Authenticity in Storytelling

When I present "Books Between Cultures" at conferences, I address the question of whether white authors have the right to create non-white protagonists. The simple answer? Yes. I want the right to use a white voice in my fiction, or a black one, or a Karenni, or a Bangladeshi. I don't want to write only about Bengali American girls growing up in California -- been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well? Let the telling of and listening to one another's stories begin in the realm of kid lit and spread throughout the planet!

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, don't venture to speak on their behalf. If a community is voiceless, though, we can and should lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy to tell their stories. Always, love someone deeply from that community and listen well. Live among them, bear their burdens, help carry their crosses. Let them carry yours. And by all means, do your research.

For your reflection, here's an article in the African American Review by Nina Mikkelson about "outsider-writing." Consider, too, this review in the Houston Chronicle of 74-year-old white New Englander John Updike's new novel Terrorist about a young Arab-American:
The main character ... is an 18-year-old Muslim convert, son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who abandoned his wife and son early on. The young man, Ahmad, falls under the sway of a radical cleric in his gritty New Jersey hometown and gets caught up in a 9/11-type plot.

"A book that doesn't stir up any conversation or dispute probably isn't doing its job," Updike said. "Books are meant to wake us up, or present us with a different aspect of reality or different set of opinions ... If you're going to extend your range at all, you have to step out into the wonderful world of other people."
Although it's not coming out until June 2006, Kirkus and Booklist have already given the novel starred reviews. I'm looking forward to what one of the best storytellers of our time can achieve when it comes to taking the risk of crossing cultures and generations in fiction.

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