Mixing Your Palette
MIXING YOUR PALETTE:
HOW TO CREATE AUTHENTIC “CULTURALLY OTHER” CHARACTERS
A critical thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
degree of Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Faculty Advisor: Phyllis Root
The Census Bureau reported in the year 2000 that 69 percent of elementary students were white, non-Hispanic. In just ten years, that number has dropped to 55 percent (Davis and Bauman 10). The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education reports in their publication “Knocking at the College Door” that by the year 2020, more than half of all high school graduates in the U.S. will be non-white. Indeed, this is already the reality for California, Texas, Hawaii, Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and New Mexico, whose graduating seniors are already majority non-white (Prescott and Bransberger xii).
And yet. For the past 28 years, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin has been tracking children’s books with multicultural content. This quote appeared in the 2013 edition of CCBC Choices:
The news in terms of sheer numbers continues to be discouraging: the total number of books about people of color—regardless of quality, regardless of accuracy or authenticity—was less than eight percent of the total number of titles we received (Horning and Schliesman).
While the non-white population of the United States is rising, the number of children’s books that mirror those children seems to be stagnant, or even declining.
A trip to the local large chain bookstore confirms this. I went to Barnes & Noble in an almost entirely African American city near Atlanta and asked an employee – a black employee – to find me a YA book with an African American protagonist. He could not locate any. I finally found a sports book by Mike Lupika called True Legend that features an African American teenager who’s a – wonder of wonders – star basketball player. And even he is so light-skinned he is compared to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
Why is there such a dearth of non-white characters? Well, go to any SCBWI conference, or go look at the students gathered at our best writing schools for children. Mostly white, mostly female, faces fill the room. The reasons for this are many and understandable, and not the purview of this paper. But it stands to reason that white female authors are going to write primarily about white female experience. This is not true across the board, and a number of female white authors have written books with male protagonists, but they are predominantly white as well.
I don’t think anyone can deny that white characters pretty much dominate the stage in contemporary children’s literature. This at a time when nearly 45 percent of children in schools in the United States are non-white (Davis and Bauman 10). So a good many of our children are not seeing characters who look like them in the books they read. And other children, from the majority background, are not viewing other cultures and ways of life in a manner that lets them know that theirs is only one of many ways of living in this world.
The theory that I just referred to – that children’s literature should provide a “mirror” for ethnic children and a “window” for majority children – was introduced by educator Rudine Sims Bishop in her book Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction published in 1982. I don’t feel the need to re-argue her points. I believe her message – that the world needs more multicultural books and characters – is well accepted. The purpose of this paper is to take the next step and ask: what can a majority culture author working now do to fill the gap in creating “Culturally Other” characters?
Some Definitions, PleaseBecause talking about race and culture in America is like handling dynamite, let me define a few concepts that I will using in this paper. Race is a slippery subject, because genetically, humans are so related that separating any of us is difficult. But when I use the word race, I generally mean ancestral heritage leading to different shades of skin color. An African American receives a large portion of his or her genetics from Africa. A white American is largely a product of European heritage somewhere along the line. Because race is such an amorphous subject – including my own children, who are about half European ancestry, about three-eighths African ancestry, and about a one-eighth mix of Native American/other – I will be including the idea of “culture” as well as “race” to represent different people groups in the United States. I understand that culture among racial groups in the United States is not homogenous, but many racial groups do maintain cultural differences that make them unique.
Culture can be defined in many ways. Jim Lo, a professor of Intercultural Studies at Indiana Wesleyan University, defines it as “a socially learned system of knowledge and behavioral patterns shared by a certain group of people … it is a way of life to which a particular society adheres” (Lo 23). The Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta defines it this way: “… a system of beliefs, values, behaviors and customs that are shared by a group of people and passed down from generation to generation.”
I am not a sociologist, but to me culture might be represented by this equation:
Environment – Personality – Luck = Decision Making Ingredients
In other words, culture is all the influencers in your life that help you make decisions, minus your innate personality and the sheer chaos of coincidence. If you have a quick temper, that’s probably part of your innate personality; but speaking respectfully to your mom when you’re furious comes from your culture. Love of competition might be your innate personality, but being a hockey player instead of a basketball player comes from your culture. You may contemplate how humans got here on planet earth because of a natural curiosity, but the fact that you worship God by praying to the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes from your culture. You may wear black clothing because you are a naturally reserved person, but your black athletic wear with a swoosh on the front comes from your culture.
So black and white Americans may be enjoying and perpetuating a similar culture, but most likely there are some key differences between the two groups. And Korean Americans probably live in my neighborhood, but they will eat some different foods, watch different movies, and behave differently in certain situations because of some key cultural differences. These cultural differences and Decision Making Ingredients will be important for writers as we create characters of color.
Like most of the working authors in the U.S. right now, I am white. Call me European-American; Caucasian; Vanilla; Cracker; call me whatever you want. But I represent what anthropologists call the “majority culture” at this moment in the U.S. The majority culture simply refers those beliefs, values, behaviors, and customs that have become the norm in a society by virtue of the fact that a dominant group of people has made them the norm. Majority, or “dominant,” culture also carries with it the rather ominous notion that one group of people controls the influential institutions of a society: the education system, the religious groups, the judicial system, the media, and so on.
