By Emma Campbell
Elm Staff Writer
Storytelling has become a hot-button issue when it comes to the recognition of under represented groups. In a country where groups of people continue to be marginalized, who gets to tell their stories? Must the author be a representative of the group being written about, or is anyone permitted to take up the pen?
The answer isn’t as nuanced as we’ve been led to believe.
Setting aside memoirs and personal histories, writers are not the stories they write.
Stephen King does not reside in a blood-soaked, monster-filled alternate reality. J.K. Rowling is not capable of witchcraft, as much as many of us believe her to be. Ernest Hemingway may have been an alcoholic war veteran, but he was not a living reflection of Lt. Frederick Henry, and despite how much F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to party, he was never Jay Gatsby.
Author Rebecca Makkai spoke on the agency of storytelling during her visit to the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Sept. 5. She read an excerpt from her book “The Great Believers.” The protagonist of the novel is a gay man living during the Chicago AIDS crisis. In a piece titled “How to Write Across Differences” published on the LitHub website in 2018, Makkai articulates the controversy she faces in writing about a demographic so different to hers.
“I’m sympathetic to arguments that artists need to stay in their lanes,” Makkai wrote. “I also believe preemptive judgment of work based on its premise, not its merits, is ridiculous. I don’t need to apologize for writing across difference; I need to apologize if I get it wrong.”
It is ludicrous to claim that a book holds no value simply because of the background of the person who wrote it. As a self-labelled “straight woman,” Makkai certainly had a great amount of responsibility to the LGBTQ+ community in writing a novel based in their history. She knew that she didn’t have the perspective of a gay man living through the AIDS epidemic. So, she researched.
“In addition to hours of in-person interviews, I read every back issue of Chicago’s LGBTQ weekly Windy City Times from 1985 to 1992. I went to surviving gay bars from the era,” Makkai said. “I watched footage of ACT UP protests, I walked the city carrying business maps from 30 years ago.”
The only crime when it comes to writing characters who are not like you is to write them with ignorance. Writing about a world outside of one’s own is a recipe for disaster if not done with the utmost care and self-awareness. At the end of the day, if a writer doesn’t understand the group, person, place, or time they want to write about, then they should investigate like hell until they do.
Some may mistake “writing across differences” for cultural appropriation. There are several differences between the two, other than the fact that one is wrong while the other is not. Cultural appropriation is rooted in disrespect, such as a white person donning corn rows or dreadlocks. Writing across differences — when done well — is impactful.
There have certainly been cases where writers appropriate another group’s culture in fiction. Recently, YA author Laura Moriarty was stripped of her Kirkus Star Review over controversy surrounding her novel’s “white savior narrative,” according to Slate. There is a reason that major publishing companies put their manuscripts through “sensitivity reads,” during which a member of a minority group is hired to spot any red flags in the writing that may be deemed offensive. This is a necessary part of the publishing process, for it gives a member of the depicted minority group a chance to portray their culture in an accurate way.
In writing, cultural appropriation is often a result of laziness and neglect. White savior narratives would be less common if the white people writing them gained perspectives outside of their own.
In “The Great Believers,” Rebecca Makkai handles writing across differences the right way.
“Makkai’s great theme is about how art can help us hold each other, how literature can be a kind of saving grace,” said Dr. James Hall, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said in an article about Makkai’s reading at WC published in The Elm on Sept. 12. “Makkai’s writing takes emotional and structural risks, and she writes with empathy and intelligence — and a whole lot of research — about experiences she doesn’t necessarily have.”