The Untold Story Of Lyndie B. Hawkins

In 2019, a novel by a new author, Gail Shepherd, arrived in bookstores. The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins tells the story of a young white girl growing up in the South. The book has been well received, but it is not the book Shepherd intended to write. In her original drafts, Shepherd, a white author, created a Lyndie who was Vietnamese-American, and dealing with issues of race in the deep South. This week we look at what it means to be a storyteller in a time of caustic cultural debate and ask when, if ever, is it okay to tell a story that is not your own?

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

A note before we get started - this story begins with a reference to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. There's also a moment in the episode in which a guest describes being called the N-word.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Every two years, the Whitney Museum in New York hosts a special exhibit featuring contemporary American art. The show is a big deal. It draws crowds from around the world and can turn artists into stars. But in 2017, one painting in a fifth-floor gallery prompted a barrage of criticism over race and appropriation. The painting was called "Open Casket." It's artist Dana Schutz's interpretation of a famous photograph of Emmett Till. He was the young Black boy brutally beaten and killed by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.

His mother Mamie Till insisted on an open casket funeral so the world could see what these men had done to her little boy. Decades later, she described the moment in a documentary, "The Untold Story Of Emmett Louis Till."

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MAMIE TILL: I said, I want the world to see this because there's no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like.

VEDANTAM: The photograph of Emmett Till in the open casket remains a painful but powerful touchstone for many, a reminder of the suffering produced by racial injustice.

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VEDANTAM: Dana Schutz, who is white, interpreted the photo in a way that was more abstract but also disturbing. Emmett Till's suit is crisp and pristine. The brutality inflicted on his face is represented with slashing strokes of browns and reds. Shortly after Schutz's painting appeared at the Whitney, dozens of artists of color demanded that it be removed and destroyed. The photograph of Emmett Till, they felt, was not open to interpretation by a white artist. It was not OK, they said, to use Black pain as raw material for white creativity.

African American author and radio producer Rebecca Carroll said she understood why people were so upset. Schutz's work, she said, is not what Mamie Till would have wanted.

REBECCA CARROLL: When she said, I want them to see this image, she meant Dana Schutz - you know what I'm saying? She meant that it was white America that put her boy in a casket. She didn't mean, I want you to see this image and then interpret it the way that you fancy.

VEDANTAM: But there were also voices of color defending the painting. Here's Whoopi Goldberg and ABC News legal correspondent Sunny Hostin on "The View."

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WHOOPI GOLDBERG: People calling for the destruction of art goes very, very hard for me because the Nazis did that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, yeah.

GOLDBERG: The Nazis want - got - said, get rid of stuff that we don't like. Burn the book. Do this.

SUNNY HOSTIN: It's also offensive that she says it's cultural appropriation. It seems like they don't really understand what cultural appropriation is. This is not cultural appropriation; this is, I think, trying to make sure that Emmett Till's mother's pain is America's pain.

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VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore a question at the heart of this controversy. It's a question that touches on the injustices of the past and the increasingly caustic tone of modern cultural debates. It's a question that affects the art world but also extends far beyond it, reaching into fiction and journalism. When is it OK to tell a story that is not your own? Is doing so an act of empathy or an act of disrespect, even theft?

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VEDANTAM: Not long ago, writer Gail Shepherd got her first novel published. "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" is for middle-grade kids. It tells a story of an 11-year-old girl Lyndie and her troubled family. Lyndie's father is an out-of-work Vietnam vet with PTSD. Her mother is withdrawn and barely gets out of bed. The three of them have moved into Lyndie's grandparents' house in Tennessee.

ANYA VEDANTAMBE: (Reading) Monday morning, first day of seventh grade - I'm standing in Lady and Grandpa Tad's hallway, alone in my stiff, spotless blazer and iron-pleated skirt and polished loafers, holding my new divider notebooks Lady brought me. Ma's still asleep. She got home late from selling girdles last night. Daddy's awake. I know because I hear his footsteps pacing upstairs in his bedroom. But he didn't answer when I knocked earlier.

