Tag: multiculturalism

multiculturalism

Writing about Cultural Setting

 Utahns are friendly and stubbornly optimistic. There’s an open warmth wherever you go in the state. I’d argue that some of that, at least, stems from growing up hearing stories of overcoming unbelievable hardship as a community. The lyrics to the Mormon pioneer song advises that we “put our shoulder to the wheel.” Every person helped out on the trek from the east coast to the Salt Lake Valley—pulling a handcart, or, if you were lucky, riding in a covered wagon—through snow and mud, despite disease and famine, toward an unknown destination. Politeness and friendliness are to Utah what competence and efficiency are to Manhattan, but that’s a superficial description. Cultural setting needs to scrape beneath the surface. Just as some of the nicest most generous people I know are New Yorkers by birth or adoption (meaning you’ve lived in the city long enough to have survived at least one business cycle), there are plenty of Utahns who don’t conform to the branded image of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. It’s the below-the-veneer characters who make a story interesting: the people who don’t fit in; people who see the world in a different way from the majority; the ones who’ve been knocked around a bit in life. Then there are the people who keep secrets, who lie and cheat. The ones who sometimes make the wrong choice and feel bad about it . . . or don’t. All of them keep a story moving. Some of the scenes I like best are where my characters confront challenging decisions head on. I start writing and I don’t know where the characters will lead me. Will there be a heartfelt apology or a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing? Will she choose kindness or cruelty? Honesty or deceit? Love, loss, greed, and generosity are part of being human wherever you live on the globe, but different cultures translate that humanity in different ways. Linda Castillo lets us peak into what it means to be Amish; Dana Stabenow gives us a flavor of indigenous life in Alaska. Then, of course, there is Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Hans Rosenfeldt and so many others who set their novels in worlds where we get to learn something about the culture where murder happens. I’m always looking to add to my TBR list. Any suggestions for authors who excel at introducing new cultures?     

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Must A Main Character Be Like Me?

I am in the midst of rewriting large portions of my fourth book this week. There are three POV characters in this story. One is an African American female police officer, aged 27, single sans kids. She’s been a cop for three years and is very smart with a high EQ, but a troubled history. Another is a hugely successful 37-year-old Black female orthopedist of West Indian descent that armchair quarterbacks injuries on a sports network as a medical commentator. She’s in a heap of trouble. The third is a 35-year-old former Caucasian attorney turned stay-at-home mom to twin boys, one of whom is autistic and homeschooled. She’s a walking anxiety disorder with a sharp wit. All the characters are American. None of them are particularly like me, though I am sure my personality and observations bleed into all my characters. Specifically, their back stories and cultural heritages don’t match my own (though the orthopedist is of West Indian descent and so is the Jamaican half of my family).  I have things in common with all of my POV characters, though. And, most importantly, I’ve done my research.  All this writing has me thinking this week about character creation. How like me should my characters be? How much latitude do I have, as a fiction writer, to create characters that have different cultural heritages and American experiences than my own?   In practice, I tend to err on the side of a lot of latitude, providing I’ve done the research and have a connection to the character so that they come across as a real person and not caricature. For The Widower’s Wife, one of my characters was a white male insurance agent math whiz. I am not white. Not male. Not an insurance agent. And definitely not a math whiz. But, I interviewed a female friend insurance agent and am married to a former math major. I’d felt like I’d done my homework. Still, I’ve been known to take too much latitude in my life. So, I asked the MissDemeanors for their take.  Q. When you write main POV characters, do you create people that share your gender and ethnicity or do they come from other cultures? Why? Alexia: I write main characters who share my race, gender, and socioeconomic background because I spent the first 47-ish years of my life not finding many/any middle class, African American, female main characters and I got tired of not reading about anyone who looked like me. #representationmatters. Susan: I tend to write main characters who share my race, gender, etc. because I feel I have something authentic to say from that point of view. However, I did write a novel with a protagonist who was an Indian young woman, and that was a challenge, but I tried to get around it by making sure she and I had points of intersection. So I made her a Christian. I definitely populate my fictional world with a wide variety of people.  Michele: I’m going to sound apologetic here, but the truth is I don’t feel qualified to write from the point of view of someone ethnically or racially different from me. I do feel I can write from a male point of view and I’ve written gay characters with some authenticity, probably because I have gay family members and friends. What I try to do is appeal to the universal themes and desires that all human beings struggle with. I applaud those who can write with more diversity than I and enjoy reading those stories. Alison: I have an extremely detailed knowledge of my ancestry because I grew up Mormon. I can go onto a Family Search website and see my ancestry (including when everyone was baptized and received various temple ordinances), which is mostly English and Swedish, with a little Scottish, Irish and Welsh thrown in. If you go back several centuries, there is some French. Needless to say, my experience is that of a fish-belly white woman. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, is also white (but, wait for it, she has auburn hair). Before my editor convinced me to write Blessed be the Wicked entirely from Abbie’s PoV, my favorite voice was that of the male police officer and returned LDS missionary. He’s also descended from Mormon pioneer stock, which means some variation of the British/Scandinavian mix. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I could convincingly write another ethnicity for three main reasons: ignorance (I don’t know what I don’t know), fear (I’d be afraid to get something really wrong), and anxiety (I wouldn’t want to offend someone if I did get some thing wrong). Tracee: Susan and Cate may remember we (or I) were asked a version of this at our book even last year in Manhattan. The specific question was how did I feel about writing from a man’s point of view. For me the intersection or commonalities of culture and sociology economic situation are more restrictive than gender. On the other hand, if I really felt a story needed a character outside my comfort zone I think I would try. On the other hand…. would I get it right? I would never write a character simple to check a diversity box. I don’t think that’s fair to who ever really lives in that box. We all deserve authenticity. Paula: It’s a tricky question. I believe literature should reflect the multicultural world we live in and as an agent I try to do my part to champion writers who contribute to that multiculturalism. As a writer I believe that writers should in theory be able write about anything or anybody, but in practice in my own writing I am more cautious. My mystery A Borrowing of Bones features characters of different genders and ethnicities, but so far I only feel comfortable writing from the point of view of characters ethnically similar to myself. I do write his and her points of view, but both my hero and my heroine are former military and having been raised in a military family I hope that helps me pull it off. Robin: Authenticity is important to me – if a character is unrelatable they’re not fun to write and less fun to read. I have no problem writing in the voice of different genders. My best friends have always been men and they’re used to me asking lots of (sometimes inappropriate) questions. Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a problem, either. I’ve personally experienced the gamut on that so I have my own life to draw on. I’m also comfortable with writing gay or straight characters, being gay myself and having grown up, lived, and worked around straight people. Ethnicities are trickier because I worry about getting it wrong or the character feeling 2-dimensional. That’s where I proceed with caution and get guidance from friends. Looking back at the stories I’ve written, all have been set in and around San Francisco so multiculturalism is part of the world-building. Not to mention one of the reasons I love the SF (and NYC). When it comes down to it, though, it’s service to the story. I agree with Tracee, I won’t go out of my way just to tick a particular diversity box.  

