Monday, June 29, 2009

Ask the Author

Thanks to YOU, our loyal I.N.K. readers, we have lots to talk about today and tomorrow. For the rest of the summer, we will be setting aside the last couple of days of each month to answer questions you have left us in the comments.

Today, we’ll start off with a question from Melody: How closely do you need to connect with your subject matter to write about it? Do you need to be female to write about amazing women? An environmentalist to write about Rachel Carson? Do you lose all your credibility if you're writing about African-Americans and you're not African-American?

Three I.N.K. bloggers were excited to answer this interesting question:

Susan Goodman responds:
Melody, thanks for the question. It’s especially interesting to me because I just finished a manuscript about a young African-American girl from the 1840s. I do think that nonfiction writers have an easier time with this issue than fiction writers since we don’t have to have to inhabit our characters or imagine them in quite the same way. Nevertheless we have to inhabit their worlds and understand what their frame of mind was during a different time in history. The answer in part--research, research, research.

In my case, I had to learn about the specific African-American people in my story--who they are, what they looked like, what they did and, hopefully, what they felt and said about those feelings. But I also needed to know what their world was like and how their attitudes, assumptions, and expectations were different than ours today. That said, I also had to learn the same about the white people in my story. Can white people of today write about white people in times so different than our own? In a lot of ways, it is the same question.

But this hasn’t really addressed your question directly. It’s hard because it’s so complicated. I guess I’d say that anyone who writes and is interested in not only including facts, but also truth, in a project probably has something to add. But we writers have to be sensitive and careful. And we have to be just as willing to research and fact-check our own attitudes and predilections as our information.

Let me give you an example. My story takes place from 1847-1850 and there were obviously times I had to mention that someone was African American. But I hesitated to use the term “African American” because it wasn’t in use back then and I was trying to create and be true to a sense of place and time. It felt jarring and anachronistic to me. But, what to do? In my draft, I tried using the word, “black.” It was in usage back then and, since it was the preferred term a few decades ago and acceptable today, it felt like my best bet.

I had enough doubts, however, that I decided to consult with a prominent African-American historian and the director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American Culture and History. They both answered my email with long considered responses within hours. They both were clear—use “African American.” Basically they said that by using African American I was making a direct link between some of my contemporary readers and their ancestors. They could see themselves in the people of the 1840s. I also wasn’t accepting the designations imposed on people of African descent by the dominant group.

Needless to say, I changed the word throughout and felt good about it. But I don’t know what I would have ultimately decided on my own.

Gretchen Woelfle responds:
History books are soooo much more interesting these days, thanks to outsider historians and subjects. I'm finding African American history is full of great topics and subjects--way beyond the usual suspects of the civil rights movement. Keep at it, Sue!

Ten years ago the issue of who can tell whose story was extremely controversial. The controversy seems to have died down a bit, but important points were made. Get it right! I believe that anyone can write about anything if s/he gets it right. What does right mean? Obviously factually accurate. And skillfully written. But also with sensitivity to the subtleties of the subject matter and the readers.

I give my manuscripts to experts to judge if the facts and the tone are right. In writing about another culture, I would ask several members of that group to critique my work. I, a white woman, am working on African American history now, following such white authors as Doreen Rappaport, Larry Dane Brimner, and Ellen Levine. Of course we all owe much to Virginia Hamilton, Julius Lester, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and many other African American authors who led the way.

Why would I choose to write about African American history, rather than examine my own German and English heritage? Passion. I’ve found a particular topic that I’m intellectually and emotionally passionate about, and I think that I can tell the story in a compelling way. I’m determined to get it right.

I’ve got more to say about this, including my experience several years ago, of a wonderful workshop led by Ellen Levine. To be continued in my INK blog message of July 22.

Rosalyn Schanzer responds:
Most of my books focus on famous people from history, and I feel very strongly that it doesn't matter one whit about the authors' sex or race when they pick a person to introduce to their readers. As long as a biographer is a terrific writer who's willing to do thorough, unbiased, and accurate research, all is well. After all, it's not a bit unusual that I'm a female who doesn't need to be a guy in order to write about men, so why should a woman be portrayed only by another woman?

Consider this: There's no such thing as a modern historian who was alive 200 or 300 or 400 years ago, yet without ever having lived in, say, Colonial Jamestown or Victorian England, our best writers are somehow able to make the people who lived in those days spring credibly to life. If we can jump that hurdle, then why can't we write just as well about people who are different from ourselves in other ways too?

Thoughtful outsiders put fresh and worthwhile new spins on stories all the time. And even though there are editors and readers who heartily disagree with this philosophy, there are plenty of examples of award winning books that prove my point. Here's a very short list of just a few of them:

Russell Freedman, a white male, won the 2005 Newbery Honor Medal and the Sibert Award for The Voice that Challenged a Nation, which tells the story of Marian Anderson, a black female. He also wrote many notable books about American Indians. This brings to mind Paul Goble, a white Englishman who won the 1979 Caldecott Medal for The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, a book about an Indian girl. In fact he wrote about Indians all the time too.

Another white American male, James Rumford, won a 2005 Sibert Honor award for Sequoyah (the famous Cherokee Indian), and he wrote books about Polynesian and Iraqi people as well. And a white female, Ann Bausum, wrote the Sibert Honor book Freedom Riders, which tells about black and white male and female activists during the historic Civil Rights Movement, thereby covering every base we've just discussed above.

Look for answers to another question tomorrow. And by all means, keep those questions coming. We want to discuss the topics that interest you most!


Mark Herr said...

Good responses all around; sensible ones as well. Any story, fact or fiction, will most likely involve people of different sexes and races. It takes the skill of a good writer to make it all ring true, though.

Cheryl Harness said...

In reading these thoughtful answers to this question, it occurs to me that the more we know about an another's life, the better we're able to empathize. And that the very effort of trying to see the world through someone else's eyes makes for wisdom & kindness. That goes for our dealings with folks who are close at hand and with those who inhabit altogether different worlds now and then. Empathy is one of history's great lessons. I'm reminded of David McCullough's saying that "We need historians who have the heart & humanity necessary to help students imagine the lives of the people who have lived in the past & were just as human as we are today." No matter their race, no matter their gender, no matter their time.

Melody said...

What enlightening and encouraging responses! It's freeing to know that the limits of my own life don't have to keep me from thinking and writing about people who are very different from me. Thanks for tackling my question so thoroughly.