As of this weekend, I’m three chapters in on a new historical novel. One of the biggest differences between this one and the other three I’ve written is that I don’t know the languages of the locations where the novel is set. However, another big difference is that it’s the only project in which I have a direct family tie (as opposed to through marriage) to the setting.
I have traced my family’s roots to central and eastern Europe, from Latvia in the north and east to Austria in the south and west. Family members potentially inhabited areas encompassing the present-day nations of Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. I have traveled to the last four of these and it amazes me to see people who look like me, whose names are the same as my ancestors’, but whose languages I do not read or speak. I return “home” as a stranger.
On the other hand, I read and speak fluently two languages besides English where I have no confirmed family ties whatsoever. Nobody in my family who I specifically know has any biological connection to Portugal, Spain, or any country in Latin America. My father, who passed away last November, claimed that all but one of his grandfather’s siblings emigrated from Lithuania to Argentina shortly after the turn of the 20th century (and after the grandfather and grandfather’s older brother boarded a ship from Hamburg, Germany to Galveston, Texas in the 1890s), but he was unable to find and meet them. When I followed up with a scholar of the Eastern European Jewish migration to Argentina, the scholar informed me that the records had been destroyed in the 1994 terrorist bombing of the AMIA, the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association.
Although I have no Portuguese heritage, I consider Lisbon my second home. Richard and I return every year, we are gainfully employed (including the payment of income taxes), and we have many Portuguese friends. In Lisbon we aren’t isolated in an expat community but take part in the everyday life of the country alongside native-born Portuguese citizens. The advice I offer travelers on this website is as much that of an insider as a tourist, and if you decide that you want to make your home in Portugal, I can advise you on that as well. (For instance, the path featured here is not the only one.)
When we look to cultural insiders for authenticity, does adoption count? Conversely, can alienation from one’s roots call the authenticity of a work into question?
Several years ago, the co-founder of Disability in KidLit, Corinne Duyvis, created the #ownvoices hashtag to highlight perspectives of cultural insiders. She reacted against not only inaccurate and stereotyped portrayals that later turned into the canon, crowding out more authentic insider perspectives, but also the marginalization of insiders who lacked the opportunities that privileged white authors enjoyed and that allowed those “bestsellers” to expropriate the experiences of others for personal gain. Whereas in 2015 a large proportion of books for children and teens about African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx people were created by cultural outsiders, an increasing number — though still not enough — are from insiders today, and many of those books have appeared on lists of bestsellers. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star — diverse books by Own Voices authors — have spent many weeks on the New York Times list.
In the past few weeks, though, even the biggest proponents of #ownvoices have come to question the hashtag activism. In some cases, particularly involving LGBTQ and disabled writers, people have been forced to disclose in order to legitimate their work or have even been “outed” against their will. Yet an author who discloses an developmental or emotional disability such as autism or mental illness in order to defend the content of a literary work — and has that disclosure published on jacket copy or in press releases — potentially jeopardizes all future employment as well as relationships and a lot of other aspects of their life. Now, that isn’t a problem if the book is wildly successful and the author goes on to build a viable career, but what if things don’t work out that way? It may well close off the option of returning to the day job or finding a new one.
The other problem with #ownvoices is that it pigeonholes writers whose only limits should be their skills and their imaginations. What if an African-American writer was told she could only write African American characters? Or an autistic writer could only write characters on the autism spectrum? This would be pretty limiting and unfair to writers who spend a lot of time researching, creating worlds, and perfecting their craft. Furthermore, there are many insider experiences. As Dhionelle Clayton of We Need Diverse Books often points out (and writes in her YA series Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces, co-authored with Sona Charaipotra), all African-American writers haven’t grown up in impoverished urban areas or portray them in their books; many come from upper middle class suburbs.
So I ask myself: Am I more qualified to write a historical novel set in Eastern Europe where I have family roots, even though I’ve spent very little time there and don’t know the language — or in Portugal or Chile where I have spent a great deal of time, have many friends, speak the language, and have conducted extensive research via documents and interviews in the original language?
I recognize that despite my heritage and identity, I will have to do the same level of research for my new project. Fortunately, many more sources exist in English, not only informational books and articles but also a wide array of novels and films from the past and present (one of which I will be seeing this week, once I finish a two-week stint as a grand juror). I’m sure I’ll have to take another research trip. I look forward to it!