Tuesday, January 05, 2010

ethnic writing--what's ok to say?

In November, I attended the Asian American Writers Workshop's first "book festival," for which lots of A-list writers showed up to speak on various panels. In one such star-studded panel I attended, the author Ed Lin read a number of short ghost stories and humorous vignettes inspired by his childhood. I enjoyed them, including the last piece he read, which poked fun at his Korean mother's response to the horror movie The Ring, and which he theatrically read in an imitation of her accent.

In the Q&A portion that followed the reading, an audience member asked Ed whether he would have read the same piece in front of a white audience (most of the audience members were Asian or Asian American). Did he not feel like he was exploiting both his mother and racial stereotypes about Asians, all for a quick laugh? The question gave me pause--I'm pretty soft-minded and can be won over (however temporarily by most arguments)--but it also made me sad. I had laughed at the piece and found it entertaining. Was I perpetuating racism? (Interestingly, Ed blogs about this episode from his perspective here--I found his piece just now in searching for links).

In thinking about the whole thing since, I have come around to a couple decisions about where I stand on "ethnic" writing and what it is best to say. This conversation is a minefield, of course, and sadly the publishing industry selects books on "ethnic" topics with the top priority of making money and only a secondary priority (which often doesn't exist) of disseminating ideas or breaking down walls.

But I value ethnic stories very highly, and can't support the idea that it's better not to tell stories than to tell them. Perspective, nuance, and a range and variety of topics would help establish wider-spread racial/ethnic knowledge, but I don't understand why Ed's suppressing a funny true story just because it cleaves to an ethnic stereotype would benefit humanity.

I personally enjoy reading ethnic writing, and if you've read this blog for a long time, you know that I like to write them, too. I love writing about the ridiculous things that happen in my English-as-a-second-language Italian family, particularly the antics of some of the older members (ie The Aunda). No one has accused me (out loud, at least) of being disrespectful or perpetuating stereotypes. Of course, as a white woman of European extraction, I will never have to deal with any level of physical or racial prejudices, and I don't consider myself to suffer the same kind of conundrum as writer friends who identify with other racial as well as ethnic groups. But can't I be, at least, part of the argument? If I can make fun of my aunt, then Ed Lin should be able to make fun of his mom. The difference between what we're allowed to write should not be our respective races.

I'm not sure if this is because I am American, and so many Americans are so crassly interested in "where we came from" (although I didn't come from anywhere at all; I've had few to no epic journeys or hardships or prejudices to suffer in my rather charmed life). Or maybe it's not universally American, but because I'm only one generation removed from family members who did emigrate. Or maybe it's that I think it's sad that in our incredulous modern age we're so secure in our science and technology that we are embarrassed by our forerunners who weren't as "sophisticated" as we are, and so we feel we need to cover up their stories and characters so we don't disrespect their memories.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you interested in ethnic narrative for personal reasons? Or do you find it boring, exploitative, or redundant? Would you dare to write about the ethnic background from which you descent, or would you be afraid to? Conversely, are you afraid to write about any other? There are no right or wrong answers in this conversation (I've given you my opinions, but I hope they won't discourage your different thoughts). I also think the answers are more difficult for writers of color, since they often experience pressure from media assumptions about what they "should be" writing, whereas white writers, who generally escape ethnic tagging, have a little more leeway. But I'm very interested to hear what other people think.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

I've been thinking along similar lines lately as I do research for an (eventual) novel-in-verse about the Gitanos (Gypsies of Spain).

I know my approach needs to be accurate and respectful. There are all the layers of prejudice/social injustice to work through, but I'm not interested in creating something political. There are similarities Gypsy groups share, though I don't want to reduce the Gitanos to a caraciture. And in the end, the story will be of a girl and her journey, which should transcend culture, anyway.

It's been a lot to think about. I'm not sure what I've gotten myself into, but am interested in seeing where things lead.

Imogen said...

" to cover up their stories and characters so we don't disrespect their memories". Surely, this is in itself a disrespect? - by covering the whole truth of a real person one is sanitising them, shaping them for an audience - to my mind that is hugely discourteous to their memory.

