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[00:00:00]

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.

[00:00:47]

The painting was called Open Casket, its artist, Dana Shootist 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.

[00:01:21]

I said, I want the world to see this because there's no way I can tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like. 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. Dana Schultz, who is white, interpreted the photo in a way that was more abstract, but also disturbing. Amytal suit is crisp and pristine, the brutality inflicted on his face is represented with slashing strokes of browns and reds.

[00:02:12]

Shortly after Shootist 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, Schultz's work, she said, is not what Mamie Till would have wanted.

[00:02:49]

When she said, I want them to see this image, she meant Dana Schultz, 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.

[00:03:06]

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

[00:03:15]

People calling for the destruction of art goes very, very hard for me because the Nazis did that. The Nazis want God said, get rid of stuff that we don't like, burn the book, do this.

[00:03:28]

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.

[00:03:45]

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? Support for this podcast and the following message come from TD Ameritrade, where your learning experience is curated from their vast library of exclusive content and customize is to fit your investing goals and interests.

[00:04:43]

Get started at TD Ameritrade Dotcom's education. Remember SIPC?

[00:04:50]

Not long ago, writer Gail Shepard got her first novel published, The True History of Lindy B. Hawkins is for middle grade kids.

[00:05:01]

It tells a story of an 11 year old girl, Lindsay, and her troubled family, Lindsay'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 Linda's grandparents house in Tennessee Monday morning, first day of seventh grade.

[00:05:23]

I'm standing in lady and grandpa dad's hallway alone in my stuff, spotless blazer and iron, pleated skirt and polished loafers holding my new diverter notebooks. Lady brought me. Miles 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. 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.

[00:06:05]

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 a true history of Lindy B. Hawkins, but the true history of somebody else.

[00:06:22]

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. Chapter one, The Muse, once upon a time, there was a little girl.

[00:06:45]

Her name was Camilla. Her father was a blue eyed, blond haired military man. My father was a veteran and he was a veteran in the Korean War.

[00:06:56]

Her mother was Asian. My mother's Filipino. Camila was born in Santa Ana, California, in the late 50s.

[00:07:05]

We're not using her last name to protect her family's privacy. Camila 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 Anna, she fit right in. When she was 10, her family piled into a car and headed east. My father wanted to take the family back to the south, to Georgia.

[00:07:35]

Almost from the start, Kamilah says things felt off when they crossed the Mississippi River. She looked up and saw a sky she didn't recognize.

[00:07:45]

Gone was the vast canopy of blue she knew so well and its place was a low, heavy sky crowded with clouds. Finally, the family pulled into their new hometown, Macon, Georgia. And freedom and justice and in peace, it was the summer of 1968, smack in the middle of the civil rights movement.

[00:08:21]

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

[00:08:27]

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

[00:08:31]

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.

[00:08:40]

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 a being lost and feeling very alone and vulnerable, I was suddenly surrounded by four white boys a little bit older than me who were.

[00:09:07]

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 in this new place under a different sky, in a time of racial turmoil, Camilla had learned her first lesson.

[00:09:37]

Skin color mattered. You were either. White or you were black, the problem for Camilla was that she was neither. My skin was in between and if it was was not black, but it was a color of brownish yellow. By 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, Georgia, one parent was clearly superior to the other.

[00:10:24]

Inferior whom would she identify with? 10 year old Camilla went with a safer option. She picked the white parent because that was the side that had power. That was made very clear to me. 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 saw to learn her mother's native language, Tagalog, for Camilla to do this, to claim only her white half men giving up something she cherished the part of her that came from her mother with whom she felt a deep emotional connection.

[00:11:05]

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

[00:11:25]

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. It wasn't just what she said, 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, it was disrespectful.

[00:11:58]

Camilla realized that she was treating her mother the same way her father treated her mother. 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.

[00:12:14]

Carmela still vividly remembers a family car trip. My brother and I in the backseat and my father was driving and my mother in the passenger seat and there was some tension.

[00:12:28]

My it was another bad day. He was in a bad mood. He was driving too fast. 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. Finally, he pulled over, my brother and I were petrified in the backseat and my mother got out of the car and she was shaking like a tremors. She was shaking all through her body on the side of the road.

[00:13:13]

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.

