Taking the Risk and Taking the Heat
When authors try to write about experiences far outside our own, we run a number of risks. We’ll be accused of getting it wrong, of slumming in someone else’s pain or, worst of all, of being insensitive or patronizing. But for me, it’s only through trying on the experience of another human being that I’m able to recognize the limits of my imagination – and, more importantly, my unconscious biases.
For instance, in Sold, a novel based on my interviews with young Indian and Nepali women who were sold into prostitution, I chose to include a white American character. He is a photographer, based on the real-life activist who introduced me to the issue of human trafficking. It was a thank-you to that young man. But the inclusion of an American character was also a way to give my primary audience a character with whom they could identify.
Some readers criticized the book for repeating the myth of the noble white American rescuer in the land of savages. And upon reflection, I have to plead guilty. If I were to write the book over again, I’d probably base the ‘rescuer’ on the women in India and Nepal who are fighting trafficking. Or on the male police officers now doing that work.
My most recent book, Never Fall Down, about a boy who survived the genocide in Cambodia by playing music, is based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond. Arn is now a very accomplished man with a college degree. But when he speaks about the genocide, it’s almost as if he becomes that terrified young refugee all over again. Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. When I imposed standard grammar and syntax on it, the light went out. So I chose to mimic that voice in the book.
Some readers complained that the voice was hard to get used to. Some said it was ‘pidgin English,’ a criticism that implies that those who speak non-standard English are somehow intellectually inferior.
But to me, Arn’s voice had a kind of poetry. If anything, it conveyed his keen intelligence, his heart and his humor more than the King’s English ever could. And most readers have said that it’s that voice – that innocent, terrified, lively, funny, lyrical voice – that gets them through the worst of the story.
The danger there was even greater because it risked reducing a real person to a stereotype. But in the end, I think it brought readers closer to him.
I’m currently working on a story about a Haitian girl who lit the spark that ignited the only successful slave revolution in recorded history. As a white woman, I run the risk of getting it wrong, perhaps in ways that a Haitian author might not. But it’s an idea that sprang from my imagination, and something about this story of defiance speaks to me.
It’s a risk, writing outside one’s own racial, socio-economic, gender or ethnic experience. I try to be mindful of criticism of my earlier work; those responses help keep me honest. But the limitations of my own experience pretty much guarantee that I’ll make a mistake somewhere along the way.
In my view, though, it’s precisely by taking those risks – and making mistakes — that we become aware of our blind spots. It’s only when we inhabit someone else’s experience, we see our limitations and biases. And it’s only in stretching the limits of our empathy and imagination that we are able to find what’s universal.
Patricia McCormick, a two-time National Book Award finalist, is the author of five critically acclaimed novels – Never Fall Down, a novel based on the true story of an 11-year-old boy who survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia by playing music; Purple Heart, a suspenseful psychological novel that explores the killing of a 10-year-old boy in Iraq; Sold, a deeply moving account of sexual trafficking; My Brother’s Keeper, a realistic view of teenage substance abuse; and Cut, an intimate portrait of one girl’s struggle with self-injury.