Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

There's a lot of argument over who gets to tell whose stories.

Writers have an instinctual revulsion to hearing what we "can't" write about. We believe it's our privilege to tell any story we choose. When we hear discussions of cultural appropriation, we feel boxed in. Hey, I thought you just told me to write more characters who aren't just like me? I'm trying, here!

The best answer I've heard to that comes from Kaitlyn Greenidge, writing in the New York Times last week, in her opinion piece Who Gets to Write What?

A writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases — she’s always had it and will continue to have it. The complaint seems to be less that some people ask writers to think about cultural appropriation, and more that a writer wishes her work not to be critiqued for doing so, that instead she get a gold star for trying.

No one's telling you what you can and can't write, but none of us is immune to criticism, and we don't get gold stars for trying. (Isn't that what the older generation complains that the millennials are getting? Well, you don't get one when you're an old white writer who writes a badly researched and badly written story about a different culture, either.) There are dozens of articles by writers of color explaining how to write "the other."

Look them up; here's one by Linda Rodriguez. As writers, we like to think we step out of our own experience and into another person's shoes when we write a character, but often, we keep the same eyes. However sympathetic we think we are being, we aren't speaking from another's experience, but our own, transposed onto another. Empathy is our trade, and projecting our own feelings onto another is not empathy.

Imagine the better, stronger fiction that could be produced if writers took this challenge to stretch and grow one’s imagination, to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t, to take those stories seriously and actually think about power when writing — how much further fiction could go as an art.
Some of my best-loved stories star characters who are not like me. African-American men and women, a West Indian woman, young boys in Appalachia. I read books by people like them and talk to people like them and most importantly listened to people like them, my mouth shut (a rare thing) before embarking on those stories. And I had reasons for writing those stories other than "I want to tell their story." Denny the Dent came from my experiences as a bullied child with an explosive Hulk temper that got him in trouble when the torment broke me. I felt like I had no one on my side, no one saw my pain, only the anger of my reaction. And when I sat down to write about someone with that experience, Denny came to life.

And yet if a reader or writer told me I got Denny wrong, even with readers who love him, I would listen. For what I did not get right. Because I want him to express the pain of always being seen as someone you are not. Of having to smile to allay fear, and know they might be smiling back, but they are reaching for a big rock.

Read on for how Greenidge took a bitter old white woman character she was writing from a stereotype to a living person. Think of how it hurt her to hear that criticism; she used it to improve. She didn't stomp off and sigh, "they can't be pleased." (Okay, she did at first, but she swallowed her pride and wrote better:

“It doesn’t work,” I was told. “She’s not believable as a character. She doesn’t work.” “Damn white readers,” I jokingly said to my friends. But once I got over myself, I took apart that section piece by piece. I rewrote and failed and rewrote and failed. As much as this character had begun as an indictment of all the hypocrisies of my childhood, she was not going to come out on the page that way, not without a lot of work. I was struck by an awful realization. I would have to love this monster into existence. The voice of this character had been full of scorn and condescension. I rewrote it with those elements in place, but covered with the treacly, grasping attempts at affection of a broken and desperately lonely woman.

We don't get a gold star for trying. But we don't get them without trying.

Keep trying.


Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks for writing this, Tommy. No one wants to censor any writer, but if you're going to use a character or setting from another culture, you need to put in the effort to make an honest portrayal and not settle for old, damaging stereotypes.

Dana King said...

This is well put, and a tricky topic. I believe it's improper to criticize the author for making the effort, regardless of the character he or she tries to write. The judgment lies in the execution. "Did he or she do it well? Did they show they'd made a genuine effort to get inside that person, and were the results indicative of that?" There's the true criteria for evaluation.