Are We Food?

One night as I was reading a novel, a character description, one that I’ve seen in countless stories, struck me as odd. The character in question was described as having olive skin. I know the type of picture that is coming to your mind when I use the words “olive skin”. However, on that particular night, whether I had just had a martini or seen a picture of olives or something, but suddenly the words “olive skin” to describe characters of color just didn’t feel right.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: A picture of people with “olive skin”
oliveskin
Exhibit B: A picture of olives.
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Exhibit C: Do these olives fit?
olives-wallpaper
Do you see what I see? The images don’t exactly match. Now, I do know there are a variety of olives out there and maybe Exhibit C olives could work, but the question still remains, why and how did writers ever come up with using olive as a skin tone? As someone who falls into the olive skin tone category, I’m a bit insulted because my skin looks nothing like an olive. I don’t have greenish undertones to my skin, I have yellow. And really, human beings only have yellow or red undertones to their skin, but that is an entirely different essay on an entirely different type of blog.

 
While I’m focusing on the use of olive skin tones as my point, there is a larger question at work here. Why are characters of color often described using food metaphors? Think about it. We have chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, honey skin. Granted, I have seen white characters as creamy and milk, but there is a large reliance on authors to use food as a descriptor for characters of color. It’s not just non-POC writers who use food, but writers of color as well. We’ve internalized the use of food to describe each other in our communities so often, that it makes sense that we use the same descriptions in our writing. We’ve internalized these descriptions for so long, that we don’t recognize them as potentially harmful. Maybe it’s time for this to change.

 

 
There has been a call by a number of POC writers, specifically in the Science Fiction/Fantasy community, to end using food descriptions as metaphors. Many authors have written blog posts about how to write character of colors and get away from the stereotypical food descriptions. For me, at first I was unsure of how I felt on the topic, but when I was revising my novel I decided to not use food to describe any of my characters. It was a challenge for me, to change my way of thinking, but I am proud that I was able to write good character descriptions without having to use stereotypical metaphors. So, for any writers that read our blog, I challenge you. Try to write your characters without describing them as food (same for using almond eyes to note someone is Asian). Describe your characters differently. Maybe use a different metaphor; I read one that compared a character’s skin color to a brass doorknob. Or, as my mentor suggested, write skin tone in contrast to something different, like their clothing. It’s really up to you. The point is to extend your thinking and find unique and different ways to describe your characters.

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What I Mean When I Talk Diversity

In the spring I’m going to be teaching a class, currently titled “Writing the Other” and will focus on why we need diversity in literature, while giving practical tips and tools at the same time. As I was discussing the class with my reading group, one friend asked, “well, doesn’t calling it ‘the other’ further alienate, set up further differences?” Our group, which is diverse in its own right, went crazy explaining why the class is needed. I think we might have been a bit overzealous and I felt like we might have made her feel bad. Instead, she reflected on the conversation and wrote this touching blog post (Default white?) where she basically unpacked her privilege and thought about what she could do better. She explored the concept of the “default white”, which she admits, she had never given much thought too. In recognizing her own misconceptions, she realized the importance of having these discussions about diversity and that all of us, white, black, yellow, green and purple, have a responsibility to making our literature reflect our world.

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A few months ago I wrote about that I’m tired of the “it’s diversity surprise” but I think I have to amend my statement because as I was beta reading a friend’s novel, I had the “it’s diversity, surprise” and I was actually glad to have it. And when I sent her an email thanking her for the surprise, it made me realize that by sending the “Thank Yous” and the “Nice Diverse world” notes to authors who are not of color, we encourage more authors (and by extension publishers) to open the doors for more diverse stories. In my friend’s novel, the diversity isn’t forced, isn’t a “very special topic”, it just is. As diversity is in real life – it just is. The “it’s diversity surprise” is just a reaction to seeing diversity just as it is and not some overreaching lesson. Those stories still do have a place as well, but we also need to have more stories where diversity just is. It’s in the background where characters interact at the coffee shop, in the classroom, at the movies. It’s in the variety of friends, and not the token Person of Color, especially in a story that is set in a big city. Its in the way teachers, community leaders are presented in a story as diversity exists there as well. Diversity is everywhere and our literature needs to embrace it.

Those examples of seeing diversity in every day lives is what we mean when we talk diversity. We need publishers to understand that the world we live in is not filled with just one type of person, one type of story. The world is colorful with skin tones of every different shade, with numerous cultures that are just as valid as any other. We all have the responsibility to make diversity in literature a very real thing. No one group should be responsible for shouldering the work. We all have a stake in this world; we need to help each other when we make mistakes and lift each other up in praise when we achieve greatness.

