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On writing what you (don't) know

Over the last twenty-four hours, I've read two short stories that really left me gutted. The first was "The Caretaker," told from the perspective of a Liberian refugee, who watches civil war break out in all its brutal cruelty, loses his mother to violence, and ends up in coastal Oregon where he excavates the hearts of five beached whales and buries them, and builds a garden. The author is Anthony Doerr, who was raised in Cleveland, OH. The second story was "The Moses Basket," in which a family loses their son, Scotty, to death, though we never learn how. The author is Amy Koppelman, and I scoured the Internet for her back story, assuming from the gravity and eloquence of her writing that she had lost a child of her own. From everything I could find, she hasn't.

I want to emphasize that these two stories are stunning. Lovely, fierce, and unrelenting. I believe them fully; they worked themselves all the way inside my chest in a way that most things rarely do.

But, halfway through reading "The Caretaker," I flipped to the back cover in search of the author picture and bio. I was hoping to discover that he was African. When I verified from his picture that this seemed unlikely, I then hoped he had grown up in Africa, or gave some indication of having lived through an African civil war. Not finding any of this at first glance, I flipped back and finished the story, still awed, now uneasy as well. I had a parallel experience while reading "The Moses Basket"; it seemed to me that only a woman who had lost her child could write--would dare to write--a story about a woman losing her child. Or, to put it more precisely: only a woman who had lost her child could write a story this good about a woman losing her child.

I don't know enough about either of these two authors to level any judgment, or even an opinion. But I'm prompted to think again about all the questions of permission and appropriation and censorship, and my problem within this debate has always been that I empathize a lot with the arguments in both directions. I hear the argument that if the story is works, that's what matters. But, I wonder, what if the story works but is inaccurate? Obviously there is no one correct way to tell any story, but what if significant cultural or psychological truths are foregone when the experience in question is so horrific that no author who has not experienced it could possibly comprehend it enough to write it?

Then there's the argument that instead of writing from the perspective of, say, people of color who've experienced deep trauma, white people should work to facilitate emerging voices of writers of color. As Marlon James remarked in his blog post "When You’re not White Enough to write a Black Novel," "The fact is, the black story is far more sellable when it comes from a white voice." Is participating in this commercial reality not unethical in some way? And then, at the same time, what is risked in shutting down stories that one feels deeply called to write? Would the world be a better place without the existence of "The Caretaker" or "The Moses Basket," two stories that touched me, bruised me, and caused me to empathize greatly with experiences I otherwise wouldn't have thought about today?

The terrain gets murkier and murkier, and my word count is already billowing out of control. So I'll stop, hoping this will be Part 1 of many more.

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