Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Diversity and Authenticity and Race...Oh My

I stayed late at work yesterday typing up a pretty long and very thoughtful blog post for today on writing characters who are a different race than us.

And then I accidentally deleted it.

I pasted instead of copied, and I saved instead of clicking undo and the whole long thing was gone. Yeah...I'm awesome at the keyboard.

But I was prompted by these two fantastic blogs that I read yesterday and still want to share with you:

Malinda Lo on authenticity and what it means

and in that post she links to Brent Hartinger on the complications of diversity

I wasn't going to re-type my own post. Those two authors above said everything I was thinking so much better than I could, and it was so long, and it wasn't likely I could capture everything I was thinking earlier.

But I'll just get going and we'll see what happens.

Okay, so I want to tell you about four different teenagers.

One teenager is on the wrestling team and has long hair and smokes and drinks in the baseball dugout across the street and spends his weekends at punk rock shows.

His brother is super involved in church and has tons of friends and is a pro-level body boarder.

One teen girl is driven and smart and involved in every club and has strict parents who push her and give her tons of rules. She got caught by the police for breaking into the nature center after hours...to have a Bible study.

Her best friend is on dance team and has lots of boyfriends (not at the same time) and wears lots of makeup and has nice parents but she pretty much does what she wants.

All of these people are people I know. My husband as a teen (yeah, the pot-smoking punk rocker), his brother as a teen, and my two best friends in high school.

And all four of these people are Korean-American.

None of these four people had the same experience, despite their ethnicity.

If I let you assume that these people were white, would you have been able to pick out a book that each one might see themselves in? Probably.

But knowing that they are Asian, can you do the same? Probably not. Because how many books do you know where an Asian teen plays a major role? Sure, they can relate to the experiences of the characters (smoking weed, being awesome at a sport, having strict parents, being a bit of a party girl), but they can't see themselves as these characters.

I have the book Haters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez in my classroom library. One of my girls read it and loved it. Not because of the plot or because it was the best book she has ever read, but because the villain, the mean girl, was Vietnamese like her. She didn't care that the Vietnamese girl was the "bad guy," she just cared that she finally saw someone Vietnamese outside of the stories / poems she had read in class about the Vietnam war. This girl might not have been the villain in high school, but her life  was much more Haters than "Thoughts of Hanoi," and it thrilled her to see a Vietnamese girl having a real high school experience in a story that didn't center around her race.

And I look around my classroom every year and I see the Asian cheerleader, the black kid in band, the Muslim kid in baggy pants, a hoodie, and skater shoes, just like I see the white cheerleader, the white kid in band, and the white kid in baggy pants, a hoodie, and skater shoes.

They all have different backgrounds and their skin color is different, but they are all going through the teen experience, and if you are writing YA, that's something you know how to write about.

I talk to my students about it and, yes, they are aware of their race and culture and how it is the same and different from the other kids in their classes. But they are also aware of how their jeans are different or how their test grades are different or how the guy they like is looking at them differently. I teach in a pretty diverse area, so the kids are used to it. Their best friends are everyone, their groups are made up of everyone, and that's just how it is. It's nothing unusual that your name is Tran and your best friend's name is Roshni and your other best friend's name is Sara. And YOU are the main character and Sara is the side character. These kids...their race and their ethnicity don't become an after-school special all the time.

I think about these kids and how much they would just love to have a book about someone who looks like them and they don't. They don't because people are scared that they can't tell this story authentically, so they just don't write it. But the thing is, a lot of what's authentic for these kids is authentic for a white kid, too.

I'm not saying to just disregard race. I'm just saying don't make it ALL the character is about. No character is ALL about any one aspect of his or her background. Characters are nuanced. And if your character plays soccer and you don't, you research. If your character is a boy and you aren't, you research. If your character is a king and you aren't, you research. You take that aspect of your character and you learn about it and you take it seriously and you present it as a part of what makes that character whole.

Because just like being a boy isn't the same as every boy, and we as readers will accept different version of "boy," even when written by a woman, being ______ (insert non-white race that you aren't here) is different for everyone, and readers will accept different versions.

I'm also not saying to write about diverse characters just to have them, because that's just gross. But your character might tell you that he isn't white. Listen to him. Don't be scared. Tell his story.

Give my students someone who looks like them in my bookshelves.

But I know, believe me I KNOW, when you think "But I am WHITE! I will mess this up!"

I recently attended a talk about "writing about other cultures." I assumed that it was going to be about writing about cultures that you are not a part of, but the focus actually ended up being "writing about non-white, non-western cultures, despite your own background." I was ready to soak up all of the tips, but the author who was presenting instead started naming off books that white people wrote about the author's culture and how those authors got it wrong. In the end, the message I took from that talk was, "White people will continue to write about my culture, and they will keep doing it wrong. But it's good because it makes me really upset, and I channel that anger into writing better books about my culture."

I left that talk feeling pretty defeated and pretty insulted. So what am I, white girl, supposed to do? Just give up and stick to writing about white girls from southern California? Keep writing about my Asians, even though I am apparently insulting and incensing Asian authors and readers everywhere, according to this person?

