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