Being a part of the majority culture means that I enjoy preference in many areas of life that are mostly invisible to me: wealth from employed parents, preference in job openings, the ability to look like the ideal of beauty for my society, and many other aspects. It would be easy for me to stick to writing about my own race and culture, but I cannot ignore the fact that a growing percentage of my audience is “Racially and/or Culturally Other” than my own majority culture. That means that they possess a different skin color, a different economic status, a different religion, or even a different language or dialect than the one I already know. For the purposes of clarity and streamlinification, I will be using the term Culturally Other to mean “Racially and/or Culturally Other.” Sometimes, like other reviewers out there, I will interchange this term with “people of color” or “characters of color.” Occasionally, I will even use the generic term “brown characters” to denote any non-white background. “Colored” and “brown” used to connote negatively, but I don’t believe that’s true anymore, as ethnic groups have begun to celebrate their uniqueness.
The ChoiceNon-majority children need to see characters that reflect those cultural traits that make them different and unique. They need to know that those traits that make them different from the majority are traits they can celebrate and be proud of. Otherwise they will experience the same sense of aloneness that Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen writes about in her article “Windows and Mirrors” for the on-line journal Gazillion Adoptees Magazine:
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I never read a book with a Korean American character. I read about Shirley Temple Wong, Chinese immigrant to New York in The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, and Claudia Kishi, Japanese American teenage fashionista in The Baby-Sitters Club series. They did not provide a mirror to my experiences.
Many non-white people growing up in the United States have expressed this same sense of loss. I myself became keenly aware of this hole in the literature when I helped my children dress up for their annual “Book Character Day” at school. Where were the books with biracial and black characters? We had a tough time finding any in the fiction and chapter books. Thankfully, this dearth of books has been getting a lot of attention lately.
Once we see the need for Culturally Other characters, we who are majority culture authors have a choice to make: will we write diverse characters into our books or stay within our comfort zone? Which brings up the glaring, elephantine question: Shouldn’t these Culturally Other characters be written by non-majority authors? Wouldn’t that make for the most authentic characters? The quick answer is, yes, that would make a lot of sense. To quote Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen again:
Although not uniformly, I’m wary of non-Asian Americans who have written Asian American stories because I’ve read so many patronizing, Othering texts. I worry that publishers look for established white authors whose books they know will sell, rather than take a chance on a new author whose engagement with a particular culture may be more nuanced, more real (“Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?”).
“More nuanced” is a great phrase. The most nuanced portrayal of any culture will come from within that culture. The truth of this is demonstrated in books like Shadow Thieves, by Swati Avashti, in which the portrayal of an Indian American girl is clearly done by an “insider.” The problem with that, as author and poet Nikki Grimes points out, is that publishers are not taking many chances on authors of color:
With the shift from backlist to frontlist, and from school and library markets to blockbuster-craving bookstore markets, fewer authors of color have been able to secure contracts. Wonderful poets like Janet Wong, for example, have shifted to self-publishing alternatives for precisely this reason. I, myself, am finding it exceedingly challenging to sell at the level I was even five years ago (“Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?”).
The reasons for this omission are many, and depressing, but it seems to be a problem of money. Publishers are not willing to bet on authors that are untested in this market. And publishers evidently do not think white readers will be interested in books about non-white people. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop – of mirror and window fame – says in this same article that the problem is “…a concern among large publishers, in spite of the success of publishers like Lee & Low, that multicultural books will not sell as well as they would like.”
Nevertheless, I believe that the Culturally Other authors are coming, just as the students of color are coming to the schools. As smaller movements to support these authors slowly catch on, an increase in the number of authors of color is inevitable. But they’re not here yet. We can either wait for them to grow and develop and learn, or we majority authors can try to fill the gap by providing Culturally Other characters in our own work.
But won’t we be criticized for writing Culturally Other characters if we’re part of the majority culture? Yes. Yes, we will. I’m going to get to that in a little while. But first, a call to action.
Five Reasons to Include Culturally Other Character in Your Majority-Culture-Authored BooksThere are a multitude of reasons to include characters from outside your race and culture, but here are a few of the best:
We want the chance to tell our own stories, to tell them honestly and openly. We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are (Woodson 28).
When this criticism is leveled at you, you better have one or more of these five reasons firmly in place so that you don’t quit and turn all your characters back to your own skin shade.
The Slings and Arrows“In this world you will have trouble,” said Jesus in John 16. He wasn’t talking about writing across cultures in children’s literature, but his words are still a caution. Because as a white author writing characters of color, you will face some criticism.
“Can a White Author Write Black Characters?” is an article written for Slate Magazine (http: www.slate.com) by Tanner Colby, the (white) author of Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. Colby writes about the criticism leveled at Michael Chabon, one of America’s most popular literary authors. In Chabon’s book Telegraph Avenue, he writes from the perspective of numerous characters, several of which are African American. Chabon received criticism from one black critic for trying too hard to sound like he was from the hood. Others wondered why he would even attempt such a risky character in the first place.
Colby traces the history of this tension, which reached its peak when William Styron’s book The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967. The book appeared right at the height of the black power movement. A group of 10 black authors banded together to write “William Styron’s Nat Turner: 10 Black Authors Respond,” in which Styron was vilified as a “white liberal interloper” and a “cultural carpetbagger.” The result was that white authors stayed away from writing black characters out of fear for their reputations and livelihoods.
