Friday, September 29, 2006

Who Gets To Write For Whom?

Interesting discussion on the YALSA-BK listserv this past week about the right to tell stories featuring American Indian characters. Here was my contribution:
It gets complicated when the person telling the story is a descendant of the oppressor. Can a powerful person articulate the experience of the powerless? I suppose she must if the powerless cannot speak for herself. Bottom line: an insider who has suffered earns the right to tell the story in a way that's unattainable for even the most compassionate, intuitive, talented outsider.

But even two insiders would describe the same events differently. And how do you define an "insider," anyway? I am a Bengali and my parents were Hindus born in Bangladesh, but that doesn't make me an insider when I tell the story of another Bengali girl, Naima, the Muslim daughter of a rickshaw puller. My three years in Bangladesh and familiarity with the language and culture might make my story more "authentic" than yours, but Rickshaw Girl is still fiction, not memoir, and I am not the daughter of impoverished Muslims.

Best case scenario: let the stories be written from inside, outside, and in-between. That way the young person reading them can be in charge, as story is always a dialectic between hearer and teller.

For those interested in pursuing the question of who has the right to tell a story, I refer you to two of my favorite, now-classic articles: Against Borders, by Hazel Rochman, published in the March/April 1995 Horn Book Magazine, and Insiders, Outsiders, and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write For African American Children? by Nina Mikkelson, published in the African American Review, Spring 1998.
I received this stimulating challenge from another member of the group:
I found this phraseology so interesting that I am e-mailing you offlist to find out: Is one considered a "descendant of the oppressor" if one's ancestors, while European, did not come to the U.S. until the 20th century? ... Are all white people descendants of the oppressor, or only those who can trace their ancestry to the Mayflower or the Revolutionary War or pre-Civil War, etc.? ... Is one presumed to have had ancestors who were "oppressors" based solely upon the fact that that person is white or should one's actual ancestors actually have oppressed someone? And, if the latter, how would one know without a full family tree?
Here was my answer:
Your question was thought-provoking, and I appreciate it, because it made me realize that even though I'm not white, I am still enjoying the benefits of those who came first and stole the land from the people who lived here. That stains my hands, too. I suppose, then, that all non-natives are seen as beneficiaries of the genocide and outsiders, whether descendants of the Puritans or descendants of later immigrants, which means I must redefine my statement to "those considered outsiders or oppressors by the suffering people must tread VERY carefully when they tell the stories of the suffering people." In the case of the American Indians, that might mean all of us immigrants residing in this land -- except perhaps the descendants of anybody brought here against their will (slaves)? Thanks for helping me to move along. I hope that is more clear; if not, keep asking.
Anybody else want to leap in and clarify the discussion? For more interesting reading, fellow fans of the Little House on the Prairie books can check out your discomfort factor as you read an "insider's" response to Ms. Wilder's depiction of Osage history.

6 comments:

Laura Atkins said...

Thanks, Mitali, for the thoughtful post. I've struggled with this a lot, especially when I was editing 'multicultural' books at Children's Book Press and Lee & Low Books. How important was it that the author come from the background being represented? At CBP when I was there, the approach was much more towards authors coming from the same background, where at Lee & Low, that was less of a requirement. I guess my feeling was (and is) that so many books have and are still being written by white people about other cultures, if money and resources are going to be put into producing new books, especially 'multicultural' books, then it was our responsibility to find authors of color to write them. But I wouldn't make a hard and fast rule about this, and feel it is tricky to put restrictions on what authors can and can't write about. That said, if I were to personally write a book (and I've made a few forrays in this direction), I'd try to base it on what I'm familiar with, and feel less comfortable writing from the subjectivity of someone from a completely different perspective. Living in England for the last five years, I'd still struggle to write from a native English person's perspective, for fear that I'd get the language, nuance, and cultural references wrong. I'd feel much more comfortable writing from an American's perspective who is living there. But that's just my personal take...

-Laura

Laura Atkins said...

Oh, and one more thing. To see the problems with how the English can still perceive Native Americans (frequently referred to as "Red Indians" over here), take a look at this new ad from Virgin Trains. It is patently offensive, and I've written several emails to complain:
http://www.visit4info.com/details.cfm?adid=37240

Mitali Perkins said...

Laura, that ad is astounding. Especially the last two seconds of the "chief's" new job. Any response to your emails? Let me know how I might chime in! And thanks for your insights, too ...

Tockla said...

No response yet - I'll let you know when I get one. Though I did find this article from The Sun newspaper about a Native American man living in the UK who is considering legal action: http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2006440302,00.html

Will keep you posted...

J. L. Bell said...

Another article addressing these questions is Michelle Pagni Stewart's "Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin?: Quality Native American Children's Literature" in the spring 2002 MELUS.

Mitali Perkins said...

John, this was an excellent article. Very illuminating. Thank you.