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.