Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Query Question: my characters are people of color; I'm not

My current WIP features a young Alaska Native man, and while he’s not the MC, he has a very prominent supporting role (he is actually one of my favorite characters), and there are several other minor characters who are also Alaska Native. Since the book takes place in Alaska, this is appropriate, I believe. I am not an Alaska Native, but I have lived in Alaska for 26 years and I have many very dear friends who are. So while I don’t have personal experience being IN this culture, I hope that my associations with it (and extensive research) will create a voice that rings respectful and true. I also have zero experience being a man, but while that’s a whole different can of worms (no pun intended), for some reason don’t see that as big of an issue.

My question is this: I am hearing a lot of call for diversity in novels, which is awesome, but I am also hearing criticism about writers appropriating a culture for their own means. Obviously, writers must write outside their own reality (otherwise, what’s the point?), but when does writing about a race or culture outside your own become appropriation? We’ve discussed this a bit in our writing group, but I’d really love to hear your perspective on this. Thanks!

This is a tough but interesting question. It's very much akin to getting things "right" when simply by being a visitor to the culture, you can't know what's "right" down to the last detail. You will always see the culture through the prism of outsider.

That does not mean however that you can't write fully developed and interesting characters from that culture. The key is like that of all good writing: make it feel authentic, but not just to you, to the people from that culture.

Appropriation is a loaded word for writers, whose job it is to steal everything they can and write about it. When does it cross the line? Everyone is going to have a different view on this, but the thing to pay attention to are people in that culture.

I didn't understand that The Help wasn't a fun book until I read the comments about it written by Roxane Gay. While it's not about appropriating culture, it does seem to say that stories are given a wider audience only when those in power agree to tell them.

I'm not sure there's a real answer to your question. I think by asking it, by being aware of the problem, you're on your way to steering clear of it.


Lisa Bodenheim said...

This question strikes home. And Janet, I'd like to thank you for recommending (can't remember if it was here or facebook) Roxane Gay's great book "Bad Feminist" awhile back.

The question of appropriation could be asked of historical fiction writers or sci-fi writers. How can we write what we do not know? My WIP has a white MC but has black characters who are a major part of my story.

I think this letter writer is on point because s/he is self-aware and sensitive to the issue as well as having friendships with Alaska Native. IMHO, it's when we choose to magnify the stereotypes of people of another culture that authors (and people in general) run into trouble. And I keep reading that editors want more than stereotypes.

Colin Smith said...

I think Lisa said it: be very careful of stereotyping. The trouble with stereotypes is there's usually an element of truth to them. English people have, in the past, acted a certain way, or many English people have said and done certain things, so they all get painted with the same brush, jolly what-ho, toodle pip. :) And I think Americans have a very hard time writing authentic English people, especially in dialog. I picked on English people because, as a former British citizen, I can speak to this. The hard thing is how do you tell your audience the character is a POC but avoid writing either, "Here's Joe and he's of African American decent" or the other extreme of having Joe conform to commonly perceived African American stereotypes? Neither is acceptable, and I've seen authors tackle it in different ways (references to hair, skin tone, and through dialog). But I think the rule applies to writing any character, whether or not that person is a POC: be authentic. Don't go out of your way to say "Look at me, I'm being diverse--Joe is a POC!" I work with African Americans, and they don't wear the label--they're people like everyone else. Where their ethnicity shows, aside from physical appearance tends to be in, for example, where they go to church, or what issues matter to them, or other details like this.

Pay attention to details, speech cadences, and other "tells" that you can slip in that indicate someone different without being stereotypical. For example, have you ever noticed that most Brits will hold both the knife and the fork when they eat, whereas most Americans (at least that I've met over the last 25 years) will cut their food first, then eat with the fork.

Cheerio! :D

Susan Bonifant said...

I feel strongly about this. I feel a tiny speech coming on.

When I read Sue Monk Kidd's Invention of Wings, I couldn't imagine how she could step not only into the shoes of a black slave, but those of a slave owner whose sheer cruelty transcended any dictate of culture.

