When we began sending the manuscript for Trouble the Water to big publishers, we got rejections – based on my skin color and not on my writing. I was hurt and confused.
But it made me think hard about history, cultural appropriation, and the way we do or don’t honor stories.
Whose story is it, and who gets to tell it?
I’m fully aware that I’m a “mature” Caucasian American woman, privileged, literate, and free. It’s not lost on me that I‘ve not experienced all the feelings, motivations, challenges, hopes and fears of a 20 year-old enslaved African American male in South Carolina in 1860.
But I can wonder. I can care. I can inquire. I can read and listen and explore and imagine, and practice empathy and curiosity and gratitude and humility, and in that way do what human beings do at our best – acknowledge and honor one another, and cherish one another’s stories.
I believe that fiction is essential – not helpful, ESSENTIAL! – for this very reason.
Trouble the Water is historical fiction, inspired by a real person, a true hero named Robert Smalls.
His story made me wonder, ask questions, imagine.
I wanted to know– What was it like to grow up enslaved? To be prohibited from learning to read? What were his hopes, the struggles, the loves, the heartaches? How did he learn to pilot a boat? And how did he decide to risk his life for freedom? And where did that kind of courage come from?
Fiction, by definition, is imaginative invention. If I only write about people like me, people with my characteristics and experiences, then it’s neither imaginative nor inventive, and also not very interesting.
When we imagine the hopes and hurts of another, we learn empathy. When we allow our minds and hearts to feel, to wonder, to ache, to delight, to care, we learn empathy. And empathy makes us better people, more whole, more human; empathy increases our capacity to love. Is there anything our world needs more right now?
Stories teach us, shape us, inspire us, warn us, and stretch us. Literature give us empathy.
So can a novelist legitimately tell the story of a person from another place, time, culture, nationality, religion, ethos, sexual orientation? Of course. Is the telling of another person’s story (imagined or factual) the same as “appropriating” the story of the other? Of course not.
Some may ask, “Who do you think you are to tell this story?”
Others may ask, “Who do you think you are to withhold it?”
And here is the distinction: I choose to tell another person’s story to acknowledge it and respect it, not to claim it. I hope to celebrate it, even though it is not my own. I hope to expose it, to make it known, to honor it.
Stories have tremendous power – but not if they go untold or undertold.
If, as an author, I fail to explore the depths of human nature – motivations and emotions, desires and dark secrets, hurts and hopes, fears, loves, lusts, etc, then I’ve not given my best; I’ve failed to honor the story.
I choose to honor the story.