February 7, 2013

Lived Experience vs. Writer's Imagination

Today in my writing class we discussed voice, and in particular, An Na's Printz Award-winning A Step From Heaven. And almost without meaning to, I found myself in the midst of a heated discussion about (essentially) the legitimacy of lived experience versus the writer's imagination. We ended up leaving the topic before I'd come to any sort of conclusion regarding how I felt, so here I'm attempting to hash out where I stand.

Here I must admit that I'm the one who started down the whole tangent when I said (probably in less coherent words) that I felt like An Na was one of the only people who could have told the story she did in A Step From Heaven because she had lived the experience of a young Korean immigrant to the United States. Last semester we read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and the same points were raised about Alexie's background enabling him to portray something that no one else could portray.

At this point I was shut down hard by several classmates who made firm stands on the side of what I'll call the writer's imagination. Not being part of a group of particular people doesn't shut you out from telling a story about said people, they argued. You can tell whatever story you want to tell (provided you do it well). Books mentioned on this side of the issue included John Green's The Fault in Our Stars as well as Tara Sullivan's Golden Boy (forthcoming in June 2013). Did I think, then, that they had no business writing about teenagers with cancer or albino boys in Tanzania?

While I'm sure that some people might make that claim, I'm not attempting to say that John Green should not have written a book about teenagers with cancer. But I do believe that authors who have lived the experiences they attempt to portray automatically write from a position of authority. We trust that their stories are legitimate because their experiences are legitimate. Essentially, these authors have a leg up on other writers of realistic fiction. Authors who do not come from such backgrounds must work harder to convince the audience that the story they tell is (in a literary sense) true to the world they portray.

Speaking more generally about voice, this goes to the idea that you (the writer) are the only person in the world that can tell the stories that you tell, in the way you tell them. Steven Schwartz, in "Finding a Voice in America," argues that "writers don't get very far in finding their voices until they are willing to face the intersection of their unique experiences with that of the larger culture." You are the writer you are because of the person you are.

I stand by my original statement. I don't believe that anyone but An Na could have written the book she did. It's a remarkable story, and one that she makes me believe. That doesn't mean that anyone who isn't a Korean immigrant to the United States shouldn't write a story about Koreans immigrating to the United States. I just think that there is a material difference between people who are and people who are not--and that anyone who doesn't have that cultural experience must work even harder to find a voice that rings true to their audience.

What do you think? Should writers back off of subjects they have no cultural attachment to, and if so, why?


  1. I totally agree with you. When writing about racialized experiences, I don't think anyone, but the person with lived experience, can write about it as realistically, unless, like you said, they work harder.

    I think your classmates' use of The Fault in Our Stars to support their argument was weak, because the experience of an immigrant WOC is not similar to the experience of someone with cancer; the former is influenced by acculturation, racism, and other forms of oppression, the latter doesn't have that same baggage, esp. because cancer has more positive meanings associated with it, compared to illnesses like like HIV/AIDS or mental disorders.

    In short, their argument seems like a false equivalence, because often, in our white dominant society, immigrant POCs experience marginalization, and cancer patients, as far as I know, do not.

    Did that make any sense? Also, I'm curious, what race were these classmates?

    1. I love you, Cassie, because you are so smart and explain my unease in this situation in far better terms than I ever could have. Issues of race and immigration, especially in the US, are such loaded topics--it completely makes sense to me that they need to be approached differently than other topics (cancer, etc.).

      The classmate that brought up John Green is white, though we had students of various backgrounds on that side too. (Sadly, I was the only one on my side. I think it was because of my personal association as a person with Korean heritage--I associated much more strongly with the assigned book than others likely did.)