VEDANTAM: The novel covers tough issues - hidden secrets, family strife, alcoholism. It has been very well received. But ours is not just a story about this book; it's a story of how this book came to be. You see, Gail's book is based on another person's story. To understand the deep ethical questions we are exploring today, we need to start not with "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" but the true history of somebody else. That other history is long and complex, and it leads us to the questions we are exploring today - questions about empathy, identity, art and ownership.

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VEDANTAM: Chapter 1 - the muse.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. Her name was Camilla. Her father was a blue-eyed, blond-haired military man.

CAMILLA: My father was a veteran, and he was a veteran in the Korean War.

VEDANTAM: Her mother was Asian.

CAMILLA: My mother is Filipino.

VEDANTAM: Camilla was born in Santa Ana, Calif., in the late '50s. We're not using her last name to protect her family's privacy. Camilla remembers her neighborhood as a kind of melting pot, filled with lots of different people - whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics. She was a mixed-race kid, and in Santa Ana, she fit right in. When she was 10, her family piled into a car and headed east.

CAMILLA: My father wanted to take the family back to the South to Georgia.

VEDANTAM: Almost from the start, Camilla says, things felt off. When they crossed the Mississippi River, she looked up and saw a sky she didn't recognize. Gone was the vast canopy of blue she knew so well. In its place was a low, heavy sky crowded with clouds. Finally, the family pulled into their new hometown - Macon, Ga.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Your eyes on the prize...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...In freedom, in justice and in peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Hold on, hold on.

VEDANTAM: It was the summer of 1968.

CAMILLA: Smack in the middle of the civil rights movement.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

VEDANTAM: Soon after they arrived, the new school year began. Camilla and her older brother went together.

CAMILLA: We would walk to our new school, and then we would walk home at the end of the day.

VEDANTAM: But one morning, her brother was sick, and Camilla went alone. She hadn't paid that much attention to the route. She made it to school.

CAMILLA: But on my way home after school, I got lost. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up in a different neighborhood which I did not recognize. And in that moment of being being lost and feeling very alone and vulnerable, I was suddenly surrounded by four white boys a little bit older than me who were calling me names. And they called me a nigger. And, also, they picked up stones and threw stones at me. And I remember being absolutely terrified and running as fast as I could off that block.

VEDANTAM: In this new place, under a different sky, in a time of racial turmoil, Camilla had learned her first lesson - skin color mattered.

CAMILLA: You were either white or you were Black.

VEDANTAM: The problem for Camilla was that she was neither.

CAMILLA: My skin was in between. It was was not Black, but it was, you know, a color of brownish-yellow.

VEDANTAM: But brownish-yellow wasn't a category that was allowed. For Camilla, the conflict raging in the world outside was mirrored by a conflict in her inner world. Camilla felt she was being asked to choose between her father, who was white, and her mother, from whom she got her darker skin. In the racial hierarchy of Macon, Ga., one parent was clearly superior; the other inferior. Whom would she identify with? Ten-year-old Camilla went with a safer option - she picked the white parent.

CAMILLA: Because that was the side that had power. That was made very clear to me.

VEDANTAM: Camilla didn't have her father's light skin and blue eyes, but she was lighter-skinned than her mother and could pass for white. She embraced the safety it brought. She never sought to learn her mother's native language, Tagalog. For Camilla to do this, to claim only her white half, meant giving up something she cherished - the part of her that came from her mother, with whom she felt a deep emotional connection.

CAMILLA: It's a very painful kind of betrayal to turn on your own mother or turn on your own people.

VEDANTAM: She remembers moments when this betrayal exploded into the open. It happened once when she was 15. Her mother had just driven her to school, and they had a conflict about something.

CAMILLA: And I remember standing outside the car, and I screamed at her in the parking lot of the junior high school in front of all these people. I remember I screamed at her. And I remember, as soon as she was gone, I felt so horrible inside. I felt so bad about that.

VEDANTAM: It wasn't just what she'd said.

CAMILLA: I don't really remember the words, but it was more an attitude of talking down to her in the way that I had seen my father talk down to her.

VEDANTAM: It was disrespectful. Camilla realized that she was treating her mother the same way her father treated her mother.

CAMILLA: I was identifying with my father and taking that father voice that had diminished my mother, who was on the Filipino side of the family.

VEDANTAM: Camilla still vividly remembers a family car trip.

