Over the last academic year, I’ve met with a variety of students–8th graders to college kids–to talk about the craft of memoir writing. The invites have come because I’m currently working on a memoir about two years I spent in India as a new parent. Having written A Girl Called Problem first and now this memoir, I can say that distilling a story from my own life experience often feels more challenging than writing the story of a Sukuma girl in 1960s Tanzania. Surprising, I suppose. Am I not “writing what I know” with the memoir, and grossly violating the old dictum with my novel set in Tanzania?
Zoe Heller wrote a great column in the New York Times recently about “writing what you know.” She clarifies: “In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination.” She goes on to talk about the challenge of finding worthy stories in creative nonfiction, offering us an example from V.S. Naipaul, who wrote an account of a trip he took from Trinidad to England in his late teens. Naipaul realized in retrospect that he was so keen to find what was literary in his experience during his trip that he failed to record the most important details–what he was truly feeling.
Heller’s column is here. I strongly recommend reading it.
This discussion of what an author knows also loops back on discussions about the appalling lack of characters of color in contemporary children’s literature. The very accomplished author, Walter Dean Myers, recently made the case in the New York Times that we have a pressing need in this country for our children’s literature to reflect its diverse readership. As he says, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” I would argue that this call to depict characters of color in children’s literature should not fall solely on the shoulders of authors of color. I wrote about a village in East Africa populated by people who look very different than I do. But I did my research and sought out help from friends who had connections to that time and place. The final step–and this bit was scary at times–was to claim the story of A Girl Called Problem as one I know. I’m glad I did.