Once a writer does that--once a writer gives stories a voice--they are hers.
But not only hers.
The stories belong to themselves and to the people, animals, or experiences that inspire them. They belong to those who will read them and see themselves in their words. They belong also to those who will discover a small part of the world that they had never recognized before. They even belong to those who will criticize them.
Some of these stories may be true. Many of them are merely inspired by truth. Universal truths like how challenging it can be to work as a team, how even the young and small can be brave and strong, how scary the first day of school can be, how friendships can form between two people who don’t seem like they’ll ever get along, how a clever mind can be used to outwit a dangerous foe, and how these same themes can cross cultures and still be universally relatable.
Some people challenge the idea that stories are universal. Their voices are sometimes timid, sometimes friendly and pleading. Other times they are angry and loud. But they all share the same message: There are some stories that a writer should not write because they are not her stories to tell. They aren’t her stories to tell because they’re about people who skin tones and cultures are so drastically different from her own that she couldn’t possibly write a story that is true to their experiences.
When she stops to consider this message and its implications, it makes her shake her head. It contradicts what she’s always believed about stories, about humanity, about how and why stories about someone so different than her can still make her stop and think, “I can relate.”
The message that some stories are not her stories to tell is flawed. It’s flawed because it’s based on the premise that differences in skin tone and culture are too great to overcome. That any shared experiences--such as making a new friend, losing a pet, or being bullied--ultimately don’t matter, at least not when it comes to writing stories. This message seems to reinforce the idea of the “other,” encouraging people to point at their neighbors and say, “You are too different from me.”
The need for more diverse voices in publishing is undeniable, and it’s good that people are working to make room for those voices. It’s exciting to see the increasing number of books featuring characters in a variety of shades, from a variety of backgrounds. Children will benefit from reading more stories about people who are different, but also the same. Those stories will show them that people everywhere have more in common than not. That we all have hopes and fears, friends and foes, family struggles, joys and sorrows.
It’s why a young white girl can be enthralled by Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, or a hispanic boy might love David by David Shannon, or a black boy might relate to the girl in Aaron Becker’s Journey. These books, and many others, speak to the universal human experience, especially in childhood. Perhaps not in the specific experiences portrayed in these books, but certainly in the hearts of their stories.
If readers can relate to characters who are different from them, why should writers be ill-equipped to write about characters who are different from them? Especially when they are writing stories that aren’t specifically related to those differences?
Of course, the best writing is informed and influenced by a writer’s own experiences and worldview, but if that were the limit to what a writer could--or should--write, then the world of books would be duller for it.
Perhaps there are some stories that a given writer would be ill-equipped to write. But those stories aren’t the ones whispering in her ear or running around her brain demanding to be written. Those stories will find their writers.
And then maybe she, as a reader, will discover them and make them her own.