Who Owns The Stories?

My friend Luke has been asking questions on his blog about the proprietary nature of personal narratives. He’s been thinking about how parents might use a story about their child to teach a broader point to their readers. A worthy question, and one I’ve been considering as I prepare to launch my novel.

The story is about two girls, one white and one African American. For much of the story, our narrator is Grace, the black girl, the granddaughter of slaves.

I have never been a slave. I have never been a person of color. I have never known that anger or pain or been diminished as a human for the color of my skin.

I do know history. I do empathize with the disenfranchised. I have done my research and I am trying to tell a story. Whether I do or not is up to the reader. But I do take very seriously this idea of narrative ownership.

If it hasn’t happened to me, can I tell the tale?

I’m not the first person to write from an unexperienced place. Men write female characters and vice versa all the time. One of the best examples of this is the novel Heft. Contemporary writers tackle times in history so far removed that notes were kept on pig intestines, so they hardly could be considered first hand witnesses.

Does motive matter? Or is it all exploitative? Is telling someone else’s story profiting by another’s pain or is it taking the story where it hasn’t yet been heard. Or all of these?

What do you think? Who has the write to tell a story?