CAMILLA: My brother and I in the backseat, and my father was driving and my mother in the passenger seat. And there was some tension. It was another bad day. He was in a bad mood.

VEDANTAM: He was driving too fast.

CAMILLA: And my mother asked him to slow down, and he did the opposite. He hit the accelerator, and he drove faster and faster, until she broke down and started to cry.

VEDANTAM: Finally, he pulled over.

CAMILLA: My brother and I were petrified in the backseat. And my mother got out of the car, and she was shaking, like tremors. She was shaking all through her body on the side of the road.

VEDANTAM: In time, Camilla came to realize that the ghosts of her father's war experiences were behind his volatility. Much as she sought to be her father's daughter, she remembers deep trauma in their relationship. Camilla's father was an avid hunter. He gave her a rifle and taught her to shoot.

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CAMILLA: And the day came when my father asked me if I wanted to go, with my brother and him, deer hunting. And I said yes.

VEDANTAM: They went out together - father, son and daughter.

CAMILLA: And on that day, very first time, a buck came into my range, where I was stationed in a tree.

VEDANTAM: Camilla didn't want to shoot, but she felt she had to.

CAMILLA: And I did what I had been taught, and I shot...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

CAMILLA: ...That deer dead.

VEDANTAM: But as she watched the deer fall to the ground, she realized she was not her father's daughter after all.

CAMILLA: I'll never forget that day until the day I die because immediately after I was full of regret.

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VEDANTAM: What had she done? She wondered. Why had she taken a life? The moment scarred her. It didn't occur to Camilla that this complicated life story could be the plot of a book. It was just a difficult part of her childhood that she kept bottled up.

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VEDANTAM: Chapter 2 - friendship.

In the mid-1980s, Camilla started graduate school at the University of Florida. One night, she attended a poetry recital and listened as a fellow student read some of her work. She felt a connection.

CAMILLA: I was very drawn to her aesthetic sensibility and to the way that she saw the world.

VEDANTAM: The classmate's name was Gail Shepherd. Camilla was captivated by Gail's writing. She was captivated by Gail.

CAMILLA: I remember I would try and say hi to her when we passed each other walking across campus. And for months and months, I would try and, you know, wave and say hi, and she would just walk right by me, as if she hadn't seen me. And I thought, oh my, she's not interested in being friends. Later, I found out that she's legally blind in one eye and refused to wear glasses (laughter), and she never saw me.

VEDANTAM: Gail, in fact, had noticed Camilla. Her first memory of her is more like a flashback - just an image of a young woman on campus with an injured shoulder.

GAIL SHEPHERD: I think she had fallen or gotten hurt somehow. And she was wearing all white, and she was leaning on a cane. And her hair was cut really short, and she was just the most beautiful creature I'd ever laid eyes on.

VEDANTAM: Eventually, Gail and Camilla became close friends. They spent hours together discussing poetry, film, feminism. They studied shoulder to shoulder for exams. Sometimes late at night, they drove on a whim to the beach. When Gail finished her degree, she moved to London for a job. She and Camila kept in touch through a now-forgotten art - letter writing.

SHEPHERD: I remember the feel of the paper, that thin blue airmail paper that we used to have (laughter).

CAMILLA: I don't know who sent the first letter, but there was this unspoken agreement that if you sent a letter, you would get a reply.

VEDANTAM: They wrote not just as friends, but as writers.

SHEPHERD: (Reading) April 25. I imagine the scenario - you, blue in the light of your computer, pounding out your story, and thousands of miles away, me, saffron in the circle of my reading lamp, reading your story. You licking postage, me licking postage, our envelopes blowing kisses at each other as they pass, two ships in the night, somewhere mid-Atlantic.

CAMILLA: (Reading) August 7. From the sailboat, I think of you - how you fit into the scheme of my life, what you have to do with my identity, with who I am, with who I want to be.

VEDANTAM: One day, on that thin airmail paper, Camilla wrote about her complicated relationship with her father and her mother.

CAMILLA: (Reading) Once there was a man who was a hunter of some renown, a man of the woods. He was a soldier in his youth. An American of Scottish descent, he married a Filipina woman and had a family.

VEDANTAM: She told Gail about the time her father took her hunting.

