Sunday Chat: Who Gets To Write Certain Stories?

Banner by @Introvert Interrupted

I hope each of you had an amazing weekend and are having a wonderful start to your week!

Forgive me for not posting my usual Sunday Chat blog post this past weekend. 

Life got a bit hectic with my first week of assignments being due and the prospect of Hurricane Ida barreling down on us here in the Gulf States. Needless to say, my attention was elsewhere.

Thankfully, my family is all okay with us just experiencing a few minor flooding issues. For all you readers who were in the direct path of the storm, I hope you all are safe and doing well!

With the preparation for the storm and my continued anxiety over going back onto campus, I’ve been seeking out comfort reads.

Last year, I did a post of some of my favorite comfort reads, and as I’ve been reflecting on why I loved some of them and revisiting them, I’ve realized not all of my comfort reads have stood the test of time.

A comfort Read That I’ve Been Rethinking

For instance, one of my favorite books from my middle school reading list was Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. In the book, Fisher, a retired white news reporter and editor for the United Press International, tells the story of Shabanu, the second daughter of desert nomads in Pakistan. After an incident with wealthy landowners occurs, Shabanu, who is twelve-year-olds at the start of the series, is married off as a child bride to keep the peace. 

Along with Haveli, the second novel in the series, Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind was my go-to book as a tween. The idea of getting to read about other cultures and seeing how other people around the world lived was something I’ve always craved as a reader. 

At the time, I interpreted Shabanu’s story to simply be about a free-spirited girl who was able to explore the Cholistan Desert, a place I’d never heard of until I read the book. I relished her ability to be free to seek out adventure up until the point that she was forced to marry.

Being able to see life through Shabanu’s eye was eye opening as a kid. And it was why I cherished the book king after I outgrew it.

The authenticity of the story and author’s right to tell that particular story is something I never thought of until I entered high school and had a Pakistani classmate bring into question the authenticity of Shabanu’s story. 

The only problem was who was telling Shabanu’s story.

Author, Suzanne Fisher Staples
Author, Suzanne Fisher Staples

Staples was a white woman from Philadelphia who had only visited Pakistan as a reporter and editor. Her writing was limited to the knowledge of what her host family told her, which means that Staples was effectively telling Shabanu’s story through a secondhand lens. 

So, when my classmate told me that she wished Staples hadn’t made her culture look so bad (I’m paraphrasing since a particular cuss word was used and I have older readers I want to be respectful of), a little of the luster went out of the book for me. 

Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind and Haveli are both feminist stories at their core. And they told a story that during the 1980s and mid- 2000s wasn’t largely being told about Islamic women.

But, did Staples have the right to tell these stories?

Based on a quote in Publisher’s Weekly from 2000, Staples claims that all her books “are made up of real stories about real people.” Staples even had a picture she showed the interviewer of the thirteen-year-old girl that Shabanu was modeled after. 

This unnamed girl’s story and many other Pakistani women were collected as Staples worked with a women’s literacy project in the country until she returned to work for the Washington Post. The women’s stories were kept in journals and used as the source material for Shabanu’s story, which won Staples the Newbury Honor award in 1990.

The accolades and book deals (Staples wrote six books with only one being written set in America) Staples acquired telling someone else’s story, who she openly admits lacked agency and free will to tell their own story in the Publisher Weekly interview once again drives home why #WeNeedDiverseBooks is so important.

It also left me wondering why did Staples not ever allow the young women from the literacy project she was a part of the chance to tell their own stories?

Also, would a BIPOC author have been showered with the same praise and idolization as Staples received for Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind if they’d released a similar book?

Case in point, In a 1989 book review for the New York Times, Maurya Simon said:

“It is a pleasure to read a book that explores a way of life profoundly different from our own, and that does so with such sensitivity, admiration and verisimilitude. Ms. Staples, who was a U.P.I. correspondent in Asia and has worked for The Washington Post, has surely accomplished a small miracle in the unfolding of her touching and powerful story. She has managed to present to her readers an engaging and convincing portrait of an adolescent girl who is alternately bewildered and exhilarated by her changing mind and body; at the same time, the author offers rich and provocative insights into a culture so distanced from rock videos and designer jeans as to seem extraplanetary. I hope her readers will gain from it a renewed sense of self and a deep respect for what is other.”

Difference what a BIPOC author gets to write vs. What white authors get to write

A part of me wants to chalk Simon’s use of phrases, like “rich and provocative insights into a culture” and “convincing portrait,” and the word “verisimilitude,” which means “the appearance of being real or true” up to this being a review from the ‘80s. However, I know better and the data the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison puts out yearly corroborates this fact.

Too often, the publishing industry wants BIPOC stories from authors who are white and not from an author of color or Indigenous background.

A white author can have a stamp in their passport, a degree on their wall, and the matching pedigree, or just have gone on vacation and gotten “inspired,” and voilà, they’ll be given the green light to become an expert on someone else’s culture.

A BIPOC author can have firsthand knowledge about who they are and their culture and be told they need to change their story to fit what a publisher thinks their audience wants in an #OwnVoices book.

And this differentiation of who gets to tell what stories, along with my classmate’s belief that her culture was done a disservice, is what keeps my tattered copies of Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind and Haveli shut tight on my shelves.

While the books hold a special place in my heart when I read them as a kid, I have iffy feelings about trying to read them now.

Do you all have any books like this on your shelves?

2 thoughts on “Who Gets To Write Certain Stories

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. The question of who gets to write what is an interesting one. I absolutely refrain from reading stories about how a certain group needs to be ‘saved’ written by authors who have no first hand experience about the group’s culture. The ones I cannot stand are titillating stories about Muslim women… ugh

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel this wholeheartedly. When my classmates told me how she felt her culture had been exploited, I felt horrible. For years, I’d enjoyed a book I had no clue was harmful to another culture since back in that times Google and the Internet wasn’t as expensive and teachers must’ve just given us whatever book was deemed as “award winning” and canon at the time. But, now I get sad that fond memories are tied with something harmful. 🤦🏿‍♀️ It’s definitely a learning lesson.

      Liked by 1 person

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