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.

Long_Beach_diversity_of_people_expressed_Long_Beach

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.

chaos

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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New Releases

We’re officially halfway through 2013, my friends, and so far the year has released some terrific books featuring characters of color, and books written by authors of color.

July seems to be a slow month as we settle into lounging by the pool or the beach and go on our vacations. This week, we only have one new release, but it looks promising.

the night itselfBy Zoe Marriott
Walker Books Ltd

Ancient Japanese gods and monsters are unleashed on modern-day London in this epic trilogy from an acclaimed fantasy writer. When Mio steals the family’s katana – a priceless ancestral sword – from her parents’ attic, she just wants to spice up a fancy-dress costume. But the katana is much more than some dusty antique and her actions unleash a terrible, ancient evil onto the streets of unsuspecting London. Soon Shinobu, a fearless warrior boy, appears to protect Mio – and threatens to steal her heart. With the gods and monsters of Japanese myth stalking her and her friends, Mio realizes that if she cannot keep the sword safe, and learn to control its legendary powers, she will lose not only her own life…but the love of a lifetime.

Picture and summary via Amazon.com

And one we missed last week…

since you askedBy Maurene Goo

Scholastic Press

No, no one asked, but Holly Kim will tell you what she thinks anyway.

Fifteen-year-old Holly Kim is the copyeditor for her high school’s newspaper. When she accidentally submits an article that rips everyone to shreds, she gets her own column and rants her way through the school year. Can she survive homecoming, mean-girl cliques, jocks, secret admirers, Valentine’s Day, and other high school embarrassments, all while struggling to balance her family’s traditional Korean values?
In this hilarious debut, Maurene Goo takes a fresh look at trying to fit in without conforming to what’s considered “normal” in high school and how to manage parental expectations without losing one’s individuality…or being driven insane.

Picture and summary via Amazon.com

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Mini-review: What’s Left of Me

what's left of meTitle: What’s Left of Me
Author: Kat Zhang
Pages: 343
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Publisher: Harper
Review Copy: library (that beautiful place)
Availability: September 18, 2012

(image from Goodreads)

Instead of a book summary, have a book trailer!

Review: Though science-fiction/dystopian isn’t really my cup of tea, I’ve been trying to read more of it lately — and enjoying it. What’s Left of Me is a fast-paced story with a sort of Golden Compass feel to it, what with the double souls and the dark hospital experiments. The world-building in the book is tight and fascinating. The book’s treatment of foreigners in the non-hybrid Americas was interesting, and reminded me of the controversy around immigration reform that’s happening today. It’s easy to fall into the world of Addie and Eva, though I wish some more of the national history had been elaborated on. I got the feeling that the history that was hinted on in the book was only the tip of the iceberg. Overall, it was an entertaining read and definitely worth the time.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re a big fan of The Golden Compass.

Annnd here’s a video of the author (!!) Kat Zhang reading from her book:

 

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Degrees of Difficulty: Writing the Other

It’s not easy writing about other, well, people. Cultural appropriation, offending someone’s sexual orientation, overlooking someone’s lack of privilege, it’s just land mines everywhere isn’t it? Even when you think you’re being sensitive, something comes along that tells you you’re wrong. Heck, it was just a few short years ago that I learned “Caucasian” was a dirty word. Sorry white people, I may have inadvertently insulted you. The good news is, from every mistake comes a learning moment.

When I read books about POCs, the first thing I do is check out the author. Are they a minority? Are they from the same ethnicity as the main character? Is there something in their bio that points to why they chose their protagonist to be non-white? Sometimes I think this might be a bad habit, as I tend to then read the book with a different perception heading in, colored by my pre-conceptions. Perhaps in an ideal world, I should read the book first, and then check out the author. But right now, I go into a book wanting to know who wrote it, and why they chose to include this person or that background.

What I’m basically looking for is this: what kind of authenticity is the author bringing to this book? If it’s a black author writing a black character, that makes me pay attention. If it’s someone non-Japanese writing a book set in modern day Japan, I perk up.

As most writers know, representing the other is not easy. This doesn’t even apply to just others. The authenticity question applies to every experience you might put down on paper. I had a friend in college who wrote an essay about kissing — creative writing requirements can be hilarious can’t they? — but it was clear from his words that he had never kissed a girl before. Needless to say, he lost the reader. Screwing up writing the other can do the same for your work.

gym01What I’d like to present here then, is a degrees of difficulty for authors writing the other. As arranged by gymnastic moves. Because, I mean, who isn’t/wasn’t into gymnatics? Dominique Moceanu forever! Gymnastics scoring is based on two things: degree of difficulty and execution. What I want to look at is how difficult it is to gain some authenticity, and strive to write a book that you can vehemently defend against critics’ claims that you “got it all wrong.”

I’m keeping my comments confined to racial diversity for the purposes of this post. But I believe the same scale could be used for all things other. The degree of difficulty score is just for the attempt, it has nothing to do with the execution. Hopefully, everyone can nail the landing. Because we are all superstars.

Note: Degree of difficulty score is rated for how hard it would be to get writing the other “right.”