CAMILLA: (Reading) When the lesson was over, the girl knew everything there was to know about the smell of fear and doubt. She smelled the odor of blood and feces and urine, and she remembered all the times he had made her smell it. She didn't want to kill anything ever again.

SHEPHERD: (Reading) 23, May. That terrible bloody letter you sent me, it scared me. You didn't have to tell me that. You didn't have to disembowel yourself yet again.

VEDANTAM: But such honesty brought them even closer. Gail identified deeply with Camilla.

SHEPHERD: (Reading) There are so many words I want to write to you and for you. They crowd together. I'm hoping that someday I can make something beautiful for you - a picture, a story, a reel of film - which will show you what you've done without my having to say it.

VEDANTAM: By the time Gail returned to the United States, she and Camilla were deeply in love. They moved together to Pittsburgh, where Camilla taught and Gail wrote. For seven years, they were a couple. In the end, the relationship didn't survive. Their eventual breakup was painful and complex, as breakups tend to be. Both women moved on. Camilla found her way back to California and the vast blue sky of her early childhood. Gail returned to Florida. Their letters were packed carefully into boxes and put away.

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VEDANTAM: Chapter 3 - the book.

Close to 20 years after Gail and Camilla went their own ways, an idea for a novel began to take shape in Gail's imagination. She turned it over in her mind, thinking about narrative, voice, plot. When she was in her 50s, Gail invented a character, Lyndie. She outlined the story in her mind.

SHEPHERD: The upshot of the story was - it's a 12-year-old Vietnamese American daughter of a white war veteran and a Vietnamese woman. And she's growing up in the Deep South, and she's basically coping with, you know, the legacy of Southern racism and violence from her father's war experience. He has PTSD.

VEDANTAM: You know by now that the inspiration for this book was Camilla. In real life, Camilla's mother was from the Philippines, and her father was a Korean War veteran. But Gail knew more about the Vietnam War, so she made Lyndie's mother Vietnamese and her father a Vietnam War vet. Gail diverged from Camilla's story in other ways. For example, she gave Lyndie a close friend. Growing up, Camilla had also had a close friend, an African American girl. Gail made the friend a boy - D.B.

SHEPHERD: And D.B., in the first draft of the novel, was Native American.

VEDANTAM: As Gail was thinking through the story, she found herself headed to California. The trip gave her a chance to catch up with her old friend. Camilla remembers the visit vividly.

CAMILLA: I saw her in California, coming in to do a writers workshop up in Big Sur. So we drove up together. And that's when I really became aware that she was seriously writing a novel that had anything to do with my story.

VEDANTAM: I asked Camilla how she felt about Gail turning her life story into a book.

CAMILLA: I felt honored. I felt blessed by that because I had a sense that it was going to provide another opportunity for me to self-reflect about my own story because, you know, this was going to be through her eyes. It was going to go through whatever creative process writers go through to create stories that have meaning for a broad audience. But it was for me, personally, going to give me another chance to do some healing work.

SHEPHERD: I remember very well sitting at her kitchen table in Santa Monica and talking about it. And I never felt anything with Camilla except that she was completely supportive of any creative work that I wanted to do. So, I mean, she loved it. You know, we had a really great, deep conversation about it and just talked, you know, for hours about it at that time and that she was just super supportive about it.

CAMILLA: I remember there was talking in the car, you know, trying to sort of map out some of the personal stuff that I remembered about my own story. But this was so much beyond my story, right? And so the conversation was also about, like, archetypally, what the heck was this story really about? And what parts of the story were important for people to hear today? Because there was some kind of universal aspect to that.

VEDANTAM: Over the next two years, Gail wrote ferociously. When she was done, she'd completed the manuscript for "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins." In 2014, she sent the manuscript to her agent, who shopped it around. An editor at a prominent publishing house quickly snapped it up. The publication date was set for 2016.

But this happened to be a moment of soul-searching for the publishing world. Critics were charging that, for too long, white people had had a stranglehold over the industry. The writers were white. The editors were white; so were the publishers. It wasn't just the industry that was a problem, but the narratives themselves, the way they were framed. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about this in a TED talk.

