Monday, September 30, 2013

Diversity 101: Blurring the Lines Between Familiar and Foreign

Part II—A Focus on Dialogue

Contributed to CBC Diversity by Uma Krishnaswami

My Personal Connection
The books you read as a child are as real as the places you live in or the people around you. They whisper to you of the possibilities the world can offer, like mental pathways into your own as-yet-unlived future.

In that category, Rumer Godden gave me permission to write. Kipling both enchanted and troubled me; only many years later did I understand my own need to write about the country he depicted with his strange colonial mixture of tenderness and disdain. But as a child of the late 1950s growing up in India, I cut my reading teeth on Enid Blyton.

I learned a lot from Enid about humor, family, friendships, and the pleasure of racing along a swiftly unfolding plot. Now, thinking back, I am pretty sure that I also learned how not to write dialogue.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Checking Boxes and Filling Blanks: Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Literature

Guest post by educator and writer, Cory Silverberg.

Lee & Low Books'
Diversity Gap in Children's Books Infographic
The publisher Lee and Low recently mobilized social media (through the nifty infographic on the left) to jumpstart a discussion of diversity in children’s literature. No surprise to anyone who is paying attention, while the US continues to undergo a significant demographic shift, diversity in children’s books is not reflecting what we the people look like today.

When we grow up not finding ourselves represented in popular media and educational curricula it becomes just a little harder to creatively imagine our futures, to explore our identities, to try on different ways of being; all of which are essential aspects of development. 

Shame thrives in invisibility and silence. This is why representation is a critical aspect of diversity work. 

But we need to also be mindful of how easily a complicated idea like diversity becomes code for one flattened out thing. That thing is usually the visual representation of race. As authors and educators, editors and publishers, we need to notice how this is missing the forest for the trees.  

So as publishers start identifying even more specific ‘diversity markets’ and begin to make editorial “requests” to meet them, it seems like a good time to consider both the forest and the trees, and think about whether there’s a way to tend to both.

To accomplish this we need to think not only of diversity but also of inclusion.

Monday, September 23, 2013

CBC Diversity Newsletter: September 2013 v. 2

Diversity 101: Blurring the Lines Between Familiar and Foreign

Part IA Focus on Narrative

Contributed to CBC Diversity by Uma Krishnaswami

My Personal Connection
Back in the last century, when I dreamed of writing for young readers, the conventional wisdom about weaving foreign languages into fiction written in English went like this:


The stories I longed to write spanned continents. My characters often spoke in two languages, sometimes with varying degrees of fluidity. My narratives demanded a mixing of languages, reflecting the hybridity I was trying to show.

I plunged in, wanting to find my own answers. I wrote a lot of bad stories that earned the rejections they deserved. I kept asking myself, how can I represent this linguistic and cultural material while being truthful to the stories I’m trying to tell?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Is the Race Card Old School?

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Mitali Perkins.

When my book Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge) came out, one reviewer said I was “drawing on my cultural roots” to tell the story.

I winced when I read that line.

I was writing about Naima, the Muslim daughter of an impoverished rickshaw puller in Bangladesh. My grandfather was a Hindu landowner who exploited people like Naima. The rift between me and my character was almost as wide as a daughter of a slave-owner writing about the daughter of a slave. Sure, we’re both Bengali, so we share a language and other cultural commonalities. But why is race the primary authenticity card when it comes to granting storytelling permission? What about power, gender, class?

The bottom line is that all fiction crosses borders. Age: middle-aged people write about children. Gender: women write about boys; men write about girls. Class: suburbanites write about inner-city kids.

If we don’t write an imagined life, we craft memoir.

Does that mean anybody can write anything when it comes to fiction? It must, with caveats. Because what an author learns before the age of seven does matter in fiction.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"I Want to Write What I Know"

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Bil Wright.

“Write what you know!” Isn’t that what English teachers, writing instructors and even guest authors encourage beginning writers to do? Many young writers, eager to begin to unravel the mystery of how to tell a story “successfully” hold onto this advice as a foundation for their writing careers whether it be professionally, academically or writing for their own enjoyment. Certainly this adage provides a certain comfort level; writing about what is familiar almost guarantees, if nothing else, a level of credibility and even authenticity, doesn’t it? And certainly, for any writer wanting to make a deep connection with his/her reader, authenticity is a quality that is highly desirable. So then does that mean I should stay away from writing about topics or characters, indeed people who are less familiar to me? Perhaps I should not include them in my computer created world, lest I fall short of making them totally believable to my reader. Perhaps I should compile a list so that I’m careful to avoid these topics and characters as I proceed to tell my stories.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Authentically Me

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Sharon G. Flake.

Growing up I did not see the value in being my authentic self. I was skinny, long-legged, and shy with big rabbit teeth.  Some adults and kids even called me Olive Oyl (Popeye’s Girlfriend) —enough said?

I remember wanting to be like my neighbor Yolonda. She could wear a blanket and look red-carpet ready.  I on the other hand, could never quite make fashion work, even today.

