Cultural clash: the trouble with writing about the lives of others

Novelists are being attacked for telling stories about experiences that aren’t their own. But isn’t that the point of using the imagination?

Billed as the big page-turner of the season, My Dark Vanessa, American author Kate Elizabeth Russell’s first novel, is a tale for the Time’s Up generation. Its involving drama invites readers to look back again at any treasured youthful memories they may harbour of a past relationship with an older lover and ask: was it really all so pure and so romantic?

But her provocative book has also caused a stir, first in America and now in Britain, for a different reason. Like Jeanine Cummins, author of this year’s American Dirt, Russell has been repeatedly asked to defend her right to tell a story that is not her own.

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