An Authentic Voice

Nancy Ralston is on the right, with her daughter, Alvira.

Nancy Ralston is on the right, with her daughter, Alvira.

One of the most important elements I look for in fiction here at TTR is what I term an “authentic voice.” If I believe the voice in a piece of fiction lacks in authenticity, I will decline it. Since all submissions come into TTR entirely anonymous (we cannot even see the cover letter) I have to rely largely on my intuition, but I believe it is more than that, I believe an authentic voice is evident in the language of the piece.

But let me backtrack a bit and explain the evolution in my thinking that led me to believe that when publishing literature that fulfills an existential function (our mission at TTR) the piece must be built upon an authentic voice.

My third great-grandmother, Nancy Ralston, was part Cherokee Indian. Her son married a woman who was part Shawnee Indian. However, my Native American ancestors left their tribes and assimilated into the white culture, prior to the Trail of Tears in the early 1830s. The only paper evidence we’ve unearthed is a 1925 state of Iowa census: my great-grandfather listed as a mixed-blood Indian.

My children know about their ancestors, whether English, Irish or Native American, and when I was homeschooling my daughter, we embarked upon a fourth grade course that used literature to teach children American history. After about the fifth book, my daughter threw her hands up in the air and said, “I’m sick of all these books that talk bad about Indians. Where are the books that don’t?”

I started searching for the books that weren’t built upon racism against the American Indian. I got to know Debbie Reese and her ongoing efforts to bring attention to this problem through her blog—American Indians in Children’s Literature.

And what I learned is that white people still misappropriate Native stories and culture. They steal the stories and write books nearly guaranteed to get published: Books about American Indians are very popular with children. What these white authors don’t realize (sometimes) is that many stories are sacred to the tribe from which they originate. I began to see stories in a new light. I realized that, being a white woman raised in the white culture (even though I have Cherokee/Shawnee blood), I have no idea what it means to be an American Indian and simply cannot speak to that through my own work.

This is not a hard and fast rule for me. There are authors who successfully create characters of a different race or ethnicity and write from their POV. I think if an author’s motive is true and right, he will work hard to be accurate and the work will enlighten, rather than perpetuate harmful stereotypes. I also believe that there is a 99% chance these successful authors had the experience of being intimately acquainted with an individual that they then used as a basis for the created character.

For me, a line is crossed when a white author writes entirely from a different race or ethnicity and relays to the reader the social dynamics, the politics, the experience of being that person within that particular culture. No matter how much research is done, unless you’ve lived it, you can’t possibly know it. And as an editor, I won’t know if you are wrong, though I may suspect that you are.

Say you write a story that is set down South within a particular culture, and all of your characters are Hispanic and your POV is a Hispanic male who is telling the world what it’s like to be him. And furthermore, there is violence in the story; violence your main character commits. In my opinion, this story must come from an authentic voice. A voice derived from an experience of some kind, rather than a voice derived wholly through imagination and research.

An authentic voice is necessary in all fiction, even surrealism, magical realism, fantasy and science fiction. An authentic voice speaks to the human condition with truth. The narrative dream is interrupted when an author creates a scenario we find incredible or smacking of falsehood. When human or anthropomorphic characters act outside the boundaries of what we are well-aware is the reality of what it means to be human, we are dissatisfied with the story. We turn from it.

I believe each of us bears a responsibility to not misappropriate other people’s cultures, beliefs and experiences to get published quicker, sooner, or more often. You can write a riveting, engaging story based upon something you know. You can put a part of yourself into every piece you write—bleeding on the page as Hemingway called it—and your reader will know that you have and be drawn in. An authentic voice is derived largely through experience, including an author watching someone they know well go through the experience, say a parent, grandparent, child, friend, co-worker, or other person with whom there is an intimate connection. As writers, we are naturally observant in a manner unlike the rest of the population and this enables us to communicate experiences other than our own.

Let me get back to the intuition bit, when reading submissions, about whether the piece contains an authentic voice. I have read a few pieces that I desperately hoped were written by an author with actual experience (including definition above) in a particular culture that was not my own. But there was something off in the piece—the language that was used, where the story led and how it went along, its ending—that made me question its authenticity, leading to a decline. Is this racism in reverse? I’m not sure. Do I want stories written by white people about what it is like to be a Cherokee Indian? Not really. If you send me a story about what it is like to be a Brazilian family, am I hoping that you are Brazilian? Yes. If I doubt that you wrote it with an authentic voice, will I decline your piece? Yes. Is that fair? Honestly, I’m not sure that I care.

What I do care about is that racism still exists and is perpetuated within literature. Writers still use American Indians as similes or metaphors or in a stereotypical fashion. They write that a character sat Indian-style rather than cross-legged. They steal a Native story and create a picture book for children. They purport to speak for another culture or race that is not their own or with which they aren’t intimately acquainted.

There are lots of stories to tell. Tell yours and let other authors tell their own. I’ll be glad you did.

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1 Response

  1. Joe says:

    You are right, but I still would not frighten white men, say, away from creating nonwhite, or female, characters. People of color can be two-dimensional in a play or work of fiction as easily as white can in the hands of a writer who’s not trying hard enough.

    What concerns me more are the representatives of non-whites in literature that, on the surface, appear to be benign, but reduce people to props or decoration. Mentions of “old black men,” “stolid Indians,” “the sounds of my Mexican neighbors,” etc. really create a world in which the “other people” are like cacti you’d pass on the highway, or extras in a movie set.

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