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

Four New Books for Summer

There are four books coming out this week! Which ones are you looking forward to?

proxyProxy by Alex London

Knox was born into one of the City’s wealthiest families. A Patron, he has everything a boy could possibly want—the latest tech, the coolest clothes, and a Proxy to take all his punishments. When Knox breaks a vase, Syd is beaten. When Knox plays a practical joke, Syd is forced to haul rocks. And when Knox crashes a car, killing one of his friends, Syd is branded and sentenced to death.

Syd is a Proxy. His life is not his own.

Then again, neither is Knox’s. Knox and Syd have more in common than either would guess. So when Knox and Syd realize that the only way to beat the system is to save each other, they flee. Yet Knox’s father is no ordinary Patron, and Syd is no ordinary Proxy. The ensuing cross-country chase will uncover a secret society of rebels, test both boys’ resolve, and shine a blinding light onto a world of those who owe and those who pay. Some debts, it turns out, cannot be repaid.

A fast-paced, thrill-ride of novel full of non-stop action, heart-hammering suspense and true friendship—just as moving as it is exhilarating. Fans of Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, and Marie Lu’s Legend will be swept away by this story. (Picture and summary via Amazon)

PirateThe Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

After setting out to break the curse that binds them together, the pirate Ananna and the assassin Naji find themselves stranded on an enchanted island in the north with nothing but a sword, their wits, and the secret to breaking the curse: complete three impossible tasks. With the help of their friend Marjani and a rather unusual ally, Ananna and Naji make their way south again, seeking what seems to be beyond their reach.

Unfortunately, Naji has enemies from the shadowy world known as the Mists, and Ananna must still face the repercussions of going up against the Pirate Confederation. Together, Naji and Ananna must break the curse, escape their enemies — and come to terms with their growing romantic attraction. (Image and summary via NetGalley)

PiecePiece of My Heart by Lynn Maddalena Menna

Still in high school, Marisol Reyes gets the chance of a lifetime to be a real singer, and she leaps at it. After all, this is the dream she held on to, all the days and nights she spent growing up on means streets of East Harlem. Marisol never gave in–no matter what her boyfriend or her best friend had to say. Who cares if only one in a hundred pretty, talented girls make it? She will be the one. In her rush to fame, Marisol tramples on the heart of her loyal best friend, and Julian, the boy she loves. But will it be worth it?

One night at a private gig in the Hamptons, the little Latino girl with the big voice from East Harlem gets a severe reality check. A famous rapper who claims to be interested in her talents turns out to be interested in something else, threatening not only Marisol’s dreams but her body and soul. Will the realities of the gritty New York music scene put out the stars in Marisol’s eyes forever? (Image and summary via NetGalley)

IntuitionIntuition by C.J. Omololu

As Cole begins to accept her new life as Akhet, someone who can remember flashes of her past lives, every new vision from her past lives helps explain who she is in this life. As her passion for Griffon grows, she learns to identify other Akhet around her, including Drew, the young self-made millionaire who reveals his startling connection to Cole-he was her husband in Elizabethan England and gave her the ankh necklace that has been returned to her after centuries in hiding. Drew’s attentions are overwhelming as he insists that their connection in the past signals their future destiny together, but before she can decide who she truly loves, Cole must learn to harness her unique Akhet abilities if she is to ever understand her role in this strange new world. (Image and summary via Goodreads)

When Every Culture Is a Foreign Culture: Writing on the Autism Spectrum

We welcome Lyn Miller-Lachmann today to share about her writing journey both as an insider and an outsider. Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, published in 2009, and Rogue published in May of this year. I was lucky enough to read Gringolandia earlier this week and am looking forward to sitting down with Rogue soon.


Miller-Lachmann

Before I became a published author of fiction for teens, I compiled multicultural bibliographies and edited the journal MultiCultural Review. Except for two years teaching high school social studies and English in Brooklyn, New York, and several more years teaching English as a Second Language in Madison, Wisconsin to refugees and students from Latin America, I had no special multicultural credentials to do this work—or so I thought at the time.

However, I did know what it was like not to fit in—and what it was like to leave home and family for places unknown.

