Looking for a book with head AND heart? Tae Keller’s THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS laces Natalie’s science notebook to her quest to save her mother from depression. With friends Twig and Dari, Natalie sets out to win an egg dropping contest that will fund her plan to show her mother a miracle in New Mexico — the Cobalt Blue Orchids that grow in toxic waste. Her mother studied the flowers back when she went to work, back when she left her bedroom every day, back when she left her bed. Now that their own orchid has died, it’s up to Natalie to remind her broken mother how beautifully tough orchids can be and how alive. Even as she finds herself breaking rules, breaking in to her mother’s lab, and breaking out of her therapist’s expectations, Natalie’s hope never cracks. Recommended!
Stuff I liked most: 1) Keller’s honest portrayal of complex emotions, such as the moment when Natalie finds out that almost everything she thought about the orchid in the greenhouse was wrong 2) the fact that Natalie is realistically rendered — for example, her mom’s a scientist, but she herself is bad at science!
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.
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.
The truth is that I benefit from a great amount of privilege. As a lightly tanned Latina without a Spanish accent, I admit that I’m not followed or called names for being brown. I pass for white a lot.
At least I thought I did.
Before I was hired in the 1990’s at a daycare center, the room of 0- to 7-month-olds was “the crying room.” Such a room could easily become that, but I had a simple philosophy: babies cry to express a need, and they learn that love exists by having a grown-up fill that need. “If they cry, pick them up.” I had a child of my own, and this had worked well (luckily, no colic). When it came to six, seven, or eight infants, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep them all happy, but I would try my hardest.
I learned to change a diaper at light speed and prepare a bottle in seconds. With some luck, some swings, a couple of play-gyms, and the ability to hold two babies and rock a third in a bouncy chair with my foot, I pulled it off. If a few napped simultaneously, the only sound anyone heard from that room was me talking to my little charges and singing songs, or their gurgley laughs — the ones that make babies irresistible. Well, maybe it wasn’t as perfect as all that, but that was my goal every day.
One day, my manager complimented me. She’d noticed the change. The 0 to 7’s room wasn’t the crying room anymore. I waited for her to credit my bottle and nap rotation or my repertoire of nursery tunes. Instead she said, “I knew this would happen when I hired you. You people are so good with children.”
My breath stalled. I hadn’t heard “You people” directed at me before. The fact that this was a compliment gave my brain internal whiplash. My success was being attributed to my ethnicity, which was offensive, but I heard myself saying, “Thank you.”
I’d taken a sociology course, so I knew the term benevolent stereotyping. The examples in the textbook included assumptions like, “All black folks are good athletes” and “All people of Asian descent are good students.” I’d also heard my in-laws make comments intended to be complimentary, such as, “The Hispanics have good family values.” I felt no ill intent on their part, but that little “The” belied distance, created a “them” feeling that left me queasy.
In both instances, I could have confronted the speakers, even in a friendly way. But I didn’t. The main reason was time. I was caught off-guard and couldn’t regroup fast enough to interject. My head was spinning with the oddity of being “othered.” The experience was so rare that I didn’t have a ready response, hadn’t practiced it, hadn’t expected it.
This “oddity of being othered” is itself, I realize, highly privileged. I don’t mean to compare my experiences with the daily racism that so many endure. I do mean to confess that I thought the world was fairer than it is. I thought my Latin-ness went uncommented upon because people saw past stereotypes.
In fact, I don’t know what people think when they see me. Nor do I know what they think of my other identities: female, divorced, vegetarian, meditator, parent who home-schooled, person who once put birthday candles back on the shelf because she had to wait until pay day to afford them . . . I can think of ways I might be judged harshly in any of those lights. I can’t know how often wrong assumptions are made about me.
I do know that people can learn tolerance, even appreciation. I myself am learning it every semester at the community college where I teach. My transgender students are patient with me when I flub a “he” or “she.” My low-income students have tutored me in how many forms, how much standing in line, how early they submit the FAFSA to receive financial aid. My students of color are generous, offering their perspectives on literature or current events to enrich class discussion. My parent-students remind me how many tumblers have to align for them to get to class (the babysitter’s car has to run!).
Through these experiences, I hope to keep growing and to keep creating safe spaces for my students to grow as well. I guess I’ve kept my new mother philosophy: Meet each other’s need for respect and compassion. And when we cry, let’s pick each other up.
When my Guatemalan father started dating my Anglo mother, a man nudged him and said, “¿Mejorando la rasa, eh?” or “Bettering the race, huh?”
The comment made little sense to me when Dad told the story. If white skin is some sort of club, then my dad can’t be in it no matter whom he marries, and I wouldn’t qualify either. Yet, I am lighter-skinned than he is and my kids are lighter still, since their father is white. Also, I’m pretty Americanized, my kids even more so. None of this changes my father’s skin color or mine, but I’m starting to grasp what the man was getting at: whitening.
