Who should be able to write a particular story?
Should a Caucasian author be able to write a story set in China? With an African-American character? Very often, editors, publishers and readers will answer “no,” which differs from the response in Renee Ting’s blog post, “Author Authenticity and the Right to Write.” Ting is an author as well as the publisher at Shen’s Books, a company that specializes in multicultural titles.
In part, Ting had this to say:
“. . . I do not agree that any one group of people has more of a right to tell a story than another. I do not believe in looking at the author’s name before judging the quality of a book (and even if I did, what would that tell me, in this day and age?). I urge authors to write on whatever subjects most move you, and from the point of view that most moves you.”
Part of the reason that I find this debate so interesting is because I didn’t come to writing for children with a background in education, English or journalism. My background is anthropology and we were taught that an anthropologist probably cannot write with accuracy about their own culture. Why? They are simply too close to it. They accept their own cultural values without question. They have simply internalized too much to do otherwise.
Not that I found what we were supposed to accept as fact must better. As anthropology students, we were supposed to take the work of European anthropologists working in Asia or Africa as TRUTH. But why? How could they claim to bring us the perspective of an entire society, simply because they had lived and worked in one Chinese village, on one Pacific island or with one group within an Kung tribe? When was the last time that everyone in a room, let alone a city or society all agreed on any one thing? Yet, these anthropologists and authors and editors writing about cultural authenticity often write as if people within a group were of a single mind. I just don’t buy it.
My own take on author authenticity is this: If a story is too close to you, you may not be able to do it justice. You’ll have great big blind spots. That said, if you are writing about another cultural group, you can’t write as an outsider. You need to find a way into the story. You need to become familiar with the people and the culture. You need to be aware of your own biases as well as those of your sources. Doing any story justice is a great deal of work as you struggle to get inside that character’s head. And you also need to be aware of the fact that you are writing one story and only one story from one character’s POV. Another writer, writing from another character’s POV, would write an altogether different story. You aren’t the voice of an entire society any more than any politician, newscaster or bloggers speaks for an entire society.
Go. Tell the story that only you can tell and tell it through the eyes of a character that you know inside out and backwards. Tell it with integrity. Tell it with honesty. Tell it with respect for the character and your reader.
No one can do anything more.