AND speak from both perspectives from a long ago time.

How do we ever get into the minds of a person whose mechanisms of survival will never be something we can relate to personally?

But I've learned from writing my own not-like-me characters that relatability to them comes from just that - the not-like-me aspect. Empathy, humanity, imagination, observation, compassion, exploration and burning curiosity for what is in the heart and mind of someone we aren't like is as writer as writer gets.

We just love some people too much not to put them on the page where we come to understand them in full.

And, I think that is where authenticity comes from.

Speech over. Thank you for coming.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Aminatta Forna wrote a beautiful article about this. Here is a link:

Don't Judge a Book by its Author

Colin Smith said...

Yes--what Susan said! :)

Kitty said...

Colin wrote: have you ever noticed that most Brits will hold both the knife and the fork when they eat, whereas most Americans (at least that I've met over the last 25 years) will cut their food first, then eat with the fork.

Do you think that applies to the Queen as well? I ask because my Grandmother B drummed proper table etiquette into my brother and me, ending each lesson with, Pretend you're dining with the Queen of England. God forbid if we had held onto the knife as we ate! She ruled with iron expectations.

Colin Smith said...

Kitty: I think the Queen's etiquette is like the Queen's English. She's the only one to whom it applies! :)

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Hot hot button for me. Instead of writing a long comment in the guise of a blog post, allow me to share some links.

First, a quote from one of Roxanne Gay's other reviews:

"Writers can and should write across difference, so long as they do so respectfully, intelligently, with some degree of accuracy. They may not fully succeed, but a good-faith effort and a demonstration of empathy are generally all that is required."

Great for asking honest questions and getting honest answers on writing across differences.

A Guide to Writing POC Characters if You Are White


And many more of my own thoughts (at the risk of sounding like I'm self-promoting... read all the other stuff first, or even instead):


Finally, Malinda Lo did a FABULOUS series about trade reviews and YA literature written about and by marginalized populations. While not directly related to writing, it is well worth the read:

Colin Smith said...

Here are ProfeJMarie's links in a clickable format:







ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Thanks, Colin - I forgot to format before I hit send and then thought, ugh. I appreciate you taking the time. :)

Dena Pawling said...

My current WIP is in first person, so everything is seen thru the eyes and experience of the MC. This is mostly helpful when dealing with this issue, because I can blame my mistakes on “well, that's HER perspective.” :)

The judges in my story are of several different makes and models, and my MC briefly describes them, but they are all judges and act like judges. There really isn't any difference in the professional behavior of a black judge, a Hispanic judge, a white judge, etc. Some judges are horrible, most aren't, and race or other characteristics don't really correlate to that. Plus the judges in my WIP are modeled after real-life judges, so that helps.

The family next door to my MC is black. There is no place in the entire manuscript that I say that, but the MC does describe the boy as having a “big white smile in an ebony face.” I ran the family's description by a black co-worker, and especially asked about the accent I wrote for the mother. He said “why don't you make her from the south, that way it's a southern accent, not a black accent.” So that's what I did. She's from Mississippi, because my Navy son is currently stationed on a base in Mississippi. I write her dialog with an accent, but not the father [who is based off my co-worker]. So now I can insult everyone from Mississippi, or even the entire American south, but not blacks lol

First person POV is what made the MC difficult. She's a brand-new attorney, and many eons ago so was I, so that part was easy. But she also has one hand. In a previous lifetime, I had a co-worker with one hand, so I used that experience, plus LOTS of research. Then this morning, I saw an article linked on CNN about one of its correspondents who lost an arm. I had used that person's experience as one of the many articles I read during my research. I read this morning's article, plus all of the linked articles [one of which I'd read during my research] and was happy to note I'd included the relevant information in my manuscript.

I asked my co-worker if what I'd written bothered him or seemed like a stereotype. He said no, it didn't seem like that to him. But he also said he was sure that some folks would see it that way, there would always be people who didn't like it, no matter what I wrote or how I wrote it. He said if I tried to please everyone, I'd please no one, so just be respectful and do my best.

