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Whose story are we allowed to tell?

Feb 08,2013
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You might enjoy this little video in preparation for this post. Please be warned, there is some very strong language in this song, so if you're uncomfortable with swearing don't watch it! Or if you're a young person, ask an appropriate adult if this might not be for you.

My question today is this - who is allowed to tell whose story?

In all of my books I have written experiences that are not my own. I am not a teenager, and yet I try my hardest to convince the reader that I am. Most readers expect that, but there seems to be a limit as to what experiences are acceptable to appropriate for the purposes of fiction and which aren't.

Here are two examples:

A few years ago (just before I wrote my series with Random House) there was another pony series that was selling very well, and when I read them, I was shocked to discover that the writer clearly had little knowledge about horses. What concerned me was some of the plot lines seemed to draw on actions that most kids would learn not to do on day one at pony club.

On one episode of the TV show based on this particular series, a small child administered a nasal paraffin drench to a horse based on the instructions a vet was giving over the phone. In real life, if you get that wrong, you are delivering several litres of paraffin oil directly into the lungs. I was agog that so many sane adults must have approved this script before it went to air.

In that case I reckon only a horse person is entitled to write about horses. If a child, having watched that show, decided that they were now qualified to drench their horse, an animal could die a very painful death. And yet there was no outrage from the general public.

On the other hand...

There are few books about Indigenous kids in YA or junior fiction. This population of kids is not well represented in fiction - even as minor characters. The impression that I get is that publishers feel uncomfortable publishing books about Indigenous characters written by non-Indigenous writers.

Women can write about being men, and straight people can write about being gay. Grown men can write about being young girls. There's an open season on the experiences of the mentally ill. 

What do you think? 

Are there rules on who is entitled to tell whose story?

What should the rules be?

Who do you think decides, or should decide?

Feb 13,2013

Only having people under 21 writing YA would certainly narrow the field!

Feb 08,2013
anonymous's picture

I think anyone can write any story they want, provided they are prepared to do the reseach so they can tell the story from the inside out. I read that Ian McEwan shadowed a neurosurgeon for two years as he wrote the novel Saturday. We don't all get an opportunity like that but we can do our best.

In the past year I've read a rabid blog by a young writer that said no one over the age of 21 should be allowed to write YA fiction. I'm sure that person's perspective will change when they discover you actually know more as you grow older, not less.


Feb 08,2013

the rules shouldnt be made by anyone else but the person writing the story

Feb 08,2013

I've never heard of that! Fantastic! Thanks so much for posting.

I've put the address here for any one who's interested.


Feb 08,2013
anonymous's picture

The author needs to take a lot of care and skill when writing about complex perspectives, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. More characters from a range of backgrounds/cultures/sexuality etc - both as main and minor characters - can only enrich young adult literature. I'm non-Indigenous, but I do sometimes have Aborginal characters in my stories. I refer to the Australia Council's Protocols for producing Australian Indigenous writing, which is a great guide. Any writer considering including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters in their fiction should read it!

Feb 08,2013

Perhaps part of it is about whether the reader is likely to understand that it's 'made up'?  A child reader is going to have less of a sense of the author and the characters they create being quite different entities. That could have something to do with the ethics of it...?

Feb 08,2013

I suppose that if the author is able to create a believable and realistic character, then they should be able to write from the POV, or feature, whatever characters they want, assuming they are able to achieve said character. I suppose there's such a fear of insulting people that makes publishers and authors less inclined to publish or write a book with a character who is Indigenous, or a different nationality to themself out of fear of doing it wrong and facing the backlash. Personally, I don't care whether the author is of the same background as their character, so long as it's a good book.

Feb 08,2013
anonymous's picture

Great  topic to raise Alyssa but I certainly don't profess to know the answer. Totally with you re the horse thing and 'that' series, but other areas seem a bit more complex. Research can go a long way and permission if it's possible to get it if your story is based on experiences of an actual living person. 

I've recently written a story from a boy's point of view and struggled with this question but with gender I think if it's fiction and the writer is able to put him or herself in the character enough to convince the audience, then after all we are all humans with the same hopes and aspirations. 

When it comes to more complex perspectives like being gay or from another culture, that seems a lot trickier, but I reckon it then comes down to the author's skill. That doesn't mean that the groups concerned would approve though does it? Perhaps in an instance where the author liaises very closely with people from those groups it might be okay.

Bernadette Kelly

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