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CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, secondly. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

VEDANTAM: Incomplete or poorly framed narratives are only part of the problem. There are also concerns about characters based on grotesque stereotypes. You can see how this works and not just in novels, but in other forms of storytelling. In "Breakfast At Tiffany's," the 1961 movie based on a Truman Capote novella, the actor Mickey Rooney, who is white, plays a character based on racist stereotypes about Asian people. He's clumsy, with buck teeth and Coke-bottle glasses. His name is Mr. Yunioshi, and he's a Japanese man who lives upstairs from Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly.

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AUDREY HEPBURN: (As Holly Golightly) Oh, darling. I am sorry, but I lost my key.

MICKEY ROONEY: (As I.Y. Yunioshi) But that was two weeks ago. You cannot go on and keep ringing my bell. You disturb me. You must have a key made.

HEPBURN: (As Holly Golightly) But it won't do any good. I just lose them all.

VEDANTAM: Stories like this shape the way Asians were seen not just in the movies but in real life - bumbling, awkward, shortsighted. Or take "Gone With The Wind." In the white fantasyland of the story, Black slaves serve their masters with pleasure and often had fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Quitting time.

EVERETT BROWN: (As Big Sam) Who says it's quitting time?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I said it's quitting time.

BROWN: (As Big Sam) I'm the foreman. I'm the one who says when it's quitting time at Tara. Quitting time. Quitting time.

VEDANTAM: If you didn't have access to the storyteller's pen, someone else got to write the story of your life. It didn't just define how you were seen; it defined how you saw yourself.

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VEDANTAM: As Gail began the process of editing her manuscript for publication, she began to feel uneasy. Had she, a white woman, stepped over a line by making her central character an Asian American girl?

SHEPHERD: I felt very nervous and insecure about what I was doing. There was a lot of discussion in the blogosphere, on Twitter, a lot of conversation. Some of it got really heated. And I just started to feel more and more like I wasn't comfortable writing an Asian American character. It's not my background, and I probably couldn't write it as well as an Asian American author could.

VEDANTAM: Gail called her editor.

SHEPHERD: And I said, Kathy, you know, like, I'm committed to this. But I have to tell you, I am not very comfortable, entirely comfortable, with writing an Asian American character anymore.

VEDANTAM: It wasn't that Gail didn't feel confident in her deep knowledge of Camilla's story; she did. But she was a new author, and she was worried about the reception for her first book.

SHEPHERD: I think I was afraid that, you know, book bloggers and reviewers and social media personalities would rake me over the coals.

VEDANTAM: And they would rake you over the coals to say what?

SHEPHERD: They would say, you don't have a right to write about this character because you don't know what it's like to grow up as an Asian American girl in this culture.

VEDANTAM: And you must have had sort of an internal conversation in your head where you said, well, but I have a friend, and she's told me the story, and I understand the story, and I'm writing in some ways based on what she told me, no?

SHEPHERD: Of course.

VEDANTAM: Yeah.

SHEPHERD: Yeah, of course.

VEDANTAM: But Gail imagined shouting wars on Twitter. There might be little room for nuance, for discussion, for her to explain how deeply she knew Camila's story, how much she empathized with what her friend had been through. And it was more than just fear. As Gail listened to the voices of the critics, she found herself agreeing with many of them.

SHEPHERD: As my thinking evolved on it, I felt like, these people really have a point. Like, there is a way in which I cannot write authentically about being an Asian American girl in the Deep South in the 1980s.

VEDANTAM: Questions about what is authentic and who has the right to tell the stories of women and people of color are still raging across the publishing world.

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RACHEL MARTIN: A new novel by Jeanine Cummins has opened up a debate about white privilege, racism in publishing and the unintended consequences of telling a story that is not your own.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It is a novel. It's about a Mexican mother who - she and her son are fleeing to the U.S. border. And one of the points of controversy is that Cummins is actually of Irish and Puerto Rican descent.

VEDANTAM: So little wonder that a debut author like Gail Shepherd would think twice about creating a central character of a different race. Still, when Gail told other writers about her decision, reaction varied widely.

SHEPHERD: Almost uniformly, the white writers were aghast that I would even consider rewriting this book because I was uncomfortable with writing an Asian American character. Most people were floored by that.

