Mea Culpa in Writing Race

I've made plenty of missteps as I journey along with the rest of my author friends to include and describe characters of different races, but I featured a particular error in my article for School Library Journal:

Overexoticizing a nonwhite character to appeal to white readers can happen inside a story as well as on a cover. Take my book The Sunita Experiment (Little, Brown, 1993), the story of an eighth grader whose California home becomes much more traditional when her grandparents visit from India.

After the novel was published, a reviewer chastised me for the “unnecessary exoticization” of my protagonist. Here’s how I ended the story, with Sunita championing her South Asian heritage by trying on a saree and modeling it for the guy she likes:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still Sunita Sen and not some exotic Indian princess coming to cast a spell on me?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

I fumed, but, dang it, the reviewer was right. Exotic Indian princess? What was I thinking? Enduring a twinge of shame, I moved on and tried to learn from my mistake.

When my publisher decided to reissue the book in 2005, I was asked if I wanted to make any changes. “Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist.

Here’s how the book, renamed The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, ends now:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still the same Sunita Sen? The California girl?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

Thank goodness for second chances.

A few readers have wondered why this was so bad. One commenter on a recent post raised the question:
You chastise yourself for referring to your character as an "exotic Indian princess." I fail to see what's wrong with the image, depending on who's making the statement. South Asians are exotic to Westerners. What's wrong with saying that?
Here's my answer:
When I look back with distaste at the "exotic Indian princess" descriptor for my between-cultures Sunita, I'm thinking of young Asian women who must deal with the fact that some non-Asian men will pursue them because of an exotic-cum-submissive Asian female stereotype. My writing emphasized that unhealthy dynamic because it was said by Michael, the object of Sunita's affection -- it's not even a natural, young-teen-guy kind of thing to say. The point of the novel is that Sunita IS a California girl, not an exotic "other," so it was a misstep I was glad to fix on many levels.
Does that help clarify the problem? If not, let me know, and I'll gladly elaborate.

I've appreciated the thoughtful responses to my article, and am overwhelmed by the positive feedback. But since it's a subject that's fraught with tension, I want to encourage honest questions and dialogue. I'd be troubled if someone read the article and didn't feel safe to respond with criticism. Comment or raise questions anonymously here on the Fire Escape -- I have no problems with that.

Tomorrow, I'll take on this particular visitor's two other questions.

First, when it comes to writing race, she asks, "Why does it seem like white authors can never win?"

And second, she wonders, "What's so wrong about authors leaving race out of descriptions?"


susan said…

I commend you for answering the reader's question about overexoticizing characters. It is important to explain and to reiterate the importance of not falling trap to this kind of characterization. I'm glad you didn't waffle here. The one problem is Westerners wanting others to be exotic in the first place. The second of course of the objectification of women.

I read an article not long ago about the rise of rape of Asian women and the rapists reporting that they were attracted to the women in part because they were exotic. Now we know rape is about control and not sex, but the idea of targeting women because of their ethnicity and how they are viewed because they are exotic is disturbing on another level.
kathleenduey said…
Mitali, I SO appreciate your articulate and honest approach to all of these concerns. I will continue to read and think deeper and clearer as I write.

susan said…
And if I may be honest, regarding the white writer's question. Can we for once have a discussion about race and the members of the dominant culture not play the victim? Why is there always a white person who inevitably says, "But what about me?" For once can we talk about people of color without having to say something to make the white person feel better? I am tired of these discussion always coming back to how the white person is misunderstood or treated badly.

The purpose of the article was not to pick on white writers nor to make you feel guilty or any similar bad way.
Mitali Perkins said…
I can appreciate how the first question in my article -- "Are the non-white characters too good to be true?" -- along with a challenge to include a diversity of characters when apropos could make writers (not just white ones) feel heavy-laden.

My hope is that as a community of writers, regardless of race, we bear the weight of these questions together for the sake of the children and young adults we serve.
Mommy Niri said…
What a good explanation. You display such humility that is refreshing and endearing.
Chris Barton said…
Thanks for tackling the subject, Mitali. Your article immediately has me thinking about the relationship between the white authors of nonfiction (like me) and the biographical subjects we select. I'm of at least three minds on the subject -- wanting to add to the diversity of biographies available to young readers, considering whether non-white subjects rightfully "belong" to authors of the same ethnic background, and wishing to simply pursue whichever subjects interest me and do the best job I can with them, regardless of our respective backgrounds.
Mitali Perkins said…
Chris, thanks for stopping by. Of course your three goals are valid reasons to write about subjects of other races. I wouldn't only want to be a biographer of Bengali-American women who write books about Bengali-Americans. Yikes. How narrow can we get? Biography is always about crossing borders, across contexts and class, across generations if we're writing about a historical figure.

But this call to proactive thinking still applies in non-fiction as in fiction -- let's be aware of how and why we're writing about race. When are we describing a person's race? Is it important to do so in the narrative arc of the biography? If so, how are we describing it? Which terms are we using and why? In the fifties, for example, it would be valid to describe someone as a "Negro." Now you'd have to say "black" or "Black" or "African-American" or "African American" (depending on whom you ask, and each term has a reasoning behind it.)

And would you only define or describe the race of non-white characters? If so, why? What about if the subject lived in the fifties? Would you use the racial terminology of those days or of present-day North America, which is changing even as we speak?

Complex and confusing, I know. Tough decisions. But it's worse when we don't bring our reasoning above the waterline to be viewed in the light of community. Because what takes place under the sea inside each of us when it comes to race is murky at best, and slimy at worst -- myself included, although I wish it weren't so.
Chris Barton said…
And would you only define or describe the race of non-white characters?In the spirit of thinking proactively, I'm going to try merely asking myself "Compared to whom?" when I find myself defining and describing any of my characters, comparing not only the substance of the definitions and descriptions themselves, but also the types of qualities (physical descriptions? passions? ethnic backgrounds?) that I find myself drawing attention to.

It seems like it would be such a simple thing to do. But the tough thing, I think, is that seeing in ourselves the need to take such a proactive step means accepting that we're not already as broadminded and evenhanded as we like to think that we are.

With your article and these follow-up discussions, you've got a lot of people thinking, Mitali, and I'm so glad these conversations are taking place.