Latina Heritage, Writing Tips

Why My Novel Doesn’t Italicize Words in Español

fullsizeoutput_202.jpegAs 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. MLA Handbook

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?

Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala
Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala

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 TexasOutlineword 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.

RulesSometimesApply.pngSo 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!)ITALIC_TYPEWRITER__font_preview_77832_2So, 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.

Latina Heritage, Writing Tips

Can we really write outside our identity?

2011: José, Ramón, Juan, Steve FROM:

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.

  1. Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
  5. BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
  6. Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
  7. 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.

I read Annette Gordon Reed’s book as part of my fellowship studies. I recommend it!

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.

wrapped book
The Other Half of Happy features a half-Latina, half-Anglo tween

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.


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Writing Tips

Emerson’s inspiration for writers

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 condiRalph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedtion. 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.

Interested in exploring Emerson’s “The Poet” more? Check out my video here: SixMinuteScholar video on “The Poet,” part 1 and find the text here: “The Poet” text by Emerson

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Writing Tips

Exercise for Finding Your Voice

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.child looking up
    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.
    More specifically:blank-photo
    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!

girl reading magic book

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Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Finding Your Voice

A glance at agent websites shows that they are looking for “strong voices,” “novels with a distinct voice,” and “writers with a unique voice.” What is voice and how will you find yours?

You are the treasure you seek. I mean this seriously. As author Heather Sellers says in her book The Practice of Creative Writing,

“It’s your specific repertoire of emotions and details that make good writing.”

This means that we writers can develop our voices by conveying our genuine selves. We need to include our idiosyncratic observations and revise our words until they contain our personal flavor.20130203_inq_soza03z-m_600x450

Dancer Martha Graham knew how to infuse her motions with individuality. She said,

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one you in all time; this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost.”

Practically speaking, then:

  • Use strong verbs. We hear this all the time, but it is powerful and true. “The car went” is bland compared to “zoomed.”
  • Cut pre-packaged phrases out of your writing. Heather Sellers gives these examples:  “gaping hole,” “awkward moment,” and “red rose.” Instead, she suggests fresh combinations such as gaping moment, awkward rose. (The Practice of Creative Writing)
  • Stop trying to sound fancy or high-falutin’ just because you are writing a book. Bring your diction down to the level of real people, specifically your characters. If your piece includes a teen or Marine, don’t write “That’s terrible.” More realistic is “That sucks.”
  • Don’t always use the body language short-hand of rolling eyes, shrugging shoulders, and a tapping foot to indicate emotions. Visualize your character’s unique body language.
  • Use apt, interesting metaphors. Recall Tom Robbins’s famous line, “The moon looked like a clown’s head dipped in honey.”

In fact, Tom Robbins spoke to this point of voice-y writing in an interview on reality He said,

“Bland writing — timid, antiseptic, vanilla writing — is nearly as unhealthy as the brutal and dark. Instead of sipping, say, elixir, nectar, tequila, or champagne, the reader is invited to slurp lumpy milk or choke on the author’s dust bunnies.”

Here’s another taste of Tom’s writing:
“She lunched on papaya poo poo or mango mu mu or some other fruity foo foo bursting with overripe tropical vowels.”

SO, voice is partly word choice. What else is it? Angle of vision.

Your way of viewing this world is unique. I like this poem for its unusual way of looking at death. It’s not the lament one might expect.

by Linda Pastan

She wore
her coming death
as if it were a coat
she’d learned to sew.
When it grew cold enough
she’d simply button it
and go.

I like a lot about this poem, but the idea that preparing for death is somehow like a warm, comforting coat — that’s a new one for me! The poem’s title character will be ready for departure, even if the speaker (who will miss her) is not. Notice that Pastan’s words are fairly ordinary. The perspective, the angle of vision — that’s the startling part. The reader says, “I never thought of it that way.”

Is there more to voice than word choices and angle of vision? I might add tone and attitude, but when I open books by favorite authors, I’m mostly thinking, “I can’t wait to see their take on this topic! I can’t wait to see how they phrase things!” I can’t wait to encounter VOICE on the page.

How about practicing voice? I’ll give an exercise to do exactly that in my next post!

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