This writer says s/he lives in Alaska and knows quite a few Alaska Natives. Ask one or more of them to read your manuscript and give you suggestions. That, plus research and your personal experiences. Sounds like a good story.

[And I just read the previous comment with all those links. Now I'll have to read them tonight and obsess over my manuscript again lol]

Tom Perkins said...

Regarding stereotypes: are they not tools for use by an artist/author?

Sometimes, stereotypes are a valuable shorthand to quickly (depending on the audience) frame situations or characters.

At other times, the purpose may be to turn the stereotype inside out or reveal the folly of it.

In the case of the OP, the label "Alaska Native" is secondary to all the wonderful traits the character has. If the label were changed to "Chinese" or "Martian," the character would retain the traits that make him likable (probably).

To echo Janet's response, awareness is key, along with sensitivity. To that end, I think all authors - intentionally or not - use stereotypes. It is not inherently a bad thing.

Pharosian said...

I read The Help and I also saw the movie. I think the book did a better job (as is usually the case) of explaining the inner thoughts, hopes, dreams, and prejudices of the characters. I was disappointed to hear of the criticism of the author along the lines of "How dare she?" when the book came out. After all, she had come closer than most of us to actually being there and knowing what went on in southern households that hired out their chores to people of color. It seemed to me that she was trying to tell a story about people she cared about, as opposed to trying to "exploit" her experiences to make money.

I find Roxane Gay's criticism of the book to be based more on her worldview than on the book's merits. The book did not suffer from "very bad writing," and she doesn't give a single concrete example of her dissatisfaction. The whole article comes across as the reaction of a person who was personally offended. Of course she has the right to feel offense, but that doesn't mean the book is inherently offensive.

Roxane takes issue with the college girl being the one to "help the help." But isn't that really just a metaphor for how progress is made? Aren't more young people open to same-sex marriage, for instance, than old?

She says "there’s an ignorance of the severity of Jim Crow laws and how those laws would have prevented a great deal of the novel from actually taking place." I didn't live during that time, so I'm not sure how accurate that criticism is. But I can say that there is never just one truth about a topic like this. If someone was telling the story of what it's like to be a black man in the United States, it would matter a great deal if the story was about Michael Jordan or about Michael Brown.

Les Edgerton said...

Great post, Janet. I think this speaks to that hoary bumper sticker chestnut of writer's "rules" of "write what you know." Well, that's fairly inaccurate (imo), but the better version of this doesn't fit well on the bumper sticker, and that is "write what you can convince the reader you know." I had a personal experience with this. Years ago, Dr. Robert O. Greer, editor of the High Plains Literary Review, took a story of mine. As it happens, the protagonist I used was a black man and the majority of the characters were black. A few years after Dr. Greer published this and another story, we met and he was shocked. He thought I was black... like himself... He laughed and told me he was absolutely convinced I was black since I'd written a "black" story and did it convincingly. I've never been black, except for a few instances, but he bought the character and the story completely. As it happens, I've lived a large portion of my life in the black community and one of my wives was black, but I'm still pretty white. I've also written successful stories from a female point of view and surprised some editors when they learned I wasn't a woman. I think that misconception was helped along perhaps as I was using my complete first name in those days--Leslie--but the fact is, imo, all that's important is that you're able to convince the reader that you portrayed the character accurately.

Jenz said...

Colin wrote: have you ever noticed that most Brits will hold both the knife and the fork when they eat, whereas most Americans (at least that I've met over the last 25 years) will cut their food first, then eat with the fork.

Strictly, this is not correct. According to American etiquette, you should cut one bite (never cut up all at once), put down the knife, switch your fork to your right hand, and eat (tines up).

I used to frequent an etiquette forum, where fork usage did not stir much debate. For that, you'd need to bring hotly controversial topics like open bars at weddings, or saving seats in a movie theater (seriously, whether or not you could save seats or ask someone to move down a couple of seats sparked a verbal blood bath).