By middle school comparing myself to others was a fine art.  There was the blond I sat next to who had the most exquisite handwriting. For years I tried to emulate it.  In high school there was Pam. She absorbed information like a sponge.  Earning high A’s with ease or so it seemed.  I would study until my brain froze, only to end up with a lack luster B or C.

Thank God for my freshmen college English class.  Before then, I do not recall feeling one-way or the other about writing. Yet somehow my professor lit a flame in me. No longer did I need to be a carbon copy of others, at least on paper.  My writing was opinionated, fearless, and political. I was determined to use my work to give voice to the powerless.  And because I loved the community I grew up in, I never hesitated to draw on its strengths, challenges and uniqueness.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

First, Know Yourself

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Diana López.

“Write about picking cotton,” my family said when they heard I wanted to be a writer. “Write about how we used the fabric from flour sacks to make our dresses, and how Grandma hates fish because that’s all she ate during the Depression, since it didn’t cost anything for them to go fishing for food.”

Closely examine my family, or any family, and you’ll discover all the drama of a telenovela. Naturally, I wanted to write about being chastised for speaking Spanish, about living on a ranch in San Diego, about my grandmother being “Rosita the Riveter” during World War II. I tried to write those stories. But my only experience working the land comes from fifteen minutes in a field off Old Robstown Road where my parents showed us how to pick cotton. It was interesting to feel the texture, so unlike a T-shirt, which is what I had imagined.
My grandmother might have hated fish, but I loved it. We had a boat that we’d take to Laguna Madre, where we’d compete to see who could catch the most, the biggest, or the strangest. (Once, my brother caught a seagull when it chomped on the bait as he cast.) Back home, Dad filleted the fish in the backyard, the cats begging and fighting over scraps. Then, Mom used cornmeal batter to fry the fish, and we ate, delicately picking meat off tiny bones.
All this to say that my family’s experiences and the emotions associated with them are not exactly mine.

Monday, September 16, 2013

It Doesn't Have to Be True to Be Truthful

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Alex London.

Authenticity, that vicious guard-dog of truth, bedevils a teller of stories every step of the way. It is not enough to feel the truth of what you write or even to know it. The reader must feel you are right in the telling of it. An inauthentic voice can make even an honest memoir feel like a lie, while an authentic voice can make a whole pack of lies seem true. Just look to James Frey’s first book for proof of that.

In writing my YA debut, Proxy, I struggled with authenticity early on. As a gay man who was once a gay teen, I had no trouble with my protagonist’s sexuality. I well-remembered the unrequited longings, the suppressed desire for a kiss that sometimes broke out as rage, and the feeling, ever-present, that my sexuality did not define me and that I could not let the world tell me it did.

Syd, one of two main characters in Proxy, contains much of the truth of my own experience and the challenge there was the common challenge to all writing: to make sure I rendered him as vividly as I would want to be rendered myself. I had memories to draw on, fragmented conversations with my straight best-friend, felt truths that I could, with effort, put into words.

It's Complicated!: Authentic Voices Series Continues

One week down, one more week to go! 

Last week this It's Complicated! series highlighted authors who wrote brilliantly from outside of their perspectives including Graham Salisbury, Elizabeth Kiem, Walter Dean Myers, A.S. King, and Patricia McCormick. Some great takeaways?
A writer writes, and doesn’t really worry much about complaints, anyway. We’re seeking the dramatic and emotional intricacies of life wherever and however we can find them. Our job is to explore them, enlighten ourselves, and try our best to move our readers. We may all look different, but we are all intimately and infinitely connected. We are one. We are beings with parallel heartbeats. The only race out there is the human one.--Graham Salisbury, Parallel Heartbeats

My central characters all have some aspects of my personality. I don’t intend to write this way but it’s inevitable. I know I can use my personal view to create a character of depth, but I have to vary that character so that I’m not constantly writing the same book over and over again.--Walter Dean Myers, Character Development

My characters are me. I couldn’t write them if they weren’t. None of my characters are autobiographical, but every one of them is human and so am I. In the end, we all have too much in common to go on separating ourselves. We eat and we poop. We are born and we die. We struggle through. While diversity is a celebration of every type of human, I am most interested in that humanness that connects us.--A.S. King, What is Personal Perspective, Really?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Taking the Risk and Taking the Heat

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Patricia McCormick.

When authors try to write about experiences far outside our own, we run a number of risks. We’ll be accused of getting it wrong, of slumming in someone else’s pain or,  worst of all, of being insensitive or patronizing. But for me, it’s only through trying on the experience of another human being that I’m able to recognize the limits of my imagination – and, more importantly, my unconscious biases.

For instance, in Sold, a novel based on my interviews with young Indian and Nepali women who were sold into prostitution, I chose to include a white American character. He is a photographer, based on the real-life activist who introduced me to the issue of human trafficking. It was a thank-you to that young man. But the inclusion of an American character was also a way to give my primary audience a character with whom they could identify.

Some readers criticized the book for repeating the myth of the noble white American rescuer in the land of savages.  And upon reflection, I have to plead guilty.  If I were to write the book over again, I’d probably base the ‘rescuer’ on the women in India and Nepal who are fighting trafficking. Or on the male police officers now doing that work.

