There are some issues about which I think I have a clear and firm opinion, but then as I think about it, my view gets more and more muddy and I don’t quite know what I think. Do you ever find that? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole question of diversity in literature and what kinds of story ought to be told and who should be telling them. And the more I think about it, the more complex it gets.
The big example that everyone seems to be talking about these days is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I haven’t read, mostly because I’m tired of stories about rich white Southern ladies and stories about white people empowering black people. Both in one book just isn’t my thing. But I have been interested in the conversation about whether Stockett, a white woman, should even be telling this story. (The stories at The Rumpus and NPR’s Talk of the Nation were especially interesting.)
I believe strongly that a multiplicity of voices can only enrich the literary world. It bothers me tremendously that white authors dominate best-seller lists and that male authors dominate review pages. There are brilliant authors out there of all races who don’t get much attention because their publishers don’t push their work hard enough or because readers aren’t willing to try something new—or they’re willing to try something new but aren’t willing to take the extra effort that’s sometimes required to find it. In addition, insofar as it’s my goal to understand something of the black experience or the LGBT experience or the Latin American experience and so on, I’m probably better off seeking out books by people from those groups than relying on books by people outside those groups.
That said, I’m conflicted when it comes to saying certain subjects or voices are off-limits for certain authors. When I think about the question in terms of sex, it’s easy for me to see the problem. I do not believe that there’s such a thing as a male voice or a female voice, and it bugs me when people say that women authors can’t write believable men and male authors can’t write believable women. For me, an author who can write believable people should be able to write believable men and believable women. I’ve read plenty of books by women and about women that seemed to have nothing to do with me and the way I view the world, but then I’ve read books by men with female characters that I could totally relate to. I wouldn’t want to say that those men shouldn’t be writing about women. Is race any different?
Regardless of who’s doing the writing, writing is a work of the imagination, and some authors are better at it than others. Kathryn Stockett might be better at imagining the lives of domestic help in the 1960s than a hypothetical black author born, like Stockett, after the Civil Rights era would be. (Whether she is skilled at imagining those lives is not for me to say, not having read the book. I’m just saying it’s not outside the realm of possibility.)
The Help is a story about the recent past, and so any novel written about that era today would have to rely on imagination and research or, because it’s the recent past, memory. (A firsthand account by someone who was a maid in 1960s South might have an authenticity that Stockett’s book does not, but it would still only express one person’s experience and rely on that person’s memory.) Go further back, and the role of research and imagination becomes even more important and the race of the author less relevant. If I want to read about 19th century or early 20th century China, for example, am I more likely to get an authentic story from Lisa See simply because she’s Chinese American? If I want to read about 1930s China, might I be better off with Pearl S. Buck, who lived there at that time? Is Andrea Levy, a black author of Jamaican extraction born in London, a more authoritative voice about the Caribbean than Monique Roffey, a white women who grew up in Trinidad? See, it’s complicated. (And for what it’s worth, I’ve never read anything by See or Buck, but I’ve read and loved books by Levy and Roffey.)
Does the actual subject matter of a book affect how we feel about this? As Jenny notes in a comment on an earlier post, there might be a difference between Neil Gaiman’s use of black characters in Anansi Boys and Stockett’s in The Help. If a book is about race or gender in some way, maybe it’s best for members of the group to be the ones to tell the story. Then again, I never would have been able to stomach Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place had I not gotten some context about race and post-Colonialism in the Caribbean from a white perspective in Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.
The flip side of this is that I wouldn’t want to say that non-white authors ought to limit themselves to stories about their own race or about racial “issues.” Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan, but his novels don’t necessarily feature Japanese characters. In the 1960s, Japanese author Shusaku Endo wrote about 17th-century Japan in Silence, but his main character was Portuguese. Andrea Levy writes from a white perspective, as well as a Jamaican perspective, in Small Island. Is this different, or less authentic, than a white author writing from a Japanese or Jamaican perspective?
It’s important to remember that there’s no single truth about any group. What feels authentic to me will feel false to another, even if we both have the same background. (Nicole discussed this recently and gave me a lot to think about.) Reading black authors, or Russian authors, or Japanese authors won’t necessarily teach us the “truth” about black, Russian, or Japanese life. How could it? I’ve read a fair few white Southern authors, and hardly any of them write about a world that seems to have anything to do with me, even though I’m a white women who’s lived in Virginia my whole life. Despite having geography and race in common, our experiences and perspectives are different. How then can I expect to get a clear picture of African life or American Indian life by reading a few books by African or Native American authors? I’m not saying that reading these books is a wrong or misguided thing to do—I’m certainly making an effort to seek out more nonwhite and non-English-speaking authors because I’m interested in getting a taste of what they have to say—but it’s a mistake to assume that any authors represent their whole race or gender.
As I said, the issue is complex. The fact is, what I want are good books. I want the best authors, whatever their race or sex or sexual orientation or social class, to have an equal shot at success. I want lots of different kinds of stories by lots of different kinds of people to be told. I want authors to be able to write the stories that speak to them in a way that is exciting and interesting to readers like me. I don’t want to tell people what to write—or not write. I just want whatever they write to be good. For me, I’d rather look at each book on a case-by-case basis—reading reviews, sample chapters, and so on when deciding whether to plunge in—than to say any subject is off-limits for anyone.