Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Every writer has her/his own method of discovering and writing stories.
I know that I have heard from many a vague source, "write what you know." Certainly, there is validity in the statement.
But with Unbelief, and often with writing books, the story will take the writer beyond her/his comfort zone. I find it important not to resist whichever way the character pulls the plot, even when it is at odds with what the writer knows. After all, with the best stories, the characters have a life and mind of their own, and it would be unfaithful to the story and the character to take them on a different path simply to avoid the difficulty of learning the topic.
(Though I have no proof of this, I doubt Philip Roth knew all about glove-making before writing American Pastoral.)
Instead, it is the responsibility of the writer to do research. One of the great things about literature is how effectively it allows the reader to empathize with people different from oneself. It is for this same reason that I've always enjoyed acting in plays and traveling. Similarly, writing itself is an exercise in empathy.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that much of my book, Unbelief, takes from lives and experiences that I myself have not lived through and experienced myself.
So how do I reconcile my own privileged white American identity with writing a story of an Ugandan orphan?
My answer: research and listening.
I know that no matter how hard I try I will get some things wrong. It is only human of me. But that fact does not release me of my responsibility to tell the story that I find too-often ignored or unheard, nor does it release me of my responsibility to tell the story with as much honesty as I can.
I sought resources from a wide array of mediums: movies, documentaries, novels, albums, podcasts, PhD theses, and interviews with farmers and lawyers. When I could, I would travel to the places I wrote about and take photos when appropriate. When traveling was not possible, I went to Google Maps street view to give myself a better idea.
Often, when I kept my eyes and ears open, I would learn more. My parents found an article about Bobi Wine, an Ugandan musician and politician, in Rolling Stone. I learned about Wakaliwood, a film studio set in the slums of Kampala, when a friend sent me a Vice video about it.
Listening to stories, constantly seeking out new things to learn, is what gives impetus for my writing. I would never have had the idea of a Ugandan kid leaving his school trip to stay in America if I had not heard it mentioned in passing while volunteering at an orphanage in Uganda.
^Me reading at the orphanage where I worked as a volunteer during the summer of 2017