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Is It Your Story to Tell?

By Guest Author
March 29, 2024

This is a guest post by historical fiction author Patricia L. Hudson.

These days there’s a great deal of discussion within the publishing world about the need to promote books by writers from a variety of ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds. While this push for a diversity of voices is often framed as a concern for authors of contemporary fiction, it’s having an impact on historical fiction as well.

My novel, Traces was published in 2022, and I hope that by sharing my publishing journey, you’ll understand the need to consider diversity issues early in your writing process. Paying attention to this issue as you begin a writing project may spare you the frustration of undertaking extensive revisions at the behest of your agent or publisher.

Traces is a retelling of the Daniel Boone saga from the perspective of Boone’s wife, Rebecca, and their two oldest daughters, Susannah and Jemima. Daniel became a mythic figure during his lifetime, but his fame fueled backwoods gossip that bedeviled the Boone women throughout their lives — most notably the widespread suspicion that one of Rebecca’s children was fathered by Daniel’s younger brother.

World of Boone Women

My point of view characters are the three Boone women who are white, which is my own ethnicity, but the novel takes place in America’s colonial backcountry at a time when the Cherokee and Shawnee were fighting to maintain control of their ancestral lands. This violent clash of cultures is woven into the plot, and I spent a great deal of time figuring out ways to show the injustices done to tribal members and enslaved people while remaining historically accurate. Despite my efforts, when my agent read the manuscript, she said I would need sensitivity readers for each ethnicity — Shawnee, Cherokee and African-American.

Before I explain what happened with Traces, I think a bit of background is in order. In 2015, a campaign called OwnVoices was launched to promote books whose authors shared the same identity as their main character. Since then, there’s been a growing call for minorities to tell their own stories. I believe this is an important and long-overdue adjustment within the publishing industry, but it means every writer must now think deeply about whether a particular story is theirs to tell. Being cognizant of this dynamic may very well be the difference between getting your manuscript accepted or rejected.

Publishers have grown understandably skittish since the 2020 controversy surrounding American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants, written by Jeanine Cummins, who’s viewed as white. Flatiron Books paid Cummins a seven-figure advance, but when confronted with cries of cultural appropriation, the publisher wound up apologizing and cancelling the author’s book tour. (The book still went on to sell more than 3 million copies.)

To avoid accusations of cultural appropriation, Cuban-American author, Daniel Suarez, suggests that authors ask themselves a series of questions: “Why should you be the one telling this story? How am I doing it? Who is reading and giving me feedback? Where are my blind spots? Where am I not doing enough of the cultural work?”

So what happened with Traces? Finding a Cherokee sensitivity reader was relatively easy because I already had contacts within the Eastern Band of Cherokee, but finding a Shawnee reader took weeks. And here’s the rub — while a sensitivity reader may be well-versed in their ethnicity’s contemporary culture, it’s unlikely they know how their ancestors dressed, or ate, or the myriad other details that brings an historical character to life. This leaves the historical fiction author having to walk a fine line, knowing when to incorporate suggestions, and when to ignore them, based on one’s own research into a specific time period.

In Traces, I deferred to my indigenous readers on matters of language and the spelling of native words. I also totally rewrote a scene where a Cherokee hunter reaches out to touch a young woman’s red hair because he’d never seen that shade before. I’d read an account of this actually happening during my research, but my Cherokee reader indicated that in her culture, this would be viewed as more sexually aggressive than what I’d intended to convey in that scene. The rewrite actually turned out stronger, so that was a win-win.

As authors, I believe we should strive to be nuanced in our portrayal of anyone different from ourselves, and we should avoid stereotypes at all costs. But we also need to keep in mind that writing a work of fiction has always been about putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and helping readers live for a while within an imagined experience. Authors shouldn’t be afraid of writing about otherness, but we do need to make sure we’re doing it as thoughtfully as possible. From now on, when I begin a project, I’ll be keeping Mr. Saurez’s list of questions in mind.

Patricia Hudson has been a freelance writer for 35 years, specializing in history and travel topics. She was a contributing editor at Americana magazine for a decade, and a frequent contributor to Southern Living magazine. Her books include a volume in the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America series, and Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia. Traces is her debut novel.  She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, photographer, Sam Stapleton, and their two rescue dogs.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    TY for sharing this insightful look at the topic, and the list of questions. Sensisitivity.

    Reply

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