Imaginative crossings: Trans-Global and Trans-Cultural narratives

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


When I was a young writer, writing teachers and books all said to ‘write what you know’. That is, your writing is best if it is ‘authentic’, if it reflects the people you have met and the places you have been. To that end, as an American writer, I have often been advised only to write about black characters. My instinct as a student was always to rail against such advice. I sought joyfully to write what I could imagine – about people I'd never met and places and times I'd never been. Decades and many published novels later, some editors were still subtly advancing the workshop admonition – ‘write what you know’, by suggesting that I delete from my novel Douglass’ Women Ottilie Assing, a character based upon a nineteenth-century German woman with a Jewish and Christian heritage. The assertion was that as a woman of colour, I didn't ‘know’ such history, such people, and my readers – all black, of course! – could not have cared less about the white mistress of abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. The novel, Douglass' Women, ultimately (and gratefully) published by Atria Books, became an award-winning and critical success. Of course, a writer should write about whomever and whatsoever they please, whether it be unknowable aliens, or ethnic and racial groups from far afield. If race, itself an artificial construct, prevents us from ‘knowing’ and writing about one another, then we are suggesting that people are not a common family. Equally dangerous is the notion that readers, too, only want to read what reflects their cultural reality. Letters from readers – within and without America’s borders – of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, have long disabused me of this silly notion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to
Subtitle of host publicationCreative Writing
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages5
ISBN (Electronic)9781139028417
ISBN (Print)9780521768498
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Imaginative crossings: Trans-Global and Trans-Cultural narratives'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this