In the 1990s and 2000s, a few white authors have ventured back into this minefield, with mixed results. James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels have been wildly successful, and read avidly by people of all races. Chabon decided that the time was right to flex his artistic muscles. “I understand the historical context, completely,” Chabon says in an interview about the book. “Artistically, I don’t understand it at all. Because if I can’t write from the point of view of a black woman nurse-midwife, then I can’t write from anybody’s point of view. That’s why I do this. I use my imagination to imagine myself living lives I don’t live and being people who I’m not.”
Colby agrees: “Chabon is right. Artistically, there can be no limits imposed, or even encouraged, in what subjects storytellers choose to approach.” There is no ignoring issues of race and cultural difference. Even if racial and cultural issues are not at the center of our plots, the Culturally Other people must be in our stories because they live around us, and our stories will not be realistic without them.
One author who was severely criticized when he created a Culturally Other character was Ben Mikaelsen. His book Touching Spirit Bear was criticized by the Native American community for his portrayal of the Tlingit culture in Alaska. Beverly Slapin, who writes for the blog “American Indians in Children’s Literature” wrote:
… Touching Spirit Bear is fatally flawed by Mikaelsen’s inexcusable playing around with Tlingit culture, cosmology and ritual; and his abysmal lack of understanding of traditional banishment. It is obvious that what he doesn’t know, he invents. Edwin, the Tlingit elder, instructs Cole to: jump into the icy cold water and stay there as long as possible; pick up a heavy rock (called the “ancestor rock”) and carry it to the top of a hill; push the rock (now called the “anger rock”) back down the hill; watch for animals and dance around the fire to impersonate the animal he sees (called the “bear dance,” “bird dance,” “mouse dance,” etc.); announce what he’s learned about the characteristics of that animal from his dance; and finally, carve that animal on his own personal “totem pole.”
This is all garbage (Slapin, A Review of Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear).
Ouch. It sounds like a little more research would have done Mikaelsen a great deal of good.
Helen Frost, author of Salt, also endured criticism for attempting to write a Culturally Other character. Because it’s a historical fiction book, I will not be reviewing it in this paper, but it will be instructive to study what her critics found offensive in her portrayal of the Native Americans in the book. Several reviewers on the web site www.americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com have problems with Salt, but none of them concern the cultural characterization of the Miami people. Beverly Slapin complains that Kekionga, where the Miami family lives, is not really a village, but a “seat of a huge political confederacy of nations (Slapin, “Review Essay of Helen Frost’s Salt).” The only other negative reviewer at the site, Debbie Reese, complains that the accuracy of the relationship is in question; that Frost’s statement about friendship between the cultures being common is not realistic. However, there was a lot of positive response from Native Americans as well. A blogger at the Myaamia Center writes, “Salt is a book that I will read to my children and will continue to recommend to other Myaamia families. Thus far, I have heard nothing but positive responses from readers within our community” (The Miami History Center, “FAQs for Salt”).
Helen Frost is no stranger to writing outside of her race and culture. Her verse novel Keesha’s House is full of characters on the edge of an emotional cliff, many of whom are non-white. I haven’t read any reviews that criticize her for her ethnic portrayals. Clearly Frost does her homework, but I have often wondered if Frost’s use of poetry or historical fiction adds a filter of protection, since the language is less realistic and more stylized. Also a verse novel is going to be much less detailed than a novel in prose, so readers will be less likely to find inaccuracies.
Maybe hearing about the kind of criticism that Chabon and Mikaelsen received will keep some writers away from the minefield that is writing cross-culturally. However, while the potential for great risk is present when writing these characters, there are some ways to reduce your risk. I will have more to say about this in the coming pages.
A Map to Guide UsThere aren’t a lot of majority culture authors out there writing Culturally Other characters, but a few are taking the plunge. I would like to discuss some authors who are already out there creating characters who cross cultural and racial lines and judge, as best I can, whether those characters are truly authentic. Then I will offer some suggestions for those authors who want to include Culturally Other characters in their own work. But first, I offer a map, in honor of my colleague Michael Petrie, to make the job of conceptualizing multicultural characters a little easier.
So You Want to Include a Culturally Other Character…
Culturally Other --
Father Bey in Boxers and Saints
Leroy in The Help
Main Character Culturally Other
Park in Eleanor & Park,
Keesha in Keesha’s House
Abileen in The Help
Close Friend of MC, Culturally Other --
Mira in Shakespeare Bats Cleanup,
Gat in We Were Liars
Mentor, Culturally Other (can be stereotypical) –
Mama Elena in Great & Terrible Beauty,
Willie May in The Tiger Rising
Close Friend of MC, assimilated --
Grace in Junie B. Jones
Antagonist assimilated --Julia in When You Reach Me
Teacher/Mentor, assimilated –
Mr. Todd in Judy Moody
Peripheral Character Culturally Other --
Juan Carlos in Don’t Feed the Boy
Main Character, assimilated --
Zachary in Shadow Thieves,
Hazel in Breadcrumbs,
True Robinson in True Legend
Peripheral Character, assimilated --
Cho Chang, Katie Bell in Harry Potter
A Range of OptionsWhat you see here is a range of options for writers who want to include Culturally Other characters. They stretch from mildly risky and somewhat rewarding, to wildly risky and richly rewarding. It’s not an exact science, and with every character mentioned, a different critic or writer will argue about where he/she should fall on the scale. But this is my attempt to calm authors’ fears by letting them know that they have a range of options.
