Stealing other people's stories

Much of my most recent manuscript, The Parts He Erased, is based on actual stories that refugees and immigrants told me during my time as an adult ESL educator.

However, there comes a point for most writers where they must ask when a borrowed story--even if fictionalized--becomes a stolen story.

The stories I used in The Parts He Erased were blended and reworked until they would probably be unrecognizable to the students who told them to me, yet I still feel writer's guilt over the fact that I have robbed them of those stories without their knowledge. I wish I could go back in time and ask every single one of my students for permission to borrow their experiences and use them as I see fit. I wonder every day which stories are too sacred to be reshaped and shared publicly, and which ones are too important not to be told, no matter who the storyteller might be.

Who am I, a white, middle-class female, to speak of their experiences? Others have asked this of me as though I haven't considered the possibility. In other cases, I am the one who has to raise this question, to which many people say it shouldn't matter, as long as the story is being told in the first place.  You're doing them a favor by sharing their experiences, they say. Or, as others have pointed out, they shared that story with you in the first place, so obviously they trust you. But is this a breach of that trust?

I can't fully speak to all of the experiences of the students I've known, but I can say that I did my best to represent them honestly and fully, not as two-dimensional devices meant to spark pity or romanticize hardship.

I've thought a lot about the ethics of being a storyteller for marginalized voices. For instance, how do I translate the experience of being illiterate into writing, the very medium that the student is having trouble accessing? By transforming the experiences of low literacy communities into highly literate and privileged ones, I am greatly minimizing the chances that my former students will ever come across these stories. I often wonder whether these stories are about them or for them, and whether those two things can realistically overlap. 

I stand at an intersection between writing for authenticity and writing for audience. Do I highlight my place of privilege or remove it from the story altogether? Here are some of the ways that I've found to probe my relationship as a white, American writer with that of my non-American, non-white characters:

1. Remove the white savior. I have recently started engaging in a thought-provoking exercise: I remove any white protagonists from the foreground of the story, even if just for a little while, to see how it feels to live in a world without a white person at the center of the plot. In some of my current manuscripts, I also play around with having no white characters at all. Most of the time, my characters are able to "save" themselves just fine without the white hero. I also play around with changing the gender and sexual identity of some of my characters to see how that might affect the story. Just because a character doesn't "feel" like a certain race or gender doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do to promote diversity in the story.

2. Develop all your characters fully, even the minor ones. I try to give each character an equal chance to share his or her voice on paper. This might not translate into equal time in the novel itself, but at the very least, I can say I gave each character a chance to find a voice and, if need be, move to the forefront. This was how I discovered that Amadou, a former slave from Mauritania, was actually one of my central characters (even if I didn't know it at the time).

3. Represent students' stories as discussion points, not objects of pity: I try to imagine my former students reading these stories, and whether or not they would feel fairly represented. Did I represent my low literacy students as strong and determined, instead of making their literacy a subject of derision and belittlement?

4. Acknowledge who I am as a storyteller: I encourage dialogue about my imperfection as a storyteller by making it a point of conversation, like I'm doing right now in this blog post. No one is going to get any one experience "right," and I hope readers will recognize that and point out their own experiences and stories. I hope that this will spark conversation about how storytellers can fictionalize others' lives in respectful, thought-provoking, and enriching ways.  

Writers: how do you grapple with borrowing and changing other people's experiences into fiction?

Readers: have you seen some good examples of writers addressing their identity in relation to their writing?