I left at the age of 18. It was a moment I had looked forward to for a long time, because my childhood community was a place where I had been misunderstood, bullied, and excluded. But moving brought its own challenges—meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and trying to find a place for myself where everyone already seemed to know the way. My own struggles helped me to understand my immigrant students in Brooklyn and Madison, and I learned a lot from their experiences of adjusting to a new land.

Some of the stories I heard from friends and colleagues became the basis for my YA novel Gringolandia, the story of a Chilean exile teenager trying to reconnect with his father, a former political prisoner and torture survivor. At the time, I questioned my right to write about a culture to which I did not belong. My Chilean friends encouraged me to go for it; they knew I’d done my research. The people I interviewed in Chile in 1990, during the transition to democracy, wanted me to tell people in my country of their suffering as a result of the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1973 that led to the 17-year dictatorship. The novel took me 22 years to write and get published. My fiction-writing career during that time was one of close calls, heartbreak, and misunderstandings. I also found out that, even though I had escaped the place where I didn’t fit in, I could not escape the problems that made it so difficult for me to fit in.

In 2008 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I had so much trouble making and keeping friends, fitting in socially, understanding non-verbal communication and “hidden meanings”, and recognizing faces (because I’m not actually looking at people or making eye contact when I talk to them). With Gringolandia already in production, I questioned my ability to write fiction—which requires so much in terms of portraying emotion and social relationships, conveying the meaning of language and gesture, and forging connections with readers. These are all the things I struggle with in daily life.

I then remembered my Chilean friends’ advice. They said I’d done my homework. I had studied a culture that was not my own, thoroughly enough that I could write authentically about it. Perhaps that meant I could study all my characters’ cultures thoroughly enough to write about them. I could approach any culture as if it were a foreign culture—because to me as a person on the autism spectrum, every culture is a foreign culture. I also thought about the people I interviewed in Chile, survivors of a brutal dictatorship. They wanted their stories told so people would understand what they went through.

I had long avoided telling my own story of bullying and exclusion for a variety of reasons: I didn’t want to remember the pain. On some level, I felt I deserved it. I had internalized the dislike others felt for me and thus didn’t believe I could create a likable character similar to the younger me. But after my diagnosis, I realized that my story could help others in my situation, and create greater understanding of people on the autism spectrum, how we think, and the challenges that we face.

For inspiration, I turned to the X-Men. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the character of Professor Xavier, who used a wheelchair and gathered around him a group of misunderstood and rejected young people who nonetheless had special powers that they could use either to destroy society or to save society. He wanted these outsiders to use their powers for good, and by doing good, create understanding of mutants.

In this way Rogue was born. By setting the novel in the present, I was able to use the newer X-Men character of Rogue as protagonist Kiara’s hero. Rogue is the perfect role model for a teenage girl on the autism spectrum, as she cannot touch or be touched, and she has to steal the memories and emotions of others because her emotions did not fully develop.

Above all, I transferred to Kiara my strongest desire when I was growing up—to have a friend. Like Kiara, I would do anything for a friend—clueless things that got me laughed at (like thinking I could become popular by sitting at the popular girls’ table), naïve things that led other people to take advantage of me, and dangerous things to prove my loyalty. Rogue is the first novel I have written as an insider, and I have sought to present my character honestly and in a multidimensional way. Yes, she’s a young teen on the autism spectrum, but she’s also an avid bike rider who repairs her own bike, a lover of music, and a budding filmmaker. She has a life and interests that are independent of her neurological difference. She also has a lot in common with everyone else in her desire to be connected to other people, to be loved, and to contribute to her community. I’m not sure I’ll write a sequel or another novel with a protagonist on the autism spectrum—a lot depends on how many “friends” Kiara makes—but I am fortunate to have had the chance to write my own story and make something positive of it.


Lyn
Lyn Miller-Lachman authored Gringolandia – published by Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press and Rogue – published by Nancy Paulson Books/Penguin. She is also a reviewer for The Pirate Tree, a blog devoted to social justice and children’s literature.

