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.

Am I better equipped to tell Naima’s story than someone who doesn’t speak her language? Perhaps. Don’t I grasp her non-verbals better than a “cultural outsider” because I learned them at my mother’s knee? I suppose so. You learn cultures like you learn languages. An average child quickly becomes fluent, her soft palate and tongue mastering accents and tones, her superb proficiency demolishing an intelligent adult’s best efforts.

But here’s the rub: a writer who isn’t Bengali but who grew up with few choices and little power might also be uniquely equipped to tell Naima’s tale. It would be told differently, but this writer learned the desperation of poverty at his mother’s knee. In his version, Naima’s struggle to help her family would resonate with another kind of proficiency acquired as a child.

Why does race trump in North America when it comes to a discussion about authenticity and fiction? My best guess is that we adults are stuck in that particular paradigm of identity. Race takes primacy when it comes to how we see others and how we see ourselves. In our minds, it still parallels the deeper question of power at the heart of this conversation, because the appropriation of story is a powerful act. And perhaps we’re (sort of) right.

But things seem to be changing in the next generation. Young people are grasping nuances of gender, education, and class along with race and culture much sooner these days. Many of them are becoming quickly proficient in crossing all kinds of borders. Our job in storytelling is to deploy our adult faculties of experience, research, imagination, and empathy, and do our best to follow.

Mitali Perkins ( was born in Kolkata, India and immigrated at age seven to the United States with her family. Her newest title for young readers is an anthology called Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick, September 2013). Mitali speaks about the transforming power of stories as windows and mirrors, blogs about “books between cultures” (, tweets regularly (@mitaliperkins), and connects with readers through Facebook ( She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  1. Yep, that last line is powerful, resonant - and all too true. If we're the storytellers, the bards in this play, all we can do is tell the stories in front of us, and try to keep up.

  2. I always appreciate your insights, Mitali. There's a freshness to your point of view, a lively intelligence in your questions, and a vividness of metaphor and example that always brightens the discussion and moves it forward.

    I agree that race is the trump card because we're stuck in that paradigm, and also because we've caught a glimpse of how powerfully it impacts our lives, whereas the power dynamics of class is rarely examined.

  3. p.s. Also, in contemporary discussions of race, there's a carefulness to behavior, especially on the part of white people, lest one say or do something inappropriate. As Bill Wright notes in the previous essay, this caution sometimes causes people to assume, "I don't know how to think about that," and therefore to fail to apply their intelligence to the question.

    It's almost as if people see No Trespassing signs around the issue of race and give up before they try, lest they make a mistake. This is a shame, because we all have rich racial stories, just like all the other parts of our humanity. We just may not have discovered them yet.

  4. I tell my students there is nothing less relevant to any work of art than the identity of the person who created it.

    Whether that work of art is a book, a song, a symphony, a painting, a sculpture, or a costume, the only thing that matters is the quality of the artwork itself. We tell our kids not to judge books by their covers. What possible purpose could it serve to hold off on our evaluation of a work until we evaluate the alleged credentials and identity of the person doing the writing? What possible purpose could it serve for a writer to need some sort of permission slip before that writer tackles a story? The story (which includes such subsets as credibility and research, and avoidance of stereotype), like all art, speaks for itself. It needs to be judged on its own merits.

  5. Thanks for your comments and encouragement. Always good to take risks and learn from mistakes in community.