Who Gets To Write Certain Stories

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?

A Juneteenth Reader

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

Today marks the first time America will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday after 156 years of it being a staple in the African-American community. 

Known by several names, such as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day, or Jubilee Day, this African-American holiday celebrates the day when after two and a half years, enslaved people in Texas were told of their freedom on June 19, 1865, by Maj. General Gordon Granger and Union troops. 

Juneteenth Flag
Juneteenth Flag

When Granger arrived, he read out General Order No. 3, which informed the enslaved people that American Chattel Slavery “would no longer be tolerated and that all [enslaved people] were now free and would henceforth be treated as hired workers if they chose to remain on the plantations.” At that moment, over 250,000 African people were freed from bondage.

Yet, their White slave owners did not let them go so easily. Some owners even made a point of not telling the people until after harvest time was over. And if an African person tried to leave before that time, they’d be attacked and killed.

To combat this, Union soldiers and other government representatives had to intercede on the African people’s behalf since Confederate states, like Texas, refused to let go of the system that upheld American Chattel Slavery…kind of like how it is today…I digress, though.

Illustrated print by Thomas Nast depicting life before and after emancipation.

Source: Keith Lance/Getty Images


Illustrated print by Thomas Nast depicting life before and after emancipation.

It should be clear that the African people did not always have the freedom to be free, let alone celebrate Juneteenth in public as they saw fit, and had to be creative in how they rejoiced.

In 2016, Opal Lee, an 89-years-old Texas Civil Rights leader, decided to create a petition in tandem with walking the 1,600 miles from her home in Texas to Washington, D.C. to see if she could get then president, Barack Obama, to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. She ultimately logged 300 miles on foot for her cause but is now known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth
Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth

For some African-Americans, Juneteenth is celebrated by prayer, dancing, parades, musical performances, rodeos, communal feasts, and a bunch of other ways. At Juneteenth’s core, though, is a celebration to “commemorate the hardships endured by [our] ancestors.”

If you want to learn more about the holiday or just read some excellent African-American fiction, read the following books.

To Teach Kids

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales By Virginia Hamilton
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales By Virginia Hamilton

If you have small children, broaching the topic of American Chattel Slavery can be challenging. Using Folktales and simple chapter books can help ease the children into the topic and break down these horrific times into manageable bites for their little minds.

My favorite childhood collection of folktales is The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. This collection covers 24 African-American Folktales that were handed down from our ancestors. 

These tales include stories of Bruh Rabbit, Bruh Alligator, Little 8 John, and the reimagines our people having secret magic that kept them strong as they labored while being enslaved. Hamilton draws on Black spirituals and Diasporic folklore as well in this book.

Short Reads

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

Pulitzer Prize winner and historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, does an excellent job breaking down the history of Juneteenth in On Juneteenth, a short nonfiction work. Piecing together American history, her family’s history, and episodic moments from her life, Gordon-Reed tackles the question we all have of “why now?”

If you are unclear where to start in learning about this holiday as an adult, get this book by Gordon-Reed as your starting point.

My audiobook copy of “On Juneteenth” was provided by Libro.fm.

A Novel

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

Written over the span of 40 years, Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, or as it’s known in its longer and completed form, Three Days Before the Shooting, is the story of a racially ambiguous man, Bliss, who was raised by an African-American Baptist preacher named Alonzo Hickman. In his adult years, Bliss has chosen to pass as a White man and ends up becoming a race-baiting U.S. Senator known as Adam Sunraider (think Candace Owens, but worse). All is going smoothly until Hickman and his congregation shows up, and Bliss has to face the music of his life.

Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison

In this novel, Ellison evokes the African-American experience and crafts a tell that calls the pain of enslavement and the Jim Crow Era, the joy of the Harlem Renaissance, and everything in between. 

You can read either the whole manuscript with Three Days Before the Shooting (over 1100 pages) or only read the Juneteenth edited version (400 pages) that was pieced together by Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, John F. Callahan.

