Phyllis Zimbler Miller – Writers and Cultures
Can Writers Authentically Write About Cultures Other Than Their Own Cultures?
I do not intend this blog post as a political essay. Rather the post is a jumping-off point for a discussion about this especially relevant question now.
On a Hollywood Reporter roundtable of screenwriters (available on YouTube), Kasi Lemmons – the African-American screenwriter of the 2019 film HARRIET about Harriet Tubman – said that she believed writers could write about other cultures as long as the writers did extensive research.
To me writing about other cultures includes experiencing those other cultures.
For example, my women’s friendship novel MRS. LIEUTENANT – inspired by my own experiences – features four female POV characters – a Northern Jew, a Southern Baptist, an African-American, and a Puerto Rican. The characters are composites of actual women I knew, and I flushed out their backstories with research.
When I later wrote a short story, PINKY SWEAR, about the Puerto Rican female in MRS. LIEUTENANT as a teen, I also used composite characters and research.
I’m currently working on a limited series TV project about slavery. I have been warned that I could face criticism (and attacks) as a white person writing about the evils of slavery. Yet for me, if you believe in the importance of a project, you must be willing to accept attacks.
When I was a newspaper journalist interviewing diverse people, my job was to make my articles about those people truthful and compelling. I often interviewed people whose lives were very different from my own.
Although I often did not come from the same cultural background, I only needed to truly try to understand the cultural background of the person whom I interviewed.
Having given these above examples as background for this blog post, I come to the central question of this blog post:
Should only people of a specific cultural background be entitled to write about people of that same background?
In a Zoom conversation a few days ago with someone to whom I was introduced through the platform Lunchclub, the person said something very interesting in relation to this topic. The gist of his remarks? Saying only these people can write about these people and only those people can write about those people is actually a form of segregation that promotes discord rather than unity.
I have been thinking of his remarks as I read more and more news accounts about the ideological stance of one group demanding precedence over the ideological stance of another group on questions such as the one I’ve raised here.
And to be clear, this question is not one that should be considered lightly. Although it calls for careful consideration, I would like to present one incredibly powerful example on the side of writers being able to write authentically about other cultures.
The non-Jewish American writer and journalist John Hersey (1914-1993) wrote numerous novels on important historical topics including his novel THE WALL about fictional Jewish characters imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto who struggle to survive the Nazis’ death grip.
THE WALL is one of the most compelling fictional works that I have ever read. I would hate to think that Hersey might have decided not to write this novel because 1) he wasn’t Jewish and 2) he hadn’t been one of the few Jews to survive the Warsaw Ghetto.
In conclusion, now is the time for you to weigh in on this topic. Joylene and I invite you to utilize the comments section below.
And if you’d like to sign up for Lunchclub conversations (free at the time of writing) click here. (This is my invite link to share with others as you currently need an invite link to join.)
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is an author and screenwriter in Los Angeles. She can be reached through her website at www.PhyllisZimblerMiller.com
Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Screenwriter * Author
I agree absolutely. There shouldn’t be any rules about who can write for who. It reminds me of the old chestnut, write what you know. I let that phrase limit my writing for years, until I let myself out with the idea, I can write whatever I damn well please. 🙂
I totally agree, Yvette. I push it even further: I can do whatever I damn well please! Have a great day.
I enjoyed this thought provoking blog post on such a timely topic. Anyone who skipped reading comments lost out.
Thanks to Ms ZimblerMiller and to Joylene Butler for hosting her.
Thanks so much for this lovely comment — much appreciated!
Thanks for visiting, Bonnie.
A form of segregation – now that is the perfect way to describe it.
I can’t take credit for that description — although I do think it is very apt!
Thanks for a thought provoking post, Phyllis. I wish I could say I completely agree with you. What I can say, however, is that I agree people who have a passionate message/story should continue to share it, regardless of whether or not they share a cultural or ethnic background with their characters. Observations and research can provide the background information critical to a credible setting, but it’s my own belief that observing can’t ever quite equal the knowledge gained from authentic experience when it comes to how protagonists feel and react. One example: Our adopted metis daughter grew up within our household, but I never fully understood why she thought as she did. There was a genetic difference that predisposed her to attitudes and behaviours that were incalculable to me and yet I knew her probably better than anyone else.
Good point, Carol. There was a young woman in our lives (Full Status), who I wasn’t able to connect to. I thought it was because of her sense of entitlement. Also, she was a strong advocate of “It takes a village,” which I felt resulted in her neglecting her children. But, I wasn’t raised on a reservation. How do I know if she was right or wrong? And who was I to judge? There is a character in one of my books who exhibits a strong sense of entitlement, but said-character would never become my protagonist for the very reasons you mention above. I “cannot” fully understand her without her experiences. Having said that, I have written from the POV of a man, a Vietnam Vet, a Mexican Cartel boss, and a sociopath. That’s why I would always have my manuscript checked first by at least two beta readers and then the copy editor.
I very much appreciate your weighing in on this post. I’d like to add that, even when two people come from the same culture, their responses to similar life experiences can be totally different.
Thank you for bringing up such an important topic, Phyllis. I remember the first time I read a novel written by a man with a female protagonist, and I thought how amazing it was that he seemed to understand the female psyche. And then in college, I read War and Peace and learned that Tolsky was an old man when he wrote the book. I was amazed at how credible the scenes between the young girls were. And how realistic the death scenes were, especially when Nicholas is dying. Though he was writing about his own culture, I still admired how much truth I felt in his words. He seemed to have a great understanding of human nature. Maybe I don’t fully understand what life is like in Kandahar, but I can certainly do my research and find out.
As a former journalist, I know that interviewing people can provide a great deal of insight into other life experiences. And I do believe that reading about other cultures can provide a window into that culture.
Thanks as always for giving me this platform on which to share my thoughts.