Friday, April 8, 2011

Does It Matter Who Writes the Story as Long as It's Written?


I was talking to a co-worker the other day about a book that Amazon recommended as something readers of Wench might like.  I loved Wench.  It  is a well written and well researched book about a group of women living in slavery.  It was also written by an African-American author.  The book that Amazon recommended was set pre-Civil War and was written from the perspective of a plantation owner's wife upset about his "relationship" with a slave.  I'd take exception to any book that portrayed the slave mistresses of their owners as willing accomplices to their relationship, but for me, it's especially offensive when the author can't empathize with the character about which he or she is writing.  Is it that I think only African-Americans can write on these topics or do the necessary research? No, but you have to admit that sensitive topics deserve a fair amount of respect that authors of other races don't always give them, knowingly or not.

Let's look at 2009's The Help. Written by a white author about white women and the African American help that worked in their houses, it was one of my favorite books that year. I felt like the author took her time developing all of the characters. The African American characters were no less important than the white ones and just as much attention was given to their story lines.  I also have a great deal of respect for Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House about an Irish girl who comes to America as an indentured servant and forms a bond with the slaves on the plantation on which they work.  Though it would have been easy to make the slaves minor characters and play up the story line of the indentured servant alone, Grissom took the time to develop both the character and story line of everyone in the book.  In a lot of ways, her book really reminded me of J. California Cooper's The Wake of the Wind.

On the flip side, I absolutely hated Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt, the story of a young white girl sent to live with her great-aunt and her maid.  Much like The Secret Lives of Bees, I disliked this story of a white child being raised by black women who were treated like magical Negroes.  Little attention was paid to their lives apart from how it related to their white wards.  Though they were significant in the development of both children's lives, they were treated as secondary characters.

All of this leads me to ask, does it really matter who writes our stories or any stories as long as they're well written? I don't remember a great deal of uproar over a white male writing Memoirs of A Geisha.  There was a slight murmur about it being written from a Western perspective, but not nearly the amount of grumblings I heard about The Help.  If African American history is American history, should all Americans be allowed to tell the stories as long as they do the proper research and do the story justice or are our stories exclusively ours?  Are African American authors limiting themselves by writing books with predominantly black characters?  Why do books written by authors of other races receive more acclaim than books with similar topics written by African Americans?

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