Colin Smith said...

Jenz: Thanks for the etiquette clarification. The fact is, generally speaking, a Brit wouldn't put down the knife and use the fork with the other hand. Knife in right, fork in left, cut and eat (or push food onto fork with knife and eat). And I've seen this pattern throughout all sectors (yes, I'll say it: classes--the UK is still class-ridden) of society. :)

Susan Bonifant said...

Pharosian, I thought your response was elegant.

Sometimes writers are SO readable because they can successfully generalize their thoughts and feelings to the population.

But past a certain point, attitudes, prejudices, and the ease with which one is offended may be informed by things that are unique to that person only.

And I agree with your enlightenment metaphor (college girl helping the help). It has always marked the difference between old and young in my book - their desire to change and their invitation to everyone else to
come along.

Susan Bonifant said...

Where is Donna?


Colin, find out where Donna is.

LynnRodz said...

In my WIP, early on, I say something about Latina women that I feel (as a Latina) I can say. I'm not sure how Latina readers would react if what I said came from someone who wasn't. So there's a fine line between what a writer can, or should, say when writing about someone from a different race or culture. That said, there may be more leeway for a person writing about their own people, but it doesn't mean there aren't going to be consequences about what you say regardless of who you are. (Stay tuned.)

Christina Seine said...

I was the OP on this question, and I'd like to thank you Janet for posting it to the blog and for your thoughtful answer. It is exactly comments like Roxane Gay's that terrify me. I thought I'd enjoyed The Help too, until I read Ms Gay's review (although I didn't agree with some of it).

Thank you so much everyone for your thoughts as well. I am looking forward to reading all of the links, ProfMarie (thank you for making them clickable, Colin!) and Angie.

I certainly do plan on getting as much input from my Alaska Native friends as possible. Of course, not all Alaskan Natives are alike, just as Native Americans in the Lower 48 are not all alike, nor are all African Americans, nor all white people. Historically, there are wide cultural differences between Athabascan, Aleut, Tlingit, etc. Nevertheless, I’m going to give it my best shot. There was no way I could write this story and not include the local Native people of color, although between that and the fact that it’s also historical fiction about an event that every school kid in Alaska knows ALL about (the giant 1964 quake), I’m sure I’ll offend someone with perceived inaccuracies. Probably now would be a really good time to start thickening my skin to a tough, leather-like consistency in the hopes that someday I find an agent and editor who think it’s worth putting on paper.

Colin, as a kid, I tried telling my mother that I was eating the “British way,” since I loved the practicality of holding both one’s knife and fork simultaneously. The American custom of setting one’s knife down and switching hands seemed ridiculous to me. Her answer? When I was in England, eating with the queen, I could use both hands. Sadly, her Majesty hasn’t invited me yet.

Colin Smith said...

Christina: If you're sure to include at least one or two Native Alaskans among your beta readers, I'm sure that will mitigate against any possible offense. As others have said, you can't hope to not offend anyone, but if you've done due diligence, that's the best you can do.

I need to pay attention to how my kids eat. We've not insisted on one method over the other, so I wonder who they follow after most, Mom or Dad...? :)

Susan: I don't think Donna was sent to Carkoon, so I'm not sure what's happened to her today. I'll send out the scout party as soon as I've fed him his Iams... :)

Tom Perkins said...

@Christina - credit to you for posting!

Question: is the designation "Alaska Native" a critical part of your character(s)? I mean, I have a project where I know the qualities my character has, but specific ancestry is not one of them.

(I was an Adak resident as a kid and have often reflected what a wonderful setting that would be.)

I hope this isn't a faux pas (I'm new around here) but is that kind of label indispensable? Can I have an otherwise fully developed character and allow the reader to assign whatever mental picture they lean toward?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Tom Perkins: glad to have newbies around. In response to your question about letting the reader assign whatever mental picture they lean towards. White people will (generally) always assign white to the characters. It's the nature of the culture we live within.

