By Jane Kirkpatrick
Some years ago I wrote a novel based on the life of a Native American woman. I’d worked for many years on an Indian reservation and had many native friends who helped me capture the essence of this woman. The book received fine reviews and I spent a fair amount of time doing newspaper and radio interviews. One of the interviewers said: “What gives you the right to tell a story from a Indian woman’s point of view when you are not an Indian?” It was a question I hadn’t prepared for. But I told her, “I’m also not a man but I write about male characters too. I did my research and engaged my native friends to make the story authentic and ultimately I hoped to tell a story about what all women have in common regardless of our race or the historical period we live in. Family, friends and faith and how they speak to us in our lives.”
But the question bothered me. Was I interfering in some way with the authenticity of the story? Should I not have tried to tell an Indian woman’s story? Then I remembered hearing New York Times bestselling author Margaret Coel tell this story. She was once challenged about a book she’d written about an Arapaho man named Chief Left Hand. “That story should have been written by an Arapaho,” a man in the audience said. “And why wasn’t it?” she responded. She went on to say that stories find their tellers and if we get tapped on the shoulder about a story and we set it aside then there’s a good chance the story will seek someone else to write the story down.
Not long after that remembering, I had a conversation with the Iowa Nation historian, an Indian man. My character had been a member of the Iowa Tribe. I told him what the reporter said. He was thoughtful. “You didn’t write a story about an Indian woman. You wrote a story about a strong woman who happened to be a woman.” I love that! And it has allowed me to pursue the stories that won’t let me go even if they are about a woman of a different experience than mine, a different race. I still must work hard to bring authenticity to the story but my goal is to give voice to voices that are seldom heard and often those are voices of women of color. My latest work in progress is told through the eyes of one of the first black women to cross the Oregon trail. I’ve had many kind helpers along the way. And I’ve listened to her story and honored it the best I could. Readers will ultimately decide if I listened well.