Since my debut novel, Other People’s Children, was published last April, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to tell which stories. Some of my readers don’t seem to think that I should have been allowed to write the book that I wrote.
I’m probably not the first new writer to obsessively read their Goodreads reviews. I know that it’s not good for me, but, well, we’ve all done plenty these past few years that isn’t good for us. My publisher’s sales force preferred to use initials on the hardcover. Many reviewers wrote that they didn’t realize RJ Hoffmann was male until after they finished the book and read the bio or noticed the picture on the jacket. That pleased me. Some of the most impactful characters in the book are women, and the assumption that I was also a woman suggested that I had succeeded, at some level, in writing those characters well. My favorite reviews remain those that refer to me with female pronouns. I was troubled, though, by the reviewers who found it problematic that a man wrote the book.
Other People’s Children tells the story of a couple who, after struggling with infertility, adopt a baby girl. The birth mother decides to reclaim her child after four days, and the adoptive parents choose to run rather than return the baby.
Was it my story to tell? I could tell you about the moment I first laid eyes on my own adopted children. I could tell you about the fierce love that hit me like waking from a deep sleep into a bright light. I could tell you that the book, for me, is about shattered expectations and the pain of separation from a child. I could tell you that my daughter was living in a residential treatment center while I wrote it, struggling with mood disorders layered atop autism, and I could tell you about all the expectations that experience shattered for me. I could tell you that, although Other People’s Children is not my family’s story, our story litters the margins of the book.
But what if I suggested that none of that matters? What if I let the story speak for itself? What if I asked you to judge my characters based upon their depth, their voices, their strengths, and their weaknesses, rather than upon the alignment of their experience with my own? My characters tend to be more interesting than me, stronger in so many ways. Strong characters facing down a difficult problem tend to demand the story that seems right to them, and I’ve learned not to force my own voice into their throats.
I’ve read many #OwnVoices novels in the past few years, and count some of them among my favorites. The movement applies a much-needed balm to the many decades of appropriation of marginalized cultures. But I chafe at the idea that those are the only stories worth reading, or, for that matter, writing. I would argue that many acres of fertile ground lie between cultural appropriation and direct experience. I would suggest that fencing writers into the back 40 of their own experience limits the imagination, tames the tales, and rations the portions of truth that nourish us.
For me, those vast acres are fertilized with empathy. I’ve read several thousand novels written from the subjectivity of people who are nothing like me (or like the writers who crafted them, for that matter), and I believe that experience has made me more empathetic. Considering life through eyes that aren’t mine seems the whole point of fiction. And as I learned to build a novel, I found that writing also centers on empathy. Empathy is the window to the core of every character. Writing Other People’s Children demanded that I inhabit every character fully, regardless of our similarities and differences. Nurturing empathy for my characters led me to respect them, to listen to them.
What if I suggested that we should let well-developed characters fend for themselves? What if I suggested that now, more than ever, empathy for those unlike us needs to be tended in whatever way possible? And what if I suggested that there are as many ways to own a story as there are ways to tell one? What if I suggested that to believe otherwise constrains fiction—that to believe otherwise bends fiction toward memoir?
I want writers to respect their characters, to respect their readers, and to edit the fiction from their bio. But I want them to have the space to work, to imagine, to create. I want to fall into worlds that I never considered. I want that delightful lurch toward truth that only comes from a carefully crafted character making the inevitable decision that would never occur to me.
In short, I want fiction.
Jeff Hoffmann’s debut novel, Other People’s Children, was released in paperback on April 5 by Simon & Schuster. He recently completed his second novel and lives near Chicago with his wife and two children.