On the low risk/low reward corner of the map, we have characters of color who are assimilated. I’ll talk more about that term in the next section, but basically it means a character of color who has adopted the majority white culture. At the other extreme are the high risk/high benefit main characters who retain a lot of cultural otherness and provide a strong reflection of those kids within those cultural groups. With that level of reward comes a greater vulnerability to attack, as I will discuss. Somewhere in the middle are a range of character types – like teachers – who can provide color without requiring a lot of research or risk.
The riskiest venture is to create an antagonist who is Culturally Other because, rightly or wrongly, it may appear that the author considers that character to be a representative of a whole group. I haven’t discovered very many examples of this in children’s literature, but the Arab terrorist who shouts religious phrases while killing people on a plane would be one example of this. Or a Mexican gang member whose background is not explored and is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer without any context. Are there Arab terrorists? Probably. Are there Mexican gang members who’ve committed murder? I’m sure there are. But if you need that character in your book, you’ll have to think about the risks very carefully.
Assimilation vs. Cultural AdherenceAll of our characters have a culture. They all react to stimuli based on what they’ve been taught as well as their own personalities. They wear clothes and eat food and listen to music that fits their environment, or they reject the status quo and go their own way. They either act like the people around them, or they make a decision to deviate and be different. One of the big choices your Culturally Other characters will have to make is whether to assimilate to the majority culture or stick to their own.
AssimilationI have used the word assimilation in the above map. Assimilation is an important word in this discussion. Technically, assimilation is “the cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural body.” The second definition, as defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary, provides an interesting picture: “a process in which a sound, influenced by a neighboring sound, tends to become like it in articulation.” If this sounds vaguely unsettling, it should. This is the process whereby people give up the traditions of their past in an attempt to become like everyone else around them. It’s the idea of the melting pot, as opposed to the salad bowl.
Anthropologists and social scientists once predicted that people of all races would become assimilated and acculturated to such an extent that people would symbolize a melting pot … The melting pot theory is losing ground. The new terminology refers to the mix of people in the workplace as a salad bowl. Emphasis for now and in the future is being placed on valuing the distinctive differences of people (DeLavallade qtd in Lo 23).
Assimilation was the goal of American society until the Civil Rights Movement and a number of other factors woke up a number of majority culture folks in the middle of the twentieth century. Gradually we came to the conclusion that, “Hey, white American culture is not the supreme standard that we thought it was. Maybe other cultures have something to teach us, rather than us always teaching everyone else how to do things.” If this sounds like I am ashamed of my own white American culture, I do not mean to imply this. I am, however, aware of that Northern European tendency to think that our way is the best way, indeed the only way, in many circumstances.
An easy way in which a majority culture writer can include characters of color is to make them assimilated. They eat what we eat, they go to our churches, they celebrate the holidays we celebrate, and they wash their hair the same number of times we do per week. If their taste in retro music skews toward Earth, Wind, and Fire rather than Journey, we can forgive that, and in fact it might score us some points in the marketplace with non-white readers.
But be warned: assimilated characters need to be authentically, intentionally assimilated, not assimilated due to lack of research. Readers of color can spot cheaply assimilated characters right away. They feel like two-dimensional characters at best, and sellouts at worst. What’s a sellout? A sellout is someone who gives up his cultural heritage and begins marching to the drum beat tapped out by “The Man,” which is a term describing the cultural majority who seems to own all the power in the society. If your characters act and talk like white Americans because they truly want to leave their own culture behind, or because they have a strong desire to make it in a white-dominated field, or if they are adopted by a white family, this makes for an interesting character. If he or she is just a majority culture character with brown skin, that’s not very interesting, and perhaps you need to look at that as an opportunity for that character to learn to love or embrace more of his or her background. Or reject that background decisively.
As much as I love and admire J.K. Rowling’s brilliance, you can find examples of assimilated characters without intention in her work; namely, Cho Chang and Katie Bell from the Harry Potter series. Both are mildly important, and they pop up in several stories. The entire saga is long enough and involved enough that it would have been nice to get a little bit of flavor from those characters, but all we really get is a skin color change. When Cho and Harry begin their romantic relationship, I would have liked to hear her voice a little bit more. Something about what her father will think when he learns that she is involved with a white boy, or how her Christmas celebrations differ from his, but we get nothing.
And Katie is just a story waiting to be told. I admit I know almost nothing about the lives of Afro-British people, but a comment about how hard it is to do her hair after a match, or about some hankering she has for a special Christmas food, would have added a little flavor. I know there is prejudice against Muggles, but is there any racial prejudice at Hogwarts? Is the world idealized in the sense that no one there sees color? Is that realistic in England and Scotland? It doesn’t seem to be, judging from the horrific tales of racism at European football matches.