Review: A Moment Comes

moment
Title: A Moment Comes
Author: Jennifer Bradbury
Genres: Historical
Pages: 288
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Edelweiss
Availability: June 25, 2013

Summary: As the partition of India nears in 1947 bringing violence even to Jalandhar, Tariq, a Muslim, finds himself caught between his forbidden interest in Anupreet, a Sikh girl, and Margaret, a British girl whose affection for him might help with his dream of studying at Oxford. [cover image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The beautiful and colorful cover caught my eye immediately though it seemed to be trying to go for the exotic look with the peacock feather. Anupreet is beautiful, but of the three main characters, Tariq was actually the one whose story stood out to me. It might have been nice to have him on the cover.

Writing a book with three distinct points of view and sharing them equally is a challenge and I felt that Tariq stole the show. He is the one who seemed to go through the most inner turmoil and he grew and changed more than the others throughout the novel. All this is in addition to the fact that he is quite the attractive young man. Margaret was more of a bored white rich girl “type” and Anu hung back so much, it was hard to get to know them.

The story itself happens during the partitioning of India. This was a tumultuous and dangerous time. There is upheaval, fear, anger, and resentment from all sides. Readers without much background knowledge will still understand the story, but after finishing the book, they will probably be happy to read the author’s note at the end filling in some of the history surrounding the book.

There are many racial and religious tensions in the book as the British are backing away from this piece of their empire. It is interesting to see the reasons behind the slicing up of the county and the forced migration that occurs as a result. Having privileged one group over the other, the British had complicated the relationship between the Sikh and Muslim people.

In addition to the prescribed roles designated by race and religion, gender roles are another notable aspect of the story. Regardless of culture, the women have very specific roles and must not deviate or face serious consequences. Anu must be hidden away because of her beauty and is always protected. Elizabeth is allowed to be out and about, but in a very restricted manner and has very little choice in what she wears and does outside of her home though she gets away with things inside. She rails against her mother’s rules though by smoking, buying Indian clothing, and flirting with men she knows would not have her mother’s approval. She’s a bit of a rebel, but doesn’t stray too far. This all seems normal for the 1940s though.

I found the events and issues of the time pretty fascinating and wanted to know more, but wished that the story could have been in two voices in stead of three so I could get to know the characters a little better.

Recommendation: If you love historical fiction or are interested in India, you will want to get this soon, but otherwise, borrow it someday.

 

 

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.

New Releases

There’s a whole lot of books being released tomorrow, so check them out!

charm and strange Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

St. Martin’s Griffin

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself. He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable. Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present. [Image and Summary via Goodreads]

burningBurning by Elana K. Arnold

Delacorte Press

Ben: Having just graduated from high school, Ben is set to leave Gypsum, Nevada. It’s good timing since the gypsum mine that is the lifeblood of the area is closing, shutting the whole town down with it. Ben is lucky: he’s headed to San Diego, where he’s got a track scholarship at the University of California. But his best friends, Pete and Hog Boy, don’t have college to look forward to, so to make them happy, Ben goes with them to check out the hot chick parked on the side of Highway 447.
Lala: She and her Gypsy family earn money by telling fortunes. But lately Lala’s been questioning whether there might be more to life than her upcoming arranged marriage. And the day she reads Ben’s cards is the day that everything changes for her. . . and for him. [Image and Summary via Goodreads]

ask my mood ringAsk My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

It’s summer before eighth grade, and Erica “Chia” Montenegro is feeling so many things that she needs a mood ring to keep track of her emotions. She’s happy when she hangs out with her best friends, the Robins. She’s jealous that her genius little sister skipped two grades. And she’s passionate about the crushes on her Boyfriend Wish list. And when Erica’s mom is diagnosed with breast cancer, she feels worried and doesn’t know what she can do to help. When her family visits a cuarto de milagros, a miracle room in a famous church, Erica decides to make a promesa to God in exchange for her mom’s health. As her mom gets sicker, Erica quickly learns that juggling family, friends, school, and fulfilling a promesa is stressful, but with a little bit of hope and a lot of love, she just might be able to figure it out. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

long divisinoLong Division by Kiese Laymon

Agate Bolden

Kiese Laymon’s debut novel is a Twain-esque exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in Post-Katrina Mississippi, written in a voice that’s alternately funny, lacerating, and wise. [Image and summary via Goodreads]