Who has the right to tell stories? Salman Rushdie says anyone

Who has the right to tell stories? Salman Rushdie says anyone

The author defended writers' right to craft diverse characters in a bid to 'cease limiting artistic freedom'

by Suswati Basu
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In a recent statement, Booker prize-winning author Salman Rushdie passionately argued against limiting writers to create characters only from their own backgrounds and experiences. “If we’re in a world where only women can write about women and only people from India can write about people from India and only straight people can write about straight people […] then that’s the death of the art,” he asserted, as reported by the Times.

Who has the right to write your stories?
Read: Frankfurt Book Fair: open letter supports cancelled Palestinian writer Adania Shibli

Speaking at a press conference during the prominent Frankfurt book fair, Rushdie, the Indian-born British-American novelist, delved into more than just literature. He also expressed his profound horror regarding the recent Hamas attack on Israel and shared his apprehensions concerning the potential retaliation by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and as a result, talked about the role of writers in this war.

“What writers can do – and what they are doing – is to try to articulate the incredible pain that many people are feeling right now and to bring that to the world’s attention.”

Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s call for unbridled creative freedom

Rushdie’s appearance at the event was a significant one, given his close shave with death in New York last year when he was attacked with a knife. This incident occurred three decades after the infamous fatwa issued by Iran, which marked him for death due to the controversial nature of his book, “The Satanic Verses.”

The world now awaits his memoir, “Knife,” which reflects on the 2022 attack and is set to be published in April 2024. When questioned about the forthcoming book, Rushdie admitted that he felt compelled to document the incident, emphasising the challenges of the past year and expressing gratitude for still being alive.

“The whole point about the novel is that you invent the world that is not, and that includes inventing people who are not like yourself. If all you can do is invent people like yourself, that’s nothing.”

Salman RushDie
Read: Should classic books be rewritten for modern sensibilities? Experts say no

While receiving the coveted German Book Trade’s Peace Prize, Rushdie reiterated the importance of unconditionally defending the freedom of expression. In a discussion with German news outlet DW, he voiced a humble perspective on the capacity of literature amidst political turmoil, stating: “It’s always been the case, you know, in many parts of the world that dictators fear poets. And it’s very strange because writers have no armies.”

“I do have the impression that there is an uncertainty among young writers about what they’re allowed to write about. Not only for political reasons but for social and cultural reasons. My view is that everybody can write about everything. If that’s not true, then the art of the novel ceases to exist.”

Salman Rushdie

R.F. Kuang on the landscape of storytelling

In a recent conversation with the Guardian, R.F. Kuang also voiced her perspective on the increasingly tumultuous landscape of storytelling and representation in the digital age. The conversation stemmed from the uproar created in her latest book “Yellowface,” where a simple query metamorphosed into an overwhelming flood of reactionary tweets. Kuang’s stance on the matter stands out in its clarity. “I really do not like this framework,” she states, suggesting that the present discourse, which revolves around questions like “who has the right” or “who is qualified” to tell certain stories, is misguided. She believes that the essence of storytelling is to “imagine outside of your lived experience” and to craft a spectrum of characters with truthfulness and compassion. “Otherwise all we could ever publish are memoirs and autobiographies and nobody wants that,” she adds.

Read: Yellowface book: mining people’s lives is a form of theft – review

For Kuang, the true intrigue lies not in who tells the story, but in the manner of its telling. She raises pertinent questions about the storyteller’s approach: “Are they engaging critically with tropes and stereotypes that already exist in the genre? Or are they just replicating them?” Above all, she stresses on the quality and originality of the work, asking, “does the work do something interesting? Is it good?”

While she recognises that some of the ongoing debates about “permission to speak” are well-intentioned, aiming to uplift underrepresented authors, Kuang observes a darker undercurrent. Such debates, she opines, can inadvertently end up cornering marginalised writers, pressuring them into solely writing about their own marginalised experiences. Kuang condemns this, remarking, “It really functions as another form of gatekeeping.”

The literary world assesses authentic representation

Meanwhile, other literary experts weighed in on the debate of authors stepping outside their immediate experience to craft characters. Hannah Gomez, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona and Senior Editor at Kevin Anderson & Associates, stated that the core issue is not about the freedom to write, but rather the intent and qualification of doing so. Good writers can venture into unfamiliar narratives, but it demands humility, research, and guidance from experts she suggested.

“I think a good writer can find their way into all sorts of stories that don’t necessarily feel immediately applicable to their own experience, and they should, but they have to do so with a lot of humility, a lot of research, and a lot of support from sensitivity editors and cultural experts.”


Best-selling author David Scott Hay made a compelling point by comparing the act of writing to child’s play. The author of [NSFW] and The Fountain commented: “[Writers] should be able to create characters outside their own experiences. This is play for adults. It would be like telling a child they can’t pretend to be anything other than a child.” Hay noted the importance of authenticity and rigorous preparation in crafting genuine narratives that resonate with readers.

Read: Diversity in publishing: moving past a tick box exercise

“The real question is one of authenticity. Have you done your research, have you done interviews, have you had qualified beta readers? Have you created a compelling story? If you haven’t, no amount of experience will save you from a discerning reader.”


In response to a Reddit thread on artistic licence four years ago, there were some answers to this very question. One user said that they would never use real-life people for their characters.

Reddit user says: "I enjoyed that, but oddly the main objection I have is to the guy who said he took the personality for a character from a friend. His quote was something like ‘There are those who say they always do that and there are those that lie.’

Honestly, that’s nonsense. Literally the only personality I’ve ever taken from anyone I know is the protagonist of my last book, and she’s basically me. I’ve never used another person I actually know in real life as a basis for a character’s personality.

It seems like a pretty limiting way to do it, to be honest."
Reddit user responds to question: “Who gave you the right to tell these stories?”

Another user feels the opposite, and says that they would feel “odd” for writing another person’s experience, as they believe they would do the character a disservice.

Reddit user writes: "Interesting reading, and sometimes oddly, as an ethnically Chinese and non-American writer, it feels odd for me to be writing white Americans. It's like I'll never be able to write them right no matter how many white Americans I interact with online or how many white American characters I encounter when reading, I'll never be able to write a white American well enough."
Another Reddit user talks about rights to tell stories

Whose right to tell stories is it anyway?

Rushdie’s perspective, combined with the insights from other literary figures, underscores the crux of the matter: authenticity and intention. While it’s vital to safeguard against misrepresentation, stifling writers’ ability to explore characters beyond their own experiences could thwart the growth and richness of literature. Ultimately, the freedom to craft varied characters, paired with a commitment to authentic representation, ensures that this particular arena remains a vibrant, inclusive, and transformative force in our ever-evolving global society.

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