Who Can Write for Whom?

an-naOne of my favorite books is An Na’s A Step from Heaven. Another favorite is Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. Man, I would LOVE to be able to write like these women! And yet . . . I wonder if the well of my own experience is a bit shallow. Drip, drip. Writing about my own culture would be BOR-ING, so I trick myself into thinking maybe I’ll spice things up by writing about someone else’s.

Kidding! I never consciously set out to write a novel about a Japanese-American girl confused about her heritage. The girl just came to me. I knew her family history before I ever really knew her. And I was scared to write it and am still scared to publish it because race, especially writing about one different than your own, is touchy, touchy.

In Rick Walton’s class yesterday we read Mitali Perkins’s recent School Library Journal article “Straight Talk on Race.” She referenced Hazel Rochman’s 1995 Horn Book article “Against Borders.” 

Both articles are intriguing to me not only because of my first novel, but also because my second novel is about a girl who moves to Germany. Both of these essays articulate why I’m a little scared to tackle these stories: How can I be authentic if I’m not writing from the depths of my own identity? How can I write about a foreign place as something other than an exotic vacation destination if I’ve never lived there?

The issue of race and culture in young adult literature is a sticky one because if you venture outside your own experience you risk inaccuracy, even if you do meticulous research. Hazel Rochman explains:

You can get a lot of things wrong as a writer, an artist, or a reviewer when you don’t know a place or a culture. I’m from South Africa, so I do know that culture better than the average American does, and reviewing a book about apartheid, I might find things that you might miss. One obvious example is the use of the word native, which is a derogatory term in Africa with overtones of the primitive and uncivilized, quite different from the way it’s used here. It makes me realize that I must miss things when I review books about, for example, Japan, or about Appalachia.

Another risk in writing about other cultures is being condescending by trying so hard to be respectful. Being reverential about other races all the time does not portray members of that culture as real, three-dimensional people with their own problems and better things to do than give sage advice to white protagonists.

And yet, these articles convinced me that the bigger risk would be not writing my stories, becoming so afraid of getting things wrong and offending people that the story is squelched altogether. Perkins writes:

Let the stories come. The more novels about a diversity of characters written by a diversity of authors and consumed by a diversity of readers, the better. All I’m asking is that we pay attention to how and why the race of characters is conveyed in a story.

What Perkins says next is something I’m still digesting. She suggests:

When race is explicit in a book, ask yourself . . . what would have been lost if a character’s race hadn’t been defined by the writer. Why did the author choose to define race? If the only answer you come up with is “maybe he wanted to show how open-minded he is” or “she could have been trying to move the world toward a better day,” that’s not good enough.

A better answer might be, “because the particular community where the action is set is diverse.” Or, “because the protagonist knew how to make kimchee from scratch.” The story and characters, not the author’s best political intentions, should determine whether or not he or she defines race.

So question for the day: What reasons do you assign races to your characters? Or are there reasons at all? Is it okay to have a character who is from a culture different than your own “just because”? Do you think it’s generally better to not assign race at all and let your readers decide how they see your characters?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Who Can Write for Whom?

  1. Wow, tough question! I don’t assign race to a character/s unless it is imperative to the meaning or plot of the story. In Monarch, I have Brazilians. They’re in Brazil. I kinda need to say so. And they have darker skin or lighter skin depending on where they’re from. It’s something that I can’t get away from so it would seem silly to shy away from assigning race just because I wasn’t familiar with it. I don’t know anybody from Brazil, so I’m definitely not familiar. 😀

    Oftentimes, though, I think it’s a good idea to just let your characters decide if it really doesn’t matter what race your characters are. A lot of times location of the story will influence these decisions.

  2. First of all, I love the new look of your site! Second, obviously I’ve written my characters the way I did because they were based on real people. But as for other writing, I think you just have to go with what you did, and let the characters “speak” to you. I am offended when I find inaccuracies or things that are not authentic to a particular culture I know well, but only because I think the author is lazy. How hard is it to find someone from that culture or race to verify these details? (And I feel the same way about Asian cultures trying to translate simple instructions into English. Do they seriously not know anyone who speaks English, who can just look the stuff over before they send it out into the world?)
    I don’t think the race thing should be an issue in your writing because what makes your character interesting is not her race, but rather her heart. I don’t think I should be limited to writing characters who can only be Japanese-American just because that’s what I am. Therefore, I don’t think you should be scared, especially when your writing is as lovely as it is!