I've read a lot of great blog posts by different writers with opinions on whether writers should write from the point of view of a character whose race is different from their own. Can a non-minority author write with integrity about a minority character?
Most recently, SCBWI Executive Director, Lin Oliver, added her voice to this debate. She made excellent points in her article here.
I'll start by saying I agree with her entirely.
At the same time, whenever I read a post like hers, I start feeling a tiny bit defensive. Not because anyone has told me to my face that I shouldn't write what I do (everyone has been nothing but kind and supportive about my book RED BUTTERFLY so far!), but because, on the surface, it seems like I'm flying in the face of all Lin Oliver's excellent points.
The key word in that last sentence is on the surface.
Let's start with a story, because stories are fun.
A few months ago I was in Seattle with my daughter and we went out to lunch at the awesome Taiwanese chain restaurant, Din Tai Fung. There's always a huge wait time there because the food is so ridiculously delicious. So, there I was, a white lady sitting with her white daughter in the waiting section of the restaurant, watching the crowds go by.
I'm not sure how you all feel when you're in a Chinese restaurant, but I blinked back tears. Happy tears. You know why? Because I was surrounded by mostly Asian people, most of whom were speaking Asian languages. There were familiar smells in the air--tea and steaming dumplings. Familiar sounds--the joyful loudness of Chinese restaurants, the clink of porcelain bowls and chopsticks. I felt so AT HOME and so HOMESICK all at once. Which is not something I get to feel very often living on the eastern side of the Cascades where there is no Din Tai Fung or any authentic Asian restaurants. (WAHHHH!)
I found myself wishing something, probably for the billionth time. I wished I looked as Chinese as I felt inside.
A very wise man (Dr. David Pollock) coined the term Third Culture Kid, and that's what I am. It means I was raised by a family of one culture within another culture. I was raised by American parents (first culture) in Hong Kong (second culture), which gave me some weird mix of the two (third culture).
So, there I was in the Chinese restaurant, feeling so at home and happy with the smells and the sounds and the people, and at the same time grieving that nobody in that restaurant would ever look at me and instantly know how much I belonged there.
I grieve this for RED BUTTERFLY, too, that people might pick up this book and glance at the jacket photo, see a white author's face, and put it back down, assuming it will be inauthentic. Will anyone do that? I don't know. I hope not! But that's a fear I have.
So, how does being a Third Culture Kid qualify me to write from the point of view of a Chinese protagonist?
Even though my main character, Kara, and I aren't exactly the same, we have some important experiences in common. She was raised by Americans in China, I was raised by Americans in Hong Kong (which is now technically part of China. If you're confused, watch this excellent video). Her struggles in China--looking like she fit in, while feeling so different inside--are struggles I have with living in America. She feels like an outsider in both the cultures she interacts with--her "home" culture in China, and her "new" culture (which was her parents' culture) in America. Like Kara, I have a hard time fitting in perfectly anywhere, too.
No, I'm not Chinese. But I can relate to my Chinese character's heart. And I think we'd all agree, that's what matters most.