How To Write Fiction Without The "Right" Ethnic Credentials

Fiction, lest it morph into memoir, always involves the crossing of borders. We create characters who belong to different classes, genders, and generations. But when it comes to writing stories in our racially-charged  North American setting, we writers hesitate to cross borders of ethnicity.

Yet boldly there we must go, to shatter any kind of artificial, controlling apartheid with rules about who can write for and about whom. Do I give white or black authors the freedom to create brown protagonists? Of course! I want the right to include white and black protagonists in my fiction. I don't want to write only about Bengali-American girls growing up in California — been there, done that. So why should I protest if a topnotch Korean writer features a Bengali-American girl growing up in California and does it astoundingly well?

As with most resounding affirmations, though, there are caveats. My theory is that when we feel we lack an authenticity credential in our idea for a story, we must compensate with three powerful tools: imagination + empathy + research.

Read widely, writers. In this case, our imagination is best fed by reading the works of writers who are different than we are. When is the last time we finished a novel written by an author of a different race or ethnicity than ours?
Tread carefully, writers. If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, maybe it's time for our "outsider" version to wait. When we have more power in society than our protagonist, it's always good to ask whether to speak on his or her behalf. If we still feel compelled by the story, we must lean heavily on the gift of imaginative empathy. Always, love deeply within that community and listen well. Someone once said that to cross a border of power to tell a story, a writer better live there first, shut up, and hold a bunch of babies.
Study diligently, writers. Authenticity rings in the details of story. Dialogue and nonverbal gestures and postures come instinctively to insiders; outsiders must become A+ students of cultures not our own. Books, visits, interviews, academic journals, photographs, videos, movies ... each border-crossing novel should generate a bibliography, and feel as intense as a thesis when it comes to mastering the details.
The bottom line is that even if we've covered the bases of imagination, empathy, and research, we'll still make mistakes. But so what? Nobody, insider or outsider, has ever written a novel without something cringe-worthy in it—even if the author's the only one who notices it. All we can do is swallow our pride, admit to and learn from errors, and keep pressing on in the good work of storytelling.


Alison Stevens said…
When is the last time I finished a novel by an author of a different ethnicity? Yesterday, when I finished BAMBOO PEOPLE. It's an astounding work, Mitali, and it got me thinking about how I can better research and write about different ethnic groups in my work (although I think three years in the field won't work for me!). Thanks for the inspiration and encouraging words.
jdalton said…
Yes! Perfect! This is something I've always felt and often said, but I've never said it as succinctly or as beautifully as this. Every writer should read this post, and soon our fictitious worlds will be as rich and complex as the real one.
J E S S I C A said…
Thank you for this - I've been thinking about it a lot as my own WIP is coming along. This post couldn't have come at a better time! (How did you know?) :) Bookmarked...
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks for the kind feedback! I'm glad it was helpful in any way.
Christine Talor-Butler said…
I applaud the blog post because it's needed. But the "research" comment gave me heartburn as it pertains to the AA culture. And I've had people ske me to read a WIP for "authenticity." The trend is the saem - these days "research" to many authors is to watch BET or eavesdrop on an African American on the street.

I'm not adverse to authors of any color writing ethnic stories outside of their race - but what I've seen often fails to accurately depict our culture and follows stale stereotypes.

If authors are going to write about contemporary ethnic people, they need to immerse in the culture, not read about in a library book. It's why so many African American students don't read the stories written about them. Because they don't have the richness of mainstream stories and the characterizations are wretchedly out of whack with reality.

I remember once, having an editor refer to a scholarly reference for an American History series I was writing. I had the same "reference" book on my desk. It had gained many accolades. Only in backtracking the author's research I found a number of intentional errors.

An editor also recently sent me examples of "urban" stories she'd like to see. You can guess that the story written by someone who is not AA depicted an African American child whose neighborhood included trash, cigarette butts, a ghetto, and train tracks. Ugh. It's straight out of a "how to write for children" book I discarded years ago that used those same words as appropriate adjectives for ethnic accuracy.

So as it pertains to writing about people of color - the best way to know a culture is to get to KNOW the culture intimately and in person - and even then don't assume they represent the culture in a way that is homogeneous.

My mantra for writers - write what you know intimately, or learn from the people you may inadvertantly insult through the use of dated information or stereotypes.
Mitali Perkins said…
Thanks for your comment, Christine. That's why I put empathy higher on the list than research -- you've got to hold those bunches of babies across any kind of border before venturing into the powerful realm of storytelling.
Tam Smith said…
This is a phenomenal post, Mitali. Thank you for it. I have been thinking about this night and day recently because my middle grade WIP is, in part, about post Katrina New Orleans and I did all of that research and empathy work you mention, and I believed I had done a thorough and fair job of it all. I felt as though I had gained deep knowledge and empathy from which to create an honest story.

And then two weeks ago, my life changed. My town, and my street, and my HOME were devastated by Tropical Storm Irene, and all of a sudden I had an intensely more intimate understanding of what those amazing people--and what my characters--had endured.

I came to this epiphany, for what it's worth: Knowledge and empathetic understanding is vital to getting a story as "right" as you possibly can. (And it is vital to being a connected, caring human being in this world too, but that is bigger matter.) BUT I now believe that the best we can possibly do is to gain knowledge and empathetic understanding WITH HUMBLENESS. Always with humbleness.

My .02 cents.

Thank you, Mitali. I love your blog.

WriterGirl said…
This is something I'm struggling with at the minute. One of the main characters in my book is half Vietnamese, raised in Ireland (where I live) and although this country is slowly diversifying my character must still feel the effects of living in an extremely white country even if she has been raised there. I am not sure how to address this, or should it be addressed if it's not pertinent to the main storyline?
Rose Fox said…
@WriterGirl: How you address your character's experiences of race and racism is up to you. Maybe she grew up in a very unfriendly community and is self-protective and wary. Maybe she grew up completely accepted and then moved somewhere less accepting and was shocked. Maybe she's frustrated when people assume she speaks Vietnamese--or, worse, when they assume she speaks Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean. Maybe she's frustrated when people claim to be colorblind and ignore the ancestry and culture that's really important to her. There are a million ways of being half-Vietnamese in Ireland, and a million ways of building a realistic history for your character. And once you have that history, it's up to you to decide how front-and-center it is in her head. But I think it does need to be more a part of her than an adjective, because it will be a rare day when she goes anywhere without being very aware that she looks different from everyone else.
Can I just say I loved this post and really needed to 'hear' someone else voice this. Thank you!
Mitali Perkins said…
Rose, thanks for that brilliant answer.
Bamboo People is a beautifully written story which provides insightful, first hand viewpoints of the conflict in Burma through the perspectives of two boys, Chiko and Tu Reh. Bamboo People is a wonderful novel!
Anonymous said…
Someone told me that I can buy this book in katalog stron internetowych but I couldn't find it there.
Kaye M. said…
Hi Mitali!

I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to say thank you, from the heart of a Bengali-American girl trying to write about Japan and not really sure if she's betraying her culture by choosing to portray someone else's.
Anonymous said…
Fiction is the best of genera simply because when you know it's not completely true (but it can be) you can also use your imagination to create real equivalent of the story.

odszkodowanie uk