So, what do I mean when I talk diversity? I mean that we are all in this fight together. With my friend who wrote the blog post, with my other friend who included diversity in her novel, with my fellow writers here at Rich in Color – everyone. We are a diverse group and if we want to see change, we need to make it happen.

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Why We Need Diverse Literature and How to Find It

Why do we need diverse literature?
First, we need to know and understand ourselves. People need literature that helps them see others like them – to know they are not alone. We need literature that reflects many ways of being and ways of living in our world so we all have a chance to see someone like us. Second, to interact respectfully with others in society, it’s helpful to realize that there are people in the world who have another perspective. We can explore our differences and similarities through literature. There is a quote on the Lee & Low website attributed to both Rudine Sims Bishop & Ginny Moore Kruse “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” Those mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us, but we need more than just one story. We need a multitude of stories.

In the following TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the “Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie explains that many individuals only know one story about a people and that may lead to stereotyping. When we know only one story about a culture, the risk is that we assign that story to all the people we believe are part of that group. Adichie provides an amazing and at times amusing presentation that speaks to the need for more stories about each other. This video is from 2009, but even if you have viewed it previously, it’s worth a second or even third look. Photographer Matika Wilbur also touches on this idea in her TED Talk. She’s concerned about the single picture that many people may have in their minds about Native Americans due to media exposure. Her current project is photographing individuals from 562 federally recognized Tribal Nations with a goal to “unveil the true essence of contemporary Native issues, the beauty of Native culture, the magnitude of tradition, and expose her vitality” (quoted from her blog). She is not only creating portraits, but is collecting their many and varied stories to share. This video is also well worth the few minutes it takes to watch.


Wondering where to find a multitude of stories?
It’s no secret that there is a serious lack of diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Literature. There have been a large number of blog posts and articles recently to that effect. But there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier. In the tabs at the top of this page, we provide a release calendar that displays titles scheduled to be published in the coming months. In addition, we have a resource page with links to many excellent websites/blogs that review and share diverse literature along with links to publishers focusing on diverse materials. We created a Goodreads profile with a growing list of titles and there are also blogs in our blog roll on the right-hand side of the page that focus on diversity.

But how can we know which stories are accurate representations?
Matika Wilbur noted in her TED Talk that some Native American images and stories from the media have been damaging to Native people. As a school librarian, I want to provide many diverse stories for my students, but not all stories are helpful. Just look at some of the early Newbery Award winners. There were a few books with cultural diversity, but several fed into stereotypes (one I highlight below). As an educator, I have to evaluate the resources I am providing to our staff and students. I am clearly not an expert on every culture in the world, but here are a few questions* that help guide me in my selection process for school and also as a reader:

  • Who is the author and what experience or knowledge do they have as they write from this cultural perspective? (This helps me understand the lens the reader will be looking through)
  • If they are not a native of that culture, is it published by a publisher from that culture and/or has it been favorably reviewed by someone from that culture?
  • Are the characters distinct, fully developed and free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • If there are illustrations, are they free of bias and/or stereotypes?
  • Is it a well developed and engaging story?

It can be helpful to know the lens of the author. In the case of Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children (1926 Newbery winner), the stories were filled with broken English, verbal caricatures and misinformation. I read Shen last year and was horrified. As I investigated his knowledge base of Chinese culture, I found a post from a blogger named Amanda. She pointed to the April 1, 1994 issue of School Library Journal. In it Margaret Chang wrote, “Chrisman had never been to China, did not read Chinese, and claimed to be aided by two Chinese speakers, but gave no sources for the stories in his book” (p 42). According to the book’s description Shen is comprised of “Sixteen stories reflecting the spirit of Chinese life and thought.” Chrisman appears to have taken what he knew about Chinese culture, consulted a Chinese shopkeeper or two in California about some of the details and proceeded to create original stories. He may have even been doing this in some way to “honor” Chinese culture, but this is not a book I will be purchasing or sharing with my students.

I tend to specifically seek out books that are written from an insider’s perspective like No Crystal StairYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Since You Asked, but there are also people born outside a culture who have provided authentic representation. Debby Dahl Edwardson is not Inupiaq (Eskimo) by birth, but she’s been a part of that culture for many years. She has written powerful stories with fully developed, realistic characters in her YA historical novels, My Name is Not Easy and Blessing’s Bead. My Name is Not Easy is a look into the effect of the residential schools on Native students and their families. She did not rely on stereotypes, but created complex and unique characters. On her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Rees shared Beverly Slapin’s very favorable reviewI would recommend Edwardson’s books without hesitation and there are many other talented authors that learn about a culture and successfully represent it in their novels.

We may not have balanced representation in publishing yet, but there are some fabulous pieces of literature that can be our mirrors and windows. Let’s seek them out and share them.