The whole subject is a minefield, isn't it? As a woman of mixed race who doesn't particularly look it (as the old phrase has it, I "pass for white") I am baffled by the multiplicity of takes on this - I look forward to the usual interesting contributions here.

Oh, and Happy New Year, by the way.

Kim said...

I'm sure I cross many lines in my writing-- my blog is called "Yellow Trash Diaries" if that's any indication. As a Korean girl adopted and raised in a white world, I've struggled all my life to come to terms with my identity. First I tried to BE white, but eventually the truth came out. Now I try to define on my own terms what it means to be "Asian", and often my approach is politically incorrect. If that makes some people uncomfortable, that's too bad. To suppress self-aimed ethnic humor is to dilute a lot of good writing of it's flavor and truth.

Rick Daley said...

Our overly PC society often blurs the lines between racial and racist, to a point where any incident involving race is cast as racist. I've also seen similar cries of sexism when differences between men and women are highlighted, but not in a derogatory way.

Truth of the matter is that stereotypes exists for a reason. People speak with accents. Men and women have different anatomies, not just externally, but in the hormones that govern many of our emotions. To pretend these variances in our society do not exist, or to gloss over them for fear of insult, does not pay reality the homage it deserves.

I'm not advocating racist insults; but a funny accent to heighten a story or calling out racial or gender specific features to add a tinge of realism to a tale is fine by me.

And if anyone wants to make bald guys jokes, I'll laugh at them.

jennysbooks said...

I think it's silly to criticize an author for writing or speaking about his or her background - if you don't like it, don't read or listen. What seems important to me is putting a multitude of views out there for consumption, writers and speakers from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

That said, when I'm writing stories myself, I'm leery of making any point-of-view character a person of color, because I don't have that point of view myself and I never will. It seems presumptuous, if that makes sense.

Watery Tart said...

I love that you're asking (and actually interested in responses) to this question. I am a bit sassy in the bloggosphere, but by day I'm a social scientist and I feel like 'what is okay to say' has a huge amount to do with who we are and what our experiences are, because what we want to communicate is authenticity.

Humorous stories about our family of origin are by definition, OURS, and sharing them shares of ourselves and helps other groups understand us better, so whether poking fun, communicating hardship, or whatever--when it is OUR GROUP, I think we are okay. (and I think others are fine to laugh--is shows a shared understanding and that we have internalized the experience--after all, the SPEAKER thinks it's funny)

When we write about a group we are not a member of, we need some sort of authenticity, too--do we live among a group of people? Did we marry into one? Was our best friend a member? I think those close interactions allow us to write realistic characters, but maybe AREN'T enough to poke fun.

And if we don't have interactions that close... probably we want to find a first reader who is a group member to make sure we haven't crossed any lines of offense.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

CKHB said...

I think the underlying truth of the writing (even if it's fiction) makes a difference. How many non-Chinese women read The Joy Luck Club and recognized themselves and their own moms? How many non-Greeks watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding and said, ohmygod that's MY family? TONS. Because the emotional heart of it all was spot-on.

There is a wide space between exploiting a racial identity and sanitizing it (as Imogen said), and I hope we can all play fair in that space.

Lydia Sharp said...

This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, too. I'm a bit farther from my Italian roots than you are (my father's father, my father's mother's parents, and I'm really not sure how far back I have to go on my mother's father's side ... at least two generations), but I do have a keen interest in stories and/or characters of the same background as I am.

Even my latest read, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, held a special significance for me because the MC knew how to speak Italian (although she is Irish) and the entire middle of the book took place in Rome. I was in Italian heaven.

In answer to one of your questions, the MC of one of my novels is a full-blooded Italian born and raised in America. Her father emigrated. Her mother did not, but her parents did. I don't get too detailed on the cultural differences because that's not truly what the story is about, but there are nuances. I learned certain viewpoints and lifestyles firsthand from my experiences with my father's family, and applied them to the story where appropriate.

But I also enjoy reading about other ethnicities and cultures. I think it is even more intriguing if the author is not of said background and can still pull it off without missing a beat.

What's okay to say? For me, whatever is relevant and/or accurate. Some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. I don't think it's wrong to portray realism as long as the intent is not to harm.