Narratives of Enslaved People

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, and interviewed Cudjo Lewis,the last known African to be transported on the Middle Passage. This work became Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.

Lewis’ story cover captures what the voyage of the Middle Passage felt like and how Lewis survived being enslaved. Reading Lewis’ story gives a modern person the perspective of what emancipated would have meant to an African person who survived being enslaved. It is another short read, but it packs a punch.

Prairie View A & M University also has first-hand accounts of emancipated Africans who speak to their feelings of hearing the jubilant news on June 19, 1865, that you can read through in their archives.

If you wanna get technical…

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

For hardcore readers who are craving to know what now, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is another tome you should pick up.

Written by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Caste, tackles the world that the emancipated Africans were sent into and how that world got crafted into the America we now inhabit.

Wilkerson gets to the core of the White owners’ frustration and anger at having to let their “property” go in the aftermath of the American Civil War as she dissects the American caste system. While the players have changed, the fact still rings true that America is about the “haves” and “haves nots.” With this in mind, Wilkerson notes in her book that, “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not.”

Let me know down below if you’ve ever read any of these books or if they’re on your TBR!

Interview With Angeline Boulley, Author of Firekeeper’s Daughter

II: Mrs. Boulley, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! Congratulations on your debut novel! 

A: Thank you so much! Please call me Angeline. (I’m not a Mrs.)

Cover of Firekeeper’s Daughter bay Angeline Boulley

II: I just finished Firekeeper’s Daughter, and it absolutely blew me away! Can you tell me what influenced you to write this novel and what the process of writing and publishing your first novel was like for you? 

A: It has been such a long process! I first had the idea when I was 18, but I didn’t start writing it until I was 44 and my own children were teens and pre-teens. I spent ten years writing and revising. Finally in 2019 I was ready to get an agent and try for a book deal. So I had a very long incubation period for the story but everything took off quickly at that point. I had an agent three weeks after I started querying. I did a modest revision over the summer based on my agent’s feedback. The manuscript went out on submission in mid-September and two weeks later there was a 12-party auction. Two weeks after that, there was a film option deal with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions for a Netflix series.

II: As a biracial Anishinaabe and Ojibwe woman who also has French roots, there is a strong sense of community that Daunis Fontaine frequently references within Firekeeper’s Daughter. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel? 

A: I define community as people bonded by their connection to land, family, teachings, and history. I wanted Daunis’s heritage to reflect the history of Sault Ste. Marie. Her background is that mixture of Anishinaabe, French, and Italian that made the town what it is now. I did this because our struggle for identity is also a struggle for a community to recognize the contributions of all. 

II: My favorite part of your novel is the way that you center Ojibwe and Anishinaabe culture. This can especially be seen in the way that Daunis and her family use the Anishinaabemowin language throughout the novel. Was there a conscious choice on your part to not go the traditional route of italicizing the Anishinaabemowin phrases and categorize these lines as “out of the norm” for readers to truly have to immerse themselves into Daunis’ world and see from her point of view? If so, is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel? 

A: Yes. It was a conscious decision not to italicize because Anishinaabemowin is not a “foreign” language. I wanted the language to feel very organic, where readers could figure out what a word meant through context instead of a glossary. The story is told from Daunis’ point of view and the language is a big part of her cultural teachings and upbringing. I couldn’t have readers inside her mind without immersing people in the language. I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Margaret Noodin from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee be part of the editing process with my publisher. She loved the story and saw its potential as a teaching tool for people learning Anishinaabemowin. So, yes, I saw a greater role for language to play in the novel.  

Author Interview with Angeline Boulley

II: You mentioned on your website that you were apart of the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) Young Adult Mentorship Program for the 2018 class. This non-profit’s movement to diversify the publishing industry has brought forth amazing novels from voices that were once pushed to the publishing field’s margins. As a Native writer who is writing in this “new era,” do you ever feel pressure to represent the broad spectrum of Indigenous culture within your work? And if so, how do you pushback on that narrative of the “single story” that Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color are still forced into despite the WNDB movement?

