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Is a Story Yours to Tell? The AWP Panel on Disabilities & Writing Diverse Fiction

Last week some 12,000 writers convened in Minneapolis for the AWP Conference (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs.) I went for many reasons: to see old friends and make new contacts, to browse the massive book fair, and to attend readings and panels for inspiration and information. Normally writing conferences jumpstart my creative engines, and I leave bursting with positive energy.

This AWP conference was no different than the others, except that I left one particular panel with a surprisingly negative feeling I’m still not sure I understand.

The panel was called “It’s Sad When Batman Needs a Cane: Disability in the Mainstream Marketplace.” I’m very interested in this topic because I’ve written a novel in which three of the main characters (including the protagonist) are disabled. It’s currently in the hands of my agent, and I’ve been anticipating the feedback I might get if/when the book is published… Because I myself am not disabled. 

I sat towards the front of the room and took out my notebook, ready to learn. All of the panelists were disabled in some way, and they talked about their work, as well as whether they consider themselves “disabled artists” or simply artists who happen to have a disability. Then, during the Q&A session, a girl sitting in front of me asked exactly what I wanted to know.

She said, “If a person without disabilities wants to write from the perspective of a character with a disability, can you give some suggestions on how to do that without being offensive? What are some dos and don’ts?”

John Lee Clark stood up. Clark is deaf-blind, and the author of three books -- truly an amazing person and artist. He answered in ASL, and one of his interpreters translated: “My suggestion is: don’t do that. Just don’t write from that perspective. Leave it to the people who have actually experienced it. Write what you know.”

I was dumbfounded. A member of the audience, a deaf man, stood up, and signed: “I agree with John. That’s our story to tell, not yours. If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

And with that, time was up, and the panel ended.

I wasn’t sure what to think or how to feel. I considered going up to talk to the panelists, but now I was afraid of being offensive. In a way, I could understand where they were coming from. Maybe those stories are better told by people who have the experience firsthand. And yet, it doesn’t seem fair to claim stories -- to say “you’re not allowed to write about that.”

Fiction is all about empathy. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of another and imagining what it would be like to be him or her. The bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white man (Arthur Golden), and Alex Award-winning novel Golden Boy is about an intersex boy who becomes pregnant -- not something with which author Abigail Tarttelin had firsthand experience. Does that mean these authors shouldn’t have written their books?

These are important stories for the world to read, and maybe it doesn’t matter who tells them, as long as they are told well. On the other hand, I myself have been guilty of judging a book by its author. I’m suspicious sometimes when a male author writes from a first-person female perspective. And when I told my friend Tawni Waters about the disabilities panel, she, in trying to understand where Clark was coming from, said she might be offended if a man wrote a first-person rape story from the perspective of the girl. On the other hand, Waters recently published a YA novel (Beauty of the Broken) about a lesbian girl, and she herself is not a lesbian. “Actually,” she said, revising her original statement, “maybe it’s a good thing for people to write from perspectives they’ve never experienced -- makes them more empathetic.”

There is such a push now, especially in the YA world, for diverse characters -- diversity in race, sexual-orientation, body type. (In fact, there’s an entire campaign titled “We Need Diverse Books” that promotes these types of stories.) That’s why I was so shocked to receive the opposite message at AWP: “no -- don’t write a book with disabled characters.” I thought those were the exact type of books that needed to be written.

And yet, who should write them?

At the very end of the panel discussion, just before the moderator called time, John Clark made a follow up to his shocking statement. He said, “If you do choose to write from [the disabled] perspective, make sure you do your research, talk to people.”

And perhaps that’s the key. It’s not that you shouldn’t write from a perspective different from your own, but when you do, you should be sensitive, you should talk to people who have had the experience and form a well-rounded understanding of what you’re writing about.

I don’t think anyone can own a story. But hearing people’s personal stories and perspectives can only help to strengthen the diverse fiction that I want to write.