JES said...

Good questions. In a way, the whole "what's okay to say about ethnicity?" is a narrow-gauge version of the larger issue -- "do we have a 'responsibility' to write/not write anything in particular?"

I don't have any particular ethnicity to claim, to build on, or (for that matter) to disregard. But I don't make any bones about being hearing-impaired, and I've created hearing-impaired characters who simply needed to have that particular attribute for purposes of the story. I never heard from anyone with a similar impairment that I shouldn't be writing of such characters -- although I have heard from those who wish I'd pushed a little harder, or painted the picture differently, or whatever.

Likewise, in the WIP I've got a quite fat main character -- a "hero," indeed. While I can't claim first-hand experience with that particular condition, it fits him perfectly. I didn't decide to make him fat in order to make fun of him (although there's comedy there, just as there is in not having 100% hearing). Yet I do wonder if this will fly with readers sensitive about their own or their loved ones' overweight conditions.

Whether we're talking characters of a particular ethnicity, religion, disability, political bent, sexual orientation, whatever, it'd be nice if readers weren't quite so tetchy. (We're not writing about YOU, y'know?) Otoh, maybe in wishing so, I'm just stereotyping tetchy people. :)

(I think there's also the related question: Is it okay for someone to write a particular "type" if s/he is not apparently that type? Does it then become automatically okay if we find out later that the author does indeed have first-hand knowledge of the type?)

Kat Sheridan said...

You're right, this is a dense, minefield of a topic, but I was glad to see it today.

I'm as WASP as they come. My family has been in America since 1609, and has therefore never had any sense of having a non--American heritage. But as a "white person" (I condider myself pink, actually), I find it scary to say anything about other ethnic groups, for fear of being labeled something I'm not.

I was recently judging submissions to a romance writers contest (one of the local chapter ones). I'd asked to judge paranormal. One of the entries was what I guess is called these days "Mulitcultural" romance--meaning the hero and heroine are not white (like that matters). While reading one, I'm ashamed to say my own cultural bias assumed "white", until the heroine was running late and said she hoped the others were "running on colored people's time".

I dropped the entry as if it were on fire. How dare one say that! OMG, what a dreadful sterotype! Holy cow! As a white person, living in the north, I would have my brain washed out with soap for even THINKING those words, much less putting them in a romance novel! In my narrow view, I had assumed this was a white writer, writing about white characters (because the overwhelming majority of romance is that).

When I went back and re-read for more subtle cues, I realized this was waht is called "multicultural" romance. I stepped back and just judged as a I should-plot, pacing, characterization, etc. But I still worried about that phrase--colored people's time--and my reaction to it and whether the writer was using it deliberately, casually, with no malice, or out of ignorance and prejudice.

In the end, I simply made a note that the phrase might grate on the ears of some people, and to consider appealing to the widest possible audience, and left it at that.

But still, months later, I think about it. Her word choice. My reaction. I called a (white) friend in Atlanta who said the phrase is more casually used in the south. My friend in California was as appalled as I.

The words were the author's choice. I can only respect that and call it an artistic choice and only I can decide if that choice works for me or not.

And Rick, glad to hear you don't mind bald people jokes. It was a whole series of bald man jokes that got me my hubs. He said he knew I'd fallen for him the day he walked in the office and I donned ostentacious sunglasses to avoid the glare off his pate!

Kristan said...

Excellent post, Moonrat.

When I was at the Kenyon Review workshop last June, I wrote a piece (oh, this one, in fact! Postcard Stories #2) from the perspective of an immigrant Chinese woman. When I read it aloud (with the accent) in workshop, everyone loved it, and no one questioned my "right" to write it because I'm half-Chinese.

(Also note that the piece isn't ABOUT her being an immigrant with an accent. That's just part of her character.)

Then came time to pick a piece to read aloud to the entire Kenyon Review group (we were just 1 workshop of about 6). In discussing which of my pieces to read, the TA brought up that he thought it would be uncomfortable/exploitative if I read it with the accent. But we all agreed it didn't work right/as well without the accent. Meanwhile, I was torn by his initial comments -- was I exploiting my heritage?