[00:13:39]

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, they went out together, father, son and daughter. And on that day, very first time, a buck came into my range where I was stationed in a tree. Camilla didn't want to shoot, but she felt she had to. And I did what I had been taught and I shot that deer dead. But as she watched the deer fall to the ground, she realized she was not her father's daughter after all.

[00:14:22]

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

[00:14:33]

What has 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. Chapter two, friendship. In the mid 1980s, Camilla started graduate school at the University of Florida. One night she attended a poetry recital and listen as a fellow student, read some of her work.

[00:15:18]

She felt a connection. I was very drawn to her aesthetic sensibility. And to the way that she saw the world, the classmate's name was Gail Shepard, Camilla was captivated by Gail's writing. She was captivated by Gayle. I remember I would try and say hi to her when we passed each other walking across campus.

[00:15:45]

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 gosh, she's not interested in being friends.

[00:15:58]

Later, I found out that she's legally blind in one eye and refused to wear glasses and she never saw me.

[00:16:07]

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.

[00:16:16]

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.

[00:16:33]

Eventually, Gayle 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 Camilla kept in touch through a now forgotten art letter writing.

[00:16:59]

I remember the feel of the paper, that thin blue airmail paper that we used to have.

[00:17:07]

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. They wrote not just as friends but as writers.

[00:17:21]

April 25th.

[00:17:24]

I imagine the scenario you blew 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 looking postage, me licking postage or envelopes, blowing kisses at each other as they passed two ships and then like a seven somewhere mid Atlantic front, 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.

[00:17:59]

One day on that thin air mail paper, Camilla wrote about her complicated relationship with her father and her mother.

[00:18:06]

Once there was a man who was a hunter of some renown, a man of the words. He was a soldier in his unit, an American of Scottish descent. He married a Filipino woman and had a family.

[00:18:18]

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

[00:18:21]

When the lesson was over, the girl knew everything there was to know about the smell of fear and death. 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. Twenty third 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. But such honesty brought them even closer.

[00:18:55]

Gail identified deeply with Camilla.

[00:18:58]

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 real a film which will show you what you've done without my having to say it. By the time Gale 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.

[00:19:29]

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 early childhood, Gale returned to Florida.

[00:19:51]

Their letters were packed carefully into boxes and put away. This message comes from NPR sponsor Verbal Summer is here and vacation is just a drive away search. Thousands of nearby vacation rentals on Verber to find your family, a private home all to yourselves, where you can spread out chillout and feel that vacation feeling again together. Book the home that makes the vacation. Download the verbal app that's Vario.

[00:20:33]

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[00:21:04]

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

[00:21:47]

He has PTSD.

[00:21:49]

You know by now that the inspiration for this book was similar 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 Lindsey's mother Vietnamese and her father a Vietnam War vet. Gail diverged from a similar story in other ways, for example, she gave Linda a close friend growing up, Camilla had also had a close friend, an African-American girl. Gail made the friend a boy.

[00:22:24]

Debe, A.B., in the first draft of the novel was Native American.

[00:22:29]

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.

[00:22:40]

I saw her in California. Coming in to do a writer's 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.

[00:22:57]

I asked him how she felt about Gail turning her life story into a book I felt.

[00:23:05]

Onat. 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.

[00:23:42]

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.

[00:23:55]

So, I mean, she she loved it. You know, we had a really great deep conversation about it and and just talked, you know, for hours about it at that time and. That she was just super supportive about it. 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?

[00:24:25]

And so the conversation was also about like archetypal.

[00:24:31]

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? Over the next two years, Gail wrote ferociously when she was done, she'd completed the manuscript for the true history of Lindy B. Hawkins. In 2014, she sent the manuscript to her agent who shopped it around. An editor at a prominent publishing house quickly snatched it up. The publication date was set for 2016.

[00:25:13]

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. There was a problem, but the narratives themselves, the way they were framed. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about this in a TED talk.

[00:25:42]

The Palestinian poet Marie Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess of people, the simplest way to do it is to tell the 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 states. And you have an entirely different story.

[00:26:14]

Incomplete or poorly framed narratives are only part of the problem. There are also concerns about characters based on grotesque stereotypes.

[00:26:25]

You can see how this works and not just in novels, but in other forms of storytelling.

