Thursday, May 24, 2012

Writing Outside Your Perspective

An "It's Complicated!" post by editor Cheryl Klein

Cheryl Klein
One of the most common questions that comes up around diversity is the issue of “Who can write what”—whether an author of one race can create a character of another, whether that character is then authentic, who gets to decide all this. When I’ve considered these situations as an editor, my judgment almost always starts with how much that writer is willing and able to radically decenter himself and his own privileges and biases in favor of those of his fictional character and culture, rendered in all its lights and shades . . . which also presupposes the writer has done enough research or gained enough experience with that culture to render the lights and shades authentically.

As an example, let’s suppose I just finished reading a manuscript written by a white woman but told from a Mexican-American teenage boy’s perspective, and overall, I liked the manuscript: I found the characters involving and multi-dimensional, the plot was fresh and smart and kept me turning the pages, the themes were woven deeply into the story and thought-provoking — and all of that would incline me toward acquiring it. But as a person who thinks a lot about diversity issues, I would at that point pause a moment and ask myself: Did the voice sound believable to me as that of a Mexican-American teenager, given the character and the world the author created around him? (Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.
Here I have to acknowledge that I myself am a white woman, and keep an eye on my own privileges, biases, and knowledge/lack thereof.

How is Mexican-American culture as a whole portrayed within the book, and how are other cultures portrayed in contrast? Is any set of people all cartoonishly bad or uniformly good? (Sentimentality about a culture, and particularly about America’s or white people’s ability to help a “lesser” culture, can be just as offensive as ignorance of it.) Who drives the action and makes real change in the story? Is everyone portrayed with some complexity? (I should further specify that this concerns me most when a writer is writing about a protagonist or setting the book as a whole in a culture different from his/her own; multicultural secondary characters need to be believable and authentic too, but if we’re not so much seeing the whole world around them, the standards are a bit different.)
[...] multicultural secondary characters need to be believable and authentic too [...]
Supposing the book passed those tests, I’d then ask if I could have a phone conversation with the author. This is a standard part of my acquisitions process before I sign up a book, but it’s especially important when I’m talking with someone who’s writing cross-culturally. In that case, I say outright: “This is a tricky and sensitive subject. What led you to write this story, or to write the story from this perspective? What do you know about this culture? What’s the basis of your authority? What sort of research or interviews or experience have you accumulated? Has anyone from within the culture read it, and what sort of feedback did you receive?” 

In the author’s responses, I’d listen for:
  • Humility in the face of the above issues
  • Thoughtfulness about them
  • An openness to critique
    • Not just by me, but by any vetters we might employ
  • A willingness to work
    • To go as far as she can in learning more about the culture and to revise to correct any missteps
  • An openness to dialogue
    • Being able to talk about these questions with me and with others as they come up

If these things are present, then I might go on and share the book with my colleagues here at Scholastic, and we’d figure out the next steps from there.


  1. I wrote this post last week, without having seen any of the other "It's Complicated!" bloggers' posts this week, and I wanted to comment on it in light of Cynthia's and Stephanie's fantastic posts and the great discussion in the comments there. Neither my post nor my practices with these questions are intended to scare writers away from writing about diverse characters, and I'd be very sorry if they had that effect! My larger point is this: What is most important to me as an editor is finding great stories about fictional people who I can believe in as real. It's very easy for a writer to reproduce his or her own reality, but the farther a writer moves from that reality, the more they have to exercise all their writerly gifts of imagination and research and empathy and humility -- to have interacted with and thought deeply about the people and the world they're trying to bring to life for the reader, and to wield their writerly power wisely.

    It is equally important to me that the books I publish contribute accurate information to the larger cultural conversation, especially for kids. And when I sign up a writer's book, we're embarking on what's usually at least a two-year working relationship where we'll both spend a lot of time in each other's brains -- me advocating for the reader's experience; the author listening to what I have to say and judging whether that forwards the communication of his or her own vision. My pre-acquisition conversations with authors are the one chance I have to get a sense of whether our brains are compatible, so to speak -- if the things that matter to me, like cultural accuracy and plot movement, are important to this author as well, and if therefore I'll be useful to him or her in developing the book, and we'll have a good time working together. I don't expect a writer to have a Ph.D in the culture they write about or to have everything perfect in the first draft; but I do want to be sure we share these fictional values before we launch that two-year relationship. If you're here reading this, you probably already share those values -- but believe me, I've talked with writers who don't! And those writers would be (and in some cases have gone on to be) better served by an editor who is not me, all the way around.

