There are the times when I am happy with my students, when they’re doing good working and putting in a solid effort. That’s a lot of the time. And then there are the times I’m proud of them. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can be a little different.
A few weeks ago, I was proud.
Here’s what happened.
A student submitted a story about a culture that was not their own. The student is from the Northeast United States and the story is set in ancient, tribal Africa. The student expressed concerns about whether they could even write that story, whether it was a legitimate topic.
I understand the student’s concerns. Given the recent row over Lionel Shriver’s comments and uproars over things like people trying on Kimonos at art museums, if I was going to write about a culture foreign to my own I’d be a little apprehensive as well. I have actually written stories about other cultures, like India, but more from the perspective of Westerners going there than from someone native to it.
This student’s story had no Western characters whatsoever. It immersed the reader fully in a tribe’s culture and an essential event in one boy’s life.
And, from the perspective of whether the author was “allowed” to write a story like this, the rest of the class responded to it with a resounding affirmative and universal praise.
What everyone in the class recognized was that the story had been written with a great deal of care and respect. The author did nothing to fetishize African culture, but rather attempted — and to a great extent achieved — empathy. The character and culture were portrayed in the most genuine ways, and no one who read it had any problem.
Sure there were criticisms, it was a workshop, but not of the topic itself.
It was one of those discussions that left me glowing with pride, though to be honest I’m not sure that’s the right word since this isn’t exactly something I taught them. To a person they showed a desire to respectfully engage with the entirely of the world around them, all of which is the potential subject of fiction.
The whole thing also really invigorated me when it comes to contemporary literature. The story itself, the workshop responses — all of it. Writers can write about whatever they want as long as they do it well (and by well I mean, again, with respect). That’s an artistic freedom it’s easy to lose track of these days, and one that needs to exist even when we don’t take advantage of it.
If that freedom wasn’t there, all our stories would be pre-proscribed to us based on our own lives, much of which we cannot control. That freedom means that we have to choose our stories, even if we do choose ones that involve our own cultures and experiences. It’s one of the choices that make our stories genuine.
And it’s OK to choose to go pretty far out beyond our own lives. In fact, it can be great.
Thanks to my awesome students for reminding me of this, and exercising that artistic freedom themselves.