What Happens When Writers Tell Stories That Aren’t Their Own
By Anis Gisele
At a reading of science fiction for social justice, in honor of African American feminist author Octavia Butler, the lineup is composed of six white people and one Indian woman.
A white man with two published books reads to us in the voice of his narrator, an incarcerated black boy. This black boy, who is actually this white man in front of us, says, “No prisoner serving life without parole ever had any interest in science fiction.”
In front of the library’s auditorium, the white man voices bewilderment at Octavia Butler’s achievements; he intends for it to be the bewilderment of his imagined black boy: “Who knew a black woman could write a scifi book?”
Another white man reads. At his story’s midpoint, he has his narrator abruptly describe herself to us: “I have dark skin and short hair.” Using the voice of a black woman, the white man tells us, “We are one. As one we will prevail.”
It is our first meeting as a newly selected cohort of a writers program. We are to introduce ourselves by sharing two-minute excerpts of our own work. A poet reads. It is her response to seeing portraits of incarcerated people in a museum’s archives.
My mother was incarcerated. I am quiet. I stare at people’s shoes until her poem about the pictures is done.
Later I look up the poet online. In an interview she says her work is meant “to tell hidden stories.”
At a reading for new works by Seattle Public Schools’ teaching artists, a white woman reads a poem on police brutality and the racism her black students face. Earlier that month Freddie Gray had been arrested and killed in police custody.
A second white woman takes the stage and echoes: Black Lives Matter.
There are no black writers in the lineup. There are no writers of color.
At a poetry slam, a straight, cisgender man of color performs a poem in the persona of a Somalian child soldier. He says his mother was raped, her clitoris mutilated. His hand makes a slicing motion in the air.
The judges award him high scores. The poet will move on to compete in the Grand Slam.
The next morning I learn that a member of the audience, a survivor of sexual assault, approached the poet to question his need to write about genitalia he does not own, his need to describe violence he has never experienced.
I am told that the poet said if he can tell the story better than the people whose experience it is, why shouldn’t he?
I approach a white writer after I hear him read in the voice of an imprisoned black narrator. I ask, “What’s your thought process when you use a character of color in your story?”
He nods, nervous but glad for this question. “My last novel was told from the perspective of a 15-year-old Latina girl. I like to say that in doing this work you should feel 49% fear [of fucking up], 51% determination [to keep writing].”
I report this to my therapist. She says, “Sounds like 100% white privilege.”
I say, “I’m worried [the motivation]’s 49% I have feelings about the plight of these people, 51% I think it would make a great story.”
It is 2011.
I write a poem. The first half is in the voice of a 19-year-old I worked with during my AmeriCorps year at a shelter. He was abused as a child. During my AmeriCorps year, he abused a young woman and threatened me with rape. At 23, I must think that this poem is an exercise in compassion. Or empathy. It is neither. I write, in the voice I have forced on this boy: I will never know what Right feels like, having learned from my father / archived decades of collision, rows of amputated women / with all intentions to run.
I perform my poem at an open mic. As the bar closes, more people come up to me to praise this poem than any other poem I have read at this venue. No one calls me out.
Today I call myself out.
I do not get to make this boy my puppet. I do not get to put self-defeating words in his fictionalized mouth, make him say, I will never know what Right feels like.
I have never been homeless. I was never in foster care. I should not get to pretend I understand this boy or his life, and in my pretending, I should not receive praise for my metaphors and cadence. I should not be celebrated for my ability to hide my privilege behind a character.
We are afraid of our privilege.
We are aware of the heated political climate and the national outcry against oppression, and we are scared. But I have never seen the possession of privilege hurt a writer or interfere with their ability to engage with injustice.
Kayla Blau, a white poet, writes about the Civil Rights movement by telling us about her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who refused to publicly oppose Jim Crow segregation. She owns her patriarch’s mistake, and while she does not vilify him, she does not ask her audience to forgive him either. She understands her whiteness, that privilege is not in itself harmful, but that too often it allows its holder to evade accountability while others remain unseen and unheard.
I have never seen the possession of privilege hurt a writer, but I have seen the denial of one’s privilege hurt both writer and audience.
Many of us write because we have had transformative experiences as readers. We read writers of marginalized identities, and we want to immerse ourselves more deeply in their lives. We are taught to believe our imaginations are limitless, our capacity for empathy profound. Injustice exists for people outside of our identities; we want to lend them “visibility.” We see writers of privilege win respect for “uplifting” “hidden” narratives. We give ourselves permission to do the same.
We forget about who isn’t in the room. And sometimes, we forget about who might be. We need to get out of their way.
I want us to consider the radical notion that people are already speaking up and showing up for themselves and we have not been looking for those spaces. Or they are in our spaces and we have not been hearing them. Or they have decided we are assholes and we legitimately make speaking in our presence unsafe. Nonetheless, people are already giving testimony.
At a poetry slam, a young woman takes the stage. Someone in the back yells, “Remember why you wrote it!” The woman says quietly, “Is it rape if he kisses you on the forehead?” And my tired body trusts her.
She performs a poem about rape. It is clearly about rape. It clearly happened to her. It is determined, and it is holy. We believe her. She does not need us to believe her. It is the truth. When she is finished, we feel Amen.