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Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

From Grace Paley’s “black voice” to Tony Kushner’s fractured gay identity in “Angels in America,” what makes a story representative?

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In her TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Her focus is on literature specifically and media in general, and she argues that when a particular group—a nation, a culture—is shown as one thing, “as only one thing, over and over again,” then “that is what they become.”

As a reader and writer who might describe myself as gay, Italian, or any number of other identifiers, I take Adichie’s talk as a call to action. As a reader, I hear: Be promiscuous in your choice of stories that are set in other countries, or that represent cultures and experiences different from your own; seek a wide range within each country or group; and don’t allow yourself to be convinced of any group’s essential ethos.

As a writer, I hear: You have more of an obligation than you thought you did. If your gay character reinforces a stereotype, or your fictional Italian American family acts like every other Italian American family, you are guilty of perpetuating a single story. You are part of the problem.

As if I didn’t feel anxious enough. As if freshness and authenticity weren’t already my concerns and those of every writer I know. Still, we can’t feel it too keenly or too often, that push to tell the honest story with as much complexity and insight and invention as we can, to shine a light into the dusty corners of human experience, to resist the most accessible images, to make the specific universal and the universal specific; in short, to honor the power that perspective grants us.

The relationship between the author’s unique background and status to that of her narrator(s) is, to put it mildly, highly charged. The question of how far outside her own experience an author is “allowed” to write has more to do with politics than with craft. But since I introduced politics, I’ll let Grace Paley speak for my take on the issue. When Paley was asked about negative reactions to stories she wrote “in a black voice,” she responded:

But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. . . . Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.

I met Grace Paley in May 2005, two years before she died. A longtime fan of her short stories, I’d invited her to Boston to deliver the keynote speech at GrubStreet’s literary conference, which I was organizing. She arrived by bus, wearing sneakers and a small backpack, double-strapped, and waited patiently in an armchair in the lobby of the hotel while I pitched a fit at the desk because her room wasn’t ready. “This is one of our greatest living writers!” I barked. “And she’s just sitting there!” I fretted and paced for over two hours, growing increasingly hysterical, asking Grace again and again if she needed anything. But she just shook her head and smiled. In the meantime, writing students and fellow authors recognized her—at 82, with her familiar corona of white hair and soulful, observant eyes, she was hard to miss—and literally knelt beside her. Often she laid a hand on theirs as they spoke. She asked about their writing, and the Walk for Hunger taking place in Boston the next day, and the war in Iraq. Instead of going straight up when her room was ready, she stayed in her chair talking to the group that had formed on the carpet in front of her. Later, on our way to the fancy dinner we threw in her honor, she did finally make a request, the only one of her visit. She’d forgotten a comb. We picked one out together, and in the window of a CVS a block from the fancy restaurant, she teased up her locks.

This little anecdote captures some of Paley’s humility and generosity and whimsy, but not her fierceness. All are evident in The Collected Stories, which features primarily female narrators in conversation with each other, their families, their lovers, and the reader. The speakers are almost uniformly like Grace. They are women who speak their minds, concerned less with the urgency of getting from here to there—the plot, so to speak—than with responding to what surrounds them in the moment: the demands of friends and children and men and art, personal desires and disappointments, social injustices of all kinds. The conversation is constant, continually interrupted, rarely resolved. Some stories come across more like fragments, one side of a dialogue overheard through a Bronx window, or an excerpted monologue delivered into a mirror or a bullhorn.

One of Paley’s most-quoted passages is from “A Conversation with My Father,” in which the speaker thinks, rather cheekily, that she would like to tell a “simple” Chekhovian story, except that it requires a plot, “the absolute line between two points which [she’s] always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

Paley’s reverence for the “open destiny of life” is for the nuances of everyday experience, which do not fit into neat lines. For Paley, there was no “defining” experience of women or Jews or New York or activists or the 1960s, or of one female Russian Jewish activist-writer in New York in 1965. There were stops and starts, inconsistencies, loyalties forged and broken, discordant voices. People made themselves up as they went along. In the meantime, there was daily life to endure. All of this became the stuff of her fiction. To do right by her mostly female characters, to honor their individuality and give their domestic experience the legitimacy and gravity it was not receiving elsewhere, required a strategy that privileged speaker over story, anecdote over epiphany.