Cultural AdherenceI used to think minorities in the United States wanted to be white. We assert this when we tell people of color, “I don’t even see your color.” That is not a compliment, and it is not comforting. This is a crucial component when creating characters of color: they know they are not white, and mostly they like being people of color and want to celebrate the flavor that their “otherness” brings. They want to adhere to those very ideas, beliefs, and traditions that set them apart. So having a character of color who does not celebrate his “otherness” or never learns to endures any stereotyping because of his color smacks of easiness. Unless specifically stated, it’s a good idea – and more interesting – to put all characters of color in the category of Cultural Adherence. They like the ethnic foods they eat at Thanksgiving, and they like their style of worship services, and they like the way their community expresses itself in language and clothing. This will not only be authentic, it will also add texture to your story.
For example, a lot of girls with African ancestry straighten their hair. Is it because it’s easier to manage? Or because it is closer to the ideal long, flowing hair of the majority culture? Each black female character is going to have to decide for herself. Is she going to go “natural” and pay the consequences of looking “ethnic?” Or is she going to get a perm and straighten her hair? It can’t just be straight, that’s not authentic; getting a perm is a long, involved process that requires visits to the salon every other week and hours under the dryer, and probably a fear of damaging her hair. Why does she do this? The reasons are many, but you have to state them. Otherwise it’s just an assimilated character that is two-dimensional and easy.
Assimilated Characters in Anne Ursu’s novelsAnne Ursu, who is a white American author, creates an admirable number of brown characters in her novels. As you read the books, the cultures of these characters don’t stand out as truly ethnic or differentiated from majority white culture. That’s because they are intentionally assimilated to majority culture for a variety of reasons. In the next section I will explore how this assimilation works or doesn’t work for me as I read the books.
BreadcrumbsIn Breadcrumbs, author Anne Ursu has created a main character of color that is assimilated into the majority culture. We don’t find out about Hazel’s racial background until page 16:
She felt like she was from a different planet than her schoolmates, and maybe it was true. Hazel had been adopted when she was a baby … On Lovelace Parents’ Night … she’d walked into the classroom with her mother, and people looked. They looked from her to her mother and back to her. And Hazel, for the first time, saw what they saw. Her mother was white with blue eyes and light brown hair. Hazel had straight black hair, odd big brown eyes, and dark brown skin. People looked, and Hazel looked, too, and when she looked she realized that everyone else came in matching sets of one kind or another (Ursu, Breadcrumbs 16-17).
When I asked Ursu why Hazel is of Indian descent, she wrote in an e-mail:
I read a blog/open letter by [a teenager named] Ari that mentioned she never got to see herself on covers of books. And it broke my heart into many pieces. I decided that the protagonist of Breadcrumbs should be not white; I was not going to write another white protagonist in fantasy. Hazel was Indian because I had a friend who adopted a girl from India as a single mother. And she was adopted because I thought adopted kids should get to see themselves in books too. So I really came at it from the outside in, I built the character that way, but then it all worked in terms of the world, and how out of place Hazel felt--she didn't even match her family.
Including assimilated characters is one valid way of including people of color into a story. Assimilated characters are low risk, because you’re not putting in details that readers will take issue with. When I asked Ursu if anyone had complained or criticized her about Hazel’s Indian-ness, she reported that she had not received any negative comments.
Earlier I stated that my use of the word “Culturally Other” included “Racially Other.” When characters such as Hazel are completely assimilated into the majority white culture – because of adoption or other circumstances – I am less comfortable with my own label. I would argue that Hazel is not Culturally Other, she is too assimilated into the majority culture. She is first of all adopted, then living in a broken home, and lastly a girl of color. Yes, adopted kids are “other” and need to see themselves in literature too. But I would argue that adopted kids in white families are “Emotionally Other” rather than Culturally Other. Hazel eats regular American white people food and celebrates majority holidays. The author did not have to find out what Indian people eat, or what holidays they celebrate, or how Indian teens relate to their parents. If I were to make another map and plot characters along the Culturally Other axis and the Racially Other axis, Hazel would be at the bottom of the Cultural scale and the top of the Racial scale. She could have been any number of ethnicities, and it would not have changed the story.
For this reason, you can see on the Risk/Reward chart above that I’ve put Hazel in the category of “Assimilated Main Character.” This is an absolutely valid way to include characters of color in your stories.
Zachary and Grandmother Winter in The Shadow ThievesUrsu also includes non-white characters in her book The Shadow Thieves. Zachary and his grandmother are both brown characters. Zachary is biracial with an Afro-British mother and a white American father. Grandmother Winter is from Malawi in Africa. Zachary is fully assimilated. There is no mention of his hair preparation or how he celebrates holidays. He is fully British in that he plays “football” and says things like, “You think I’m barmy.” His assimilation works very well, because he is the offspring of two different races and cultures and has adopted the lifestyle of his friends.
Grandmother Winter doesn’t work as neatly for me. She was born and raised in Africa. She “knows things” and says things that are mysterious. So I suspected throughout the story that her African-ness was going to come out, but strangely enough, it never does.
