There is much to like about The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. It tells a story about a black woman’s struggle to eke out a life for her family in the unforgiving terrain of the Badlands, South Dakota. She battles against drought, poverty, racism, infant death and a growing isolation from her husband as their farming land increasingly holds them, and their fortunes hostage.
It’s an easy read, with a likeable central character and a compelling plot. It shines a light on a rarely told aspect of American pioneering history. And yet, this book just didn’t gel with me.
Why? Because a few pages in I realised, belatedly, that Ann Weisgarber is white. From that point, despite all the good things going for this book, I kept distracting myself as I was reading it.
Two questions kept turning over in my mind. Shouldn’t a black woman have written this? And then the even bigger question, can a white woman ever write black women’s history?
I checked out other reviews and it didn’t seem to have bothered anyone else. The book has won tons of awards and is about to be adapted into a film. But this – what seemed like appropriation – troubled me.
So I asked an expert: Veronica Strong-Boag, a super-smart and highly regarded Professor of Women’s History at the University of British Columbia. I put those two questions to her, and she replied:
While we can write beyond, even significantly beyond, our own experience, we have to wrestle with questions of appropriation and position ourselves. I haven’t read the book but I would consider what claims the author makes or suggests about any ‘special’ relationship to her subject. Fair comment certainly for a reviewer.
Kind of my thoughts, but expressed better.
But I really wanted to know if these considerations had worried the author herself. So riding high on a tidal wave of temerity, I emailed Anne Weisgarber herself. Delightfully, she emailed me back with these answers:
Shouldn’t a black woman have written this?
This is a difficult question with no easy answer. I suppose it comes down to the passion a writer feels for her characters. If the writer is driven to tell a story, if a writer can’t sleep because she is haunted by a story, then she must write it. She must ignore the critics who say she shouldn’t, she can’t. This might mean writers venture into dangerous places but that’s the point of literature. Literature allows us to imagine worlds and people who are different from what we know. Must the writer be bound by her race, religion, gender, age, and/or nationality? The writer, like the reader, should be free to imagine worlds different from her own. This happens all the time. Men authors assume the voices of female characters, women authors the voices of male characters, adult authors the voices of children, and those of us who write historical fiction assume voices of people who lived far in the past.
Who owns a story? Who has the right to tell a particular story? For me, it’s the author who cares deeply about the characters. It’s the author who can’t rest at night until the words are on paper.
Can a white women write black women’s history?
I can honestly say I don’t know. If the white writer cares deeply, if she does her homework, if she strives to get the emotions right, then she can certainly try. She should not be told a topic is off limits. The decision about whether she did a good job is up to readers. Readers are the judges.
I instinctively agree with Ann that no topic should be off limits to an author. However, while I think Ann has done a good job, framing it as she has goes to the quality of the writing, rather than to questions of authenticity and appropriation.
In the end, I concluded that I’d rather this had been written by a black women. But I just can’t decide whether, in the absence of black author coming forward, this story should have been left unwritten. Perhaps it is better that Rachel’s story has been told, in case stories like hers, and many others, are just never recounted.
What do people think? Budding authors, would you steer clear of a topic, or do you agree with Ann, that if done carefully and done well nothing should be off limits? Readers, do you have sympathy for the concerns of appropriation, or does a well-written story trump that?