There's a blog post about it here.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

oh, oh....

COLIN! Help!

InkStainedWench said...

Two words: Tony Hillerman

(I scanned the comments, so not sure if he's been mentioned.)
His Navajo main characters were always convincing to me, and I think Navajo readers pretty much agreed.

Tom Perkins said...

Lisa: Thank you for the welcome and the link.

As writers, we know that, right? It becomes part of the shorthand. The reader will mentally "cast" someone they know (maybe himself/herself) that meets the other descriptors.

That is part of the canvas upon which we work.

If the story is otherwise "good," then it only becomes a problem when they make movie out of it, right? I mean, I can't remember how Harry Potter was first described, but I don't remember him being labeled "white." It was presumed.

But, it sure would have been a surprise if he'd been cast as "black!"

I recall the semi-controversy about Rue in The Hunger Games. In retrospect, all the clues were there, but people were still surprised.

Colin Smith said...

I presume this is the help you require, Lisa:


Glad to be of service! :)

Christina Seine said...

Tom, nice to meet you!

In my case, the designation is very necessary. My MC is on a small Alaskan island because her (earnest but misguided) missionary parents brought her with them to convert the locals. My MC falls in love with an Aleut boy, and a lot of the initial tension stems from the fact that she is white and he is not - and the racism works both ways (she is not accepted by his people either). There is also tension because the locals already have their own perfectly wonderful church, and my MC is drawn to theirs, not her own.

How cool that you were on Adak! I've heard a lot about it but have never been.

Off to check out Lisa's link (thanks again Colin!) and the words of Tony Hillerman!

REJourneys said...

"...whose (writers) job it is to steal everything they can and write about it. When does it cross the line?"

I say when plagiarizing.

And also when written with the direct intention to offend a specific group. Generalizing, if an author did their research and tried to do the character justice, then I'm fine with it. If people get upset about it, then they need to become a writer and get some thicker skin.

I know I have grown some serious thick skin. Thanks to agent form rejections, job form rejections roll right off, only leaving a little of their acidic residue. (Have you seen the form rejections for jobs lately? "We are pursuing a better qualified candidate." That's a lie, and I know it. They haven't spoken to me or tested me to see if I could do the job, they just passed me over a piece of paper. The job rejections should read: "We are pursuing a candidate we believe is better qualified." That's fair. I couldn't blame them if I didn't come across as qualified to them.)

Kelsey Hutton said...

I'll add this--a big part of the conversation around #WeNeedDiverseBooks is expanding the number of POC voices in publishing, and that goal isn't met when white/straight/cisgender authors write POC characters.

I'm NOT saying writing across differences is wrong--I am also a mostly-white writer who does not want to be restricted to only writing mostly-white characters because that's "what I know."

But the issue of cultural appropriation is broader than just "will a white author get it right." It's also about who benefits. It might be more about people traditionally in a position of privilege moving over to make more room for voices who, up till now, haven't been heard much--a tough thought for me to chew on, too.

(This mostly applies to traditional publishing, since publishers have a cap on how many books they can put out a year--therefore POC and non-POC authors are necessarily competing for a set number of spots. This restriction isn't an issue in self-publishing.)

I also think it matters what kind of story you're telling. If you're writing science fiction where the hero who saves his home planet from incineration also happens to have a husband at home (written by a straight author), I think that's awesome. If this is a coming-of-age story about the pain of growing up Chinese in an all-white boarding school, well, yeah, I do want that author to be POC.

I recently went to a play where the two male director/writers both talked about their female lead as a real "feminist" character, and that this was a play to bring your daughters to so they could be inspired. The female lead was what I would call a stereotypical "Strong Female Character" -- hates sewing, loves swordfighting, falls for the hero instantly despite his rude behaviour and, ultimately, was still a supporting character to HIS story arc.