Now, the people of color that I talked to about it were not aghast at all (laughter). I mean, I have friends who are women of color in my writing groups, and we have discussed some of these topics with them. And, you know, I've asked them how they feel about issues. Like, how do you feel when a white writer is writing about a person of color? Are you OK with that? And, you know, in at least one case, I can remember a writer saying to me that she didn't think there was any way, no matter how much research I did or how sensitive I was or how careful I was to create something that was true, that I could possibly represent what it was like to grow up as an African American. And I had to agree with her.

VEDANTAM: Gail remained torn. As a creative person, she wanted the flexibility to write what she liked, but she also recognized that the debate was not just about her or her book; it was a much larger systemic issue. Gail's editor had a suggestion, a way to make the book more authentic. She said...

SHEPHERD: Why don't we think about writing it from a white perspective? You're Southern. Your family is Southern. Why not just make your main character a white Southern girl?

VEDANTAM: Gail found herself teetering between despair and relief.

SHEPHERD: I was like, oh, my God. OK, this is going to be a really big hurdle to rewrite this book yet again.

VEDANTAM: But she decided to do it. She looked to her own background for inspiration.

SHEPHERD: That grounding for me was the Southern half of my family. And so I changed the character who was Vietnamese American to be just a white Southern girl growing up in Tennessee.

VEDANTAM: It took her several more years to rewrite the book. The final version of "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" was published in 2019. Gail's first draft of the book had grappled with questions of race and racism, but those disappeared in the final version. Besides changing Lyndie's race, Gail also changed the race of her friend, D.B. He was initially imagined as Native American, but Gail made him white. Gail was happy with the new novel. She felt it was better, more authentic than the original. The book was received well in the publishing world. She felt like she had sidestepped what could have been a disaster.

But I was left with a question - how did Camilla feel about the new Lyndie?

CAMILLA: I bought the book and read it. And I stretched it out. I read one chapter, and then I would put it down, and then a couple of days later, I would read the second chapter and put it down, like that until I got to the end.

VEDANTAM: Camilla was deeply moved.

CAMILLA: When I read "The True Story Of Lyndie B. Hawkins," I still see my story in there.

VEDANTAM: We talked about Gail's decision to change the race of the central character. Camilla said she understood it but also felt that Gail would have been well within her rights to tell the story of an Asian American girl.

CAMILLA: I thought she had the right to tell it. I mean, I think the hesitation she had was part of the sort of - oh, the fallout of writers in this country and the writers community having to have this difficult conversation about not having enough minority representation in publishing. I kind of feel to some extent one of the bad fallout of that was that somebody like Gail would decide not to write that story as an Asian American character.

VEDANTAM: What do you think is lost when she makes that decision, Camilla?

CAMILLA: Well, you know, what's lost is the story about the Asian American girl that we are waiting for some Asian American author to write. And I think that might be the sad piece, is, you know, we may be waiting for some time to hear that story still.

VEDANTAM: I mean, is it possible that there is a 9-year-old Asian American girl somewhere in the country that actually would have liked to have read that book about an Asian American girl, you know, going through maybe some of the things that she was going through?

CAMILLA: Without question. Without question there would have been.

VEDANTAM: I asked Gail whether anything Camilla had just said made her rethink her decision to change the race or the central character.

SHEPHERD: So you're asking me to speculate how I would have felt if I had talked to Camilla about it before making the changes?

VEDANTAM: Yes.

SHEPHERD: You know, I actually think that there are hundreds of stories that any author can choose to tell. And I have plenty of stories to tell. And there are a lot of authors out there right now - some of them Asian American, some of them Native American, some of them African American. Everybody has stories, and I don't actually see it as a great loss to the children's - you know, to children's literature that this particular story was not told in the original form.

VEDANTAM: Who gets to tell a story? If Camilla's story belongs to her, can she give someone else license to tell it? What if that other person is not Asian? Does Camilla's story belong only to her, or do other Asian people have a stake in that story and how it gets told and who tells it?

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VEDANTAM: Chapter 4 - the debate.

Social psychologists have been studying the relationships between power, identity and cultural symbols. At a psychology conference in New Orleans, I spoke with Ashli Carter, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University. She says she and her colleagues have looked at why white people adopt the cultural symbols of other groups, from hairstyles to clothing to music. The research suggests that white people who do this are often looking for ways to stand out.