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Creating Multi-Ethnic Characters and Landscapes in American Crime Fiction… (Alt. Title: Can Crime Fiction in America Be Post-Racial?)… A True Story

 “What are you?” Growing up in small town New Jersey in the 1990s, I stared down that question on a near-weekly basis. Parents, teachers, strangers at the mall—all would ask shortly after requesting my first name. “Catherine” didn’t reveal enough about me. It was too generically biblical. Every land to ever encounter a missionary doled out the moniker like a Christmas fruitcake. The name defied easy categorization. And, back then–as like now–seemingly everyone needed racial classification. I’d often answer, “American. Born in Queens.” My stock response invariably frustrated my interrogator. Here I was, a plain-old Catherine, with olive-skin and dark curls that, incongruously, could not speak Spanish. My straight nose, which hooks when I smile, had been keeping plastic surgeons employed across cultures since the invention of rhinoplasty.  And, now, I was telling someone—attempting in as PC-a-way as possible to figure out my race—that I’d been born in one of the most diverse cities in America.  “No, but what are you? Are you Black or White?” My usual follow-up sounded even more insolent. “Both.” The answer had the virtue of being true. Nearly all my paternal relatives trace their history back to Europe, specifically Ireland. My maternal ethnicity is more complex. A Jamaican-born US immigrant, my mom is primarily the descendant of West Africans brought to work sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. Her ancestors mixed with Carib Indians, originally hailing from South America, Desi diaspora, and European indentured servants. There are members of my mom’s family with skin the deep brown of a carob pod and others as fair as ground nutmeg. Everyone is American, either U.S. born or naturalized. And everyone is considered Black.  I was and am proud of my racial heritage and all the people that had to exist to, eventually, make me. And I was (and am) always happy to share my family history. What I didn’t want to do in answering the what are you question was to adopt someone else’s idea of me based on their concept of what it meant to be Black or White American.  Back in the 90s, I was particularly sensitive to the stereotypes associated with being Black or White. Many of them had come from popular movies and music videos, which often reduced ethnic characters to caricatures. Jamaicans were all pot smoking Rastas. Black people were, by and large, good at sports and poor at academics. White people were the inverse. Blah blah blah… bull crap.  To me, my family members weren’t statistics or representatives of a particular racial group. They were individuals. And, individually, they’d always bucked the flawed assumptions most often made about their respective races. To this day, the family member best at math is a Black cousin on my mom’s side that went on to get an advanced engineering degree at Columbia University. The family members best at sports are my half-Irish, half-Jewish cousins on my dad’s side that started on a Division I baseball team and collegiate basketball team, respectively. My mother—the Jamaican-born Black woman—never smoked pot until my father—the 1970s White hippie—gave her a joint. Saying “both” was my way of asserting the truth and simultaneously refusing to be defined by another’s idea of Blackness or Whiteness.  Few wanted to hear my answer, though. Once a teacher told me in front of my entire class that saying “everything” was unacceptable. “This is America,” she said. “In America, you have to choose. Are you White or are you Black? Pick one.” “I’m both. I’m— “Well, what will you write on the SAT? There’s no checking all that apply.” After hearing this line of thought so often I acquiesced for a long time and began self-identifying as only Black. I thought the category was most likely to include me. America’s history of discriminating and enslaving people with any African ancestry meant that folks with less Sub-Saharan blood than myself were classified as Black. Therefore, to my thinking, I clearly belonged in the Black category.  As a Black woman, I wrote Black characters. When I penned my first book, Dark Turns (Crooked Lane Books, Sept. 2015), I made my protagonist a Black American ballerina. One of the antagonists was a White American student. There was a Hispanic American ballerina in the book. Just as I had been told that I had to identify with Black or White, I felt that my main character had to share my racial background in order to be believable. Everyone else had to be in a neat box.  As I matured, both in my writing and personally, I began to reject the idea that I couldn’t check all the racial boxes that applied to me. I moved to a diverse, suburb of Manhattan where many of the families near me were also mixed race, either because the couples married outside of their racial group or because the adults themselves were multi-racial. Living among so many multicultural families, I realized that I, too, could claim my varied heritage. And, if I could, why not my characters? Why couldn’t I create multi-racial characters? Moreover, why not create ethnic characters that, like myself, would be influenced by their cultural heritage but not defined by a racial identity?  