At one point the narrator points out that Zachary doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and no religion is mentioned for his grandmother, who is from Malawi. I happen to know that Malawi is overwhelmingly Christian, with some Muslims and about five percent practicing traditional religion. So I would have expected Grandmother Winter to have some sort of religious belief, even if it’s a hodgepodge of Christian and animist. In a lot of stories this might never come up, but in this story the character dies. As she prepares for her own death, she professes no religion, and in fact seems to know that the Greek version of the afterlife is the prevailing one. Which works for the story, but I it left me unsatisfied. I wanted to know a little bit more about Grandmother and how she got her power to know things. Often grandmas try and pass their religious knowledge on to the family, but this one doesn’t do that, even on the day of her death.
So the assimilation of Grandmother Winter was less satisfying to me than the assimilation of Hazel or Zachary. Some will argue with me that Grandmother Winter is not assimilated, but consider the facts. She makes English pastries, she visits tourist sites, she gives no instructions about her funeral. Maybe the lack of a medical doctor at her death could be called a “Culturally Other” practice, but I don’t know what culture that would represent. So she’s a loving, interesting, dark brown character without much cultural texture. Could she have been white? Should she have been white? No, she’s more interesting as African, and she has provided some color and flavor to the story, even if this reader wanted even more color and flavor.
Overall, I believe that Anne Ursu has done something wonderful and pragmatic, a writing technique that we can emulate. She’s added brown characters who aren’t very different culturally from her white characters. As I read her books, I ask myself, “Could there have been opportunities to deepen their Otherly Culture, or would that have distracted from the story?” It could be that having a more culturally specific Malawian grandmother would have distracted from the story. Like everything else in our stories, we have to stay away from messageyness and didacticism, and Anne Ursu has done that very well.
Speaking of messageyness, authors who want to create Culturally Other characters need to stay away from certain tendencies and pitfalls that will get them into trouble. Your Culturally Other characters have to be real, fleshed-out people, not neon signs showing that you are trying to make the world a better place. I will discuss the following tendencies in the context of various books in the coming pages.
5 Sins to Watch Out For When Creating Culturally Other Characters
InaccuracyI have already mentioned Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen. Numerous Native American authors negatively reviewed this book in magazines and blogs. Apparently Mikaelsen made up a number of rituals that the main character, Cole Matthews, went through while living on a remote island with the Tlingit people. Some non-Native readers took issue with the criticism of this book, saying, in essence, that because it’s fiction, it doesn’t have to be factually correct, which is ludicrous, since the author is undermining his own credibility. Another argument was that “Errors regarding Tlingit culture are excusable because the book has so much value for bullies” (Reese, “Reaction to Slapin’s Review of Touching Spirit Bear). This might be a valid response – if the book does more good than harm, does accuracy matter?
Of course it matters. The book would have been even more effective and would have fully respected native people if the author had taken the time to get it right. Debbie Reese, a native reviewer, responded to the above question by saying,
We, as a society, know so little about American Indians that we don’t know when American Indian cultures are being misrepresented, stereotyped, or otherwise inappropriately used … All those flawed [stories] contribute to the misperceptions American have about American Indians (Reese, “Reaction to Slapin’s Review of Touching Spirit Bear).
In Salt, Helen Frost did her homework and then had the manuscript authenticated by the native people that lived in the area. Consequently, what criticism she did received was for historical context, not for accuracy of native culture.
StereotypesIn the opening chapter of Libby Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, the reader runs into some striking images from India:
‘Please tell me that’s not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening.’
I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra … an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness inclines his head toward my mother and explains in Hindi that cobras make very good eating (Bray 1).
A short time later, the man behind the snake “smiles toothlessly.” I read the book expecting to encounter snake imagery to justify this opening scene but did not find any. It is reminiscent of a similarly repelling dinner scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the second installment of that franchise of movies. The diners eat monkey brain out of an uncooked money head, the eyeballs roll around in the soup, and the snake seems to be slithering on the plate. I felt like Bray was shooting for the same type of shock value.
Can you find people eating snake in 1891 India? Probably. Can you find toothless old brown men with Cobras as pets in 1891 India? Probably. But does the story require these kinds of stereotypes? Bray devotes a very slim section to India – all of 17 pages – so perhaps she feels the need for a quick, powerful image to portray the “otherness” of the Indian setting. Is that effective? In a two-dimensional kind of way, perhaps. This is the power and downfall of stereotypes – they produce immediate emotion and recognizability, but they reduce an entire group of people to an inaccurate or shallow picture. There is some truth in every stereotype, but often that truth is misleading in the bigger picture.
Seen from another angle, do these images from India in A Great and Terrible Beauty provide an Indian child an accurate mirror to look in? Hardly. One woman of Indian descent I talked to revealed that she put the book down after reading the opening chapter because of this stereotypical portrayal of the country of her ancestors.
Perhaps even more concerning is Bray’s portrayal of Gypsies. At one point Gemma, the main character, and her friends find their way into a Gypsy camp. She describes her friend Felicity as she talks to one of the men, “She’s mocking him. It doesn’t seem a wise course, but I’ve never found myself surrounded by virile Gypsy men in the middle of the night woods before.” As they run away from the fortune teller, the men that Gemma was so afraid of are “too drunk to come after us now.”
Were there virile Gypsy men in 1891? It’s safe to assume there were virile men of all backgrounds at that time. Drunks? Again, men of every stripe. In this story though, that’s all we see of the Gypsy men. The problem here is not that there is no truth in this portrayal, but that Bray resorts to easy answers where she might have created rounder, more authentic characters with a little more effort. In addition, this portrayal is disrespectful to men who, to this day, live in traveling caravans. She also resorts to stereotypes as she describes Gemma’s stiff, greedy English gentleman brother, Tom.