ASHLI CARTER: What the issue often becomes is if you're a white person in a U.S. context, it's really hard to feel distinct because you're a part of this large, amorphous, kind of indistinctive group. And so how do you then feel distinct within that group? And so you might look outside of white culture to say, oh, I can maybe take a little bit of this and borrow a little bit of that and propriate a little bit of this so that I'm actually distinct within this huge cultural group that's white.

VEDANTAM: Ashli says that when white people engage in this sort of borrowing, they report feeling closer to the culture that they're drawing from. But that's often not how their actions are perceived by the people who belong to that other culture.

CARTER: The issue is that minorities often see those same acts as trespassing. And when they do see it as trespassing, although whites feel more connected to minorities, minorities feel less connected to whites.

VEDANTAM: So is restraint the only solution? Are Black people the only ones who should write the stories of Black people, gay people the only ones to create characters that are gay? There's an argument that can be made that this is the only way to truly achieve authenticity and to reduce harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies. But there are other problems that arise with this solution.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I'm Kwame Anthony Appiah, and I am professor of philosophy and law at NYU. And I also write an Ethicist column for The New York Times Sunday magazine.

VEDANTAM: My discussion with Kwame begins with the question of what it means to be authentic. It turns out that's a complicated question. Take Kwame himself.

APPIAH: I was born in London, and my mother was English. And - but my father was from Ghana, which is where the name Kwame and the name Appiah both come from.

VEDANTAM: Is Kwame an authentic Englishman, an authentic African? When he was young, his family left London and returned to Ghana to a town called Kumasi.

APPIAH: It's the capital of an old kingdom. So up the hill from us there was a palace with a king in it.

VEDANTAM: Kwame he grew up this way - part African, part English, part white, part Black. Add to this that Kwame speaks with an upper-class British accent, and he's gay. In other words, he's hard to categorize. When he steps into a cab, which he does a lot, he says he often gets the same question.

APPIAH: The question is, where are you from?

VEDANTAM: Where are you from? Sometimes he answers that he was born in London.

APPIAH: And that's not what they want to know because the question that they're interested in is, as it were, what I am. Sometimes if the taxi driver in question is sort of brown-skinned as I am, I think they're hoping that my answer will be I'm a Sikh like you, or I'm an Egyptian like you, or whatever. So in a way, it's - when those people ask it, they're hoping that the answer is, you know, you and I are brothers, as it were.

VEDANTAM: Kwame understands why such conversations happen.

APPIAH: So you need some categories that sort of help just ease the flow of human interaction.

VEDANTAM: We do this by grouping people - by race, by country, by gender, by class. These labels help us make sense of the world and those around us. But there is a problem with these classifications.

APPIAH: There are lots of people who are, by our scheme of things, white or African American or Asian American who fit uneasily into the picture because the picture we have is too simple, and it leaves out all the vast variation within these categories.

VEDANTAM: Kwame, in other words, might be gay, but he isn't merely gay. He is also African. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, he is also American. He's a New Yorker because that's where he lives. He identifies as English by birth and by accent. And there is another dimension of his life where none of these categories are very meaningful.

APPIAH: The most important thing about me when I go to meetings of the American Philosophical Association is that I'm another philosopher. And people aren't super-interested in the other dimensions of identity as long as you can talk the talk that philosophers talk.

VEDANTAM: I asked Kwame what he makes of the curious evolution of "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" and Gail's worries about writing an Asian American character.

APPIAH: Well, she's certainly right to be worried that in the Twitter-verse (ph), there would be people who would excoriate her for cultural appropriation. But I would not be among them.

VEDANTAM: For one thing, Kwame says, to think that Gail could not write Camilla's story is to believe that Camilla is defined by being Asian rather than a constellation of different identities, only one of which happens to be her ethnicity.

APPIAH: It treats that, Camilla's experience, as if it's itself some kind of generic thing, as if Camilla was a generic Asian American, whereas Camilla is, in fact, a very particular person with a particular history and a particular set of problems.