Lesson learned.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Is Personal Perspective, Really?

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, A.S. King.

Writing outside of my “personal perspective” is easy because I am fascinated by human beings, and not particularly fascinated by myself.

And what is personal perspective? Is it the body I am in? This physical, sometimes smelly, sometimes sunburnt, sometimes arthritic shell? Is it the color of my skin? The house I grew up in? The amount in my parents’ bank account in 1984? Is it my family’s traditions during holidays? How often we went to church—or the fact that it wasn’t often? This question of personal perspective concerns me because it seems to be the thing a writer is supposed to transcend when he or she writes a novel. It’s also the thing a writer is supposed to plug into. It’s tricky like that.

When thinking about my characters and how they relate to me and more importantly, how they don’t relate to me, I find the dissimilar parts the least important. For example: I am not a young man. I never have been a young man. I am also not a child from a poor home, I’ve never lived in a trailer park, neither have I lived in a gated community of mini-mansions. So how do I write authentically from the point of view of a young man? How do I write authentically from the point of view of a poor girl who lives in a trailer park? A boy who lives in a mini-mansion?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Character Development

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by 2012-2013 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Walter Dean Myers.

What I knew about the character I wanted to create was that he was based on the Moroccan hero Tarik ibn Zayad. In late April, 711, Tarik led his soldiers across what is now known as the strait of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula. My problem was to keep the book as time specific as possible while making it interesting to today’s young reader.

Knowing the subsequent influence of Islamic and Moorish culture in Spain, I decided to take the trip to the areas I would be writing about. I took my usual research assistants – my wife Constance and our son Christopher. We flew from Newark Airport to Malaga where we spent a few days checking out the food and staring at the people. Christopher noted that many seemed to be of mixed race.   We then rented a car and drove to Granada.   

Granada is flat out beautiful, and I knew I wanted to include the lush scenery in my book. So throughout the book I made references to the vegetation and thus gave Tarik a careful and interesting appreciation of the wonders of nature.  

Tarik, in my story, is on a mission of vengeance. His family has been killed by Visigoth raiders and he is angry. But, needing to control that anger I gave him martial arts training from two people, one who teaches him to fight and the other who teaches him self control.  His character is coming along nicely, thank you. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Write What You Know

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Elizabeth Kiem.

Last month, as the release date of my Cold War thriller Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy drew near, these were the things I worried about:
Would Russian readers question why I nicknamed Marina, my heroine, ‘Marya’ rather than the more usual ‘Marinka?’

Would American readers check Google earth and find that the building where Marya lives is not as close to the riverbank as I implied?

Would anybody notice that Marya flies out of Moscow on a Tupelov 134, which is actually an unmanned drone?

In other words I worried that readers might question the authenticity of my story, my setting, or my props. But it never occurred to me that I might be challenged on the authenticity of my character – a Russian ballerina with a psychic streak and a lot of family baggage.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Parallel Heartbeats

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Graham Salisbury.

Original Cover
New Cover
My second novel, Under the Blood-Red Sun (1994), is about the power of friendship as seen through the eyes of two young boys in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor is bombed. One is Billy, a white boy, who’d moved to Hawaii from California, and the other is his best friend, Tomi , a Japanese boy born and raised in the islands. I wrote the first draft of this novel from Billy’s point of view, figuring, well gee, I’m a white guy … I had to write it from Billy’s point of view.

But that first draft wasn’t working; the editorial letter said, in effect, “This novel has no heartbeat. Try again.”   

So … should I start over, or chuck the three hundred pages and move on to something else? That may sound like a tough decision, but it wasn’t, because I realized that my problem was really quite simple: I’d written the book from the wrong point of view. This was Tomi’s story, not Billy’s.

But could I, a Caucasian, write a novel in first person from the point of view of a young Japanese-American boy? I had an audience of young readers that would very likely believe that I actually was Tomi, and must be Japanese. If they were to ever actually see me they might feel betrayed! And what about reviewers and other adults? “The nerve!”

Friday, September 6, 2013

CBC Diversity Newsletter: September 2013 v.1

Take Four! A New, Two-part "It's Complicated" Conversation

As part of CBC Diversity's ongoing effort, we're pleased to present the fourth dialogue in the "It's Complicated!" blog series starting next week, and for the first time, it will run over two consecutive weeks, starting on Monday. This time we've invited five authors to share their thoughts about writing inside their cultural perspective, and five authors to discuss writing outside their cultural perspective.

I think most would agree that in an ideal world, the diversity depicted in books and of their creators would match the diversity of our world. But I know some might disagree on the best way to get there--what if that's not immediately possible? Is it better to have white/straight/able-bodied, etc. authors write books about non-white/LGBT/disabled, etc. characters? Can those characters truly be authentic? What if the only way authors of color can achieve commercial success is by writing books with non-diverse characters? And can those books be authentic, too? Are there any topics that should be "off-limits" to outsider writers? Do you trust an author you perceive to be an insider more than you would an outsider?