If the well-intentioned male directors had just said they were proud of their female lead, I would have been fine with it. But it was the comments like "We wrote this for our daughters" and "this is all about her story" (it wasn't, she wasn't the protagonist) that really got my goat.

Also, on mentally casting characters' ethnicities, I read a book recently with multiple POVs where the lead was white and her love interest black--however, you only figured out he was black after a few chapters from his POV when you suddenly realized he only ever referred to people's skin colour when they were white. I thought that was brilliant.

Ooh, off my chest. Now for a trip to the library...

Colin Smith said...

Kelsey: I agree with you, but I will say as far as "making room" goes, the onus is on the publisher for that, not the writer. My ethnicity and/or experience shouldn't restrict me from writing outside my comfort zone. How well I write beyond what I know will depend on the effort I put in to being authentic. I wouldn't dream of telling an African American she can't write a white British male lead because that's my ethnicity and she needs to leave that for me to do. Heck, she might do it better than me! :) Whether the publisher picks my book or hers, and on what merits they make that choice--that's what matters most. IMO, anyway.

jen said...

I've been reading this blog for a while, but this is my first time to comment. This is a hot button issue for me too. I am the white mother of two black daughters, and I my job involves working with refugee and immigrant communities. I think about these issues a lot as a reader (and as an occasional writer). I love what Kelsey Hutton has to say. Her point about wanting more diversity for books doesn't mean that we necessarily need more white authors writing about POC is well made. I comb libraries and bookstores for chapter books with protagonists of color for my girls and let me tell, they're hard to find. When I find them, I prefer that they're written by people of color. I want my girls to get to see themselves reflected in the story and in the author. It matters. That being said one of the best rules of thumb about writing outside of your own culture came from Mitali Perkins. She says we should ask ourselves, "Have I held a lot of babies in that community?" I think that gets to the heart of things. Here's one of her blog posts about this issue: http://www.mitaliblog.com/2012_01_01_archive.html

jen said...

And one more follow-up: Yes, we can do anything we want. It doesn't always mean we should.

Colin Smith said...

jen: Hello! Welcome out from the shadows. :) I agree, just because we can doesn't mean we should. My point is that if my story has to come from a POV that is not my own, then I shouldn't feel as if I can't write that story. But I need to be sure I do whatever I need to do to avoid stereotype and be authentic. But I shouldn't write that story just because no-one said I can't. If there's a better story that I could write more authentically, then I should go with that one.

Colin Smith said...

jen: To follow up--I wrote a novel from the POV of a female teenage alien. I have five daughters (three of whom are teens). All my beta readers were female, and some were a lot closer to their teen years than I am. None of them were aliens, though. Not that I'm aware, anyway... :) That novel is still in query land, but so far no-one has told me the voice sounds like a white British dude. :)

jen said...

Thanks for the welcome, Colin. I appreciate your point about whether or not a character MUST be a person of color. That's a good distinction. I'm definitely not saying it should never be done, just that it comes with a responsibility- one that the OP seems to realize.

Kelsey Hutton said...

Hey Colin and jen, thanks for chiming in! I don't believe in making absolute statements on this issue -- like No White Writer Should Ever Write POC etc.-- but for your example of an African-American woman writing a white male British lead--it's really not the same.

There are thousands if not millions of books out there with white male British leads. That means that if one writer botches horribly her presentation of that character, there are many many other stories that will round out one stereotypical portrayal.

Not true for the other side. In fact, sometimes those portrayals win awards.

Here's a great article on why it was very tough for many people in the transgender community to watch Jared Leto win an award for the Dallas Buyers' Club: http://time.com/10650/dont-applaud-jared-letos-transgender-mammy/

jen said...

Colin, I think that gets back to the "Have you held a lot of babies in that community?" Clearly you have :). Well, maybe not alien babies.

Kelsey Hutton said...

Also there's a difference between writing a character who's simply different from you and writing a character who's part of a non-privileged group when you are part of the privileged.

I'm not saying don't do it ever, but writing from the POV of an alien is a different kettle of fish, methinks.

