Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Authors, Cowboy Up

One of my goals in Straight Talk on Writing Race was to encourage and inspire writers -- some of the most creative people on the planet -- to come up with fresh ways of portraying race in stories for young people.

A twitter buddy responded to my article. "As a white author," she said. "I generally can't win when it comes to writing non-white characters."

"Fear of making mistakes is an honest answer," I told her. "Don't give up, it takes work, but that's true for those of us who aren't white, too."

So writers, here's your challenge: pick up a recent work, and think about how and why you DID or DIDN'T mention or describe race. Share the answer if you feel comfortable.

I'll start. In Secret Keeper, I didn't have to, because everybody in the story is Bengali (ha — that was easy, sorry.)


  1. In my current work (in revision stages) my main character is Laotion growing up in a mostly Caucasian small town. That's how my childhood was. This was actually the first project I wrote where my MC was a minority. For me, the "place" I wrote this from was different. Instead of a place where I wanted to be, it was more about where I had already been, if that makes sense.

  2. Excellent SLJ article, Mitali. You certainly drew my attention to one thing -- that I'd fallen into the "almond eyed" cliche with a minor character in my latest mss, and that's something I shall certainly correct before it goes to copyedits! Thanks.

  3. I mention race in all of my books because I don't want readers to replace them with a default race. I try to avoid stereotypical descriptions, but have probably not always succeeded. I've already confessed to being a foodie race describer. But for me, it's important for my reader to understand that there is more than one race represented throughout the story. I'll work on that description issue, I promise.

  4. The picture book that I have written and developing illustrations for is about a little girl who is black. She's having some academic struggles and her best friend, who happens to be of Sweedish descent, helps her to resolve the problem. I plan to create illustrations that reflect a diverse society of children. I do believe that my illustrations would reflect life in most classrooms.

  5. okay, still haven't read your article yet, (waiting til I'm on ref desk in 30 mins) but as for illustrations in picture books: as a librarian, when I look for storytime books, if there are people in the pictures, I look for a mix. One of my favorites is Beach Day by Karen Roosa, which I use frequently in the winter months for my Mother Goose (infant-toddler) group.

  6. I really liked your article. It's very important to think about. I find it very interesting to read novels where the author has a main character who is different from their own race. I think that's very bold.

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  8. Okay: realized I didn't answer the question with my previous meanderings.

    Recent work in which I mentioned race: MARE'S WAR:
    Mentioned race; mostly African American people, described Caucasian people in detail so that there was a distinct and definite difference --
    Why I mentioned race: Because this book took place in the segregated South, and is part of American history and our segregated past. Descriptions in the book when all the characters are African American are still detailed, because people the characters are mainly girls, and it was necessary to differentiate.

    No food metaphors used for colors, and even in defining ethnic minorities, I try to avoid shorthand like "that Chinese-looking girl," because really, what does that mean? I try to describe heights, hair styles and/or textures, clothing, attitude. None of these things are inherently racial, yet they can give readers clues to help them identify themselves in a story.

    I didn't live a particularly urban or street life -- as a suburban, middle class, West Coast-er, my life wasn't filled with a lot of teen-pregnancy/drug doings and "baby mama" drama. I know young people out there relate, and I very much "get" what Cynthia was saying about people being disappointed because she can't paint with "the colors of the wind," like that Disneyfied faux Pocahontas. I can appreciate it when people write dramatic stories about African Americans because drama is part of some lives, however, it's not fair to only present one side, the so-called "urban" side. It makes people whose lives aren't enmeshed in drama feel like there's something wrong with them. And there's not.

    Sorry - I'm going beyond your question AGAIN, so I will quit now!

  9. I certainly don't have any answers to this, just raising questions as usual, but I, too, will be working hard to come up with creative ways to talk about race and ethnicity in a fast-changing world. I so appreciate any effort to look closely at one's work, ask the questions, and give it a try. Letting the imagination play with words -- that's what writing fiction is all about, right? So let's have fun, try things, not be afraid to make mistakes, and keep growing.

  10. Matali, I read your original post on this as well as your article. Congrats on getting the SLJ featured article! I like the core points you make about pushing writers to be bold, original, and creative while trying to authentically depict race. Asking people to try to understand what it is like being in someone else's shoes is difficult. You've managed to make the subject of race approachable and non-confrontational which is quite a feat since people are not at all comfortable discussing race openly.

