I always used to wonder why God seemed to put so much emphasis in the Quran on sending a messenger to a people from among their own people.

It’s repeated over and over again.

I thought, what’s the big deal if an outsider were to come and point out what they were doing wrong? After finishing Sold by Patricia McCormick, I think I’ve figured it out.

There’s something very odious about a person from another culture, especially a more technologically advanced culture, writing a book about poor little Nepalese girls who are duped into becoming sexual slaves.

No matter how good the intentions are, no matter how beautiful the writing (and definitely this book has some beautiful imagery in it) it comes across as extremely condescending that once again this poor little girl, who didn’t know any better, and her parents didn’t know any better, even though her mother must have known the stepfather was scum–once again she gets saved by the big good Americans.

And once again it confirms my suspicions that the stories about other ethnicities that win all the awards and get all the press tend to be stories that in subtle and not so subtle ways, denigrate the other cultures.

I talked about this in the speech I gave in Denmark at the International Board on Books for Young People (I.B.B.Y.) congress in 2008. You can read it here: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com/articles/Freedom%20of%20Speech.pdf

Basically these are stories that Westerners (and in particular Americans) might read to actually feel good about themselves.

And yet, the irony is, that Lakshmi’s story is not so different from the story of many girls who run away from home and become prostitutes in America.

I was hoping there’d be some bigger theme to the story. Some essence that distinguished it from a sort of propaganda type thing, but I can’t seem to find one.

And yet, I’d have no problem with the story if an Indian or Nepalese person had written it.

Like it or not it does come across as condescending when a privileged person writes about the ‘underclass’ of another culture.

But I don’t think Ms. McCormick may have been conscious of this. I think she probably wrote this book with the best of intentions in the belief that she was telling an important story.

I’ve met lots of authors who do this.

But what I don’t understand is why they feel just telling a story is enough.

Last October I was in Calgary for WORDFEST, a literary festival which hosted the creme de la creme of literature here in Canada.

It was an interesting experience. One of the other ladies I came to befriend was a lady named Mariatu Kamara from Sierre Leone.

A journalist had written her story called Bite of the Mango. It was a very sad story of what happened to her when she was abducted by child soldiers and had her hands cut off.

She’s remarkably well-adjusted.

A Canadian family sponsored her and she’s now going to college to learn social work. Mariatu won the Governor General’s award for the book and plans to split the money with the journalist who helped her write the story and her foundation which helps street children in Sierre Leone.

You see, she’s doing something good with the money. I guess I mean to say that she’s not just living high off it.

Deborah Ellis is another author who I admire because she donated the royalties of all three of her Breadwinner series of books to Women for Women Afghanistan.

She does so much philanthropic work that despite the fact that she writes about disadvantaged kids from other cultures, the fact that she’s so generous goes far to allay the ‘odious’ factor. (Mind you I only ever had problems with one of those books, the others I have included on my Muslim booklist.) But the fact that she is so very generous really goes a long way to overlooking any flaws in her work and makes me feel nothing but admiration for her.

Now, I don’t know if Ms. McCormick has donated any of the proceeds of her book Sold to helping out those girls who were taken from their homes and sold into sexual slavery.

I hope she does.

But part of Wordfest involved a writer’s retreat where we were positively pampered at the Banff Centre.

Banff is nestled in the Rocky mountains and we ate delicious meals in a cafeteria with panoramic scenery out of every window.

During the retreat we had a workshop and the issue came up of whether a writer had any obligation except to write the story.

I said they do. I said that we’re a bit like photo journalists in that if someone is dying in front of us it behooves us to put down the camera and help! Not just write about it!

Someone disagreed. He said what would have happened if that photojournalist who took that famous picture of the woman running down the road naked, Kim Phuc, had put down the camera and not taken that picture?  He said the horrors of that one picture helped end the war.

That may be true, but she was running, not dying.

Anyway, my point is, I think it’s wrong to write about another culture, especially one that is less wealthy and less …(you know it’s funny, every word that’s coming to mind has the connatation of inferiority, and yet I firmly believe that ‘primitive’ societies are not inferior in the least)…let’s just say less ‘advantaged’ without giving something back.

Donating part of the proceeds to help the poor.

I think it’s odious.

Basically you’re profiting off of someone else’s miserable story.