So virile, drunken Gypsy men. Toothless snake-charming Indian men. And tight-fisted, loveless, aristocratic English men. All add color to the story, but fleshing them out just a little bit would have added texture and authenticity to the story.
SentimentalismMike Lupica’s book True Legend might be an example of a book that falls into sin of sentimentalism. It’s a mass market book that relies on the promised championship game at the end to keep readers reading it, but Lupica tries hard to create a believable character. Unfortunately, authentic black boys need authentic black mamas to keep the story real, and Lupica has not fleshed this mama out. Drew, the 15 year-old main character, says near the beginning, “Hearing his mom’s voice in his head again—he’d never admit to her how much that happened, didn’t want to give her the satisfaction—the voice telling him to mind his manners with adults (Lupica 15).” This is a form of sentimentalism. We like to think of black mamas as being hard core with their children about manners and how they treat authority figures. And it’s true – many black mamas would say something like this, but you need to be consistent and make her hard core about everything else a black mom would care about.
What I mean is this – we start to hear this mom’s voice telling him to mind authority figures, but this occurs moments before Drew leaves the public basketball court at one o’clock in the morning. This is actually one of Drew’s earlier return times. I personally know a lot of black moms and I don’t know any who would let their 15 year-old play at a public park until after midnight night after night. This is convenient for the book’s story line, but not realistic. So this black mom is concerned that her son mind authority figures, but to hell with his school work, he can stay out all hours of the night playing basketball.
Easy AnswersEasy Answers can come in a variety of forms. One common way is to include gurus and mentors. I’m not knocking the role of mentors – many stories need them. And they occur in real life. But teachers and mentors of color can easily become symbols or idealistic representations rather than real flesh-and-blood characters from another culture.
There are many of these characters to choose from. Gypsy fortune tellers, ethnic teachers, homeless people. One such character that fits the mold a little too closely is the predictably wrinkled, ancient Gypsy fortune teller in A Great and Terrible Beauty. I suppose girls in the Victorian era needed a place to sneak out to like characters anywhere, but I rolled my eyes each time she appeared. Did she need to be old, greedy, and unintelligible when she told fortunes? I did not believe so.
One mentor who is written without leaning on easy answers is the black cleaning lady, Willie May, who works at the Kentucky Star hotel in Kate DiCamillo's The Tiger Rising:
“How tall are you?” [Sistene] asked.
“Six feet two,” said Willie May. “And I got to get on home. But first, I got some advice for you. I already gave this boy some advice. You ready for yours?”
Sistine nodded, her mouth still open.
“This is it: Ain’t nobody going to come and rescue you … You got to rescue yourself. You understand what I mean?” (DiCamillo 699 of 1077 Kindle edition)
Willie May is fleshed out – she smokes too much, complains of aches and pains, and speaks in believable Southern black dialect. But the children call her a prophetess, and she does deliver many of the lines that bring clarity to the characters. Is she written to provide easy answers? Is her blackness too convenient? I don’t think so. I believe she comes across as a realistic character with “second sight” like Grandmother Winter.
The moral of the story is that when writers include gurus or mentors from another culture, they need to make sure to give them more than one easy dimension. These characters may take up less space on the page, but give them some texture.
Messagey-nessWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a book with that rarest type of Culturally Other character – an antagonist. At least you think she’s an antagonist for most of the story. Throughout the book Julia is unlikeable; arrogant and unfriendly, she brags about all the places she’s been and the souvenirs she’s accumulated. But Julia is a stereotype breaker. This brown girl, who complains that there is no “’café au lait’-colored construction paper” to represent her skin, or “‘sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate’ color for her eyes,” (Stead 34 Kindle edition) is wealthier and more hoity-toity than the other characters in the book. This serves to break down stereotypes, since a lot of white readers think of black people as coming from an economically disadvantaged background.
Stead uses the technique of turning the seemingly impossible Culturally Other character into a friend once she and Miranda, the main character, come to understand each other. This is a great technique for making the world a better place, but it needs to be handled with care because it can be messagey. Didactic. A little too obvious tool by adults to “help the children understand each other better.” Stead uses a light touch, but the friendship happens quickly without much friction or the time required for rough edges to be truly smoothed. It seems to me that two characters from different cultures, especially in the 1970s when this story takes place, would start a lot further apart than these two characters, requiring more misunderstandings and cultural learning before they could become this close. Of course, the fact that Julia is assimilated to white American culture helps in this process. But message-ness lives dangerously close to the surface in this book.
A Little Fuller Painting – Eleanor & ParkOne author who, in my opinion, did a really good job of creating compelling Culturally Other characters is Rainbow Rowell. Her 2013 release Eleanor & Park has gotten a lot of attention in the past year. Not only is it a compelling romance between two loveable misfits, it also features multicultural people front and center. You can see I’ve placed Park high on the risk and reward scale. Reading reviews of this book demonstrates the truth of my theory – the more risk you take, the more reward you will receive. And the more criticism as well.
