Why Respectful Writing Matters: Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann

By Julie Chibbaro

We are all familiar with the way hashtags can create movements, and #ownvoices is one of those movements. #Ownvoices defines for readers books about marginalized characters that are actually written by marginalized authors, as opposed to, say, a white author co-opting a person of color’s experience.

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The multi-talented author Lyn Miller-Lachmann has written from both sides of this argument. I was curious what she thought about writing across races and experiences, as well as her view on the #ownvoices movement. Her answers provide some insight into what’s respectful within the boundaries, and why problems with writing outside of one’s own “voice” can occur.

GLB: I love that you write from the autism spectrum (Rogue) and cross culturally (Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago). You’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but you’re not from the Latin culture from which you’ve written. How do you feel about this political and social climate of #ownvoices, or writing from your “place” in the world only? Do you feel it’s limiting?

LML: This is a complicated question. I think the two most important reasons for #ownvoices are the preponderance of bad representations by outsiders that have become part of the canon—and this is a major problem for books with autistic characters because the early books were bestsellers and award winners and so problematic (see Elizabeth Bartmess’s review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nght-Time in Disability in KidLit, for instance)—and the way in which non-#ownvoices books by bestselling authors have hoovered up scarce publishing slots, leaving marginalized authors unable to sell their work.

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When I started writing Gringolandia, and then Surviving Santiago as the sequel, the circumstances were somewhat different. I lived within a refugee community in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s and then spent time in Chile, where I observed the transition from dictatorship to democracy. My Chilean friends at the time asked me to write the book, because, as they said, “We want you to tell the people in your country what happened to us” as a result of the CIA bringing Pinochet to power. In fact, several of them were angry with me because I failed to find a publisher for the book for many years; they thought I would self-publish it because that’s much more common and respected in Chile than in the U.S. Given that Isabel Allende, Antonio Skármeta, and others were publishing fiction set in Chile during the dictatorship, I didn’t feel I was taking a slot away from anyone else but rather bringing their story—and the U.S.’s role in it—to a wider audience.

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While it’s important to do the research necessary to write outside one’s lane, it’s even more important to be aware of one’s motivation. Why do you want to tell someone else’s story? Will your writing this book deny an opportunity to someone else from a marginalized group? What are you willing to do to make sure an aspiring marginalized writer has a chance? At this point, I would rather serve as the translator for an #ownvoices writer from Latin America, which is something I’m in fact doing now for a Cuban author who’s trying to publish in English in the U.S., where he now lives. We haven’t had much luck yet with U.S. publishers, but he adapted the novel into a screenplay, which I also translated, and it has garnered a lot of interest.

GLB: You’re a translator as well as a novelist. How did you get so involved in Latin cultures and language?

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LML: I was a language ace in high school and did a study abroad mini-semester in Spain during my junior year, an experience I wrote about for YARN several years ago. Teaching in a high school with a predominantly Puerto Rican student body, alongside a Puerto Rican colleague rekindled my interest in Spanish as well as Latin American history, music, and culture. So when I arrived in Madison in 1983, I sought out Latin American New Song concerts and attended other cultural and political events. Then, when my family moved to the Albany, New York area, I became the assistant host of a weekly radio show of Latin American and Iberian music, poetry, and history on WRPI, “Los Vientos del Pueblo.” As part of my duties, I translated songs and poems and read the translations over the air. And when my husband won a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and we moved to Lisbon, Portugal for half a year in 2012, I learned Portuguese and continued my studies (and my translation of songs from Brazil and Portugal) upon my return.

GLB: You’re also a teacher and editor, among other things. Do you find it difficult to wear so many hats? How do you manage?

LML: I think that to survive as a creative person today, one has to wear a lot of hats, because when one opportunity fizzles out, there have to be others waiting. Several years ago, I taught a number of one-off and semester-long workshops at the middle and high school level, but the organizers moved away and the programs ended. This year, more than half of my income has come from translation, but last year I had only one small translation project. For the past couple of years, I’ve made good money doing sensitivity readings from autism, and while I appreciate the income, I hope that sometime soon, my #ownvoices novels will find a publishing home.

In all this, my one constant is writing fiction. I’m always working on new projects and trying new things to develop my craft and explore moments in history with resonance today.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), the story of a eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. Lyn has also written the historical YA novel Gringolandia (Curbstone, 2009) and its companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) and translated the picture book The World in a Second (Enchanted Lion, 2015) by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho from Portuguese to English.