In my second thriller, The Widower’s Wife (Crooked Lane Books, Aug. 2016), my main character is a bi-racial Brazilian American whose undocumented parents are deported. Her culture, gender, and race influence her–and impact how some secondary characters relate to her–but the most salient part of her backstory is that her parents were taken away. That is what creates her primary motivation to keep her family together at all costs.  In my latest suspense novel, Lies She Told (Crooked Lane Books, Sept. 2017), my primary character makes clear her amorphous ethnic identity and my supporting cast hails from a variety of multi-ethnic backgrounds as well. There’s a British transplant to America of African descent, a freckled Ginger-haired woman based on a high school acquaintance of Jewish and African American descent, and a Trinidadian American. The cast is diverse because they live in a diverse city and my fiction reflects the world that I know. In some sense, they are all post-racial because their racial identity is less relevant to their story than their jobs, their personal histories, the state of their marriages and their mental health… There are some that would argue no minority character can be post-racial, particularly in crime fiction given the unequal application of law based on wealth and perceptions of race. Moreover, critics might say, race is still a defining characteristic in American society today. To have multi-ethnic characters that don’t “choose one” or don’t relate to their world constantly aware of their racial identity is somehow disingenuous.  To these critics, I’d say that I write from my experience, not ignorance. I agree there need to be stories that address racism (past and present) and the legacy of racism. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing is a beautiful and current example of literature that does this.  But, I would also say that there needs to be American stories where the cast is ethnically diverse and multi-ethnic without the story being about their ethnicity–especially today. And I think that American writers of all ethnicities and races should endeavor to include some diversity in their stories to accurately reflect what America looks like. It’s not as segregated as our art often indicates.  And it’s definitely not as segregated as some segments of the population would like. In the past couple years, I’ve become painfully aware of the ongoing backlash against multiculturalism in America and concerned about the renewed racial tribalism that I see in 2018. After years of feeling comfortable identifying as multiracial,  I hear the echo of calls to “choose one” in political rhetoric that refers to individual Americans by their perceived races before identifying them by first name. And I see a demand to check one box when watching video of White nationalists waving flags from a time when miscegenation was illegal. Recently, I read that White nationalists were using DNA tests from 23andMe to prove the “purity” of their Caucasian ancestry. Some posters on message boards envisioned a world where nationality would be determined by such tests. As my own little protest against this idea, I recently sent off a vial of my saliva to 23andMe. According to the company, my DNA is from five continents. There’s Irish, Caribbean, British, Sub-Saharan African, and South East Asian, with likely some East Asian and American Indian thrown in a long time ago. I shared the results wherever I could on social media along with three hash tags: #multiracial #American #me.  I have a diverse family. I live in a multicultural, multiethnic area. And I ardently believe that I can reflect that experience in my work. Moreover, I believe that I can create ethnic and multi-ethnic characters that know their backgrounds without it being the most important thing about them or how they relate to the world.  Sometimes, I will write a scene in which a character’s ethnic and racial heritage becomes relevant to the way they are being treated by another character. Just as, sometimes, in my own life, my ethnicity (or the question of what I am) becomes particularly relevant.  More often, though, my characters’ races simply influence what they look like as the move through their story, more concerned with, say, the possibility that their neighbor is a murderer.  I hope that, by writing American characters from diverse heritages and having them all interact, I can encourage a broader idea of what it means to be American. There are so many hyphenated-Americans now that, perhaps, we should all stop hyphenating. Moreover, some of us have too many hyphens to possibly do it.   I don’t need to check one box. And I believe that, as a writer, I can develop relatable American characters that defy easy racial classification and any corresponding stereotypes. The people in my books are individuals. They have cultural backgrounds and they are influenced by them. But they are also just themselves. And I think that, in 2018, I can leave them be.                    

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