Monday, March 19, 2012

More on Diversity & Hacky Sacking

Thanks for the great discussion last Thursday about ethnic diversity in Young Adult novels. A couple more thoughts:
  • It's interesting that several of us felt insecure writing other ethnicities into our books because we were afraid of "getting it wrong." That's a valid fear when we consider that other ethnicities have different cultures than our family culture. But what if we're writing about, say, Americans or Canadians, or any resident of a country with a diverse population? Does that change anything? I'm Polish American. Would an Irish American feel nervous writing about a character like me? I guess it depends on how I was raised. If I were from a Polish neighborhood in Chicago and if my Polish-speaking grandmother lived with us, then yes, that Irish American writer better know something about Polish culture. But if I grew up in Suburbia, Anywhere, USA, the fact that I'm part Polish wouldn't play as big a part.
  • With this said, it seems like our fear of "getting it wrong" stems from a fear of being labeled racist. If our ethnicity is different from our protagonist, we might worry that we'll be judged for any flaws we give that character. 
  • And then there's the fear of stereotyping. Say we have a Chinese-American protagonist who plays tennis and gets straight A's in school and her biggest fault is that she studies too much and cares too much about her grades. Uh. No. That's a HUGE Asian-American stereotype. We fall into stereotypes when we're afraid of really getting to know our characters. Maybe we're afraid to make our Chinese-American protagonist a drug dealer because we might offend Chinese-Americans in general. Or we worry people will think we're trying to say all Chinese-American girls are drug dealers.
  • These are valid concerns and it's important to be aware of these issues as we write, but I don't think they should stop us from writing with diversity.
  • My challenge to myself, and maybe to all writers, is to allow myself to be color blind in that first draft. Craft your interesting, fascinating, flawed protagonist and then, later, decide on the color of her skin. Would that change your book at all? Isn't it fair to assume that a fourth generation Korean-American is just as American as a fourth generation Italian-American? If there are details to tweak, there's time to tweak, but if we're worried about stereotypes, perhaps this could be a way to combat them.
Thoughts? Am I way off with any of this? Anything you'd like to add?

Speaking of ethnically diverse novels, I'll be hosting Samuel Park on my blog next week. He'll be sharing some writing wisdom with us to celebrate the paperback release of his debut THIS BURNS MY HEART. There will also be a little giveaway involved that you writers will love, so please stop by.

And last, but certainly not least, the Hacky Sack Club is going strong with two more members! I am working on my Wall of Shame Fame, but co-founder Janet already has hers up (because she's awesome that way). I'd publicly like to welcome our new victims members:
The goal of the Hacky Sack Club is to bring a little silly community to the normally solitary lives of writers. If you'd like to join, you can read all about it >>here<<. Any weird talent accepted!


  1. I love this follow-up to last week's post! I totally think it's fine to write about an ethnicity you aren't. I've written short stories about Chinese women and Indian men, but feel they worked because I could put myself in their shoes as the 'other' in a setting where they were different from most people. That's something I share with these characters. As for the stereotype issue, in my memoir I write about my Chinese ex-husband, who defied some stereotypes, yet held true to one or two other(s). I try to be sensitive about not perpetuating stereotypes, and hope I can demonstrate this sensitivity through the variety of characters in my story. It's definitely one of the biggest challenges of writing about diverse characters.

    I can't wait to read more about Samuel Park's new book! It looks great!

  2. I write with diversity...unafraid. If I've stepped out of bounds, I'm trusting my editor will pull me back in some way someday. But no fear--that's how I write.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Susan, Great points! Stereotypes are tricky because there's usually some general truth to them, which is why they exist at all. It sounds like you're digging beyond the stereotypes, though, which is a wonderful thing. I can't wait to read your memoir!

    Wendy, You go, girl! :)

  4. I just realized that you're right, though. For instance, when Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help, the only way she could HOPE to get the dialect right was to have been surrounded by it growing up. And even then, it's easy to question some stuff b/c she's white and many of the ladies in the book aren't.

    So you really have to have some knowledge of culture, if the MC isn't AMERICAN first, then ethnicity second. I could never write like Amy Tan or Lisa See, because I haven't grown up w/those cultural superstitions, etc.

  5. I usually don't focus on ethnic background unless it's essential to the story. It's up to the reader to cast the characters based on their own experiences.

  6. I like the colorblind comment. That's pretty genius. I've loved this discussion. Thanks!

  7. Hey! Here I am!!! *waves* Newest HSC member. :o)

    This is such a great topic! Natalie over at Literary Rambles mentioned this--she has adopted Asian kids, and her complaint was lack of representation in kidlit. Or worse, book covers showing different ethnicities from the MCs. Ugh!

    The fear of "getting it wrong" is big for me. But that's for all kinds of characters. We just have to put our thinking caps on and be fair. People are people, and while we are all influenced by our family and culture, we all have common motivations. :o)

    Good stuff, Amy! <3

  8. Thanks for following this up. I've been thinking about this on and off all week as I revise my current work. It's set in America, and the people in it are American. I've never been there, but I know plenty of American readers who I won't hesitate to ask if I get it wrong, so why should it be different for ethnicity?

  9. For those writers uncertain about the Do's and Don'ts of writing diversity, I point your attention to an excerpt of a 1954 article about Children’s Literature, reposted on The Pen And Ink Blogpost, titled How To Write Books for Boys and Girls
    The Management

  10. An interesting post but I'm not sure I could write a first draft without knowing the ethnicity of the characters. There would be no context to their lives.

  11. Great follow-up, Amy. I do wonder whether it's possible to be color blind in all cases. In a setting-focused book, for example, the character's ethnicity and background would inform a great deal of the plot. And there's the danger that the ethnicity choice would be arbitrary rather than organic--sometimes that's okay, but it depends on the story. I have a feeling that I may be misunderstanding your conclusion, though, so I'd love to hear your further thoughts!

  12. Thank you for all the great feedback. Just a couple notes: Yes, that last idea (about switching a character's ethnicity after the first draft to avoid stereotypes) might only work if:
    1. The character lives in a "melting pot" type of society where all ethnicities experience the same culture type. If the character's ethnicity plays a big part in the story you're writing, then obviously, this wouldn't work for you.
    2. You write messy first drafts. (I think calling them "discovery drafts" is a polite label for them.) If you meticulously plan and research and character sketch before the first draft, then you'll find yourself frustrated with this way of going about discovering your character.

    Bottom line, if you are a messy first draft writer who writes modern-day or fantasy stories where you have wiggle room re: culture, this idea might work for you. :) If not, then it's definitely better to be deliberate from the beginning.

  13. Yay for the hacky sack club!

    And I had never thought about writing color blind. I have to think more about this. Great follow-up Amy!


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