The landline phone rang, and the when the speaker introduced himself, I almost fell backward. It was Liam Rector, American poet and director of Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He wouldn’t call with a rejection, right? Does this mean I’m accepted? His voice wasn’t comforting; it was gruff. His “Is this Rebecca Balcárcel?” sounded more like a demand than a question.
I had applied to Bennington’s Master of Fine Arts program a few months before. TBH, I wasn’t expecting to get in. In fact, I knew from experience that they sent rejections by letter. I knew because I had gotten that letter a year ago: “Thank you for your interest . . . We’re sorry to inform you . . .” I’d almost cried.
That first application I sent had been a long shot. A long shot that cost $50, a huge sum for me and my wasband (then-husband) — a month of no eating out. With only a handful of poems published in journals and a couple of generous letters from former teachers, I knew my application wouldn’t be the most impressive one. Heck, I didn’t even have a Bachelor’s Degree. I repeat: no BA. Yet, I’d changed my major enough to know that creative writing was my love, and a tantalizing sentence in the program’s promo materials stated that an undergraduate degree wasn’t strictly required “if the strength of the writing warrant[ed] such an exception.” I clung to the wild hope that my work would merit that exception and assembled my packet — poems that I hoped were my best, an essay that I hoped sounded professional, the recommendations, and the fifty bucks. I sent it off in a fat envelope with a line of stamps across the top.
Then came the rejection letter. Sigh . . . I shrugged. I wailed. I ranted that I didn’t want that degree anyway. But I did.When the application period came around again, I didn’t consider applying at first. I’d done it once, with nothing but a bruised ego and a fifty-dollar deficit to show for it. Why try?
But their wonderful ad in Poets & Writers called to me, as did their slogan: Read one hundred books. Write one. If I did re-apply, what would be different? Well, there was my writing life. I hadn’t gone out and won some big award, but I had joined a writing group, subscribed to some lit mags, and performed at an open-mic or two. I’d volunteered to teach writing at any little club or gathering I could find. In that pre-Facebook world, I couldn’t connect to distant writers easily, but I connected to my local community. If I were to apply again, I would have a better essay at least.
I’d also kept writing. And sending out my work. My handful of pubs had grown to more like a dozen. Not that most people had heard of Mystic River Review or Mutant Mule Review, but that wasn’t the point. The point was: I hadn’t given up on myself or my work.
So maybe I could re-apply. But what about the fifty bucks? I couldn’t imagine wasting that amount of money again. We were living on hourly wages, and I was home nursing twins. It seemed impossible that we could squeeze fifty whole dollars out of an already-lean budget. But my wasband said to go for it. “We’ll eat rice and oatmeal,” he said, or something like that. He believed in my work, and he believed in following one’s dream.
And now Liam Rector was on the phone. Not only did he invite me to attend the Bennington Writing Seminars, he also informed me that I was a Jane Kenyon Scholar, one of two entering poetry students to receive the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize scholarship. I couldn’t have been more shocked. I stammered out a “Yes, I’ll see you in January,” and jumped up and down squealing non-words for the next hour.
Two years later, Liam handed me my MFA at graduation. The take-away, writing friends — and artist friends and engineer friends and linguistics friends and just human friends! — is not only to try again and to not give up. Even more important is the truth that no program or single person, even the formidable Liam Rector, made me a poet. I loved every second of my MFA experience, but the writing itself turned my brain into a poetry brain. And by writing, I mean the re-writing, the dropping the pose and getting down to the real, the self-doubt, the crafting and crying, the reading of the greats, the click of the right word on the right line. And it started years before. The MFA gave me much! Deadlines, community, models. And yes, a sense of legitimacy, which let me say, “I am a writer,” with a straight face. But process made me a writer, not permission.
This lines up neatly with Bennington philosophy, actually, and with Liam Rector’s, but I didn’t know that then. I also didn’t know that my first book of poems wouldn’t come out for eight more years or that my first novel wouldn’t come out for seventeen more years! When I was a beginner with a bunch of words and wishes, clamoring to get in, I didn’t know the door opened to the inside.
