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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson stands as one of America’s great thinkers and mystics. Credited with giving voice to Transcendentalism, he drew his lectures from extensive private journals. His famous speeches include one that especially inspires me as a writer: “The Poet.”
Who is a writer? Instead of someone who is producing a certain number of words or someone who is getting good at Beat Sheets and queries, Emerson defines a writer (and a poet in particular) as one who has
never ceased to explore the . . . meaning of every sensuous fact.”
Sensory objects and sensory experiences are not just stimulants for writers; we explore their meaning or even meanings. For Emerson, physical objects are “externizations” of a soul, ideas that have traveled from the thought realm into manifestation. And the writer who examines objects, people, and situations is discovering expressions of universal truth. If Emerson is right, then we are not merely relating stories in our novels; we are mapping out the meaning of human experience.
What does a writer do? Emerson says,
[The writer] apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
Again, Emerson points to the writer as revealing insights about not only the personal, but the global. The writer’s words explore not just a main character, but the human condition. A plot line leaves the reader with life lessons; a heart line nudges the reader toward the same wisdom that the character wins.
Do we need writers? Emerson says yes! Writers interpret this crazy world and add to our communal understanding. Memoir writers, especially, come to mind when Emerson says,
“[H]e will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer.”
As readers we find ourselves not only transported to interesting times and places with great books, but spoken to on a deep level. We leave the page with expanded self-knowledge. Emerson and I haven’t read all the same books, but he describes my feeling upon finishing a good book exactly:
We are persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods.”
Gods? This is heady stuff, and I don’t think about it when I’m in my sandbox of sentences. Or when I’m immersed in a scene. In fact, it’s only right that I’m unaware, at that stage, of what larger purpose the story serves or what insights a reader will take away. But when I emerge from the workshop, I do look for validation — not that every word I write is good (would that it were so!) — but that the very act of writing serves a purpose.
When I’m wondering if writing takes too much time from my parenting, my teaching, or even leisure activities (What are those?!), I go back to Emerson. He reminds every writer,
This is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee.”
The meaning here is two-fold: that real things/situations/objects will yield up their ideal underpinnings/patterns/souls and that ideals/insights/truths will manifest through the writing. If true, our writing time is time is well spent.
Photo: My kitty, Zoey, ponders voice.
Last time we talked about voice = word choice and angle of vision. This time, we’ll apply those ideas in writing. Grab the nearest piece of paper or open a “note” on your screen of choice!
- Step 1: Describe the night sky in the voice of a child.
Get into child mind here. The word choices for children will include balls and snow cones and made up words like “splooshy.” Children don’t compare a star to a diode, but a piece of glitter. Angle of vision for a child includes his/her inexperience and limited knowledge, priorities such as safety or fun, and attitudes such as wonderment, confusion, or fear. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
Ready, set, go!
- Step 2: Describe the night sky in the voice of a cowboy, scientist, or artist.
Your choice! Again, use vocabulary specific to that identity, word choices appropriate to the personality. Take the attitude and angle of vision of this person. Is she nostalgic? Analytical? Dreamy? Make each sentence convey the individuality of the speaker. GIVE YOURSELF ANOTHER FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
Ready, set, go!
- Step 3: Notice that you started building a character in your paragraphs. You already have a sense of the person’s values, wishes, loves, and fears. You could list traits of this person, describing him as generous or stingy, contented or dissatisfied, etc. How do you know this about him? Because you created a definite voice.
For fiction, screenwriting, or persona poems, the writer gives each character a distinct voice of the kind we just practiced. Distinct voices keep readers from confusing Tia Rosa with Abuela Christina. But what is your author voice? You may try on different hats as you write your characters, but you still have a narrator’s voice that is your own. This brings us to . . .
- Step 4: Make a list of words that describes the YOU on the page.
a) Write a short sentence that states two of your priorities or values, such as “Follow your heart and always wear clean underwear.”
b) List a trait that you want your writing to have, such as liveliness.
c) Write down three roles that you play in this world, such as brother, pianist, and basketball fan.
d) Write down two traits of yours that stand out to those who know you.
Now you’re ready for the final challenge!
- Step 5: Describe a night sky in your own voice.
TIPS: Bring to life the person you said you are in step four. Give yourself free reign to be unique. As author Cynthia Heimel says,
“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”
Write in a way that shows your angle of vision and uses your unique word choices. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE. Go!
How does it feel? Are you brilliant yet?
Here’s a last bit of inspiration: It turns out that the word grammar derives from an Old Scottish word for sorcery. In fact a grammary is a book of spells in Old French. So when you arrange words on the page, you’re making a kind of magic. You’re conjuring a fictional spell. The reader longs to be under that spell from first page to last. Your pen is your wand. And as Olivander says to Harry Potter,
“The wand chooses the wizard.”
The pen chooses you. Channel your magic. Channel your voice!