Is Amy Tan exploitative? Maxine Hong Kingston (to bring it back to your blog)? Jhumpa Lahiri? Sherman Alexie?

The more I think about it, the more I'm sure I'm not exploiting my heritage. I'm simply "writing what I know." (Although that's a whole other debate, lol.)

But does that mean non-Asians CAN'T write about Asian heritage? What about the Memoirs of a Geisha dude? Or Lisa See, who is 1/8 Chinese but looks as white as white can be? (I've talked with her about this, actually.)

Like you, I don't think it's better to hide from the stories that make us uncomfortable or raise these questions. And I certainly don't think it's better to judge those who write them. Maybe it's not a clear black and white, right or wrong. But maybe it's thinking about and living within the shades of gray that will make us grow as people.

Philangelus said...

I love entering another world through fiction. I know my own world. What I love is to view the world through a different perspective. If it happens to be through the perspective of a dragon-rider, a high king on a quest, a starship officer, or a young woman growing up in a Chinese family, it's the immersion that's pleasurable. It's a way to expand the brain.

I can't ever grow up in a Chinese family, for example, but a well-written book will give me a borrowed experience. And in that shared experience grows a sense of us all as human at the core, despite the externals, or maybe because of them.

Self-directed ethnic humor is the same as any other kind of self-directed humor. It can be crass or it can be gut-bustingly funny. A lot of it depends on the writer or the comic. We can't blow away entire genres for fear of offending a few.

Matilda McCloud said...

I think it's okay to poke fun at your own ethnic background and I like to read these kinds of stories, but it's tricky to do this well when writing about another ethnic group and should probably be avoided, unless it's done in an affectionate or fun way, and doesn't feed into negative stereotypes.

Heather said...

This raises another question - what about writing multicultural characters where race isn't an issue? Justine Larbalestier (who has some excellent entries on race at her blog) inspired me to create a character for my next book who is not from my ethnic background. But although she's Hispanic, her background isn't integral to the story. It's only going to be a part of what makes up her whole. I think that's what we need more of, especially in YA - multicultural characters who aren't defined by their race. What the first commenter said about transcending culture is perfect - the story needs to be bigger than the character.

If you do want to make race/culture a main component of the story, though, then I think it's fine to write almost anything - as long as it's true. The truth is funny enough without adding stereotypes to water it down. And you can write about characters outside of your own race by researching extensively and portraying them accurately. I'm sure my two white friends who are marrying into Latin American families could tell wonderful stories about Hispanic culture.

It all comes down to honesty and research - do your job as a writer and prepare well, and it will come across fine.

Jane Steen said...

Long live ethnic writing - I'm as white as they come but I love reading about people of other backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, whatever. It's a joy to find out where we're similar, and fascinating to learn about the differences.

Jokes and humorous episodes are often the best way of communicating what really makes us tick. Most people know where the border between a fair portrait and prejudice lies, and the majority of writers are smart enough to write from their own backgrounds, or, if they feel the need to include characters outside their own experience, they do their research and get help from the right quarters.

Great post, and kudos for attending an Asian American workshop - I hope we'll be seeing some book reviews coming out of this. I'm fascinated by China, even though I've never been there - I've been learning Mandarin for the last two years! The Chinese are wonderfully unabashed about commenting on the physical characteristics and quirks of "laowai" (foreigners) - maybe we should take a leaf out of their book.

moonrat said...

Jane--never fear, I'm on it. These are the books I picked up:

FACTORY GIRLS, Leslie Chang (nonfiction--currently reading, planning to report on this week)

THE BOOK OF SALT, Monique Truong (novel--next on my list, so if all goes well report next week or the week after)

SONS AND OTHER FLAMMABLE OBJECTS, Porochista Khakpour (I'm thinking it will be a joint bookclub for 3/1)

ilyakogan said...

I just wanted to comment how far we've come that person of an Italian decent can say that she will never have to deal with physical or racial prejustice.

It wasn't the case even meager thirty years ago. Heck - twelve years ago we were looking for a house in New Jersey and one of the places we looked was Bloomfield in Essex county. A well-meaning realtor said about a part of Bloomfield, "This is a working class Italian neigbourhood - you probably don't want to live there..."

