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.
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?