Whose Life Is It Anyway?
The Moon Always Rising is set in Scotland and Nevis. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never visited the former, but I’ve spent part of every year since 1996 in the latter, eyes and ears open and camera at the ready once I acquired an iphone. I did a ton of research on Scottish and Nevisian history, customs, politics, holidays, slang and food. I read local authors—easier to do for Scotland than Nevis or anywhere in the Caribbean—as well as current newspapers and blogs to pick up bits of phrasing and dialect.
I went boldly forth, thinking I could credibly draw my characters and set them in these locations. I was wrong.
My novel has been many years in the making. During that time, the issues of appropriation have (most appropriately, IMO) come to the fore. It’s not okay, not that it ever should have been, for a white American woman of modest privilege to try to inhabit a Nevisian character without great care and sensitivity.
At Grub Street’s MUSE in the Marketplace conference in April, I made a point of attending Rebecca Makkai’s excellent session “Researching into the Void,” where she talked about how meticulously she’d constructed the world of her novel The Great Believers set against the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980s. Already concerned that I might need to take additional steps beyond my research, I left her session vowing to engage Scottish and Nevisian sensitivity readers to make sure I hadn’t written anything that would strike a local reader as offensive or laughably wrong. These readers were at work when I attended the Yale Summer Writing Workshop in June and had the good fortune to join a diverse group of students hailing from South Africa, Australia, London, Jamaica by way of New Jersey and Nepal as well as American people of color and an assortment of gender affiliations. Several of us were struggling with the issues of authenticity and appropriation in the current climate where writers in some countries (or the nation of Internet) can be excoriated, even threatened, if they get it wrong.
With great relief, I learned from my readers that I got it mostly right. However, their advice on how to make my dialogue more authentic and observe small cultural markers my research and experience would never have revealed has been invaluable. My edited manuscript went back to She Writes Press for proofreading and again after I’d reviewed the proofreader’s suggested changes. Next up, SWP will design the interior of the book. As the book gets more and more real, I greet each iteration with a far lighter heart for having spent money and time on the sensitivity reader step. My only regret is that I didn’t do it much sooner.
Before now, The Moon Always Rising had many generous and thoughtful readers, but their perspective wasn’t too different from mine. If you’re writing about anything beyond your own experience (historical, geographical, religious, socio-economic, racial, gender, medical, technical, etc.) consider including readers like those you portray. My goal was never to ignite outrage on the twittersphere or be pelted with rotten tomatoes (real or verbal) while giving a reading. I’m sure my book will garner its share of criticism, but I hope not on issues where I’ve tried hard to be respectful and authentic.
What about you? If you’ve written about situations different from your experience, how did you gain comfort that you got it right? If you read something in a published work where the author got it wrong, how did that make you feel?