Friday, October 4, 2013

Writing Multi-Culturally

I'm white. Yep, probably not so much of a big reveal. I'm a little inordinately proud of the tiny bit of American Indian blood that flows through my veins, but… I'm white and there's really no getting around that fact.

My life experiences have all been as a white female. The only piece that even comes close to understanding the life experiences of someone from a different race or culture is that female thing. But still… not enough.

I'm tall, not horrible looking, and I don't have any physical or mental impairments. Visible, anyway. Another strike against any kind of personal knowledge about diversity.

On the plus side, I've spent the last thirty-nine years in an intimate relationship with someone who brought a different perspective to my knowledge of diversity. Someone who not only changed the filter, but changed the lens.

But how does a writer, with no real exposure to racial or cultural differences, bring the depth that  diversity offers to his or her writing?

In his book, MAKING SHAPELY FICTION, Jerome Stern says this about dialect: Do not attempt dialects with which you are not intimately familiar and for which you have not, in some way, paid your dues. Otherwise, you are likely to make a fool of yourself and seem to be a bigot as well.

No writer wants to be seen as a bigot, or even foolish. At the same time, what writer can resist a beautifully layered character who does look like all of the other characters they've created?

My advice, lame as it sounds, is to find someone familiar with whatever character you're building and ask them questions. Let them read what you've written with an eye for stereotypes. From an Eastern European to an African-American to Gay and Lesbian to a Mexican to someone who lives in Maine or Louisiana… respect them. Just as you would make every effort to research a plot detail, research your characters.

No man is an island. Expand your friendships and expand your horizons. Don't rely on what you've seen on the screen or read in another book. Rely on those who live it.

Readers, have you ever encountered a character that seemed off somehow? What did it make you feel about the rest of the story or the author?

Writers, how do you approach bringing diverse characters into your books?

17 comments:

  1. Interesting post! I worry about these things too. I set my stories in Eugene, OR, which is predominantly a white town. But it's culturally diverse, and I do my best to include as many interesting/different characters as I can.

    Dialogue is the toughest part, but like the advice says, I do not attempt to use dialect. I may mention how another characters perceives the dialogue/dialect and let the reader imagine the rest.

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    1. You've got it handled, L.J. I've read all of your books and have yet to be sidelined because of dialogue/dialect.

      And you've used some other diverse characters… lesbians and transgenders…who you have handled with respect and skill.

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  2. Having been in an interracial marriage for 12 years (in the 70s), I, too, saw a different culture from a unique perspective that impacted the way I looked at the world. You give good advice, Peg, when you suggest talking to someone in the culture who can save you from making a big mistake!

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    1. Thanks, Sheila. I think that too often, writers take the easy way out and stick with stereotypes, or bland representations of real people.

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  3. Great post, Peg! Your novels demonstrate unequivocally that you're sensitive to other cultures, and I applaud your sensitivity and efforts to make it so and maintain that feeling of collaboration with others, including them in your efforts for accuracy, integrity, and authenticity in nuancing your depiction of their culture and/or social milieu. Kudos!

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    1. I love you for saying this, Jodie. I also remember you questioning my Eastern European character and her dialogue in THE MISSINGS. You were exactly right to do so, and I was pleased to provide you with my research: personal family connections.

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  4. My hubby, who is black, does not like to read Walter Mosley's dialogue because he says he KNOWS how black people talk and does not like to try to decipher it in the text. When I write my characters, I refer to an accent but don't try to write their dialogue the exact way they sound in my head. (E.g. I'll refer to a slow Texas drawl but don't have them y'allin' everyone and dropping every 'g'.)

    I do have a fairly diverse cast in my novels, being set in southern California, so I do a few other little things. I've learned that if you're speaking in ANY language that is not your original, you will mess up the verb tenses first. Judging from my high school French, I also think sometimes people will say a word or two that they know, then translate it into the other language. So I work those in - but in moderation.

    Like you, I try to get it right, and hope that if I'm misrepresenting a population, someone steps up to tell me how to do it better!

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    1. Knowing you personally, I have implicit trust that you would never denegrate an ethnicity or culture, even accidentally.

      As an aside, both me and my husband (who is also black) love Walter Mosley. Weird how that happens, huh?

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    2. I tried reading Walter Mosley. I couldn't get through (past) the dialect. And I didn't care that much for the characters.

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  5. Stereotypes creep so easily into our work, even though most of us try not to impart them on our readers. Our minds tend to jump to most accessible framework--even though that framework can often be wrought with distortions. I think this is why a good editor is so important. Along with this and may other missteps, they often see what we can't.

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  6. Peg, Thanks for the reminder. I live in a predominantly Latino area south of Los Angeles. I'm very white and very reserved, yet for some reason I had the urge to write about characters from a Latino L.A. street gang. Living in SoCal the Latino culture is ubiquitous. I hear more Spanish on a daily basis than English. I've at least been fortunate enough to have a native Spanish-speaking beta reader to tell me when I'm screwing up the sparse Spanish I include in my novel. I don't think I'd have been able to pull it off otherwise.

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    1. Good for you, Jesse! Even living in the middle of a strong culture, you have someone of that culture reviewing what you're written. Wise woman!

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  7. Thought I wrote this before, but alas...

    I'm married to a man from India, and that's one culture I've stayed away from. It's very easy to turn some dialects and ethnic characteristics into caricatures. I've also written southern dialogue--I live in South Carolina--dropped the "g"s too, but I have other southerners that have no dialect at all. I have a black woman lawyer and a Russian woman, all with specific characteristics from people I've known. I think anything goes if you don't overdo it. Though I have had comments on storylines--of course--no one has ever taken me over the coals for characterization. Yet. Everything in moderation.

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    1. "I think anything goes if you don't overdo it." Perfect!

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  8. I've traveled quite a bit, moved all over the place, and lived in a foreign country, so I have quite a few resources from which to pull. I write dialect into my books if I'm familiar with it, otherwise I leave it alone.

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  9. This post really addresses two issues: dialect and ethnic characters. Or three, if we put "diversity" and "stereotypes" into a separate category.

    It is possible to write diverse characters - ethnically distinct, and different from our own ethnicity - without dialect - or a minimum. Just enough to remind the reader, or to give the character a "tic." Dickens was a master at this, in his day. Mind going blank on more recent examples.

    If I can paraphrase George Orwell, it's the experience that chooses the language - including the dialectal idiosyncracies. Some works need them aplenty - The Help. Others, not so much, because a character's style (word choice, grammar, etc.) is determined by more than ethnicity - education, economics, etc.

    One difference between print and film/stage is that in print the reader, with sufficient "clues" will fill in the missing pieces. The reader "hears" the characters (and sees them), so the voice fits the verisimilitude we offer the reader. With film/stage, the imagination is differently focused.

    (We can also give "stage directions" and let the reader fill in the accent, without writing it.)

    Stereotypes don't have to be stereotypical. They can fit the pattern without being defined by it.

    One last thought: the location of the story or the diversity of the characters don't determine the impact of the narrative. Some writers can move their characters all over the world; they may have to. Others stay within a square mile of home. Doesn't matter, if the story works and the characters matter.

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