One of the biggest rules in writing stories of any length is “write what you know.” That’s not to say I know anything about real magic, or talismans, or chaos. I mean, really, who really does? (Well, okay, I know a *little* about chaos these days.)
But the bigger takeaway from this rule is generally that you shouldn’t write from an identity that isn’t yours. White folks shouldn’t try to write from a Black point of view in their novel. Or a Maori warrior. Or an Egyptian prince. Or a Native American. Or…
Okay, you get my point.
Wait! What? But there are so many amazing and diverse stories out there to be told! Why wouldn’t we write them?
Because there are also so many amazing and diverse writers of all different identities who can (and should) tell them, and they won’t get that chance if someone else dominates the narrative.
So what happens when you’re a third/fourth generation American immigrant whose family has been in the country for a hundred years and whose ethnicity looks like this?
Who are you? And what stories do you write?
This is something I’ve been pondering a lot lately as I read books from authors with cultural ties around the world. What I find as I read them, though, is that even though the authors are American, many times they have direct ties to the cultures they write about; they’re typically first or second generation immigrants whose very lives are influenced daily by the part of the world they (or their parents) came from.
Take, for example, Lauren Blackwood’s Within These Wicked Walls, an Ethiopian-inspired fantasy by a Jamaican-American author; Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a Nigerian-inspired fantasy written by a Nigerian-American; An Ember in the Ashes by Pakistani-American author Sabaa Tahir; or Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, an East-Asian-inspired fantasy by Julie C. Dao, a Vietnamese-American.
These books are positively amazing, their storytelling lush, their settings fresh and rich with detail, the history unknown to me, the folklore like nothing I’ve read before. I fall into these stories with reckless abandon, a constant thirst for more, more, more.
But it also leaves me wondering…
What kind of fantasies should I be writing…if, that is, I should be writing fantasies at all?
My ethnicity is over 60% Italian, but my ancestors came to America in the immigration boom of the 1910s and 1920s, so beyond my grandmother’s recipe for pasta sauce (ahem, gravy), I have virtually no claim on my Italian ancestry. I wouldn’t feel remotely qualified to write an Italian-inspired fantasy. In fact, I would think only someone from Italy (or maybe a first generation Italian-American) could do justice to an Italian-inspired fantasy.
And if I can’t write Italian-inspired fantasies, then I’m *certainly* not qualified to write from any other part of my ancestry (even if I’ve often been tempted to lean into my Croatian heritage).
So what does that leave?
I’m plagued suddenly by images of fantasies featuring the Wild West, a time period which I neither understand nor romanticize about. No, but really? How can there be an American-inspired fantasy? Our country was founded on land stolen from entire murdered civilizations, then established further as a “cultural melting pot” (Isn’t that the term they used in third grade?) with no one, single culture comprising our identity as Americans.
All this to say, as ethnically-mixed Americans who’ve been in this country long enough to no longer have strong cultural ties to our roots, but not nearly long enough to rival true Native Americans, what defines us? What makes us eligible to tell, or not tell, certain stories? And how do we know which ones are ours to tell?
I don’t have the answers.
I’m genuinely asking.