  2. And I'm going to add more still!: I believe very much that writers can and should write outside their biographical experiences, and I'm enormously proud to publish multiple writers who do: Francisco X. Stork writing about a boy with Asperger's syndrome in MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD and young women in IRISES; Trent Reedy writing about an Afghan girl in WORDS IN THE DUST; Lisa Yee writing about a boy named Stanford Wong. All of those involved a lot of work on the author's part, and then frank conversations about accuracy and authority like the ones I describe in my post; and I think they're better books for that process, and that the authors would agree.

    Reality always starts with what I can best describe as humanity: Do these characters have dimensions and histories and desires and relationships and contradictions and flaws? Does the author show their distinctive turns of phrase or gestures or mental habits -- the small things that make them come to life? Creating a character is, I would say, about 50% personality factors like this, and 50% things that are simply the facts of who the character is, like their race and gender and ethnicity and sexuality -- all those factors that make up who we are at a primal level, and are then overlaid with the things that make us unique, with each affecting the other and all of our actions that follow. While everyone comes from a culture, nobody's personality and actions are 100% dictated by that culture, and I imagine a character who WAS like that would be pretty much a walking stereotype! It would be a shame if any of us -- writers, readers, agents, editors, or reviewers -- paid attention exclusively to one half of the character-creation equation and neglected the other, in either direction.

  3. Thanks, Cheryl, for your post. As far as we know, Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet without being to Italy. Should an editor/publisher send Shakespeare to live in Italy for a few years in order to make it an "Authentic Italian"? No, if the essence of the play is about a universal tragic love story. Thanks for not expecting writers to have a PhD in the culture they write about, although my education includes a PhD from NYU in another area. Writers are able to write novels set in a foreign country if they do extensive research about the country and its people via the internet and by viewing many videos on YouTube about the country and its people. If the storyline is universal in a foreign setting it can be written well. A Diversity novel can be written well by an author who deson't belong to the Divesity group that her novel is about. I respectfully submit that a novel written by someone outside the specific diversity group has teh potential to do better than if it's written by an author from the diversity group. the reason is that authors from a specific Diversity group are more likely to stop the flow of the storyline with many anecdotes that the reader will not understand, but the authors feel that it's important to include in order to tell about their culture. In my personal case, The English vesrion was written by an oustiders while the first parts were written by someone who just followed the storyline but wrote it in her own authentic style as an insider. Best wishes.

  4. Cheryl (and all), this comment comes from children's author Uma Krishnaswami. She's traveling overseas today and, due to uncertain email access, asked that I post it for her.

    From Uma Krishnaswami:

    "So-called insiderness is a con game, in some ways, and it's about the marketplace--what stories get accepted, what stories get honored.

    "I'm distressed to see that when new awards get instituted, they too tend to honor only the identity tales or the conflicts that come from societies in which the kid character lives.

    "Where are the Asian kids with no connection to any homelands outside North America? Where are the "incidental" gay characters whose gayness isn't the point of the story? Or black kids in middle class suburbia?

    "I can only conclude that we like our minorities but we like them oppressed."

    1. I so agree with Uma's post. I am writing a YA novel now with a protagonist that is Native American (like myself). The point of the story isn't about her culture, she just happens to be NA, like myself. Of course, this defines who she is, but it isn't ALL that she is.

    2. I disagree that we only want authors from underrepresented groups to give us stories of oppressed characters. Alexie's Native characters are not wallowing in victimhood. Neither are Cynthia's. Or Francisco's!

    3. I agree with the point that we need to increase the types of diverse characters in YA. I'm all for the types of characters Uma mentioned: the Asian with no homeland connections, etc. For example, I teach a group of Latinas who do not speak Spanish, a boy from Nepal who is a skateboarder, and an Afro-Latino boy who dresses preppy and plays lacrosse. They are diverse in cool ways and I'm sure they will all make it into my writing somehow :.) I don't want to downplay the identity tales. My mom is an immigrant, and I think she was extremely brave to leave her home as an adult to start a new life. I do agree, however, that diversity in YA can and should include characters who are not having a cultural identity crisis. Race, culture, religion, etc. are a part of who we are, but that kind of crisis doesn't always have to be the point of the story, as Uma said.

  5. "how much that writer is willing an able to radically decenter himself and his own privileges and biases" - LOVE this phrase!

  6. Great post, great comments--thank you so much for the conversation! So much to think about, and "it's complicated" pretty much sums it up.

  7. Great conversation!

    I just finished an author note which addressed these issues exactly. The story is set among the Quinault and Makah of coastal Washington state. Historians and teachers from the tribes were very helpful in supplementing my research with unpublished material, but even so there are things which I either can't know, because they are a part of private ritual practice, or can't tell, because they are mythological stories belonging to a particular family who owns the right to tell them.

