How do we as writer’s incorporate something foreign into our work? Write from the point of view of a different race? Portray a scene that we have never experienced? Describe the layout of a city, state or country we have never been to? Some of this can be achieved through research, the first draft of a story being a draft or placeholder until we have enough money to travel to that state. I know one day I want to travel to what remains of Topaz, the Japanese internment camp in Utah or to China to see a Chinese opera.
But what about the things we cannot change? I’m an African American woman who could bleach my skin but would still identify as black. So how do I go about writing White, Asian, Latino or Biracial characters?Simple, I remember that everyone, at the core of their very being, is human. I first focus on the person my character is, their background and the events that shaped them to be the person they are. Now, I also want to be wary of stereotypes and not have a wealthy White person with a genius Asian co-worker find a way to help support the poor Latino family of 20 living under one roof whose black neighbors keep peddling drugs right outside their front door. That entire sentence just gave me bad vibes.
Not all White people are Privileged and Rich.
Not all Asians are Geniuses.
Not all Latino families live under one roof in the slums.
Not all Blacks are drug dealers.
That’s not to say that none of these races can be challenged by someone like this. I could have an Asian family where one person is painfully average in comparison to his siblings. I could have a white homeless man reflecting on his rural upbringing because, before he found himself on the streets, he had something. I could have a black millionaire running his own company as long as I tell the story of how they reached this moment.
There is also the issue of language. I want one of my character’s to speak Spanish but, sadly, I am not fluent. I could take the easy way out and just have them speak broken English throughout the novel though that method really grinds on my nerves. I could incorporate a few words in Spanish or have an outside, non-spanish speaking character unable to understand what is happening just that the other character is speaking in Spanish. Or, I could take some classes and apply what I’ve learned to my novel, thus learning a new language and showing that I’m willing to take the time and make sure everything is correct.
My point is, we as writers have options so why do we shy away from representing character’s outside of our race in our work? This became painfully clear during my last residency when several of the questions revolved around race to the point of being offensive. The questions spanned from being about character portrayal to whether o
r not an author should change their name to match the race of the character they are writing. I really had to sit on that one and sigh. Then I got over it when I made a joke with my friends of how my name consists of three presumably “white” names.
Kellie Kristen Carle
Since I’m from the point of view of a Japanese man during the 1940s, should I change my name, race and gender to match that of my character?
No, because being a minority does not increase your chances of being published. Your writing should speak for itself no matter your race, name or gender.
Note: Some contests and literary journals/magazines do prefer stories by a certain gender or race but still, you have plenty of other options.
But this isn’t a reason for authors to shy away from representing different races and genders in their work! If you are afraid of having a stereotypical character in your story (like I fear every time I write a new short story) have someone else read it and see what they think. I for one refuse to hold back the story inside me based on the unknown and my fear of slipping into stereotypes. I’m also surrounded by people I trust to call me out, letting me know if one of my characters is just a walking stereotype or if their history and backstory supports who that character is.
So challenge yourself my fellow writers! Don’t be afraid to write outside of what you know! The biggest lesson I’ve learned this semester is, the more uncomfortable I am about a story, the better it is. Thrust yourself out of your comfort zones, you never know what you’ll discover about yourself.
This post is in response to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.