Often friends and family ask me the question that many fiction writers get asked. “How much of the story is true?” I usually manage a vague reply that doesn’t really answer anything. The real answer is complicated and personal and would take a long time to explain, but I’m finally going to give it a go. Because I do think it’s important, for me at least, to answer.
In writing workshops everywhere, students are told to write about what they know. But why? I had a professor during my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, the late Jerry Badanes, who was very interested in my background--that I had a Jewish mother from Brooklyn and a Hindu father from India. During our conference sessions, he wanted to know everything about me culturally, which I found sort of annoying. He said I had such great material to draw from and how lucky I was to have such a rich heritage. But really, what did my background have to do with anything? I was writing fiction. That meant my characters could come from any place they wanted to. I had been trapped, I thought, by my confusing cultural identity all my life and if I wanted to escape it with my fiction, well, that was my prerogative. I didn’t believe in all that “write what you know,” stuff.
So I promptly wrote several short stories about ambiguous people with pale complexions going through midlife crises. He happily discussed these pieces with me, but I knew he wasn’t wowed by any of it. Then Jerry died unexpectedly from heart failure several months into my program. It was awful and shocking for everyone. Then over time, sadly, my memory of Jerry faded.
Many years and many stories later, I had my first child. Nothing makes you look harder at who you are when you start trying to figure out who your child is. Jerry’s gentle guidance started to come back to me. I finally began to explore what I was so afraid to do then. For the first time maybe, I started to write about what I knew.
Out came a novel, a novel not for adults, but for young readers who are the age I was when the issues of the novel were most powerful for me. And to my amazement, Delacorte Press is publishing it in 2012! Guess what it’s about? A girl with a Jewish mother and an Indian father trying to make sense of her cultural identity among other things. It’s called THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL.
Which is why when I tell people who know me about this book, they ask how much of it is true. Natural curiosity, I guess. Well the part about struggling with cultural identity is true. Some other things are true too. The main character, Sonia, has to switch schools, but for different reasons than I did. Everything else is sort of true and sort of not. The way her father speaks, the way her mother drags her pinky nail along her lips when she’s thinking, the way her sister plays the drums--those parts are taken directly from the people who inspired the characters, but most everything else about my main characters isn’t exactly true. Not exactly. It’s a big collection of fictional threads inspired by facts woven into an entirely new piece of fabric. Isn’t every story? So maybe the phrase “Write what you know,” should really be “start from a place you know.” That place may be in the form of a person, a memory, a sentimental piece of china, I don’t know. You might stay there for a long time, you might not. But it’s a good place to start, a truthful place to start. So that’s my answer. And thank you Jerry--for helping me find my voice. I wish I could have thanked you in person.