Those things change. My wife is African American. I'm a Russian Jew, born and raised in the Soviet Union. We both had seen our lion's share of various "isms" during our lifetime.

Those things come and go but xenophobia remains.

People keep looking for various ways to separate themselves into groups and pass judgement on the other groups.

Not talking about this stuff is the same as not talking about any other part of life...

Art doesn't have to please people, it has to stir them. A strong negative reaction is still a strong reaction. Let some people take offense and some people laugh - this is what true art is supposed to do.

Emily Cross said...
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Emily Cross said...
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ilyakogan said...

Emily - I remember telling an Irish joke in a private house in London suburbia... I got laughs but was told not to tell it in a wider company.

Here is some bitter sweet eye "candy" for you:

Irish Need Not Apply

megan said...

This is an important set of questions to consider. First of all, world lit and ethnic lit are currently what I'm devouring and buying. Second of all, I think it is so important to have represented the culture truthfully (I hedged a little about using the word "right" here, because culture is both an individualistic and collective phenomenon. Right for one person might not map onto another person's perception) that if honesty is discarded, you may as not have written the book at all.

An example of what I mean by this is Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die where he's writing about a Shaker family and getting everything wrong. Peck himself, if I recall correctly, is a Quaker. To complicate things, the YA novel is pseudo-autobiographical.

If we read to learn (and I do), then what use is it to have books that lie to us?

I think it's possible to balance accuracy with respect, and I think it's desirable.

What it boils down to for me is that I don't want to read about and fall in love with a culture that I find out later that what I read was so politically-correct that it had no bearing on reality.

A good ethnic/world lit book should be a book that a person from that culture can read and say, "Yes, I remember this" not "Are you sure this is about me?"

The Rejectionist said...


And what Matilda said. Particularly for white folks. There is no universe in existence in which it is appropriate for white people to deploy stereotypes about people of color, well-intentioned or otherwise.

Tere Kirkland said...

If authors, writers, columnists, whoever, sacrifice ethnicity in their writing for the sake of political correctness, how does that help us become a global community, one that applauds and appreciates diversity while it still survives, and records it for the future?

I live in New Orleans, where racism is the second thing after Mardi Gras outsiders think of in relation to our city. As a writer, it's been a huge part of my personal struggle to convey both what I love and what infuriates me about my home.

Do I use dialect to convey racial differences, reveling in the rhythm of soft consonants and disintegrating vowels of this evolved Creole French accent? If I do, will people who are less familiar with the city think it demeaning? Where is the fine line between verisimilitude and racism?

Is it okay if a black author writes it, but not if a white writer does? How do I embrace the diversity of my city and share it with the world without offending?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but it's heartening that there are others out there who are mulling the same questions over in their heads.


mashadutoit said...

I feel uneasy about the comments that its only OK to laugh at a group if you are part of it -

Many of us cannot define our ethnicity that clearly in any case. Often ethnicity does not have a biological base (counting your father's father's father's genes? that's only half your family tree...)

And who decides if you are part of which group? Do you get to decide yourself, and what qualifies you to do so?

I tend to agree more with Heather (if I understand you correctly, Heather) that it is more important to be truthful. And you can only be truthful from your own, unique point of view - which is sometimes, looking at people who are different from you.

Something else that I worry about which touches on this debate, is on being inspired by stories from traditions other than my own. People are often accused of appropriating other cultures stories.

But as a creative person, how can you stop stories bleeding into your own?

Dana King said...

I grew up in a heavily ethnic area northeast of Pittsburgh, mostly Eastern European and Italian. Friends used to kid me about being the sole non-Italian in our musician's union local.

I loved it. I played in a band that rehearsed in the Italian-American Club, and used to hang out on breaks watching the old men play bocce and holler at each other.

In the Army I lived two years in an apartment complex where I was the only white guy. It was fun there, too, listening to different ways of expressing things, and how accents merged and diverged based on a number of factors.

The key is portray your characters with the respect they deserve as people. Will some of them have stereotypical characteristics? Sure, that's how they became stereotypes. That's different than portraying him as a stereotype.