[00:26:30]

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, his clumsy with buckteeth and Coke bottle glasses.

[00:26:47]

His name is Mr. O'Neill, and he's a Japanese man who lives upstairs from Audrey Hepburn.

[00:26:53]

Holly Golightly.

[00:26:54]

Oh, darling, I am sorry, but I lost my key two weeks ago. You cannot go wandering deeper into my. Now you discover me. You must have a key me. But it won't do any good. I just lose them all.

[00:27:07]

Stories like this shape the way Asians were seen not just in the movies but in real life. Bumbling, awkward, short sighted. What had gone with the wind in the white fantasy land of the story, black slaves served their masters with pleasure and often had fun, Quinkan said this couldn't have said it.

[00:27:30]

Quitting time as the foreman of the one says, when it's quitting time, a tough one to put down. 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.

[00:27:54]

As Gale 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. I felt very nervous and, um, 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.

[00:28:31]

It's not my background and I probably couldn't write it as well as an Asian-American author.

[00:28:38]

Could Gail call her editor?

[00:28:41]

And I said, Cathy, 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.

[00:28:52]

It wasn't that Gail didn't feel confident in her deep knowledge of Kamilah story. She did, but she was a new author and she was worried about the reception for her first book.

[00:29:04]

I think I was afraid that, you know, book bloggers and reviewers and social media personalities would write me over the coals and they would drag you over the coals to say what they would say.

[00:29:19]

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 in this culture. And you must have had a sort of an internal conversation you had where you said, well, but 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, of course. Yeah, of course. But Gail, imagine shouting wars on Twitter.

[00:29:44]

There might be little room for nuance, for discussion, for her to explain how deeply she knew Kamilah story, how much she empathized with what her friend had been through. And it was more than just fear, as Gail listen to the voices of the critics, she found herself agreeing with many of them 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.

[00:30:17]

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

[00:30:36]

It is a novel. It's about a Mexican mother who she and her son are fleeing to the US border. And one of the points of controversy is that Cummings is actually of Irish and Puerto Rican descent.

[00:30:48]

So little wonder that a debut author like Gail Shepard will think twice about creating a central character of a different race. Still, when Gail told other writers about her decision, reaction varied widely, almost uniformly.

[00:31:05]

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. 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?

[00:31:50]

Are you OK with that?

[00:31:51]

And. And, you know, at least one case I could 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.

[00:32:26]

Gail Romayne 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, Why don't we think about writing it from a white perspective? Your Southern, your family is Southern. Why not just make your main character a white Southern girl?

[00:32:57]

Gail found herself teetering between despair and relief. I was like, oh, my God, OK, this is going to be a really big hurdle to rewrite this book yet again. But she decided to do it. She looked to her own background for inspiration, not 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. It took her several more years to rewrite the book.

[00:33:30]

The final version of the True History of Lindy B. Hawkins was published in 2019. Gayle's first draft of the book had grappled with questions of race and racism, but those disappeared in the final version besides changing Lindis race. Gail also changed the race of her friend Debbie. He was initially imagined as Native American baggier made him white girl 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.

[00:34:05]

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 Lindy? I bought the book and read it.

[00:34:19]

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.

[00:34:32]

Camilla was deeply moved when I read the true story of Lindy B. Hawkins.

[00:34:37]

I still see my story in there.

[00:34:40]

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

[00:34:52]

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.

[00:35:31]

What do you think is lost when she makes that decision, Carmela? Well, you know, what's lost is, is the story about the Asian-American girl that we are waiting for some Asian-American author to write.

[00:35:51]

And I think that might be the sad pieces. You know, we may be waiting for some time to hear that story. Still. I mean, is it possible that there's a nine 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? Without question. Without question, there would have been. I asked Gayle whether anything Camilla had just said made her rethink her decision to change the race of the central character.

[00:36:34]

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

[00:36:40]

Yes.

[00:36:43]

Um. 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 them, to the children's, you know, to children's literature that this particular story was not told in the original form.

[00:37:19]

Who gets to tell a story if a similar story belongs to her? Can she give someone else license to tell it? What if that other person is not? This Camela story belong only to her or do other Asian people have a stake in that story and how it gets taught in hotels in. What does it take to really make amends and how should we navigate our digital spaces? I'm a new shahmoradi. Each week on NPR's TED Radio Hour, we go on a journey with TED speakers who help us answer some of life's biggest questions.