    So yes, it's complicated. I needed to choose a character who, though a member of the tribe, would also be an outsider to the rituals I couldn't research. I also carefully considered the starting point of my story so that the rituals involved would be occurring before the action of the story started. Lot of revision involved in getting that just right, but not an insurmountable task.

    In some ways the harder part was dealing with the mythology. Over the many years I was working on Written in Stone, every non-Native reader of my ms asked me to include the story of the Pitch Woman and the Timber Giant so that my characters deep aversion to walking in the dark and going into the deep forest would make sense. It's probably true that the book would be more accessible with the mythology included. But those are not my stories to tell, so although I learned many versions of the stories from my students, they are not in the book.

    To his great credit my editor never asked me to add the mythology and was willing to defer his questions about culture to the judgement of my Quinault and Makah sources. The whole team at Random House actually has been great about giving me lots of room for a longer than usual author note and opportunity to comment on the cover. It would be easy for a smallish author from a smallish town writing about a very narrow segment of American culture to feel like the biggest Eng. language publisher in the world would naturally behave in an oafish fashion simply by virtue of their size. And yet they've been enormously attentive to the details of getting it right for a book that is (probably) not going to be next summer's block buster.

    Sometimes I hear grumbling against the "publishing establishment" about the lack of diversity and for sure everyone in the game could improve. Still, I think the big publishers try pretty hard to get it right when they've got a solid story to work with.

    I would love it if we could follow this week of "It's Complicated" conversations with a week of "It's Worth It!" conversations about books which get it right and publishers who focus specifically on multicultural work and marketing strategies that bring multicultural work to a broader audience. Sorry to be so long winded but it's an issue I've been interested in for almost 20 years now and it's exciting to find civil and productive discussion of the topic on line.

    1. Roseanne, can I get a review copy?

    2. I believe ARCs will be out in October.

  8. Okay. I'm a Mexican woman. This is the thing I don't like about books with Mexican characters: When the whole freaking thing centers on the characters ACTING Mexican. I'm not regularly walking around talking Spanish and eating burritos. Well, um. Maybe I am, actually. Okay, then. Here's what I really mean: The STORY doesn't have to be about the character BEING Mexican. You know? All the white characters out there don't have stories about what it's like to be white. Just have multi-cultural characters inserted into stories. Like they're inserted into REAL LIFE. (And now she's suddenly craving a burrito).

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Thanks, Anita, for your comment. Millions of Americans will be interested to read about an American Mexican woman who is the Heroine of an exciting storyline. The storyline is the focus while her being Mexican adds spice to the story. But by far less Americans are interested to read about an American Mexican woman growing up in Texas in a quasi biography story where herbeing Mexican is the main focus of the novel. A huge Diversity Best Seller will be a novel intoducing the Diversity indirectly, not as the main focus of the novel.
    Indirect Diversity novels appeal to all Americans. Direct Diversity novels appeal mainly to readers from their own specific Diversity group.

  11. I've been kind of lurking in this discussion, and just want to say how glad I am that it is being had. Some really, really salient points brought up today, and I even love reading the respectful and intelligent exchanges in the comments. Some really good stuff.

  12. This is an interesting post. It makes me wonder what a person's criteria is when trying to decide whether a character of a certain race is "authentically" that race, or whether culture can really be decided just by a person's race.

    Personally, I don't think there's such a thing as an "authentic portrayal" of any race, because there are so many different types of human beings who span across all races. Generally, when someone is looking for an "authentic race", they tend to rely on stereotypes. So, for example, when someone above mentions "acting Mexican" - I think she might be implying that it's a stereotype to perform the Mexican race, rather than just being a Mexican person. What does the voice of a Mexican-American sound like? What does a black person sound like, or a Japanese person? And why don't people write about how to make a white person sound authentically white?

    "What do you know about this culture?" To me, anyone could know about any person o any race's culture. Race doesn't dictate culture. I write a lot more about it here:

    1. You raise a lot of good and interesting points, and you're very right that there are many different types of human beings across all races & about the danger of falling into stereotypes -- not to mention that race doesn't dictate culture. And lord knows it's all so individual to the writer, the book, and the character and world being portrayed. . . .

