Being open to other perspectives in storytelling

I posted a Ted talk video not too long ago about the danger of the single story – a video that effected me greatly.  Accepting only one perspective of a story limits our views and understanding of a person, culture and our world.  To walk a path of only one perspective and not allow the colours of others to enter our awareness allows for the seeds of stereotypes and narrow-minded labels to take root in our mind.

Gracie Jin wrote an article about author Bill Cheng’s novel Southern Cross the Dog and how the attention for this book is not coming from the amazing writing or story that is within, but because he is a Chinese-American man writing about the American south (specifically Mississippi); a place he’s never been (till now of course).  I conducted a search of book reviews for Cheng’s novel to see if this was the case.  Yes, there are reviews that question the authenticity of his novel because when he wrote it, he had never stepped foot in Mississippi.  Whether they are bringing it up because he is a Chinese man writing about the south or they are just questioning an author that writes about a place that he’s never been is an argument for another post.   What I want to know, regardless of ethnicity or whether an author has been to a place they write about is, does it matter?

I am very intrigued by Cheng now; a man in interviews who talks about how his love for the blues inspired him to write a novel about the south.  A story created with inspiration, love and passion?  Sounds fine to me.  From where I stand this is exactly the type of energy that would attract me to a story.

Do you remember the incredulous interview Reza Aslan had to endure from that Fox reporter (who shall not be named) for his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth?  It wasn’t his book that was being questioned, it was the fact that he was a Muslim writing about Jesus.  What she was essentially saying (whether she was conscious of it or not) was, “Reza, your perspective is not allowed”.

What is unfortunate about that scenario is that we know the Fox reporter is not the only person who thinks this way.  There are many who would take offence to someone from a different culture or religion writing about their culture or religion – regardless if it was done with love and respect or from a purely scholarly angle.  Does it matter that a person of another heritage, background, culture or belief system writes a book about a topic that isn’t from their own culture?  If it does, then what we are ultimately agreeing to is that you will stay in your corner, and I will stay in mine.  We won’t bother to get to know each other in any way, shape or form.  We won’t bother to seek out information about each other’s culture.  We won’t bother to question what we are told about others.  We just won’t bother, period.

This is unacceptable.  I need different perspectives.  Good or bad, they help me in forming my own.  They help change me, mold me.  To turn away from other perspectives is to turn away from my evolution and an ever changing understanding of the world in which I am an active member.

Does Bill Cheng get the south right in his novel?  I don’t know.  I haven’t read it yet.  But when I do, I still won’t know because I have never been there myself.  I, the reader, am simply looking for another perspective, a story about the human condition.  I am looking for universal truths, spiritual concepts and philosophical questions.  I am looking to expand.

To not allow others to write stories outside of their own perceived world is to destroy imagination.  It means we would live in a world where the likes of Tolkien never existed.

It is a slippery slope to tell people what they can or cannot create based on who they are or where they were born.  I am not naive, I know there are individuals who use storytelling and books to push their agendas of elitism or hatred, but they are few while those who encourage expansion and awareness, who create out of love, are far more in existence.  If we make rules to stop the ones who spread hate, we silence the ones who spread love, and that scares me more than anything.

So give it to me straight fellow readers, are you less inclined to read a story if an author’s pedigree doesn’t match the topic?

david lynch quote


About Geeky Book Snob

Learning stuff since birth. Happy introvert who likes socializing when she's not busy being an introvert who likes to read.

Posted on September 9, 2013, in For the Love of Books, General Musings & Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. this is so interesting!!! You can get hte flipside of the argument from Sheldon Cooper in “Big Bang Theory: (I remember the exchange because I am a non-Latino American with degrees in Spanish literature):

    PENNY: Has Leonard ever dated a woman who wasn’t a brainiac.
    SHELDON: There was that PhD in French literature.
    PENNY: How is that not a brainiac?
    SHELDON: For one, she was French. For another, it was literature.”

    There are people like Sheldon in my field who feel that people who study their “ethnic” or “native” literature or culture are lazy and have an easier time of it than those of us who learn a second language and study a foreign culture. Absurd!

  2. As you say at the start of your post, a single point of view is limited, and there are a lot of ways to answer your question (“is it all right to write about something you haven’t personally experienced?”).

    Two days ago I would have said, “Sure.” Then yesterday, I read an articulate post by a Puerto Rican woman who was fed up with anglos interpreting for her “The Puerto Rican experience,” among other related experiences in cultural imperialism. So today I would have to answer, “It all depends.”

    I’m tempted to say there’s a difference between fiction and non-fiction, but de Tocqueville comes to mind as a 19th century outsider whose comments on American culture are still worthy of consideration.

    The old cliche, “Write what you know,” is nonsense. I think by now most writers have realized it should be stated as “Write what you can imagine.” Ang Lee comes to mind as the Chinese director whose 1995 take on Jane Austen in “Sense and Sensibility” won 7 Academy Awards.

    Yet I remember from attending storytelling festivals that more than a few Native Americans resent non-native people “exploiting” their folklore.

    So I guess my answer is, “It all depends, and in addition to good research, cultural sensitivity is highly recommended.”

  3. I’m with you. We must neither fear nor bannish unorthodox perspectives and opinions. Freedom to do good is where it’s at, and writing a book about Mississippi when you’ve never been there doesn’t strike me as harmful in and of itself. As far as a Muslim author writing about Jesus, I might be a little concerned about blasphemy, which is a sin, but I’d still welcome his or her thoughts on Jesus. I love talking to people about Jesus. It’s one of the main things Christians do.

    • As long as we have open minds and open hearts, we need not fear the opinions of others because opinion is not fact. Instead, we can joyously discuss and explore each other’s thoughts for they lead us to know new things about ourselves. As for the author of Zealot, he was raised Christian and then later embraced the Muslim faith. His mother is still Christian. His book though is written from a scholarly perspective and not a religious one. I highly recommend it.

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