  11. Thanks for the SLJ article and for hosting this discussion, Mitali. It's definitely an issue I've been wrestling with lately. Helpful to hear how others are too.

  12. I have been reading about your thought-provoking piece most everywhere I go and am grateful for the discussion you have stirred. I have struggled with this more than I might have liked—in memoir, when describing my son's best friend as the boy described himself (by the name of a color in a Crayon box). In my memoir about marriage to a Salvadoran man. In House of Dance, in which the best friend is African American and the nurse is Spanish, and finally in The HEart is not a Size, the book about Juarez, due out next year. Every single time I am stopped by decisions about nuance vs directness, about how and if to portray accents, all of that.

    This is such an important issue.

  13. Mitali, I'm so grateful to you for opening a dialogue and speaking honestly about this important issue! As a white author who has a number of non-white characters in my story, my greatest desire is to portray them - characters I love - as respectfully as possible. Your input is invaluable.

  14. In Manuscript A, the setting is Greenwich, CT, but several of the characters were born and raised in culturally diverse neighborhoods of NYC, so one of the two leads is from an Old White Greenwich Family, and the other is the daughter of Japanese & Salvadoran immigrants, cultures that have a significant influence on each girl deals with the discovery that vampires exist. Both girls hang out with a guy who won't even talk about his heritage, and a woman named after the place of her birth: Abadai. That character, Abadai, knows the dark figure, centuries old, who is the catalyst of the story and who predates the very existence of white America. This is so much more fun to write than some generic "all white" New York cast.

    In Manuscript B, my cast was international when I began because the protagonist was expected to save the *entire* world (rather than just her local country or city, like in most urban fantasies), but I gradually discovered most of the characters were related for plot-driven reasons and as a consequence, they all turned white British (except for the lead white *American* girl, and her best friend who I will not make an ethnic sidekick just to have an ethnic sidekick, ugh). In a way, the story is about race bias, and to my tremendous relief, the most recent draft has brought back diversity in the form of magical races who are struggling to find their place in a world fiercely biased against them. There's not much *skin* diversity in this one, but the *cultural* diversity is there, and hopefully it's more than skin-deep.

    I am terrified of Manuscript C (or, rather Idea C, since I haven't got a first draft yet). It's Too Damn Good An Idea to not write, but I'm not sure I can write it. The protagonist is a young African-American slave who, after watching the boy she loves hung from a tree, runs away. She falls asleep in the snow and enters the realm of fairies on a journey that takes her to darker places emotionally than I have ever been. It's not writing the race that frightens me, but the challenge of making such potent material as powerful as it can be. My characters always have to be real to me or I can't write them well, and I can already tell this girl is so fragile she could crumble like a moth's wings, but so strong she could take my writing to another level. Maybe I'll get to it a couple years from now...

    For a writer, I think a character's race is as much a tool for telling story as setting and period are. In the end, it has to be about knowing the character from the inside-out and telling the character's story and if that means stretching yourself as a writer to explore cultures you know nothing about -- that's all the better.

    And I LOVE today's YA audience, BTW. Some of them are so relaxed about race it's downright inspiring. There are assorted reasons for this -- the internet, growing acceptance of diversity among the young, and even anime for accidental reasons I won't go on about -- but the crying shame is that books have almost nothing to do with it. When I chose to write a character from El Salvador, I asked librarians and teachers for books with teen characters whose parents were from El Salvador, so that I could see what other authors were doing with such material. They couldn't come up with a single work of fiction in English that met that one simple criteria. They came up with less than a dozen novels with "Hispanic" teenagers, which is like coming up with a dozen novels with "European" teenagers when you're looking for a novel about a teen from Malta.

    Beth -- I'm getting your memoir. I'm so glad I took a few minutes to read the other replies and discover yours. I really look forward to reading it!

  15. Thank you all for your honesty. It's time for all of us, white, black, brown, mixed and so on, to take a closer look at our writing, because in this day and age American literature for young people can't be anything but astutely and creatively "multicultural." We'll figure it out, mistakes and all.