VEDANTAM: Can a white woman write authentically about Camilla's life? The test of that, Kwame argues, is whether Gail's original manuscript evocatively captured what it was like to be an Asian American girl coming of age in the Deep South. Conjuring Lyndie so that readers can walk in her shoes, feel what she, feels dream what she dreams, this is why we have novels in the first place. Think of books like "Madame Bovary," written by a man, Gustave Flaubert, or "To Kill A Mockingbird," a book with several characters of a different race and gender than the female author Harper Lee. Kwame says that Gail, in writing about Lyndie, was doing exactly what a writer should be doing.

APPIAH: This is a woman who was trying to make sense of something. And to say that she doesn't have the right to do that, I think, is to miss out on some of the great possibilities of human experience. And it's to miss out on the cosmopolitan impulse, as I say, to try and make sense of things across boundaries of identity.

VEDANTAM: In other words, don't we want writers to inhabit worldviews that are not their own? When we tell the authors to walk only in their own shoes, are we implicitly suggesting that acts of deep empathy with other viewpoints are wrong? I play a little of what Gail said to me to Kwame.

SHEPHERD: I can remember a writer saying to me that she didn't think there was any way, no matter how much research I did or how sensitive I was or how careful I was to create something that was true, that I could possibly represent what it was like to grow up as an African American.

APPIAH: This line of argument leads to the idea that only - we only know ourselves, that there's nothing to be known outside us. It's just a way of closing yourself off from everything. So if - you know, if I said to this African American writer, OK, so you can only write about Black women of your class; that's your job. And then if she said, you know, OK, I'll do that - I would say, well, and now let's go through the other things. Let's go through your sexual orientation. Are you cis or trans? Are you gay or straight? What religion are you? What church did you grow up in? Well, Baptist isn't good enough 'cause this person you're writing about is a Methodist. You have to slip that - you have to insist that they're all Baptists. This is craziness.

VEDANTAM: Kwame argues that at the heart of the debate over authenticity is an error, a philosophical error. Many of us have come to think of our experiences in the same way we think about our cars and homes and phones.

APPIAH: Experience is not a kind of property. It's not the sort of thing that you can own. And so there's nothing essentially Black for Black people to own any more than there's something essentially white for white people to own or essentially Indian for Indians to own. And in that sense, I think there's a sort of philosophical mistake that underlies all this, which is to think of the things that we write about when we write about human life as belonging to people, as opposed to being part of what we can share.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I asked Gail to weigh in on this, the idea that the debate over whose story it is to tell has morphed into a debate over ownership.

SHEPHERD: What he's saying is stripped from any cultural context, right? So we live in a cultural moment, a specific cultural moment, and we live in a place and a time where the publishing - what is published has been completely controlled by white people. And so, yeah, you can totally make the argument he's making, and it's a beautiful argument. And 20 or 30 years down the road, I would embrace it 100%. But right here, right now at this moment, it's not the only argument to make.

VEDANTAM: Over time, Gail told me, literature may get to a place where people of all identities feel that they have a seat at the table. But, she said, we aren't there yet, and it's silly to pretend that we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" is a story of our times. It's about undercurrents of power and privilege. It's about the many ways good people try to create a fair and inclusive world. It's a story about free speech. It's a story of historical wrongs. It's also just a great story. Through the different drafts of her novel, Gail Shepherd did manage to produce something that, at least for her friend Camilla, was recognizably authentic.

In the final version of the book, Gail returned to the story of the deer that Camilla had shot dead. But instead of pulling the trigger, Lyndie B. Hawkins does something else. Here's Camilla.

CAMILLA: She does not kill the deer. It's a wounded deer, and she actually nurses the deer back to health and sets it free. And when I read the novel, I cried because, for me, that was healing. It is, in its essence, a healing story, a story about healing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Thomas Lu. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Engineering help from Gilly Moon. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, Parth Shah and Cat Schuknecht. Voice acting of the excerpt from "The True History Of Lyndie B. Hawkins" by Anya Vedantambe (ph).

This week, we're doing something we've never done before. We're making one of our interviewees in today's episode our Unsung Hero. Just weeks after recording her interview with us, Gail Shepherd died suddenly of complications from a brain tumor. In her obituary, her family wrote that they would remember the way Gail challenged their minds and help them grow as humans. By sharing her thoughts and prose and literature in our interview, Gail did the same for us. We are grateful.

If you like this episode, please be sure to share it with a friend. If they don't know how to subscribe to HIDDEN BRAIN, please show them. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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