Friday, May 8, 2015

Do I have permission?

My daughter is an amazing writer. Her characters jump off the page. She's brilliant at illuminating painful moments. But my daughter doesn't write anymore. When I asked her why, she said that plenty of people have already written whatever a privileged college student would say. She said the world needs to hear from different voices now. I couldn't argue with her. In fact, I had to ask myself--should I feel the same way?

Last year I was thrilled to be asked to write a fictional version of Mary Jemison's life--a young girl who was captured during the French and Indian War. Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters, to replace their brother who had been killed by the colonists. Mary remained with the tribe for the next 65 years, even though she could have returned to her own kind.

Historical plaque in Adams County, Pennsylvania

Mary Jemison statue
at Letchworth State Park
 in New York


I loved learning about Mary and the Seneca, but the more I discovered, the less qualified I felt to write the story. How dare I, a middle-aged white woman, write with any authority on the Seneca? True, I had "permission" from the editor who hired me. True, modern Seneca are vastly different from those who lived in the 18th century. True, Mary wasn't a Native American either. But I knew someone who was would write a different story.

I did my best to be respectful to the Native American culture. But I'm still troubled by the problem of authenticity.

I know full well that too many voices have been excluded from the conversation for far too long. They must be encouraged. We need to learn from their lives. And yet, I don't want to tell versions of my own story over and over. Are we only allowed to write about our own experiences?

In the end, I gave myself permission to speak for Mary. I'm proud of my book--particularly the sections where Mary struggles to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture!

Ultimately I believe the answer is always to encourage more reading, more books, and more writing by more kinds of people---including ones like me who became writers in order to learn about new people and new worlds.

4 comments:

  1. Jane,
    By bringing unsung heroes out of obscurity, we are remembering them and celebrating the lives they lived. This is important no matter who writes the story.

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  2. I think the world needs all our voices, but the fact that you asked those questions of yourself was important, too. Looking forward to reading your version of Mary's life.

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  3. Hard questions, Jane! But I like how you answered this one for yourself.

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