Thursday, April 7, 2016

Who’s Allowed To Write About What?

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You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Write what you know.” Well, what happens when writers write about what they don’t know?

If your Facebook feed is dominated by writers, like mine is, then you have certainly heard about the new Calvin Trillin poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Trillin’s poem was recently published in The New Yorker, and the literary community is in an uproar.

Now, why are people incensed by this poem? If it had been published in The Onion, or in the humor section of The New Yorker, it would have been received very differently. Instead, what we have is an 80 year old white male publishing a poem in a “serious” magazine in which he complains about there being too many kinds of Chinese foods. Yes, seriously. Read it for yourself. (And read this hilarious book report summarizing the poem.)

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Cultural appropriation seems to be the theme of my week. In my nonfiction class, we read a memoir by a woman who become the first black Buddhist nun—even though she had no connection to Buddhism before traveling to Thailand as a college undergrad. In fact, she had never even meditated before taking her vows!

I was one of the more vocal students in my class, chastising this woman for blatantly doing something for the sake of research and recognition. I think it would have been a wholly different situation if she had some connection to the culture or the religion before become ordained as a Buddhist nun (she only stayed at the monastery for a few weeks).

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Don’t get me wrong, she was only twenty years old when all of this happened. She had just taken time off from Harvard to figure herself out. I get it. I had the same sort of crisis when I was twenty. I hopped across continents and tried on different cultures. If I ever wrote a memoir of that time, it would be more of a travel narrative, and not an “inward journey” as the title of her memoir implies. I wouldn’t pretend to truly know those cultures intimately when I was merely a visitor passing through.
But she wrote her memoir about 15 years after the fact—plenty of time for her to realize that her reasons for ordaining were quite shallow. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have written her memoir, but I am saying that she should have acknowledged her privileged place as outsider in a country where many people become ordained as monks and nuns simply in order to have a roofs over their heads.
Another book I read for this week was Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, a novel set in a fictional town in India modeled on Bhopal, the town that was destroyed in the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster. Sinha was born in India and, although he has spent much of his adult life living in England, he has also devoted a lot of his energy to relief efforts for the victims of Bhopal. Unlike Trillim’s poem and the Buddhist nun memoir, Sinha has a stake in this culture and this disaster is a situation that he knows intimately. For these reasons, his motives for writing the book do not feel exploitative or fraudulent, and his novel does not carry the bitter taste of cultural appropriation. 

I am not saying that writers are condemned to only writing from the perspective of their own race and gender forever and ever. But I do believe that writers should write what they know. There are many different kinds of knowledge. There’s intimate knowledge, and superficial knowledge, and I think writers have the responsibility to write from a place of deep understanding. 

Katherine Boo’s work of nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is an excellent example of writing responsibly outside your own culture. A white journalist writing about a slum in Mumbai is a tricky tightrope to walk, but Boo's work is deeply researched and thoughtfully executed. 

Hemingway's iceberg theory states that: A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. There are many facts and details that might never make it into the story, but it’s important that the writer know everything about the world they are writing in order to tell a compelling story. For this reason, you’ll find that many works of fiction are highly autobiographical.

For example, I’m really interested in Native American culture, but I don’t know enough about it to write about it from a place of honest truth. I can sing a few songs and I’ve heard some of the stories, but it is not a culture that I know from deep inside my gut. If I do write about it, as fiction or nonfiction, it will be as an outsider, because that’s all I can ever truly be when it comes to Native American culture. I recognize this.

On the other hand, the novel I’m working on is set in Miami. The characters are two teenage girls growing up in a neighborhood very similar to the one I grew up in. They’re not rich but they’re not poor either, kind of like my family. Although their experiences are very different from my own teenage life, the story sits on a foundation that I know on an intimate level. I am building on the knowledge that I have, and making that base knowledge work for me. Maybe one day I’ll write a book from the perspective of a Lakota medicine man, but if I do, I promise you that it will take years of in-depth research and cultural immersion. And even if I spent years on the project, pulling it off in a way that honors and respects that culture would be very tricky.

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Readers invest a lot in a book when they read it, and I should hope that writers invest just as much when they write it. It is our responsibility as writers to write about different cultures from a place of respect and deep understanding, and if we feel that we cannot write about a culture in this way, then we shouldn’t do it. Anyway, there’ s no need to go looking elsewhere for the story. The story is right where you’re standing! Everyone’s personal experience is so unique; we all have a wealth of knowledge to write from if we mine the deep well of knowledge that we have amassed over our lifetimes.

As Flannery O'Connor said:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Publication Update! Check out my new piece, "Matriarchy," in the latest issue of the Tahoma Literary Review! Read it online, buy it in print, or listen to it on SoundCloud