A: No. I don’t feel pressure to represent a broad spectrum of Indigenous culture. I am committed to telling stories set in my tribal community, while acknowledging the diversity within bands, clans, and families. I’ve been vocal about pushing back on the “single story” narrative. I bring up in interviews and conference panels that there are so many stories from underrepresented communities. BIPOC authors may have other storytelling formats – beyond the typical Three Act Structure – that are like treasures readers haven’t experienced before. I’ve also discussed how important it is for the publishing world to recognize the richness, depth, and nuance that can come when an author writes from their lived experience.  

II: Who are some of your favorite authors or literary influences that have inspired your work?

A: Growing up, I loved Nancy Drew and tried to solve each mystery before she did. Reading Robert Cormier’s I am the Cheese was a revelation – it took such a dark turn and sparked my interest in telling stories that didn’t end with everything neatly wrapped up with a pretty bow. This, of course, led to my reading Lois Duncan and Shirley Jackson. My author idols currently are Louise Erdrich, Courtney Summers, Marcie R. Rendon, Tommy Orange, Terese Mailhot, Roxane Gay, Melissa Alberts, and Francisco Stork. (I could go on and on!)

Thank you so much for your time Angeline! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions! I can’t wait to read more of your work!

Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter is out now! Purchase it now!

About The Author

Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is a former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Angeline lives in southwest Michigan, but her home will always be on Sugar Island. Firekeeper’s Daughter is her debut novel.

A Universe Of Wishes, A #WeNeedDiverseBooks Anthology – #BookTour #BookTour

Thanks to Terminal Tours, I was able to get an advanced readers copy of the fantasy-themed short story anthology, A Universe of Wishes: A We Need Diverse Books Anthology. This anthology was edited by Dhonielle Clayton and included authors like Samira Ahmed, Zoraida Córdova, Kwame Mbalia, Tochi Onyebuchi, and many more authors of colors.

In her editor’s letter, Clayton talks about growing up as a reader of color and not seeing herself in fantasy novels. This was something that I could relate to. While I always had stories, like The Logan Family Saga by Mildred D. Taylor or The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake, to read if I wanted to see real-world images of myself in the 90s if I wanted to read a fantasy novel with African-American characters, my pickings were slim.

Dhonielle Clayton
Dhonielle Clayton

With the We Need Diverse campaign inception in 2014, the field of publishing has been opened up to the point where authors of color have been given the space to tell their own stories and even been granted acclaim for their work. Even though there is more work to be done in the industry, based on the annual statistics from the Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) and Lee & Low.

Reading through A Universe of Wishes, I was pleasantly surprised to read stories, like “Liberia” by Kwame Mbalia, where readers are shown a story of where the love of one’s family takes center stage. Having Mbalia speak to African-Americans’ collectivist nature and centering the magic of this cultural trait warmed my heart.

A Universe of Wishes anthology
book cover

Likewise, reading “The Takeback Tango” by Rebecca Roanhorse, where a teen thief sets out to reclaim her planet’s artifacts, is reminiscent of my favorite scene from Black Panther with Kilmonger in the British Museum. Having Roanhorse show the power that comes from taking ownership over one’s heritage is what I love to see!

As a lover of Disney’s Tangled, “Longer Than the Threads of Time” by Zoraida Córdova was also a treat. However, like so many stories in this anthology, I wanted the stories to be so much longer. 

A Universe of Wishes holds all the magic a reader could want. Having authors of color flex their muscles and show creativity outside the normal realm of “suffering” that so many BIPOC writers are pigeonholed into to get their break in the publishing industry was refreshing.

If you enjoyed this anthology, I’d highly recommend looking into all the featured writers’ works and read Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton, which was one of my favorite short story collections of African-American folktales and fairy tales as a kid.