      As for the criteria used to judge cultural authenticity, when I myself am outside that culture: I suppose it’s a measure of what seems probable vs. what I know to be humanly possible. To expand on the example in my post in a slightly outlandish way: Suppose the contemporary Mexican-American teenage boy in the novel I was reading spoke like a character out of a Jane Austen novel: 18th-century vocabulary; highly structured sentences full of semicolons; exclamations of "Merciful heavens!" I wouldn't believe that was the authentic voice of a Mexican-American teenage boy, or actually ANY teenage boy . . . simply because it does not seem probable to me, given what I know of contemporary teenage boys, that they’d have those speech patterns. Does that rely on a stereotype of teenage boys? Maybe. But it’s a stereotype rooted in some truth – that a fair 95%, and maybe more, of teenage boys don’t talk like that. And so I think my doubt about it would be justified.

      But then suppose the novel delved into the boy’s backstory and showed me that when the boy was younger, he found a shelf full of Jane Austen novels and read them, and something about the world portrayed there resonated so deeply with him that he read the books over and over again and internalized many of their linguistic patterns. If I saw that backstory, then I could possibly believe in the authenticity of that character's speech and that personality pattern, as unlikely as it would seem for a modern-day teenage boy. That is: I know such exceptions to the teenage-boy rule are humanly possible, and I’m more than willing to go along with them if the author shows me how they come about, especially because I imagine the story would be all the more rich for having such an individual and distinctly imagined character. (I'd also then expect to see some conflict arising out of this character trait, since I don't imagine most teenage boys could say "Merciful heavens!" and not get a side-eye from someone. . . . Unless he was in a group of Jane Austen reenactors or a very conservative culture where lots of people spoke like that; and so it goes with the exceptions.)

      And all of this also depends on the size and nature of the group involved, of course. When we’re talking about race, that’s a group so large and widespread and diverse within itself that saying “All these people talk alike” (or making any other blanket generalization) is just plain stupid. When we’re talking about a large country like America, ditto. When we’re talking about a small, mostly homogenous country like South Korea or Iceland, then I think it might be more fair to wonder about a native person there who speaks like a Valley Girl . . . but again, we should always be open to individual circumstances and stories, and welcome those.

      So if I’m making these judgments, what I have to keep an eye on here is, again, the limits of my own knowledge, and my privileges and biases and all those things. . . . To be aware of the general outlines of a culture, like how teenage boys speak, to be sure it’s not impossible for a general reader (like myself) to believe; but also be willing to be convinced by the individual story, because that’s ultimately what I want to read.

    2. And I agree with everything you've said 100% - because you focused here not on the race of the Mexican-American boy, but the fact that he was just a teenage boy of any race. I think that questions of authenticity become dangerous because it brings up questions of whether someone is "really black" or "really Latino/a", etc., which brings up stereotypes of those races, like you said. In the community I'm in right now, plenty of people here believe that black people are supposed to speak one way, and white people are supposed to speak another way, and Puerto Ricans are supposed to sound like this, and other people can't sound like that. It makes me uncomfortable when we bring similar "rules" to the voices of writing.

      You say "all these people talk alike" is plain stupid - but there are surprisingly huge amount of people who think that this is fact, and research how a black person is supposed to sound, or write stereotypical dialogue based on race, instead of just letting their characters be. I'm glad so many people are working together to get to this point. :)

  13. Thank you, Cheryl. I do agree with much of what you say.

    My main concern is that many biases are hidden. Take the term ‘American.’ In everyday use, ‘American’ seems to signify those whose ancestry can be traced back to Europe. The rest are African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, Mexican-American, and so on, somehow not fully ‘American’.

    In my opinion, the danger is not so much in the white writer too nervous to write about other cultures. The danger these days is in thinking that the only writer competent to write about every culture is the white writer. The rest of us somehow only half-hit the mark, because after all we are only Hyphenated-American.

    There are so many reasons given as to why we miss the target. The one that I hear constantly is that my writing style won’t appeal to the ‘American’ market. Really? Is there just one (white) American writing style that American children (of all colors, shapes, sizes) read? If yes, what a dreadful indictment of American society.

    Then there are the book covers. The issues run from lightening the skin of dark-skinned characters, using cartoonish figures or abstract illustrations. We are teaching our children to revere the light skin and abhor the dark one.

    I do not believe that in the 21st century, an American child (of any skin color) will refuse to pick up a book simply because it portrays a dark-skinned protagonist. I do think that we adults transfer our biases and prejudices on to the children and that’s where the problems lie.

  14. Thanks for your post on this complicated topic, Cheryl. It's interesting to hear about the careful and important review process, thanks for sharing your insight.

    Asking some of these questions about characters overall -- no matter what the race or culture or hometown or whatever---is valuable. Asking a writer why they chose to write about a particular character can really open up dynamic conversation.

  15. Well said, Cheryl.

    This is a wonderful conversation. Overwhelming, really. I think of these issues a great deal and it is complicated. Very. I can look at it from a variety of viewpoints but each, when I look deep enough, has its own limitations.