(But Colin, it sounds like a fun story!)

Colin Smith said...

Kelsey: Fair point, but I'm really only speaking about whether a writer can or should write outside their own ethnicity. My question would be: is the fact that there are more white male Brit writers/characters out there to mitigate against stereotypes than, say, African American female characters/writers a fault of the writers or the publishing industry?

That's my point. You can't blame writers for writing books. Agents don't have to represent them. Publishers don't have to publish them.

But I'm agreeing with what you're saying, so don't think I'm just trying to be argumentative. :)

Colin Smith said...

jen: No, we don't have alien children... though the way my son devours food, I'm so sure... ;)

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and lest Janet think I'm bashing agents, I've seen a number of agents on Twitter encouraging writers of color to submit their work. So there is a desire within the industry to see a greater diversity of writers--those writers just need to be given lots of encouragement and opportunities within the industry to be seen.

Craig said...

Pleas excuse me if this is even muddier or more obscure than my usual comments. My doctor says I'm lightly concussed and I had to wait at least a week before going and sucking down Chinese pollution. I have had the best accidents if any of you are writing about an accident prone SOB, I'll consult.

But I digress.

Christina, thicken your skin, there are trolls under every bridge. Anything worth writing about will have critics. If you did your best don't worry about them.

Alaska has a unique spot in America. Its native population is probably the best integrated population anywhere in the world. Part of that is the Russian influence too. Very few Alaskans have figured out how to stay away from the natives.

In 1964 the situation would be more divided. It is possible that the Good Friday earthquake is what helped integrate the disparate groups.

Let the quirks and foibles of you character differentiate your characters. Don't push the fact that they are natives into the face of your readers.

Redoing the Romeo and Juliet model properly is as important as the ethnicity of your characters. Let the fact that they are characters drive it and you will be fine.

Don't sweat things you can't do anything about. Do your best and don't look under any rocks. There are critics under them all.

Christina Seine said...

Oh my gosh Craig, I hope you're okay! Your comments made perfect sense. And you're absolute right about thick skin!

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

What Kelsey Hutton said.

Also, Christina, I agree fully with all those, including Janet, of course, who told you first, that because you ARE asking this question means you are far more likely to get it right - to write your character intelligently, respectfully, and with empathy.

Amy Schaefer said...

Hello, woodland creatures. It looks to me like you've covered all the bases, as usual. But I'm going to restate anyway because a) I like the sound of my own voice (the sound of my own typing?), and b) I'm grieving today and need the distraction. We've had a boating disaster in our tiny community, and I'm heartsick for the families involved. Send positive karma over to paradise.

Treat other cultures as you would your own: respectfully. Those are fully-formed people you are writing about, not cardboard cut-outs, not identical copies fresh off the assembly line. If you are going to write about people from other cultures, make those characters a true part of the story, not simple tokens of diversity. Accept criticism about the things you get wrong, and do better next time.

That's all I've got. I'm going to go try to fill the hole in my heart with coffee and hugs from my kids.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Colin: yes, the link was what I needed help with. Thank you!

Colin Smith said...

Big hugs to you Amy. So sorry to hear that. :(

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

OH - also, Kelsey, thank you for the link about Jared Leto's role in Dallas Buyer's Club. Timely and helpful for me.

Janet Reid said...

Heartfelt condolences dear Amy.

Kelsey Hutton said...

So sorry to hear, Amy. Thoughts and prayers with all the families.

Julie Weathers said...


I am so very sorry to hear this. I will send up prayers for all.

Your response was spot on.


Christina Seine said...

Amy, I'm so sorry. Praying for all involved.

Hugs from kids are the best medicine there is. Thank God for them.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Amy: sending prayers to paradise. So sorry.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Mills said...

