I opened the novel, ready to step into a fictional world. And this time, the main character would be Latina, a mirror of my own brown self. Chapter one captured my interest. Chapters two and three sailed by. But by chapter four, something was pulling me out of the book’s world. The character wasn’t Latina after all. And yet her name was. Her family supposedly was. But nothing they did or said seemed, well, Latino.
A perceptive friend asked, “What would being ‘more Latino’ look like?” I didn’t have an answer. Hadn’t I railed against stereotypes such as the sobrero-wearing Mexican snoozing under a tree? Hadn’t I wished for Latino characters who ate more than beans and rice? This novel had none of that, so why didn’t it feel authentic?
As a writer myself, I can relate to this author’s conundrum. Dump in a bunch of stereotypes and the book feels insensitive, even insulting. Leave out cultural details, and you get a thin portrayal or worse–seemingly Anglo characters “spiced up” with Hispanic names. Authors of all ethnicities run up against the same problem. The more our world is multi-, the more we want to portray that reality on the page, but aren’t sure how to do it.
This problem isn’t new. Twenty years ago I sat around a conference table hearing men and women discuss whether one could realistically portray the other. Men pointed to Thomas Hardy’s spot-on female voices. Women pointed to Jane Austen’s blunt-tongued men. Clearly, careful observation could yield convincing characters of the opposite sex.
Careful observation often falls short, though, when it comes to writing authentic characters of color. For a convincing portrayal, one must draw from actual experience–which might hard to come by. And it’s not just ethnicity. Characters who live with illness, with disability, in a different religious context from the author, or with a different sexual orientation provide the same challenge. To complicate matters, we all have overlapping identities–female half-Latina who meditates, for example. (That’s me, or parts of me!) Our differences are daunting.
However, our sameness is stunning. As humans, we experience universals such as love and suffering. As much as we DO want “mirrors and windows” for readers–books that reflect readers’ identities and books that open up new worlds for readers–we also delight in books that underscore our connectedness.
One would think that the novel I tried to read was doing just that: emphasizing that a Latina character isn’t any different than an Anglo one. But they are different, aren’t they? Rather than celebrating differences, this book masked them. Using Latino names felt like a commercial decision rather than a cultural one.
So what SHOULD writers do to portray people of color sensitively? A panel, part of a conference called WORDFest, held on March 24, 2018 in Hurst, Texas tried to answer that question, and I was on it. These are the notes I brought to the table.
For one, writers of color can and will write their stories. Movements like #ownvoices show that the typical reader and even the publishing industry is ready for more authors of color and other identities. Check out We Need Diverse Books for more on this.
Still, we could all use some tips as we build the diverse worlds our characters inhabit. I caution myself, even as I write this, to remember that there’s no easy recipe.
- Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
- Make culture matter. Show the character living with the values and realities of his/her culture, and let the plot be complicated by these realities.
- Do homework beyond TV shows. If your knowledge of any group comes from movies and TV alone, educate yourself by reading books about and by folks in the group you are researching, and build relationships with those folks organically. It’s okay to say, “I’m a writer,” and ask specific questions, but it’s no one’s job to explain everything to you.
- Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
- BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
- Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
- Be aware of your own privilege in whatever form. Read Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.
Discouraged? Don’t be! I told this heartening story at the panel event: I had been visiting Monticello in Virginia with a group of college teachers as part of a program created by the Community College Humanities Association. We’d spent weeks reading deeply about Thomas Jefferson, including a book about the women in his life, especially Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.
In our last session, held in the hotel’s breakfast room, I sat rereading a poem. I had written it the night before, and I knew it needed more revision. I would be reading it to my colleagues momentarily, and the thing I was most nervous about was that the poem was written in the voice of Sally Hemings. I had dared to imagine myself as an enslaved mixed-race woman who had borne her first child (Jefferson’s) while still a teenager.
How could I possibly “get it right”? And how could I presume to have any idea what her life was like? Intensive study was one thing, but taking on her voice was another. Fortunately, a man sat down next to me, a man whom I had not seen before. I spoke to him easily, though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. Soon I confided my poetry doubts to him. His response was to laugh merrily and shake his head. “You go right on and write her voice,” he said. “You’ve been a teenager, you’ve been a mom. She’s a human being; you’re a human being. Go right on and write. I give you my permission!”
He was a black man, and I figured that he could, indeed, give me a kind of permission, and I’d feel a little better. But when our session began and he was formally introduced, I nearly fell out of my chair. He was a descendant of Sally Hemings herself. His generosity and encouragement led me to write several more poems in Ms. Hemings’s voice. It’s my hope that I am doing her justice and honoring the trust that her descendant put in me.
I’m also writing in my own voice–a bi-cultural twelve-year-old stars in my first novel, The Other Half of Happy, due out in fall 2019 from Chronicle Books. The book also includes a gay character, a black character, and a character with autism. I based these on real people, but I still needed my agent to point out that I had used “chocolate” to describe skin tone, which can be offensive — chocolate is a slave trade product, for one thing! Doh! And yet . . .
By celebrating both our shared humanity and our beautiful variety, we can write sensitively-created characters outside our identities. In fact, to depict the real world, in all its multiplicity, we must.