Chang, M. A. (1994). Chinoiserie in American picture books: Excursions to Cathay. School Library Journal40(4), 42.

*Some of my questions were developed with influence from Full Circle’s Criteria for Authentic Native American Books & Oyate’s comprehensive evaluation criteria

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FWFF alas

Foreign Words for Foreign Flavor (FWFF): when writers toss in words from languages not their own just to make it clear that everything is happening in a foreign culture where things are ~exotic~ and different

Example: The shadows made his face resemble a gui. He looked just like a demon! Terrified, I dropped my xiezi on the ground and screamed as my shoes hit the ground.
Bu pa!” the figure said, stepping into the light. It was only Wang Dazhong, son of the Long emperor and the heir to the Dragon Dynasty. “Don’t be afraid! I will turn out to be handsome and soft-hearted in three to five chapters!”

Yes, sometimes authors mix in different languages and it totally works.* It’s fantastic, beautiful even. Makes me cry tears so joyful and pure that scientists use them in chemical experiments. Many books don’t commit FWFF.

But sometimes — the author means well. The author has done research, lots of it. The author has even toured the country in question. (I’m a little bitter about this part because flying off to have fun in other countries costs $$$. Hmph.) The author might even have stayed in the country for years and years. Still. I’ve got problems with FWFF:

1) Hey, this isn’t even about ethnicity/nationality/cultural background. This is a matter of writing quality. It’s just plain bad writing to throw in words from other languages when they don’t serve any purpose other than, well, foreign flavor. If the words are only there to provide exotic atmosphere, then that is a failure on the part of the writer. Good writing should be able to explain cultural differences to the reader without hitting the reader over the head with it. Don’t fall into the FWFF trap — especially if you’re not from the culture in question and the foreign language isn’t one you’re intimately acquainted with, which brings us to:

2) Okay, so it is kind of about cultural perspective. FWFF assumes that the reader is always an outsider, just like the author. For example, someone who doesn’t know Japanese would need translations for the greetings and clan names and weapon types in all those Japan-inspired fantasy books (written by people who aren’t Japanese!) that have been cropping up lately. There’s always the super awkward translation of every foreign phrase stuffed into the text at intervals (necessary because there’s no way the reader could possibly speak that language, right? /sarcasm).

FWFF and all its related buddies make it clear that the target audience is not from or even remotely knowledgeable about the language/culture in question. It turns the insiders into the true outsiders. When an author uses a different culture as an easy substitute for a fantasy setting, or to add spice to the tale, the result is shoddy writing and an alienating story. When an author uses a culture not their own as a shortcut for an exotic setting, the author says: This book isn’t for you. It’s for people who think foreign means exotic and mystical and weird.

Well, let me tell you a thing. “Foreign” and “Other” — these things are a matter of perspective. What’s foreign to you isn’t foreign to someone else. That’s something to keep in mind when writing, okay? Okay.**

*The Summer Prince uses sprinklings of words from other languages — like “mushibot” — and it’s awesome! Swoon.
**Note: FWFF has many little friends crawling around literature land. You know — stereotypical characters, names that are straight out of a foreign language dictionary, mystical customs, strangely alluring dance moves, etc.

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Creating Diverse Worlds

This post is for all you writers out there wondering how to create diversity in your novel. Creating diversity is not just the act of developing a character of color, it is also creating a diverse world. Think about the world that you live in. Who do you interact with everyday? I’ll use myself as an example.

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Mural expressing the diversity of my city. From virtualtourist.com

I live in Long Beach, CA, one of the most diverse cities in America. My student population is 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African-American, but the teaching staff is much more diverse with a good mix of different nationalities. I live in a large condo complex and there is every race and age living in the building. Yesterday as I walked out, I was behind an elderly Japanese couple and there is a mixed race family with two girls that I have seen grow into beautiful young ladies. Our neighbors across the courtyard are Samoan. This is just my complex. My best friend from high school is Puerto Rican and my husband’s best friend is a mix of Mexican and Navajo. Another high school friend, who is Caucasian, married a man who is a mix of Mexican and Japanese. Their daughter is a lovely blend of everything that makes up her parents. Another friend’s fiancée is Filipino, and she herself is a mix of Persian and Jewish. I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and the ethnic makeup of everyone in here is a mix of all the colors of the world.

Obviously, I encounter diversity in every aspect of my life, except for in novels. Why is this? I know writers do not write in a vacuum and have lives outside of the computer. Why not have the world you create from the pen, reflect the world the you live in? If you are unsure of how to do that, just spend some time sitting in a restaurant, coffee shop, mall, wherever people gather and watch them. Imagine their lives. What are they doing? Where are they going? What are the relationships with the people they’re with? You don’t have to create full character histories for them, but do remember them when creating the world your characters lives in. Just having a main character of color is not enough; the people the character interacts with should be diverse as well.