The reviews are passionately positive and angrily negative. Mia Warren, a reviewer for AsianReviewOfBooks.com says:
Rowell does a remarkable job of acknowledging Park’s Asianness but does not allow it to solely define him or his experience … Eleanor & Park does so many things right that it’s difficult to pinpoint any blunders.
On the other hand, one Korean reviewer named “Laura” on cleareyesfullshelves.com, a book review site, said,
As a Korean-American, I found this simplistic attitude that portrays being a minority solely as a negative solely based on racial appearance shallow, offensive and frustrating because this type of poor depiction has been going on for my whole life, repeatedly, in every cultural medium. I suppose it would be easy to assume that every minority in the US wishes they could just snap their fingers and be white, but the reality is far more complicated. Rainbow Rowell had a huge opportunity to explore these intricacies via Park’s character, and Park’s mom, for that matter, but clearly did not do her research, and therefore did not deliver.
For the record, I love the fact that Rowell tries her hand at a Culturally Other character. The world needs more of this. One reason Rowell is so successful in this portrayal is that the characters talk about their Koreanness frankly. It’s clumsy in the first scene, when Park’s longtime friend asks him about Drunken Monkey karate. But the conversations get more intimate and subtle until near the end Park describes what bugs him about being Korean. “Nobody thinks Asian guys are hot,” Park says. “Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls” (Rowell, Eleanor & Park Kindle edition, 272). I confess I don’t really understand what he’s saying, but the matter is discussed out loud, taken apart, held up to the light. This is a successful approach. I tried to find out if Rowell had Asian people read her manuscript to vet it, but I find no record that she did. Her comments indicate that the characters are based on people she knew, so she was sure they were accurate.
At the same time, there are some disturbing aspects of the characters’ otherness that don’t work so well. Despite including a major Korean character, Park’s mom, who says things like, “In big family, everything … everything spread so thin. Thin like paper, you know?” she never mentions or serves Korean food. No kimchi, no tea, no noodle dishes. That is fine for a while, because the character is assimilating to her husband’s culture and food tastes. But it’s inconsistent to be so ethnic in some areas and completely assimilated in others. I would like some dialogue about why there is no Korean food. I want Park to say to Eleanor, “Tater Tot casserole. Real Korean, right?” just to let the reader know the writer has not taken a shortcut but has made a deliberate choice.
After reading this book, I wondered why Rowell made Park and his mom Korean. Apparently I am not the only one. Many readers asked the same question. She answers this in an oft-repeated quote:
Why is Park Korean?
Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.)
Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.
Because I don’t live in a world where everyone looks and thinks exactly like I do. And I don’t want to write about a world like that. Even though maybe it would be easier . . .
Because that’s how I saw him the moment I saw him.
And then I couldn’t imagine him any other way (Rowell, “Why is Park Korean?”.
Interestingly, very few reviewers that I read complained that Rowell got the Korean-ness wrong. She got a lot of the cultural details right – the skin color, the hair, the accent, the dropping of the helping verbs. The criticism comes because her characters had it too easy – the level of pressure and criticism was too mild for that time and that location. It’s not that there was too much racism, the problem was that there was not ENOUGH racism to make it believable. I will have more to say on this in a later section.
So You Want to Mix Your PaletteLet’s say you are convinced. You have in mind to include a Culturally Other character as Anne Ursu or Rainbow Rowell did. How do you begin? You begin the same way you do with any character – you get to know their culture, their family, and their individual personality. This is character research on steroids.
Of course, if you want to get to know someone’s culture, you would learn about their food, clothes, dialect, and family structure. The same things you would learn about any of your characters. But there are some not-so-obvious influences you will have to think about to make your Culturally Other characters authentic.
Not-So-Obvious Cultural Hot SpotsResearching these Decision Making Ingredients will give you a head start in creating authentic characters from a different culture or race than yours:
“Bend down and hold still.” Mama pulls my hair through the pressing comb to turn it from kinky to straight. The heat gets too close to my scalp. I wince. She puts the pressing comb back on the stove to get hotter. “You want to start your new school with burnt ears?”
“Then be still.”
A white writer wouldn’t know about all this lengthy – and slightly dangerous – preparation unless he or she had spent time with people in this culture.
Once we have the details right, we have to remember that these are real people, not just representations of a culture. Like all our characters, our Culturally Other characters need to be fully formed and three-dimensional. The Five Sins mentioned earlier would be minor inconveniences compared to the sin of learning a bunch of impressive cultural details, but creating a cardboard cutout parading around the story, pointing to our political correctness.
So let us majority authors be bold and do the right thing by doing our homework so that we can create authentic, compelling characters who come from underrepresented populations of children in our country. We want children from all backgrounds to experience what Eleanor experienced when she heard Park’s music mix: “It made Eleanor feel like everything, like the world, wasn’t what she’d thought it was. And that was a good thing. That was the greatest thing” (Rowell, Eleanor & Park 57). This is how non-majority children feel when they see themselves mirrored in books. We can provide that, but we have to be brave and resourceful and really really really authenticate what we write.
I will let Rainbow Rowell have the last word in this paper: “If you want to write great things, you can’t be guided by fear. You have to step outside of yourself” (qtd in Smith, “YA Author Rainbow Rowell is Every Bit as Amazing as You’d Think She’d Be”).
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