As an English prof, I’m usually the one showing students the ropes of active voice and helping them fix format mix-ups. I’m an Oxford comma fan, and don’t get me started on people’s misuse of the word literally. (Ok, I’ve about thrown in the towel on that one!) My point is that I normally like the rules, use the rules, savor the rules — but not this time.
When I sat down to type my novel, The Other Half of Happy, Spanish words showed up right away as part of the world of the story. My training told me to italicize each of them. The MLA Handbook on my shelf specifically says to “italicize foreign words used in an English text.” And MLA is not alone in this. But that didn’t feel right.
These words didn’t seem, well, foreign. The dad in the book is a native Spanish speaker, and the mom is fluent, too. For my main character, their twelve-year-old daughter, Spanish words are part of everyday life. They don’t need emphasis.
Even MLA admits that some foreign words have been “naturalized into English,” and therefore need no italics. These include “raison d’être” and “e.g.” Other words are fully anglicized — “taco,” “flamenco,” “vista.” These don’t need italics either.
But my book doesn’t use just “burrito” and its cousins. Here’s an early instance of a Spanish word in my novel:
His shoulders drop. “Pues.” This is his word for agreeing. And his word for not agreeing. “Pues” means “well” and “there it is” and “if you say so.”
“Pues” is not an anglicized word. In fact, its meaning is so slippery that the narrator needs three phrases to explain it. Then why not italicize?
For one thing, the book has a lot of italics. It contains many passages of introspection, also normally italicized. The main character, Quijana, talks to herself quite a bit. At one point she says, Get a grip, Qui! In another place, she introspects using a Spanish word. She knows her father wants her to wear a huipil (see photo) on the first day of school, but Quijana opts for jeans. She says inwardly,
Yes, you’re seeing correctly, Dad; I’m not wearing the huipil.
In a sentence like this, the Spanish word would have to be un-italicized to stand out. But then it would look like the rest of the text. The convention breaks down and doesn’t help readers.
And of course, the whole point of italics is to help readers. Italics signals that the foreign word is not a typo or a word they are expected to know. But how many American readers can’t figure out that a Spanish word is probably Spanish? How many are tripped up by a word or even a sentence in Spanish? Mind you, I’m not expecting my readers to know what the Spanish means, only that it is Spanish. Maybe it’s because I live in Texas, land of hueros and mestizos and Spanish-speaking gringos, but I think they can handle it.
So we’re back to my real reason for not italicizing the words from Español in my novel: I don’t want to. To me, these words are not from the outside, but from the inside of my character’s world. Flagging the Spanish words as different in some way doesn’t feel real for Quijana. Readers may challenge me here, pointing out that the words are outside of their worlds, but I’m betting that they can meet me in Quijana’s Texas without much confusion. For characters who code-switch, italics is even more problematic, as illustrated so well by Daniel José Older in his two-minute video. I wouldn’t push my choice on others — each author will have his or her own take on this, and not all languages are as familiar to American readers as Spanish is. I do support the right of authors to decide, without a rule book’s help, whether italics works for their books.
I want to give a shout out here to Chronicle Books and my wonderful editor there, Taylor Norman. She never once asked me about my choice not to italicize. She intuited the reason for that judgement call and turned her attention to bigger problems — like whether the grandmother should really die in chapter four. (Spoiler: She shouldn’t, and now doesn’t!)So, let’s celebrate all the ways language can be rendered on the page. Let’s use every tool we can to communicate, including italics. But let’s be the users of the tools, selecting the right moment for their use, and not let the tools use us.
I spent a couple of years writing my manuscript, revising, and taking my writing group’s critique to heart. I knew I wanted to find a traditional publisher and realize my dream of becoming a published author. I had, actually, had a book of poems published by a little university press, but I hoped my new book could appeal to a wider audience. In short, I wanted the dream, the dream of seeing my book on the shelves of an actual bookstore.
To do that, I needed an agent. Ideally, an agent who loved my book and could shepherd it to a publisher.
The is the story of how I found that agent, from the actual query letter and examples of rejections to the phone call that led to representation.
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.