  • http://sharrymiller.typepad.com Sharry

    “…isn’t it true that white people writing about the stories of marginalized people a continuation of colonialism/oppression/subjugation?”

    It seems to me that subjugation, etc. would occur if only whites were allowed to tell the stories of blacks, etc. In this case, no one is (hopefully) denying anyone else the right to tell their version of even the same story. It seems that a basic tenet of writing is that no one else can tell your story because only you know it. If I’m writing about a person who is not me, either in fiction or nonfiction, I’m writing my version of their truth. It’s up to the reader to decide if my truth rings true for them, too.

    Write on, Andi, write on. No one else is going to tell the story you’re telling.

  • http://www.eatingneonyogurt.com Kirsten LaBlanc

    ARGGG! Now my head hurts. This is a very complicated world we live in. Eventually, we have to draw a line (I think). There are people out in society who might think of a white descendant of a black slave as something other than white. Does that mean he or she (descendant) should not write about her/his own history. There are histories of people that remain unwritten (slave histories, migrant histories among others). Should I not write the history of my grandfather as a migrant because I have not lived it? I don’t think so. My grandfather didn’t write it & he is long gone. Yet, he has a story that needs to be told

  • Patresa Zwerling

    Andi, your post has opened a discussion I had not thought pertained to me or my writing. Yet I find it is absolutely spot on for me just now. Funny how that happens.

    I now have a clearer perspective on why I am getting bogged down when characters venture into territory that is outside my known range of experience. While I can easily slip into their skin most of the time, I get very nervous about my ability to portray them with a high level of integrity. But more than that, the space feels so…….sacred. I begin to question whether I deserve to be there.

    My characters have been unbelievably generous lately and I am humbled by their presence.

  • http://waitingforosama.blogspot.com/ Peggy Murdock

    It seems to me that you have something important to say. Certainly you should write it, then decide whether to publish it or let it sit for awhile. Truth will not go out of season. I listed my Waiting for Osama blog as my website so you could read my thoughts about the issue you raise here, which is mentioned in a couple of the posts.

    For sure you need to say what you have to say. Just make sure your truth won’t be obscured by the characters and setting you choose. All the best.