Don’t just focus on their ethnicity as well. People of color are more than just their skin. We are as unique and varied with our own special interests (I’m a Trekkie) and when creating diverse characters make sure you are creating a real person, not just a stock stereotype. Even if your main character interacts with a person for just one scene, create a small character profile in your head and then use that as a basis for how you write him/her in that once scene. Or, use the personality of someone you know and think about how he/she would react in the same situation. Think outside of the box and strive to make your world reflect the world you live in.

Now, unless your world is set in a place that is not diverse, say the novel “Spirits Chosen” which was set in a mythical Japan, then obviously your characters will not reflect the diverse world you live in. However, if you are interested in writing fantasy, why stick to the European version of elves and such? Why not look into the ancient history or folklore tales of other cultures? There is such a wide variety of stories from distant places that are just waiting to be told.

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Image via Goodreads.com

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Chaos” is a novel that creates a diverse world the right way. In fact, it felt as if she were hitting us over the head with diversity, but that is because it is so rare in fiction to find a novel that accurately reflects the culture we live in. The novel is set in modern day Toronto when an odd supernatural event happens, dubbed The Chaos for that is exactly what it is, and the story deals with one characters attempts to survive the event. The novel does have an aspect of fantasy pulling from Caribbean, Asian and European folklore traditions. I recommend that every writer interested in creating a diverse world, read Hopkinson’s book for inspiration.

Go forth and create diverse worlds!

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Covers I Love

Let’s be perfectly honest, shall we? We often judge a book by its cover. I know I do! There have been numerous instances where I’ve purchased a novel purely based on an amazing cover. And while there have been numerous articles, discussions about the whitewashing of covers and lack of representation of diverse characters on covers, I thought I’d take a positive stance and talk about a few covers that have really moved me.

 

clockwork prince1. Clockwork Prince, Cassandra Clare

This beauty stopped me in my tracks, literally. I walked past it, stopped, and took a closer look because I was unsure if I really saw a cute Asian boy on the cover. I picked the book up, examined it thoroughly and then went from disbelief to practically dancing a jig in the aisle. I mean, just look at that cover. Jem is a wonderful character and this picture just captures his essence beautifully. His stance is regale, but with an air of mystery, but the most important aspect is that we can see his face.

 

 

 

transcendence2. Transcendance, C.J. Omololu

Another novel that stopped me in my tracks. My heart jumped at seeing a cute African-American boy front and center on a cover that was not about gangs, prison, urban issues, but a science fiction/fantasy story. The cover suggests that Griffin is a character who will be central to the story, even though the novel is told from Cole’s perspective. It also displays him as a romantic lead, and he is someone the readers will fall in love with (which we do).

 

 

 

Zahrah3. Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

My goodness this cover is amazing. The model for this cover is simply beautiful. The sparkle eye shadow accents her deep brown eyes and enhances the richness of her skin. She is simply breathtaking, which is a contrast to how the main character sees herself. This contrasts highlights how girls and women often do not see their own beauty, adding to the message of the novel. Additionally, the wing of the Blue Morpho butterfly (my favorite) just adds to the fantasy element of the cover.

 

 

luminous4. Luminous, Dawn Metcalf

I have a deep love for butterflies so this cover just grabs my heart. Like Zahrah, the cover model is also absolutely beautiful. She is also clearly Latina, and with the variety of colors, especially the deep pink, the model is bathed in a light that evokes romance.  Like Transcendence, the cover clearly indicates the novel is a fantasy and not the usual immigration, gangs, urban storyline given to characters of color.

 

 

 

phoenix5. Silver Phoenix, Cindy Pon

Another beautiful model! I also just love the colors of the cover and how they blend together to create an other-worldly atmosphere. The way the light reflects off her dress, I can almost feel the silk underneath my fingers. While I wonder why her arms are in the position they are in, they do create a feeling of movement as if she is in the middle of a dance.

 

 

 

I realize that this novels listed are mostly sci-fi/fantasy novels, but that is a genre that I love to read. It is also a genre that is sorely lacking in characters of color. The industry is changing, albeit slowly, but if these covers are any indication of the willingness of publishers to take a chance and feature the characters front and center on their covers, then all of our calls for change are not in vain. We need to continue to demand for stunning covers such as these, not just with our voices, but with our dollars. Buy these books, but not just the ebooks. Buy the hardbacks, the paperbacks, get them from your local booksellers. If the books are not shelved, ask for them to be ordered. We have the power, let’s use it!

(all cover images courtesy of Goodreads)

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