Silencing Our Story Tellers

I am distressed by a recent trend in the world of writers. There seems to be a group of citizens AND writers who advocate that an author write only about what one knows. I think this originated with the idea that a writer could easily misrepresent and spread one-sided or incorrect information about a culture they had not experienced for themselves. AND YES, I do agree that certain beliefs are passed along in this way. A man might write about a woman, but is still from a male perspective. An young person might write about a grandmother and assume that all old women behave or feel a certain way. We are certainly a culture with a long history of “all women do this……, all poor people are that….all men think this…..all of this—insert any race, religion or culture—act, think, believe, in a certain way.” I speak out when I hear someone make a statement like this. I ask “where did you get that idea?” in an effort to urge the speaker to examine not only their belief, but how they came to think this way and if they really should keep the idea going with their words.

At a recent conference there was talk about authors who chose or were forced to withdraw certain fictional works from the shelves because of the image with which they had portrayed certain ethnic groups. As I followed the discussion it was revealed that one author was actually a member of the ethnic group she wrote about, but of a different socio-economic status than her character. There had been an outcry and she had pulled her novel.

This scares me. Reading fiction has been my primary source of my internal knowledge the world. I don’t believe that everything I read is true. I don’t make vast generalizations because someone in a story acted or thought or believed in things a certain way. BUT I do gain knowledge about human interactions, historic events, worlds that are different from my own. An author is writing about multiple characters, about times in history before they were born, about a myriad of topics, events, emotions, in each and every story they write. If we limit each person to writing ONLY about what they themselves have experienced, we limit ourselves.

I dug a bit to see where this thought—only write about what you have lived yourself—originated.

Cultural appropriate is discussed by Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in 2016. Shriver called the harsh and growing movement a thin line between censorship and fiction writers. Debates followed that focused on allowing marginalized populations to write about themselves, rather than someone else writing their story. I understand the frustration that one might feel when someone promotes inaccuracate information about their culture, but where does it stop? Particularly with fiction.

I just don’t believe it is in our best interest to mute our storytellers. I fear that this is just what our government leaders would love because they want to control the truth. I think there is more growth in empathy and understanding than oppression through literature and I want to keep hearing the stories.