Somersault
You’re not including any racial diversity in your book. Everyone is from the same background, there are no non-white people in 1800’s Europe, blah blah blah. That’s fine, it’s your book, do what you want.
Degree of Difficulty: 0.0

Cartwheel
You’ve decided to throw in a side character who is a minority. It’s super trendy so you think to yourself, “How can I jam in some diversity in here?” You decide to change a few physical characteristics, try your hand at capturing an accent, and sling on a last name that sounds different. Voila, diversity is fun!
Degree of Difficulty: 1.3

Splits
You are writing about your own ethnicity. If it’s not obvious you’re of that ethnicity — through author photos, last name checks, etc. — you may have to point that out during interviews. Or in your bio. The good news is you won’t have to answer any questions like, “What do you know about being Asian?” Your answer can always be, “I am Asian!” This “I am ____” card can be played at any time, but also understand that you’re now open to critiques about how you’re representing your people.

Sidenote: This last point can actually make your degree of difficulty skyrocket, depending on how interested you are in remaining in good standing with your community. This topic should actually be explored in another post. Writing the other while being that other, while keeping an eye on those others. Whew, what a mouthful. We’ll shelve it for next time…
Degree of Difficulty: 2.7

Handstand
“I was born there, raised there, etc.” Any close variation of this works out well. If you’re a native, even though you’re not of that ethnicity, your authenticity rating is going to be pretty high. Just make sure to include that tidbit in your bio, yeah?
Degree of Difficulty: 3.2

Round Off
Someone you know is of the Other. They are your (best) friend, your wife, your boyfriend, your mentor, your mailman. Whoever it is, you have drawn inspiration from them and have decided to immortalize them in ink. Bravo! A beautiful idea. However, beware the pitfall of singular models. That’s all I have to say here. Beware. Singular. Models. Nobody looks kindly on the “my black friend said…” defense.
Degree of Difficulty: 5.8

gabby-douglas-olympics-thumb-640xauto-6353Walkover
A few years ago, you took a vacation to somewhere that you are writing about now. You brought along a shiny new Moleskin, took copious notes, engaged in witty banter with the people who served your meals (perhaps testing out your recently acquired Rosetta Stone skills), and even sat in the square people watching for an entire afternoon. You have visited the Other side and now feel confident you can write with authority.

You could even kick this up a notch. “I lived there for x-number of months.” That is a powerful statement. Very powerful. But even having lived somewhere for a few months doesn’t mean you know every/anything. I lived in England for six months but was nestled away in the countryside for most of it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable representing any location outside of Seven Oaks, much less write broadly about the British.

Your weekend jaunt to India should hopefully leave you feeling the same. Visiting places is all blind men and elephants, as far as I’m concerned. What about an immersion program, or having taught English in another country you ask? Same, same, same!
Degree of Difficulty: 6.4

Front Handspring
You have immersed yourself in research. Lots of research. Dense history books, subtitled but never dubbed movies, pertinent YouTube videos, gushy travel magazine articles, drool worthy food blogs. You stalk Instagram accounts, am super pro at using Google Earth, stake out front row seats at all the local cultural celebrations. You know more about the history of Cinco De Mayo than your Mexican friends do.

All of this is very fine, and your efforts should be applauded. However, being an expert — and probably a bit of a know it all — on something does not necessarily mean you won’t be challenged about writing the Other. Your Asian Studies minor, the one you took four upper division classes in to graduate on time, is shiny but what do you really know?
Degree of Difficulty: 7.1

Backflip
You’re aiming to make a nuanced portrayal that will make reviewers exclaim, “How did this white guy write a transgendered black female so well?!” People hold their breath as you could possibly land on your head.
Degree of Difficulty: 8.7

Piked Arabian Double Front
You’ve done it, you’ve written a book that not only includes diversity but withstands critical analysis, is fetted with lots of awards, and not only makes you proud, but people will use it as a textbook for “How to write the Other.”
Degree of Difficulty: 9.9

As you can see, writing the other is not easy. Allow me to link to someone far more eloquent than I: s.e. smith’s blog post “Writing the Other.” It’s got less gymnastics comparisons but far more solid information and thoughts to chew on. Also, I’ve never done gymnastics in my life so this entire post could be suspect. You decide!

gym02

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Flashback in Color: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

While Rich in Color’s mission is to share current diverse novels, we must not forget the Classics. The trailblazers, the writers who chose to write stories featuring characters of color before readers demanded it. These novels moved readers when they were first published and move readers still, as well as inspired generations of writers of color. Therefore, we are instituting a new series here on Rich In Color, titled Flashback in Color, exploring those classics novels that are beloved by all.

20130505-134748.jpgThis post was inspired by one of my 7th grade students bringing in Mildred Taylor’s, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”. This Newbery Award winning classic was published in 1976 and is still loved by readers. I, in fact, read the book when I was in 5th grade, and my heart still warms from the memory of the novel.

Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, the novel follows the events surrounding the Logans, an African-American family who own their farmland, unlike many African-American families of the time. The novel explores the tension of racial relationships created by the poverty of the Depression.

When I read the novel as a child, I was extremely happy to read a novel, a compelling novel, that featured a character who looked like me. I was a voracious reader, and Roll of Thunder was the first time I remembered thinking, “Here is a black character I could relate to. She’s not the only one, or the friend. It’s all about her.” It was so uplifting for an 11 year old inspiring writer.

One of the reasons why, I think, Taylor’s novel has stood the test of time is that the character of Cassie Logan is written so strongly. She is fierce, stands up for what she believes, questions her world and ultimately overcomes the obstacles thrown her way. Who wouldn’t want to took up to a character like that?

Taylor also doesn’t hold back with the racism that Cassie and her family experience. After everything her family goes through, you want them to win, to come out on top. In that aspect, with such a sensitive subject, the very fact that Taylor speaks to the young reader, not at the reader, is why adolescents since 1976 have fallen in love with the novel and why it is still taught in schools.

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