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."