Rendering lives that aren’t yours

Are authors bound to write only within their own identities?

5 minute read
Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for Broad Street Review.
Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for Broad Street Review.

The first time Omar spoke to me, I was crossing the Walnut Lane Bridge.

I was at work on a collection of stories that mostly featured protagonists like me—adolescent or twentysomething women, queer (or questioning), navigating relationships, seeking purpose.

Then Omar started talking. The voice in my head took on specificity: a 47-year-old African American man, employed as a janitor in a Center City high-rise. Raised Baptist but unsure of his faith. Like my grandfather, Omar had limited formal education. Like my father, he loved horse racing. Like me, he was adrift.

Discovery and development

I don’t know the right word to describe the experience of writing Omar’s story, a piece eventually titled “Do Not Attempt to Climb Out” and included in my collection of short fiction, Anatomies. To say I “discovered” his voice shirks accountability, but to say I “developed” the character elides the part of fiction-writing that feels more like tuning in to an ongoing human conversation.

Omar works the graveyard shift; one night, he takes an elevator to the building’s 35th floor—a restaurant with stratospheric prices and a come-hither view. Halfway up, the elevator halts, and for the remainder of the story, Omar remains stuck. He thinks about privilege and access, about risk and luck, about his parents’ deaths and his sister’s religious fervor. He fears he might be fired, or die, or both.

When the room went cold

Through my work with a literacy nonprofit, People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, I’ve discussed that story with men in a medium-security prison, with women recovering from substance addiction, with seniors in Section 8 housing. In those groups, all of them racially mixed, listeners were eager to talk about Omar’s crisis of faith and about their own experiences of being literally or existentially stuck.

Then I read “Do Not Attempt” with a group of Princeton undergraduates—all but one were women of color—and some older white women from nearby Lawrenceville. Partway through our discussion, the vibe turned cold, and one of the Black women left abruptly. A debriefing later confirmed my hunch: the students were angry because I, a white woman, had trespassed in the voice of an African American character.

Who’s on the margins?

A few weeks later, the literary landscape erupted over American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants by a woman who is not Mexican. Some dissed it as a mediocre book. Others said the author, Jeanine Cummins, bungled the Spanish and got the cultural nuance all wrong.

Some critics threw darts at a publishing industry that rewards select authors (usually white) with seven-figure advances and full-tilt publicity while relegating others (people of color, queer people, those with disabilities) to the margins.

But as I followed the controversy, the take-downs that hit closest to home were those that lashed Cummins for daring to render lives she had never experienced. Which is exactly what I did with Omar.

Was that wrong? Isn’t fiction an exercise in empathy and imagination—reaching past our own limited gaze to see the world through someone else’s eyes? In Omar, I tried to render a complex character—a middle-aged man filled with pent-up sorrow and longing, a gambler and a seeker, trying (in his father’s words) to “play the cards he was dealt” but suspecting that the dealer was crooked all along. I’d come to love him. Was that enough?

Writing “up”

One playwright pal offered a rule of thumb: writers can write “up” but not “down”—meaning it’s permissible to create characters who have more privilege than your own, but not the reverse. Which sounded fair until I played out its implications: could I, a white, Jewish, queer woman, write about, for example, a black, Protestant, transgender man?

How close must I be to render an experience in fiction? Could I write in the voices of immigrants (my great-grandparents came here from Russia)? How about a character with mental illness (I suffered panic attacks throughout my 20s)?

No hostile questions

I was still sifting all of this when, the week before coronavirus shuttered cultural institutions, I attended a reading of Colum McCann’s just-published novel, Apeirogon. The book is based on the actual lives of two men—one a Palestinian Muslim, one an Israeli Jew—who each lost a child in the conflict and who opted to seek peace rather than revenge.

No protesters ringed Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. There were no hostile questions for McCann, an Irish writer without a personal stake in the Mideast conflict. On the contrary, there was talk of empathy and alliance, of the common strands that bind all forms of human grief.

Is Apeirogon simply a more extraordinary book than American Dirt? Or was this sexism at work—permitting narrative omniscience and epic sweep from a male writer while, when a woman attempts the same, we slam her for overreach?

Theft and truth

As I left the reading, I thought about the fact that inventing any story is an act of theft and hubris. Fiction writers steal from conversations we’ve had, from scraps we’ve read, from the people we know and love and fear and fail to understand. We spin lies in service—we hope, we hope—of enduring truths.

But our writing must also be an act of humility, informed by careful research, sobered with the recognition that our truths are not the only ones—that others would tell the story differently and that their versions are as valid and deserving of audience as our own.

Aleksandar Hemon, a novelist born in Sarajevo who now lives in the US, says that reading and writing help us “figure out who we are, but also who we are not, and how the border between the two is not always fixed.”

Yes. I’m thinking about that blurred border, and about the question my 19-year-old daughter posed about all of this: “Why did you want to write in Omar’s voice?”

Because, I told her, he felt both foreign and so familiar. Because he had something urgent to tell me—about grief and entitlement, about curiosity and risk—and I wanted to listen.

Want more? Read Constance Garcia-Barrio's companion piece, "Under other skins."

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