True story: I was in an Army band that traveled a lot. We had a black trombone player in the band who broke everyone up one day by hurrying through the hotel lobby, saying for anyone in earshot, "Out of my way. I ain't had my chicken for today and I ain't gonna make it unless I gets some." He was a hell of a nice guy, and we were friends, and I don't feel bad about telling the story, or using it in a story of my own, because:

A. It's true.
B. This would be just one aspect of the character's personality.

Welshcake said...

I think this excellent talk by Chimamanda Adichie about the danger of a 'single story' is relevant here - it really is a great talk and well worth watching.


Keith Popely said...

Hi, Moonster,

Hope your holiday break was good and recharged you with plenty of energy. Personally, I'm still on vacay.

Great post. I love topics with actual substance and you are obviously a serious person who carefully considers subjects that affect people in a real way, which is what makes your writing worth reading. I hope we all aspire to the same.

I disagree with Matilda and The Rejectionist (no doubt at my own peril). Stereotypes are not fiction created by the Nazi party. Stereotypes are observations, developed over time and used for either good or evil. We must aggressively defend the notion that every person should be judged as an individual. However, each of us is also a member of a group (or several groups). Cultures are different. Thank God they're different. To deny that we are different - to deny that stereotypes exist - is to deny humanity. It is the intent of using a stereotype that matters. Yes, we should condemn pejorative use of a stereotype. But to say that we must never stereotype, that we must never dare to mention that a person is a member of a larger group is preposterous and offensive. Political correctness is censorship. Make no mistake.

The person we should fear, both as writers and as defenders of freedom, is the guy who stood up and suggested that Ed Lin is not allowed to characterize his mother as having ways of speaking, behaving and even thinking that are the result of her heritage. If Ed's mother had grown up in France, she would be a very different person. But she didn't. She has specific attributes that are the result of being Korean. Just because those attributes are shared by others does not make them any less legitimate. Contrary to PC paranoia, being part of a cultural group is part of being an individual. If you think your background has nothing to do with the individual you are now, you're lying to yourself. And that's pretty sad.

The fact that Ed's story was funny is the source of fear to the guy in the crowd and to those among us who would censor any language that could possibly be offensive. Did Ed denigrate or minimize his mother? No. The guy in the crowd is the one who is attempting to minimize and even marginalize Ed's mother by taking away her Korean character. Yes, she behaves in ways that are similar to other Korean mothers. But she is also Ed's mother. One of a kind. She is an individual.

People who would have us avoid any sort of stereotyping are fearful of the negative aspects of cultural generalization. But there are negatives and positives in every statement of description. You can't change those things by burying your head in the sand and pretending they don't exist or by simply not mentioning them. Negatives are part of the whole story.

Here's the thing: a true writer is not glossing over the ugly aspects of life and painting some pretty, idealized version of human life. You want to write real characters? Well, real people are racist, if not in the old white robes and burning crosses sense, then in the more casual sense of "I was just talking to the Asian guy who works at the market." And more to the point, we each exhibit characteristics of the people with whom we were raised and with whom we identify. Sorry to tell you, but even you, dear reader, are a stereotype. Even if you are totally opposite of everyone in your culture...guess what? That's a stereotype. (See: Eminem) Don't be ashamed of it. Examine it and ask what it means. But don't deny it. And don't you dare stand up in a crowd and try to censor a guy for describing his own mother as he sees her. If you don't like it, leave. And while you're at it, go ahead and fuck off.

TheFeministBreeder said...

Minefield is the operative word. I've found that as a proud feminist, I am greatly limited in the discussions I'm "allowed" to have on my blog about my own personal experiences before someone attacks me for it. My father is also Italian, my mother of Cherokee Indian decent, and I grew up homeless, poverty stricken, and the pure definition of hillbilly, "white" trash. But it seems that if I talk about that, certain groups accuse me of everything from denying "white" privilege to acting superior to other races because somehow it can be implied that I believe people with light skin should never "have" to be poor. I'm quite careful and respectful in my writing and speech, so I've come to the realization that most of this is projected rage that has nothing to do with me. I'm of the mindset that it's my history, my ancestry, and my blog, so I can talk about it however I need to to work through it all.

Does that answer your question?