Similarly to Paley’s work, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America invests in multiplicity, in a cross section of voices and perspectives and angles. The playwright resists the creation of a definitive, or even a “specific but universal” Portrait of AIDS as a Young Gay Man, in favor of a significantly broader, more ambitious chronicle.

As part of its narrative strategy, Angels does impose some limits on its broadness. Actors play multiple parts, including characters of the opposite gender, which is a way of “letting the wires show,”—which, in the set directions, Kushner said was “OK”—while advancing the theme of interconnectedness. Each main character is a facet of a distinctly American experience: Joe is a devout Mormon, that homegrown religion; Roy is Roy Cohn, the notoriously and virulently antigay chief counsel to U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy; Prior descends from Mayflower stock. Together with Louis, a Jewish leftist, and Belize, a former drag queen turned nurse, these men form something of a composite— though far from complete—portrait of the gay man in Ronald Reagan’s America.

Okay, well, so what? Lots of stories have multiple narrators, a large cast of principals, and political themes, some of which conflict. You can probably name five before you reach the end of this sentence. But I think there’s a difference that’s common to Paley’s Collected Stories and to Angels in America. In both, the narrators participate in the dominant system but belong to groups that are invisible, dispossessed, misrepresented, misunderstood, feared, and/or vilified; more importantly, they are compelled, for whatever reason, to be comprehensive—or, at least, “representative”—in the telling of multiple stories from multiple angles within their respective groups. There’s an anxiety of obligation to this multiplicity, an inherent and likely subconscious fear of perpetuating a single story. There may also be an implicit discomfort with the responsibility and power of perspective itself, of owning and defining an experience or identity that is still in the process of gaining visibility, rights, compassion, and recognition.

My first clear image of a gay man was a skeletal Rock Hudson on television in the summer of 1985, flashbulbs going off around him, while newscasters speculated on the cause of his rapid decline. I was 13. I don’t remember if I knew what AIDS was until that moment, or if I even understood that “gay” was an identity, but, from then on, one became synonymous with the other, and together they equaled that diseased, emaciated figure once so handsome and beloved.

Soon after, I was at a friend’s birthday party at the bowling alley down the street from my house. As I waited my turn, chatting with my friends, the world suddenly detached. I sensed I was floating away from the scene in front of me, as if I’d become a ghost, or maybe my friends were the ghosts and I’d crossed into their alternate universe. I broke into a sweat; my heart pounded; still I went on talking—no one noticed I felt any different—waiting for the world to right itself. It did right itself, after a few minutes, but later that night, alone in my room, it happened again, that sudden detachment, and then again the next day, and on multiple occasions every single day afterward. I didn’t tell a soul.

My lifeline was the blue pages of the phone book, which listed free numbers and codes I could use to listen to prerecorded messages about various illnesses: “schizophrenia,” “multiple personality disorder,” “homosexuality.” I borrowed film histories from the local library, searched the glossy middle pages for photos of Rock Hudson, and gazed morbidly at the man he once was. I filled my journals with desperate pleas to God to heal my afflictions: the freaky disassociation, the aching desire I felt for the boys in my class. In the meantime, I kept waiting to go crazy enough on the inside for someone to notice, or to rot from the outside. I didn’t know which would happen first, only that both were inevitable.

I had based my identity on a single story. A tragic story, no less, made more powerful in its vividness and melodrama and indelible detail. Other less tragic, maybe even happy, narratives of the lives of gay men certainly existed in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s, but either they were inaccessible or I willfully resisted them.

We take a great risk when we change our narrative, when we tell a different story about ourselves to ourselves. No wonder we do it so seldom, if at all. Tell yourself a story for long enough, and it comes to define you. You settle into it. There’s a comfort in the single story, one as potent as the danger.

Adapted from “The Position of Power” © 2016 by Christopher Castellani. Reprinted from The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.