Another link round-up on Jim Hines' site, a couple of which have been posted above: http://www.jimchines.com/2014/05/diversity-appropriation/

Not writing POC because you are afraid to get it wrong, and not writing POC because you purposefully don't want to and think books should be whiter, both result in the same thing: lots of books without any POC. (Same for other sorts of diverse characters... every book doesn't need to cram every facet of humanity in it, but as a reader I get bored reading the same cast over and over and I find it lazy to rehash the same old tropes)

So go for it! Do your research like you would any other aspect of your book (you're in great shape having real life ties to the community you're writing about), and read blogs and other writings by POC (as opposed to just getting the opinions of other white writers), and do your best! If things slip through that didn't occur to you, and you get some criticism, read it thoughtfully and learn for next time.

Tom Perkins said...

Amy: prayers outbound to you and your community.

All: Is it too simplistic to just say "Do the right thing"? (Apologies to Mr. Lee.)

There are times when the shorthand is necessary to avoid detailed backstory on minor characters. If a scene calls for a gang of Italian mafia in Chicago, do I really need a sensitive portrayal of the plight of immigrants? I only need to say "group of Somali pirates" and I can be pretty sure what the reader is picturing without describing each one. If I say "villain," we all know he has a British accent. (Sorry, Colin, that's just the way it is.) :)

But, for a character that we want people to bond with, we need to do more. That's where the work of authenticity comes in.

The other dimension to this is marketability. In the US, many barriers have come down, and are coming down. An interracial romance? No big deal. A gay interracial romance? Well, still may be edgy and better be a good story. A gay interracial alien romance between ninjas with cancer? Well, that'll still be niche all day long.

Publishers will print what they're confident they can sell, right? I'm new enough at this to think that it is ultimately a meritocracy with 2 factors: good story and marketability. All the rest - POC, topic sensitivity, location - are all secondary.

Yes, I am n00b; hear me r0Ar.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I've just jumped on (have not read all the comments)and noticed that some of you have wondered where Donna is. I wondered that a few days ago and emailed her. It is not my place to share so I will not except to say my heart goes out to her and her family.
We love Donna and miss you.

And Amy, prayers to you and your community. Seems that this has been a very sad time for many.

Amy Schaefer said...

Thank you all, and big hugs to Donna. We may all just be "woodland creature friends" together, cluttering Janet's blog with our nonsense, but your support and good wishes mean a lot to me.

Lilac Shoshani said...

Amy, I'm so sorry to hear about this. Prayers for you and your community from me too.

And I'm also sending lot's of loving blessings to Donna and her family. Thank you for sharing this with us, Carolynn.

Colin Smith said...

Tom: Now, when you say a "British" accent, do you mean English, Scots, or Welsh? Hmm? :D OK, that was mean of me... eeek! Living up to the stereotype!! :O

2Ns: Thanks for letting us know about Donna. We'll certainly keep her in our prayers.

Erica Eliza said...

The only time I've ever thought "Yep, this writer is doing something wrong" is when I encountered a white British guy on the Internet asking for name suggestions for his African American characters. His placeholder names for them were Rosa Parks and LeBron James. On an unrelated note, any suggestions for my Brit characters? They've been David Beckham and Queen Victoria for a while but I don't think they suit them.

Julie Weathers said...

My thoughts are with Donna and loved ones.

Tom Perkins said...

Colin: as an American (stereotype?), what difference does it make? :D I mean, Mel Gibson, Pierce Brosnan and Shrek all sound the same right?

Waht ahksent due Chelsah fahns yews?

(Oof. Am I the villain now?) ;)

Colin Smith said...

Just to be clear, the white British guy on the Internet Erica's talking about wasn't me. At least I hope it wasn't! :)

*slaps Tom upside the head* ;)

Anonymous said...

I think it's less appropriative when a) it's grounded in reality, research, not stereotypes which are offensive much of the time because while some X will be true for some subset of Y, it's never true for all of Y and stereotypes are rarely applied to white people. We allow them to be complex while denying this to minorities who *must* be reduced to simplest terms. And b) if you acknowledge the people on whom you're piggybacking. That is, the the authors of the books you used as research, the communities who lent their voices in interviews, documentaries, friends, etc.