This was one of two pieces that I turned in for my last workshop at my MFA program at North Carolina State University. I don’t remember how I started working on it, but I know I wrote it in a single sitting, and when I read it over, I was quite sad because the work was inspired by a real friend I had known in high school and over the years I’d searched for her on Facebook many times without finding her. I thought that since the piece had made me feel something, it might make others feel something too. But I was also terrified of submitting work inspired by my own life. Would it be discounted for being too autobiographical? Fiction, after all, comes from the vaunted realm of the imagination. So, I chose to include an unnecessary (but cathartic) note with the work (condensed and edited for your reading pleasure):
You may have observed that these pieces are heavily autobiographical. I am taking the stance that this is not a problem. I don’t see why having experienced something makes it any less valuable as an artistic source. The author must still select significant details carefully, must condense, may elide, exaggerate, enlarge—do any or all of the things they would to a purely imagined story; they must, ultimately, shape a narrative. Yet I think there are critics who devalue or dismiss fiction based on biographical details as “mere autobiography,” as if no creativity or thought went into it. I think this is partly because biography is most often associated with women, and perhaps even more often, with women of color, and by this association, becomes devalued… Backstory that nobody asked for: I was inspired to write this partly because of The Washington Post Book World. Back when I was fifteen or sixteen, I would often read the WaPo Book World insert, as cool teens are wont to do. I came across an article about some book by an old white man’s childhood in New England. It seemed to be the type of book that makes my eyes cross with boredom, yet the reviewer went on and on about how elegiac and wonderful it was. I tried to discern from the review what made it so elegiac and wonderful, but I could not tell. And then I had the realization that nothing I wrote would ever have the same kind of reception—nothing I had to say would be deemed inherently valuable or universal in the way that this man’s childhood experiences were. (It is quite possible that this man wrote a very good book, and I am being unfair. But I don’t think that detracts from how I felt, or my larger point that there are certain categories of people who can use biography in fiction without being dismissed or having their talent questioned.)
I considering changing certain details to make it less autobiographical—say, changing the singer from “Elvis Presley” to “Frank Sinatra”—but I resisted the impulse. It would be a surface level appeasement of sorts. I had written a fictional and, I hoped, emotionally true story: that was what mattered.
I played around with changing the work to the first person, but it lost some of its magic: the cadences didn’t feel as incantatory and dreamlike. I liked how the second person forced the reader—any reader—even the mythical white male reader—to become the young Pakistani girl in the story. I liked starting and ending with a disappearance. I liked how quickly I, who usually needed pages and pages to get to the point, had managed to establish the friendship.
So, my advice—especially to women writers, and especially to women writers of color who question the value of their experiences and work? Your stories are important too.
ARSHIA SIMKIN was born in Pakistan and spent the first six years of her life there. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and she currently lives in Gibsonville, North Carolina, with her husband. A former lawyer, she is a graduate of the North Carolina State University MFA program in creative writing and the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization that teaches workshops in the Triangle. Her story “No More Kissing Talk” is forthcoming in Crazyhorse’s spring 2021 issue. In her spare time, she enjoys playing badminton and water coloring.