[00:38:03]

Join us. Listen now.

[00:38:08]

Chapter four, 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 Ashley 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 what the issue often becomes.

[00:38:45]

As 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 in appropriate a little bit of this so that I'm actually distinct within this huge cultural group that's white.

[00:39:12]

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

[00:39:26]

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.

[00:39:41]

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 the solution. 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.

[00:40:18]

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.

[00:40:28]

I was born in London and my mother was was English and but my father was from Ghana, which is where the name Kwame Anthony Appiah both come from is Kwame an authentic Englishman, an authentic African.

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When he was young, his family left London and returned to Ghana to a town called Kumasi.

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It's the capital of the Old Kingdom. So up the hill from us there was a palace with the king in it. Kwame grew up this way.

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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.

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The question is, where are you from? Where are you from? Sometimes he answers that he was born in London, 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.

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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. Kwame understands why such conversations happen, so you need some categories that sort of help just ease the the the flow of human interaction. 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.

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But there is a problem with these classifications.

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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.

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Kwame, in other words, might be gay, but he isn't merely gay. He's also African as a naturalized U.S. citizen. He's 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 when none of these categories are very meaningful.

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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 in the other dimensions of identity. As long as you can talk the talk that philosophers talk.

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I asked Kwame what he makes of the curious evolution of the true history of Lindy B. Hawkins and Gail's worries about writing an Asian-American character.

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Well, she's certainly right to be worried that that in the Twitter verse, there would be people who would excoriate her for cultural appropriation, but I would not be among them.

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For one thing, Kwame says to think that Gaer could not write a similar 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.

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

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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 Lindy so that readers can walk in her shoes, feel what she feels, dream what she dreams.

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This is why we have novels in the first place.

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Think of books like Madame Bovary, written by a man, Gustaaf Lover or To Kill a Mockingbird, a book with several characters of a different race and gender than the female author Harper Lee.

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Kwame says that Gail and writing about Lindy was doing exactly what a writer should be doing.

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This is a woman who was trying to make sense of something.

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And to say that she doesn't have a right to do that, I think, is to miss out on some of the great possibilities of of human experience.

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And it's to miss out on the cosmopolitan impulse, as I say, to try and make sense of things across boundaries of identity.

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In other words, don't we want writers to inhabit worldviews that are not their own?

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When we tell authors to walk only in their own shoes are we implicitly suggesting that acts of deep empathy with other viewpoints are wrong?

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I play a little of what Gail said to me, to Kwame, I could remember.

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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.

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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 and 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.

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And then if she said, you know, OK, I'll do that, I would say, well, now let's go through the other things that 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 because this person you're writing about is a Methodist. You have to slip out. You have to insist that they're all Baptists.

[00:46:43]

This is craziness.

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Quami 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.

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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.

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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.

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What he's saying is stripped from any cultural context. Right.

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So we live in a cultural moment of specific cultural moment and we live in a place and a time where.

[00:47:56]

The publishing, what is published, has been completely controlled by white people.

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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 percent. But right here, right now, at this moment, it's not the only argument to make over time.

[00:48:18]

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. The true history of Lindy 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.

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It's also just a great story. Through the different drafts of her novel, Gail Shepard did manage to produce something that, at least for her friend Camilla, was recognizably authentic. In the final version of the book, Gale returned to the story of the deer that Camilla had shot dead. But instead of pulling the trigger, Lindy B. Hawkins does something else. Here's Camilla. She does not kill the deer. It's a wounded deer.

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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. This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmitt and Thomas Lu, it was edited by Tara Boyer, Engineering Help from Jilly Moon. Our team includes Raina Cohen, Laura Corale Path, Patricia and Kaptchuk Connect voice acting of the excerpt from The True History of Lindy B.

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Hawkins by Anya Vedantam. 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 Sheppard 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.

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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. From Mesan to Becky to Karen, our very own Karen netback, Karen, Karen Grigsby Bates shares the evolution of the nickname for a certain kind of white woman.

[00:51:49]

I'm looking forward to the next iteration. I want my name back.

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That's coming up on NPR's Code Switch.