Friday, February 15, 2013

Was I Entitled to Write This Book?

When GARDEN OF STONES was still in the proposal stage (it was titled MUSEUM OF EYES at that time), my editor Adam Wilson was put in the position of defending it in an acquisitions meeting.

(Adam, as I've mentioned before, worked on the early draft of the book before his career took him elsewhere and Erika Imranyi took over. Thus, STONES has the distinction of being shaped by two extraordinary editors and a very smart editorial assistant named Leonore Waldrip.)

In this long-ago meeting, someone asked whether I - a middle-aged white woman from the midwest - was qualified to write from the point of view of a Japanese American.

It's a good question, and while I'll confess to a momentary defensive knee-jerk reaction (something along the lines of "because it's my fucking book, and nobody tells me what I can and can't do with my words") it deserves a thoughtful answer.

I'll be the first to admit that I cannot imagine what it was like to be Japanese-American in the 1940s. I'll go you one better; until a few years ago, I didn't know the first thing about internment, and had given about zero thought to what it must have been like to be Japanese during the war. In fact, I grew up knowing exactly one Japanese-American person, and to be honest I didn't know that he was Japanese descent at the time because, frankly, when I was a kid all Asian (actually, we used to say "oriental") people were the same to me.

Ironically, it's this last point which, I think, might "qualify" me to have written the book I did. I knew nothing. It takes courage to admit my ignorance now, and I'm ashamed of it. A blond blue-eyed sturdy midwesterner among many, it had never occurred to me to wonder what others felt or experienced. So when I began STONES, though I had of course learned a lot in the intervening years, I brought a relatively clean slate with me. Let me be clear: STONES is not an apology or an attempt to right a personal wrong. It's just the most vivid box that I personally was able to build to hold my feelings and reactions as I learned about this chapter of American history.

The constitution defends my right to write anything I want, so the argument takes place well in the gray area of what is "tasteful" or ethically defensible. But I'm an author. NOT a historian or a subject matter expert, so I'm immune to those who might try to prove that I don't know "enough" about the subject (because they're right: I don't and never will). I'm a story teller, and on this go-round I loaded up my palette with a whole new set of paints - pigments drawn from history and the accounts of those who lived it - and did my best.

I came across a more elegant defense of an author's rights in this review of THE NEWLYWEDS by
 Nell Freudenberger. The review is by Mohsin Hamid and it ran in the New York Times last April.  In part, Hamid says:

"At stake here isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the question of authenticity, which is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not “own” the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices. Such a proposition, taken to its logical extreme, would reduce fiction to autobiography, and while fiction may well be alive and kicking in the belly of many an auto­biography, to confine fiction solely to that domain would be madness."


sari said...

I love this book. I think it's your best. If being qualified to write a book means that you, as an author, have made other people think about things that they wouldn't have otherwise, and feel passion for something they wouldn't have thought about before, then you're qualified.

Eric said...

The imagination is a wonderful thing and giving it free rein is one of the jobs of being a fiction writer. Having not yet read the book I can only assume that you are not writing from, or claiming to write from the point of view of all Japanese-Americans, but rather from the point of view of one character, or a group of characters who sprang from your imagination, assisted by research.

Far from that being offensive, the notion that all Japanese-Americans think alike, act alike, react alike and experience even the same things in the same way is what actually is offensive.

What you write may well be true to the experience of some of the internees, and seem all wrong to others. But it is, in any case, true to the experience of the characters you have created.

This question hit home with me as in a book of mine that is currently making the rounds, some of the time I wrote from the point of view of a 24-year-old black woman in 1947 Los Angeles. (The book I'm currently working on is from the point of view of three rural Chinese teenagers brought to Los Angeles in 2001.)

Barbara Sissel said...

I agree with Sari. I love this book too and she puts it into perspective because for me as a reader you did cause me think about and feel compassion for a situation and a group of people that I haven't ordinarily given thought to. The story has stayed in my mind.

And I like what Eric says, that the situation you write about while it came from your imagination was honed by the accuracy of your research and the characters grew into individuals from there. I would add that imagination is a universal trait, and in its purest form, it doesn't know bias, or it shouldn't.

Colleen Thompson said...

I'm very much looking forward to reading it, Sophie. I've heard great things about it already, and like you, I can't imagine arbitrarily limiting myself to writing characters from my own narrow experience. The novel is all about using imagination to bridge the gap between us, to foster empathy by eliciting the universal emotions that make us human being.

Best of luck to you with its publication.

Sophie Littlefield said...

thanks to all of you for your kind and thoughtful comments. i guess the truth is that we all carry around a lot of uncertainty about our voices even when we are doing our best to speak clearly.