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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

What Is Not My Story To Tell

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


I took creative writing as my undergraduate minor and I was asked to submit a short fiction story as an assignment for one of my courses. I wrote a story based on my latino roommate’s experiences of poverty and sexual violence. I did research beforehand and asked my roommate for confirmation and approval after the story was written. However, my work was still criticized for containing stereotypical perspectives about latino culture, and being potentially offensive to others. I was confused about how my work still turned out to be problematic when I took all possible measurements to avoid it.

The answer was simple. It was not my story to tell. Even if I carefully conducted research and interviews, and shared a similar identity of being an immigrant and person of colour, I can’t take on the first person narrative in my roommate’s story.

Illustration Artist. Source.

Similar to writers, artists are often encouraged to research, to consult, and to get consent from the community their works connect to. These strategies are helpful but they cannot fully ensure the proper representation in the final product, especially when we tell someone else’s story. A community is a collective of individual thoughts. While we tend to generalize a community based on similar ethnicity, class, education, and religious background, these vary largely between each individual. The consultation and approval of one or several members of the community may not represent many other thoughts and voices, which might lead to problems.

Walker Art Centre. Source.

An example is the controversy surrounding the sculpture, "Scaffold", at the Walker Art Centre in Minnesota. "Scaffold," was modelled after 7 gallows meant to reflect on capital punishment and racial oppression. Its creator, Sam Durnt, stated that he designed the sculpture as a learning space. He also stated it was well received by audiences from various backgrounds when it was first displayed in Europe in 2012. However, when "Scaffold" was brought to the Walker Art Centre in 2017, the local Dakota First Nations community was deeply offended. One of the gallows was used to hang 38 Dakota men during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. The fact that "Scaffold" did not receive criticism from European audiences in 2012 does not ensure it will be appreciated from other members from those same communities, nor does it make it necessarily acceptable in different contexts. Similarly, Durnt's research efforts when creating the artwork still did not make up for the fact that it was not his story to tell.

The City of Oaxaca. Source.

In contrast, the best way to let the story be told is always through the communities themselves. A case study on Oaxacan Museos Comunitarios in Oaxaca, Mexico examined the value of community autonomy in the museum’s operation. Oaxaca has the largest South American Indigenous population. Former attempts to establish community museums in other parts of Mexico were not successful because the organization was run by professionals from the outside and the locals felt their culture was appropriated. For Oaxacan Museos Comunitarios, however, the professionals and scholars only act as advisors and provide workshops and training for community members that are elected to run the museum. Such strategy allowed self representation of the indigenous heritage and allowed the locals to tell their own story.


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