Thursday, March 08, 2007

Are Cultural Outsiders Our Writers of Choice?

The Rutgers-based child_lit listserv is revisiting the question of authenticity, discussing once again who has the right to write about whom. One quote from a contributor (thanks, Ebony) jumped out at me:
We are biased in favor of stories that make us comfortable ... and that means that we are more likely to praise a book written by someone with our background and voice ABOUT a different culture, rather than a book written BY someone inside that culture with a different, but more authentic, voice. This is the way that insider voices get "silenced" -- they don't get published as often, or purchased as often, or talked about as often ... because we're a dramatically homogeneous group of people in this industry.
I'm not sure if I agree, but I want to hear what others think. Is there a demand for children's or teen books set in other countries but penned by westerners because the western reader (wallet in hand) resonates with that outside-looking-in perspective? With all the talk about "authenticity" going around the world of children's literature, is there still a need for a book about a particular place or culture written by an outsider for other outsiders?

8 comments:

  1. possibly. but I'm reminded of a book, by suzanne fisher staples, Shabanu, that was well written and critically acclaimed. she'd written it from the perspective of a nomad pakistani girl. In fact, I think I read this book from your recommendation on amazon Mitali.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is interesting. I think there is something there. I find that once you've read good books by someone in a culture the contrast with books written about the culture from an outsider's point of view show up as shallow and less satisfying. Not always, certainly, but often. I think more authors from diverse cultures are getting published so maybe readers' expectations and tastes are changing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A small but I think telling clarification for Anonybrown: Shabanu is told from the point of view of a Pakistani girl, but it's written from the perspective of a Western white journalist. Discuss amongst yourselves, I guess ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've never actually read Shabanu, but it's on my nightstand as I'm always asked my opinion. I've been told, however, by other Indian-Americans that it lacks authenticity, and have heard complaints about Patricia McCormick's Sold, as well, because of a white-foreigner-saves-the-day ending (haven't read that yet, either, so I'll weigh in once I do.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. The quote on this post reminds me of a lot of what I'm reading in a book called The Broken Flute, a compendium of reviews and writing about Native American books for children. Over and over, the reviewers call books to task for showing Native American life from a non-Native writer's perspective. My opinion, as one who is sometimes the cultural "other" (Jewish, gay) and ofte not (white, American, middle-class): it's possible to get it right if you're not writing from inside the group, but it's hard. And readers who don't have that insider perspective can't always tell the difference.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I wondered if Sold was going to get that objection, but the praise was pretty unanimous. My problem with that book was that it seemed too often compelled to remind us that sex slavery was BAD. Like someone was going to argue?

    ReplyDelete
  7. you're right roger, sorry.

    ReplyDelete
  8. To tell an author that they cannot write about a particular subject amounts to censorship. However, how well they write is another subject. The final vote should be based on the quality of the work, the honesty of the words, and the voice of the piece, not the color or DNA of the author.

    ReplyDelete