Write What You Know? Maybe not…

I’m often asked if I have a favourite author and the answer always changes depending on what books I’ve recently read. If asked today I’d say it was John Boyne. The three titles of his that I’ve read (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, My Brother’s Name is Jessica) are each completely different, yet so brilliant in their own way. He has a talent for creating humour out of desperately difficult circumstances but without making light of that situation.

I’ve just finished My Brother’s Name is Jessica – a book for young people – and once again my respect for this author grows. But Boyne has received  criticism for this book, for writing about a transgender person when he himself is not trans. I struggle with this critique, especially because the protagonist is the 13-year-old brother of the transgender character. We learn what it is like for him to come to grips with his beloved sibling’s transition. Although we get to know (and love) the trans character, this is not her story. No, it’s about being a member of her family and learning that the person you always thought was your brother/son is actually your sister/daughter. Their complicated feelings count too

In his afterword, Boyne says, “I hope My Brother’s Name Is Jessica will enlighten young readers about the extraordinary courage of transgender youth and help them realize that this is just another facet of human nature that can be celebrated.”

Boyne also says that he finds it “both interesting and challenging to write about what I don’t know and to use my writing to learn about a subject, to understand it and to represent it as authentically as possible in order to help others make sense of it too.”

Thank you for articulating my own thoughts, Mr. Boyne. That is exactly what I felt when I wrote about polygamy, teen pregnancy, self-abuse and so many other experiences that I haven’t personally experienced.  My books would be exceedingly dull if my characters were all exactly like me, living lives like my own. Certainly some authors may live extraordinary lives, but most of us rely on our imaginations to create intriguing characters facing circumstances that pique a reader’s curiosity. Reading fiction creates empathy and compassion as we get into the heads and lives of characters unlike ourselves. Fiction then creates conversation that can fuel social change. Our job as serious writers is to do the research, learn as much as we can about our characters and then set their stories on the page. I believe John Boyne did an excellent job of showing what one 13-year old boy experiences as he watches his sibling transition. 

So, instead of telling  new writers to ‘write what they know’ perhaps we should encourage them to ‘write to learn’ and then do it responsibly.


2 thoughts on “Write What You Know? Maybe not…

  1. Darlene Foster

    Anyone who can write The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and can tackle such a topical subject as transgender issues, has my respect and admiration. I like the idea of writing to learn. A great post, Shelley.

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