Jodie Picoult just wrote a book that deals with racial issues. She interviewed black women for over a hundred hours, I understand, in order to write the book. The book hit number one on the fiction best seller list.
In taking on this book, Jodie stepped into a controversy that has been going on for years. I remember meeting a new author in the early 80s who had published two books, one with a female Japanese protagonist, the other with a Black South African protagonist. Although the books were well-reviewed, she faced a lot of criticism for appropriating the stories of others. The author was an American white woman.
Here is how I define these terms. Appropriation is the taking over of something, and in the literary sense, it’s the taking over by the dominant group of the material of the less dominant. Assimilation is the assuming of qualities in the majority.
As a newly blind person, I faced issues of appropriation and assimilation long before I became a writer. I made a conscious effort to continue many of the nonverbal communication techniques of the sighted world. I tried to remember to use facial expression. I encouraged myself to keep gesturing, even though that often ended in contact with someone’s off-limits body part. But I bristled when people used my labels as emotional negative ways, i.e., blind to her faults, deaf to our entreaties. I criticized the icon, Helen Keller, for her adopting sighted language in her writing, even as I accidentally said, “See you later.” I wanted to wear fashionable clothes and make-up to fit in to the sighted population. But I also wanted to express life as I experienced it.
So when I joined a writing group and met this particular author, I felt that she had every right to develop characters from cultures other than her own. Not only should we write what we know, I thought, but we should write what we can truly learn about. This woman did her research, so why shouldn’t she tell the stories she wants.
But then she told me, “I’ve been writing a book about a blind boy.”
“Now hold on,” I almost said. Fortunately, I caught my hypocrisy and said, “I’d be happy to read it and offer suggestions.”
But I’m running into this problem as I try to market a biographical novel about a blind slave. A month after sending it to a publisher, I received a rejection, saying that it would be difficult to publish a book about the exploitation of an African-american in this climate . The book is multi-voiced in third person with very beefy research behind it. And I think my window into the character is my blindness.
But I have a friend that I respect so fiercely who absolutely would not read or see “The Help,” because, as she put it, it was another White person telling our stories.” This woman is a superb and successful writer.
So I still do dismay.