A writer’s dilemma

An Italian-American drove an African-American pianist on a concert tour through the South. His son wrote a film script. Which became the movie, Green Book. Which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Nick Vallelonga grew up hearing his father’s stories about a trip with Dr. Don Shirley. Nick recognized the potential for a good story. If he was going to write about that trip, though, he’d have to rely on his father’s account. He’d have to write it from the white man’s point of view.

William Styron, who grew up in Virginia, became fascinated with the slave uprising led by Nat Turner. Styron recognized the potential for a good story. He did his research and wrote a best selling novel, which won a 1967 Pulitzer Prize: The Confessions of Nat Turner.This was before the days of political correctness. Styron seems not to have anticipated the problem of a white man telling the story from the black man’s point of view. Some of his critics did.

When I met Daniel and Anna I recognized the potential for a good love story. I was naïve, though, when I asked for an interview. (Their story became Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).I didn’t anticipate the story’s racial complexities: Daniel being black, my being white. And there’s the story’s ending. Styron fed white fears about violent black men. I, a white woman, was dealing with a black man’s sexuality

In my first draft I tried to tell Daniel’s and Anna’s story as an impartial narrator. It became obvious that there’s no such thing. I was pretending to get into Daniel’s head when as a white woman, I couldn’t.

Finally I decided that because I am a white woman the most honest way to tell the story was to rely mostly on Anna’s point of view. Besides, Daniel was so articulate that he could speak his own truths.

All of this begs the question: must writers only write from their own social/gender/racial position? Part of the joy of writing comes from imagining experiences outside one’s purview. I’ve been working on a short story told from a troubled teenager’s point of view. It’s a challenge, but it’s all right to try, isn’t it?

Writing non-fiction, though, compels the author to consider another question: Who does the story belong to? The story is/was Anna’s and Daniel’s to share. I got to tell it because I was with them at the right time.

An African American writer would have written a different book, maybe a better one, but I was the person Anna and Daniel trusted, the one to whom Daniel said, “Today we’re going to give you your surprise ending.”

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). The book is usually available wherever books are sold.

A writing success


(31 August 2018)

Nancy Werking Poling is the winner of the 2018 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize competition for “Leander’s Lies.” Poling will receive $1000 from the North Carolina Literary Review,thanks to a generous NCLR reader’s donation that allowed this year’s honorarium to increase (from the previous award of $250). Her winning essay will be published in the North Carolina Literary Review(NCLR) in 2019.

Editor Margaret Bauer reports that submissions for the competition doubled from previous years. A total of 15 finalists out of 63 submissions were sent to this year’s final judge, Randall Kenan. Kenan is the author of several books, including the nonfiction Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, and will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October. Kenan selected Poling’s story for the 2018 Albright Prize, saying, “It was love at first read to me, and stands out in originality and in tone.”

After years of living in many parts of the country, Nancy Werking Poling reports that she is “now happily settled in Black Mountain, NC, an area where nature and history are honored.” Historical influences are woven into her 2017 nonfiction book, Before It was Legal: A Black–White Marriage (1945–1987). Poling is also the author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman (2010), a short story collection, and Out of the Pumpkin Shell (2009), a novel. She has recently completed another novel, currently titled “Wrap Me Tight in Earthen Cloak,” which is set in North Carolina and inspired by the question: During this period of environmental crisis, how do I make my voice and life count?