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Writing Someone Else’s Story

image by Sheng P.

My novel The Kitchen Daughter was published in 2011. Seven years is not that long ago, really, but for many reasons, it feels like a different lifetime. The world has changed a great deal in less than a decade, and publishing has changed along with it—in ways both negative and positive.

When I made the decision to write a novel from the perspective of a character on the autism spectrum, such books were relatively rare on bookstore shelves. Basically, if people had read a book with an autistic narrator, it was almost certainly Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Which of course, in certain circles, gave rise to the typical publishing conversation of “Isn’t your book kind of like a book that already exists?” And the standard, exasperated answer, “Yes, except not at all.”)

In the beginning, my decision to write from an autistic character’s perspective originated from a logical place, not an emotional one. I love to cook, and when I prepare meals, I’m doing it to connect with people. I wanted to write about someone who cooks without any intention of connecting—someone isolated partly by circumstances and partly by choice—but who comes to realize that she can use cooking to connect.

When I began writing the book, I had recently met the writer John Elder Robison, whose memoir Look Me in the Eye brought what was then called Asperger’s Syndrome to the attention of many. After delving into everything I could find written on the topic, including first-person accounts written by women on the spectrum, I made the decision that the narrator I wanted to write had undiagnosed Asperger’s, and the story unfolded from there. I dug in, learned everything I could, worked to define Ginny’s unique experience, enlisted a host of readers who could tell me what didn’t ring true, and wrote and rewrote until the book was the best I could make it.

If I were facing this decision in 2018 instead of 2008, would I have made the same choice? I’m not at all sure.

In the past few years, more attention has rightly been paid to diversity in publishing—the fact that there isn’t enough, really, either in the business or in the books that it produces. Whether certain books qualify as #ownvoices, particularly in YA, is a huge consideration. Who has the right to write stories that are not their own, about characters whose background—race, gender, sexual orientation, etc—is far from the writer’s? The question is asked again and again. The response you hear depends on who you’re asking. There are no simple answers, and I won’t offer any here.

There were agents and editors who discouraged me from including the Asperger’s element in my book—but to the best of my recollection, none of them cited the fact that I’m neurotypical as their objection. I have no doubt that were I to attempt publishing the same book now, the question would loom much larger.

I don’t know what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum, not personally. But that’s also true of nearly everything else that defines the world of Ginny, the narrator of The Kitchen Daughter. I don’t know what it’s like to lose my parents. I don’t know what it’s like to live in the shadow of a bossy, controlling sister (or to have a sister at all, actually) and both fear and yearn to break free.

A fiction writer will always be reaching, exploring, creating beyond their own experience. Fiction is imagination. But, true as that is, I don’t believe it’s ever an adequate answer when someone raises the question of why you’re writing in the perspective of a person from a background that’s not your own. “Writers get to make things up” isn’t a reason. “I wanted to” definitely isn’t enough of a reason. Examine your motives. Do the work. Consider how the community you’re writing about will receive the message, intentional or unintentional, of your fiction. And if you decide to take on the task, commit.

And because the world of publishing has changed, to be honest, that may not be enough. If I were trying to publish a book with an autistic female narrator now, instead of bringing up The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an editor might bring up The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang—a much more relevant comp, and one written by an author who’s on the spectrum herself. In the weird world of publishing, a publisher might say there isn’t enough room for two books with autistic female narrators—which, while a fairly ridiculous thing to say, still gets said All. The. Time. and therefore must be considered.

And if it comes down to that, if a publisher is looking at publishing an excellent book with an autistic narrator written by a neurotypical author vs. an excellent book with an autistic narrator written by an autistic author, there are all sorts of reasons to choose #ownvoices. My book likely would have lost the battle, which—though I adore that book with a passion—I believe would have been the right outcome.

In order for stories outside of the mainstream to be told by the people most qualified to tell them, those already in the mainstream are going to have to lose out on the occasional opportunity. And if losing one opportunity knocks the stuffing out of you, a successful publishing career is probably not in your future. Surviving and thriving in the world of publishing takes a huge amount of stuffing.

It was an uphill battle in 2011 to educate people about Asperger’s, and once I took on the topic, I felt a strong responsibility to work toward that goal. I relentlessly corrected cover copy, pitch letters and marketing materials referring to Ginny “suffering from” Asperger’s; even the Publishers Weekly review refers to her as “Asperger’s-afflicted.” It seems ridiculously backward now, but again, this is how much the world has changed in a few short years. Representation has improved to the point where characters on the autism spectrum anchor TV series like “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor.” Perfect? Far from it, but unquestionably better than it was. (I still wince at the memory of Mary McDonnell’s guest appearance [1] as a surgeon with Asperger’s on “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2008, more caricature than character.) If The Kitchen Daughter makes it to film or TV, I’ll insist on the inclusion of autistic writers, actors and crew. It’s possible for people to write outside their experience—of course it is!—but inclusivity has to be a lived principle, or we’re just going to end up excluding people and their experiences as we have been through most of history, and losing out on incredible stories.

In seven short years, the world has changed for better and for worse. The good news is, it’s not done changing and it never will be.

You get to decide for yourself—as a writer, as a person—how you’re going to change it.

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.