This “whitening” business assumes a lot:
That marrying a lighter-skinned person is a “step up,” socially
That marrying an American (specifically an Anglo-American) means undergoing total cultural assimilation
That Anglo-American culture is better than Latino culture
And of course: that white is better than deeper skin tones
Sadly, this involves some shame on the part of this man for his own culture and color, unless he was joking. True, my dad relayed the incident with a laugh, but I didn’t get the idea that the man was winking at a by-gone attitude. My strong impression was that this man was congratulating my father on winning the heart of a light-skinned American woman. Make no mistake, my mother is a catch. She’s smart, positive, musical, socially conscious, and energetic, but these weren’t the qualities she was being admired for in this “bettering the race” comment. The comment was prompted by her nationality and by the low melanin levels she inherited from British ancestors.
The remark revealed prejudice, but it also revealed assumptions about the results of inter-racial marriage. According to the whitening model, my dad was lucky to marry an Anglo-American because now he could act white, live white, and have kids who did the same.
My reaction to that? 😕 (confused face) and 🤦 (face palm).
Here’s the thing. Though my dad became a citizen and learned to arrive on time, sing “Happy Birthday,” and shovel snow, he remains a proud Latino. My mother enjoys her American culture, but also recalls her two years in Guatemala with great fondness. She drapes walls with Guatemalan weavings, sings Spanish love songs, and makes sure the TV bundle includes fútbol channels. Much about my childhood was American, especially in 1970’s Iowa, but Spanish lullabies, Spanish Scrabble games, and my dad’s voiced observations on both cultures were ever-present. Living white was never the goal.
Nowadays, most people realize that “whitening” oversimplifies and misrepresents the bi-cultural experience. Naturally, Latin@-Anglo families live out a range of experiences, from whitening to mixing to browning.Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez identifies four categories for inter-racial family styles in her article, “The Whitening Hypothosis Challenged: Bi-culturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Thank you!
Vasquez interviewed 28 people and observed these family styles:
Everyday bi-culturalism (casual mixing of cultures)
Selective blending (deliberate incorporation of desired aspects of each culture)
Vasquez emphasizes that these are nodes on a spectrum, with real-life families not fitting neatly into any one category. I see my family shuttling up and down this list within my lifetime and within decades. For example, I’d say we started out leaning white, with Dad learning English and attending a Protestant church.
Later, my parents became representatives of international flavor in my hometown, putting on presentations about Guatemala. Mom started teaching Spanish to me at this time, and I became aware of an everyday biculturalism. When we moved from Iowa to Texas, we tuned into Spanish TV stations and easily found foods like tamales, but eschewed the Latin world’s narrower roles for women. This slid us toward selective blending. I can’t say we truly leaned Latino except when Balcárcel family visited. For that day, we’d do everything the Latin way, playing marimba music, dancing, gesturing more, and speaking mostly Spanish, depending on which relatives came and how long they’d been in the States. When I married, our new family leaned white. I bought our boys soccer balls and had my parents teach them Spanish, but our home was basically Anglo — a little alternative, with vegetarian meals and a compost bucket, but Anglo. Had I married a Latino, I’m guessing we would have leaned Latino, but I married an Anglo man. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but my high school wasn’t diverse, and I married a classmate at age 20. College might have had more men of color, but I was a newlywed and didn’t notice. My graduate school was almost entirely white.
My sons are now in their 20’s, and one enjoys learning languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Twi . . . you name it! I hope his facility with languages was helped by early exposure to Spanish. In any case, I see him socializing with an international group of acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dated a woman of color or married one. If so, I’ll be curious to see how they build their bi-cultural home. Marrying white is okay too, as is not marrying at all. I just hope he’ll always be pleased to own his bi-cultural heritage.
I have this same wish for myself. As I age, I find that I want to brush up on my Spanish and note the details of my dad’s childhood. I’m playing chords he taught me on the guitar. I love my extended Anglo family, and I grew up with them, but I want to balance myself and not lose my Latina-ness.
About ten years ago, I learned that I have a half-sister in Guatemala. Azucena is a feisty, sensitive, intelligent, lovely woman. Though we need Google translate to communicate, we are getting to know each other. In her, I’m finding another link to my heritage and more reasons to keep Guatemala in my daily consciousness and in my heart.
photo credit of top image Hello’s: flixtranslations.com
A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.
“What do the words mean?” I asked.
The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.
The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.
Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?
Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:
¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.
A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:
What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.
This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥
Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.
First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .
the sublimity of life
the music of existence
the marriage of wisdom and beauty
And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!
Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:
What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.
Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!
So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!
Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!