What Am I Allowed To Write About? by Miriam Sagan

What Am I Allowed To Write About?

I think most writers have to confront—at one or several points in our careers—whether some topics are forbidden. It is actually quite a complicated process, without an easy answer. I developed as a poet in the shadow of the Boston confessional school—Plath, Sexton, Lowell,et al. So spilling the beans was easy enough. But when I got older—and as I wrote more prose and memoir—I had to self censor my desire to tell other peoples’ secrets. The urge was there, but the imperative was pretty clear—these things were not mine to tell. So I didn’t.
Family history seems more complex. After my father’s death I started writing more directly about him, and his family. They were not cliched pale and studious Eastern European Jews. Rather, they were redheaded Ukranian gangsters, of the type found in Isaac Babel stories about Jewish drug smugglers and crime bosses. But much of this was hearsay, or conjecture. Other people in the family might not agree.
My solution was to try and be open about the difference between what I knew and what I intuited, what I’d heard directly and what I’d deduced. I’ve enjoyed this writing, but it is still partially in process. I’m still working to understand it—to own it actually, so it isn’t something outside of my self.
The issue of cultural appropriation is a hot potato in literary academic circles at the moment. I won’t get into the debate, but I do want to look at a tangential question. Is it ok to write about your own ethnic or minority group if what you have to say isn’t all good?
I never thought about this personally until quite recently, when I was confronted directly with it. I was running a panel of Jewish women writers when someone in the audience suggested we shouldn’t be “allowed” to hang out any dirty laundry about our experiences because it would reflect badly on the Jewish people as a whole. I kind of poo-pooed this in my mind until I read a thought provoking essay by a contemporary Mexican writer on the same question. Maybe my initial response had been too facile?
But on re-examining, I’m content with my first response, which was to say that we were “allowed” to write whatever we wanted. I talked about how we—particularly as women—had struggled to give voice to our experiences. One panel member reminded us that writers don’t proceed blithely—we examine this as we go.
The truism about writing is to write what you know. This has always felt constricting to me—I want to add—what I imagine, fear, love, suspect, am puzzled by. Or, as I’ve told myself recently, the solution is to know more—a whole lot more.

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