    As one who has lived outside of her birth culture longer than she has lived within it, it sometimes feels like an odd issue to have to even have to consider.

    I don’t think books written where the chief focus is on the fact that the main character is of a minority or little known culture can ever be successful. I do think it is all about lens changing, though, and the recognition that when writing not about but from within different cultures, one must know how to change lenses, to understand that lens changing, not research, not “authentic detail,” is what it’s all about.

    A popular cross-cultural speaker in Alaska, Father Michael Oleska, gives a great talk about how people look at time in a cultural sense, comparing time from the perspective of his German mother, his Russian father an his Yupik wife. Culture, he says, is “the game of life as you understand and play it."

    Writing across cultures, like peacefully living in multicultural world, requires one to learn how to change lenses, how to understand what dinner at 6 means through different cultural lenses, how to accept the different games as an integral part of the deal and then move on and write about life, starting, as Ellen Wittlinger said a few days ago, “at the core, the place in which we're all alike.”

    Any writer who has lived in more than one culture or has a family that contains loved ones of another culture should know how and why to do this. I think becoming multicultural, as a writer, is kind of like becoming multilingual. The second language is the hardest. It’s hard, initially, because you have to understand that it requires a different way of structuring words, sentences and thoughts--even some totally different concepts. But after that, it’s just communication.

    1. Well said, Debbie. A second language. Otherwise, it is made-up, no matter how well intentioned the author might be.

      Scott O'Dell had very little to go on when he wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins. To compensate, he drew on stereotypes AND he inserted material from another tribe into Karana. Do writers know better now? And assuming we (advocates of children's lit) know better now, can we make a concerted effort to educate people we interact with so that it, and the problems in it become a learning tool instead of a much loved classic?

    2. I love the idea of "lens changing," Debby -- that's what I meant by "radically decentering," but much more succinct and direct!

  16. Fascinating post and fascinating conversation... I recall having a conversation in an African-American literature class I took as a graduate student about eight years ago. I had just finished my first novel, and in that novel there are teens from various ethnic backgrounds given that the novel is set in Southern California. We had a conversation about just these issues of who could authentically write what sort of character. I was insecure about having written an African American mother character. She was a single mother. She was a recovering alcoholic with a lot of kindness and a fair amount of wisdom. I had based her voice on someone I knew, but I felt a bit insecure. I mentioned this, and got absolutely jumped on. Everyone wanted to know why I had chosen to have an African American character and his mother in the novel.

    "Why is your character black?" I remember being asked.

    I absolutely couldn't answer the question in any other way. I said, "Because his parents were black?"

    I said this not to be funny, but because it was exactly how I felt. I've read Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark." I am mindful of the way white authors have used black characters throughout history and still today. I hadn't had ulterior motives, other than perhaps adding ethnic diversity to my novel to make it more ... authentic. I've lived in many places in America, and only one of those places had just about all white people (Billings, Montana). Most of them were places where your neighbors could come from any ethnic background, and none of those people walked around as representatives of their race. People are people. Are all black women single mothers who are recovering alcoholics with a big heart and wisdom? No, but this woman was. I believed in her as I wrote her.

    I tend to agree with Cheryl that authenticity is the key behind any voice. Does it feel like a flesh-and-blood person? I also tend to agree with the commenter who asked the important questions: where are gay characters where that person's sexuality is not the point of the story, or where are the black characters in middle class suburbia?

    These are the books I want to read, and these are the books I would like to write. And yet I do feel a certain level of anxiety when I write a character of a race that is not mine. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I do.

  17. You may have heard the expression "two Jews, three opinions," and the question of what makes a book Jewish is constantly debated within the Association of Jewish Libraries. Is it Jewish authorship? Jewish characters? Jewish events? To me, it's the portrayal of authentic Jewish experience no matter who the author is, but even there we get into the question of what is an authentic Jewish experience. There was a Hanukkah picture book several years ago that showed a dinner table that had meat on a platter, along with latkes and sour cream. Those who keep kosher would call that inauthentic because meat and dairy are not served together at a kosher table. But there are many Jewish families who do not keep kosher and for whom this illustration reflects reality. So even within a culture, there are many different experiences - who is to say which is "most authentic"?

    Another twist on this is that sometimes those born within a culture know less about it than an interested outsider. Many assimilated Jews relate to their culture mainly through food and humor, while those who convert to Judaism from another religion study long and hard, and are often quite observant of tradition and ritual. So in terms of having background knowledge, being an insider is not necessarily relevant.

  18. This is such a fascinating post. I'm glad I was linked to it through a twitter search.