I mean, if only people of that race are allowed to write about that race, well...that sucks.

So I'm not going to listen to this author. And I might not get everyone's experience portrayed authentically. And, who knows, I may piss off some Korean-Americans out there, because my main character is a little bit bitchy and has like three different boyfriends throughout the course of my book and OMG what am I saying about Korean girls? But you know what? If I went into my WIP and changed every single reference to Chelsea being Korean, and made her white instead, she wouldn't portray every white girl's experience authentically, either, and I wouldn't expect her to. I'm just telling Chelsea's story. And I'd love it if someone saw herself in my character, regardless of race.

But yeah, even as I'm about to post this, I'm still nervous. I'm worried someone will call me out on my whiteness or accuse me of not taking race seriously because of my privilege or something like that. (I'm also nervous I'm going to accidentally delete this again.) But you know what, I respect that. And I'd love to talk about it.

What do you guys think about the posts from Malinda Lo and Brent Hartinger? What do you think about writing a background that isn't your own? If you aren't white...what do you think of people who aren't of your race / culture / background writing about it?


  1. Jessica, thanks for bringing up this topic/discussion. I only read Malinda Lo's article, and feel like she freed up some of the issues. I really enjoy other cultures, and have always been fascinated by those different to me (I'm white, by the way). In elementary school, my friends were Chinese, Indian, and Sri Lankan. In a mid-western city, that was kind of rare. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood...all the black kids in my school lived on my street. When I went to college, I stayed in the International dorm and all of my friends were from some other country. I lived in England for 7 years. I'm not saying all of this to prove how diverse I am, etc. Just saying I've been exposed to a lot of other cultures. While I am fascinated, I don't think I would ever feel quite comfortable in portraying another culture through my writing...even with my own experience and with research. Same thing with writing the "British." I lived there, married a Brit, have three "halfie" children, but don't feel like I will be able to write authentically.
    Having said all of that...your examples are a good argument to the contrary and the story of your student identifying with the Vietnamese character makes me want to completely change my mind! One thing is certain--there absolutely needs to be more multi-cultural YA out there.

  2. Mitali Perkins talked about how to write ethnicity without the "correct credentials." You should check it out: http://www.mitaliblog.com/2011/09/how-to-write-fiction-without-right.html

  3. I think YOUR post is brilliant. More brilliant than Malinda's (which was also great, don't get me wrong).

    As a halfie (of the Taiwanese and American mixed variety) and as a writer, I have a lot of thoughts about ethnicity and authenticity in literature. Sometimes conflicting thoughts and emotions, in fact. But I think your post really bottom lines it well: race is a factor, but it's not the only factor. Do your research. Represent diversity. The whole world needs it.

    So yeah, thank you for typing everything out again!

    (I'm here via Sarah Wedgbrow, btw, because she's my crit partner and she knows this topic is near and dear to my heart.)

  4. I think it's great that you decided to make your main character Korean-American. I agree there needs to be more diversity, and I like the idea of there being books out there that different students can relate to--books where the main character is just like them (instead of just the best friend or a side character). I decided to make my main character disabled and I'm sure people will say I didn't get that right. I'm not disabled, so what do I know? But I'm doing a lot of research, and I'm sure there are disabled teens out there who would like to read a book where the main character is disabled. So we'll see how that goes. I have a weird (ethnic) middle name & I've always hated it. Maybe if I was in your class, people wouldn't have made fun of me my whole life! I think the fact that your friends are Korean-American and your students are so diverse, that will make your writing more authentic since you have that perspective.

  5. Great post! I've worried about this before too, as I have several main characters who are Hispanic. I'm white. I worry someone's going to get pissed. But, at the same time, that's not going to stop me from writing these stories. I'm rather shocked that the talk you attended was so geared to how authors 'get it wrong' so much of the time--sounds like the author speaking hasn't been out in the high school world much to see what real diversity is like!

  6. Holy killer post, Jessica! You've given me A LOT to think about!

  7. Thanks so much for posting about this, Jess. I'm ashamed to admit that I'm guilty of writing stories with predominately white characters because I AM white. It's what I know.

    "...people are scared that they can't tell this story authentically, so they just don't write it. But the thing is, a lot of what's authentic for these kids is authentic for a white kid, too."

    This is exactly what I needed to hear. You've inspired me to think more deeply about race--not so much about the differences, but about what teens of all races have in common. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

  8. Love this post! I have nothing whatsoever articulate to add but it definitely gave me a lot to think about!

  9. "...a lot of what's authentic for these kids is authentic for a white kid, too."

    I love this quote because that's how I feel about myself. I'm black but I can read stories about white characters and relate to them because being black is only part of my identity.

    There definitely needs to be more diversity in YA (and publishers need to embrace it more too) so I think it's great that you're writing about a Korean American girl. I'm writing about a black girl, but so far in my draft I haven't mentioned much about her race. I want to make it clear she's black, because I'd love to contribute to the diversity in YA but it's not really what the story's about so I'm struggling with how to mention it.