I would consider myself a fairly accepting individual, with friends from various places around the world, but every single time I get a bit cocky and think, “Pshh, I know how to be color-blind. No need to lecture me,” something happens (either that I stupidly did or saw in the world around me) to make me rethink just how inclusive I really am.
I’m going to assume you’ve heard or seen news stories about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. As you’re reading this online, I’d say that’s a fair assumption. That last word is a big part of what I’m getting at with this post, especially as the case is so volatile when it comes to race relations. I’m not going to rehash any of it, but just keep it in mind—especially as it relates to perception of race and character—while reading the rest of this post.
Instead, let me introduce you to another woman, Shaima Alawadi, who died after she was repeatedly bashed in the head with a tire iron.* She immigrated to the US from Iraq in the mid-90s, and was only a year older than me, at 32. I’m guessing that she arrived in the States in her teens and has been living here ever since. One morning after her husband took their 5 kids to school, she was severely beaten in her own home and left for her 17-year-old daughter to find. Next to Shaima, police found a note that said, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”
While evidence later appeared that could indicate it wasn’t a hate crime (disruption within the family, etc.), the fact that a murder could be covered up by indicating a hate crime is troubling in itself. I don’t doubt that a crime like that could have been committed, as more than enough vitriol is spewed online in the very same vein.
Let me say up front that I’m a white Mormon girl from Utah who has had relatively little cause to fear prejudice. I’ve been safe from bodily harm, though in the past year I’ve become increasingly wary of mentioning my religion online because of some rather nasty attacks on Twitter and other forums. My situation is nothing compared to those mentioned above, but it does mean that I’m not totally unaware (at least in small part) of how it feels to be looked down upon for my background and heritage.
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been thinking about this, not just in the global “these are horrible tragedies” sense, but in the personal “what more can I do to make a difference, no matter how small?”**
There are some cultures I do not relate with as well as I do others. Is this a bad thing? I hesitate to use the word “wrong” because people are naturally drawn to certain interests over others. But now I wonder if I shouldn’t pay a bit more attention to cultures that haven’t interested me before because I wasn’t interested in learning more about them.
So I would like to offer a challenge to writers:
In your next book, inclue a principal character from a different culture.
I’m expanding the definition of “culture” to include race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, capability (both mental and physical), weight, and other areas I’m probably forgetting. The challenge here, though, is to do so without defaulting to stereotype. It might not be as easy as it sounds. There are quite a few stock character that pop up in books, and an author might not even realize she’s perpetuating a stereotype.
Before we get to that, let’s discuss stereotypes for a moment. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered an incredible speech on what she called “The One Story.” (You can watch a video of it here, which is worth so much more than the 20 minutes you’d spend watching it.) She said,
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
So while stereotypes can and do appear in literature because they are, at least initially, based on a truth, don’t default to the easy route of using them as stock characters. In Hollywood, there is an agency that provides type-cast actors at short notice called Central Casting. When filming a movie in New York City, a director can call up Central Casting and say, “We need mobsters! But make sure they’re Italian.” And off trots a trio of actors who had been waiting in the wings, New Yawk Italian accent in hand. Because no other culture in New York City has organized crime. Obviously.
Some characters I frequently see from YA Central Casting:
- sassy gay friend
- black sports star from the projects
- disabled kid who teaches everyone a valuable lesson
- fat best friend
- slut*** who just wants to be loved and appreciated
- suicidal (or homicidal) loner
- dumb jock who bullies weak kids
- and more (please chime in with others in the comments)
Don’t consider this a chore. Please. It’s really an opportunity to expand your writing and make your characters really come alive.
I have one YA novel I’ve been struggling to write for several years, for a number of reasons. It’s a challenge because there are six principle characters in this story. (I know that’s a lot, but it really does work within the text.) Early on I decided to shift the ethnicity of a few of the girls, and their characters opened up in ways I wouldn’t have believed.
I’m fluent in Spanish and have spent a good amount of time with people from various Latin American cultures. So to include a Mexican immigrant in the story let me really explore who that character is based upon her experiences and challenges, and she really came alive. There is another character from an African American heritage. I readily admit that I don’t know much about those culture(s).**** It’s going to be a challenge for me, and I will probably make some mistakes, which is why I plan to find a critique partner or beta reader who is African American so she can help me see where I’ve got things wrong, or even where I’ve not dug deep enough to do more than lightly scratch the surface of who that character really is.
Each human on this planet is an individual filled with a mixture of heritage, upbringing, education, and environment. When you take a peek behind the curtain and look at that person for who he is, the whole dynamic of your interactions with him changes. That’s how it should be. That’s how you can make believable, realistic characters. So throw out the stock and make something really exciting. It will probably be difficult, but doesn’t that make it more fun? (Nod your head, yes.)
Good, so to help you out, here are some articles and posts on how to write cross-culturally with sincerity and accuracy:
How to Write Fiction without the “Right” Credentials by Mitali Perkins (who is an excellent resource on multicultural issues, especially within children’s literature)
Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl (from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America or SFWA)
Writing Cross-Culturally from Tu Books (an imprint of Lee & Low Books for multi-cultural science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books for children)
*This links to the original story I read, but commenters at the end of the article have posted links to other articles with updated info. I couldn’t find anything more recent than mid-April, so I’m not sure what investigators think now. But either way, this story got me thinking about the issue and resulted in this post.
**I feel a bit like Dr Seuss by saying that.
***I hate this term, but I’m using it here to illustrate a common stereotype.
****I use plural here because there are so many subsets within the larger umbrella culture, depending on the region of the US in which they live, or a variety of other factors.