There’s an argument in American literary circles about who gets to write about whom — an argument that, in the last few years, has been reanimated again and again.
Its most recent resurfacing was in January with the publication of the controversial novel American Dirt by author Jeanine Cummins. The novel, many argued, represented a grotesque appropriation of a highly traumatic experience.
“A lot of very loud voices in contemporary fiction today urge caution around writing about people who aren’t very close to your own experience,” said Eleanor Henderson, an author, educator and Week Three prose writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. “It can get us into dangerous situations when we are only motivated by fascination with other people. How do we exercise fascination responsibly?”
Henderson is an associate professor at Ithaca College, and the author of The Twelve-Mile Straight and Ten Thousand Saints, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times and a finalist for the Award for First Fiction from The Los Angeles Times. At 12:30 p.m. EDT Friday, July 17, on the Virtual Porch, Henderson will give a Brown Bag craft lecture titled “Profound Other Fascination,” a lecture based on acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith’s essay, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.”
“In that essay, Smith talks about what would happen if we changed the phrase ‘cultural appropriation,’ and we used something else, like ‘profound other fascination,’” Henderson said. “That was a phrase in a list of other phrases that really stood out to me. I almost raised my hand when I read it, as if to say, ‘Yes, I have profound other fascination, too.’”
Henderson said her lecture will meditate on the concept of “otherness,” and what it means to write about other people both in fiction and nonfiction.
This literary argument isn’t purely abstract for Henderson, though. It’s personal, too.
“I wrote a travel essay about my father’s hometown in Fitzgerald, Georgia,” she said. “I didn’t do it very thoughtfully. I got hate mail, including from the editor of the local paper who wrote a front-page article about the piece. So I had to take some knocks and learn some lessons from that.”
To Henderson, sharing her mistakes with her students — like the travel essay — is crucial, since it facilitates learning and awareness of problems and potential pitfalls that otherwise might not be apparent.
“Research is important,” she said. “But really interrogating the question of ‘why’ and why you want to write about somebody else’s experience, why you’re the person to do that and not that person — it’s important to reflect on that yourself, and with other people.”
One of the other suggestions Henderson said she has for authors is for them to “include their subjects in their audience” while writing.
“How do we know anybody?” she said. “How can we claim to understand somebody’s pain? How can we claim the power and the privilege to tell that person’s story?”