Michael Grant said...

I think a lot of this sensitivity is an artifact left over from a decade or so ago when people weren't really thinking the matter through.

I don't believe there's Black or Asian writing. There may be writing about specific aspects of a racial identity, but writers are generally in the business of describing events that haven't occurred to them personally. Writing about people we aren't, who do things we don't, is kind of the whole job description, isn't it?

I'm a guy but I often write female POV characters. So why wouldn't I be able to write a black POV character? Am I supposed to be limited to white POV characters? Does a character have to have my identical half-Jew, half-gentile background? Must he be my age? My sexual orientation? Can he at least have more hair? Or am I only allowed to write about myself?

The concern is ridiculous. Shakespeare was never Veronese but managed the characters anyway.

Make the story work, everything else is beside the point.

Charles Gramlich said...

I became interested in Ethnic lit after starting to work at Xavier University in Louisiana, which is about 90 percent African American. Other than that, though, I'm most interested in fantasy and SF and horror, where there isn't much of what you'd call "ethnic" writing. I do think some folks are bit too thin skinned. Everyone could use a bit of being made fun of, I should think. None of us are immune.

Rebecca Knight said...

What a great, honest discussion! This is why this blog is awesome.

I tend to agree w/ Rick and Jane before me. There is a vast difference between mentioning a culture/group/race and being racist or derogative toward that group. I think while we are trying to rid America of racism, we've also become overly cautious in certain areas, which isn't helping.

Does anyone else remember that episode of 30 Rock where Jack asks Selma Hyak what to call her people? She says "Puerto Rican," and he's like "That doesn't sound right..." A lot of people are afraid to even name an ethnic group for fear of somehow accidentally coming off racist.

I think the main point is to be realistic and respectful :). I totally agree w/ the folks who said using perjorative stereotypes is never okay, but talking about the real people you know should be fine.

I am alabaster white but have Korean aunties, a Mexican uncle, and a variety of southern relatives with thick accents and recipes called "Texas trash." We should be able to honor people by talking about how they truly are--what mannerisms or traits make them special :).

Also, I secretly think that if everyone agreed to lighten up and "take the piss out" like a commenter said above, the world would be a much funnier, more relaxed place. I remember a Monty Python sketch where they made fun of Americans, and I laughed my ass off. Good times :).

Merry Monteleone said...


I think it's awesome that you think so intently about this and that you'd open up the discussion here.

My head's spinning from all of the comments and too many thoughts.

I agree with a lot of the comments here - I love stories about other cultures, I love stories about my own culture, and I wouldn't have had any problem with the accent thing - it would've struck me as voice, not making fun. I guess maybe I would find it offensive if another race was doing a stereotypical voice - but then still it depends on the intent - was it to tell a story or was it to get to a punch line at one group's expense?

Here, I have to add, my twelve year old daughter does about a dozen voices - none of them are geared to make fun of any race - they're all bits of one skit or another she's thought up. But I guess, if someone heard her doing her Italian accent they might look at the blond haired, blue-eyed girl and get annoyed, not realizing she's half Italian. Or if they heard her Mexican Darth Vader... they wouldn't realize it started in her Spanish class with a very low voiced recording the class had to repeat and from their she spun it into Darth Vader...

See, I think it comes back to intent, but you can't stop there, you have to try to look at how the audience / reader might take what you're saying. And honestly, when we hear a person of an ethnic background use a phrase common to that background, we hear it as voice. When we hear a person not of that background use the same phrase, it bothers us. We're waiting for them to be malicious, even when they're not trying to be.

Rachel Stark said...

Thanks for posting this fascinating thread!

I agree that a writer's ethnicity shouldn't put a limit on the truths (factual or emotional) they tell in their writing. Yes, stories can confirm stereotypes -- to those foolish enough to read one account and treat it as a universal rule, at least -- but I think that, far more often, they have the power to dispell them.

Sometimes stories of an ethnic background make us laugh, as in your example. Sometimes they make us cry. Sometimes they include experiences that are completely foreign to the white majority, but nonetheless I believe that every emotional reaction comes from a connection of some sort. And isn't that connection exactly what we need to forge if we're going to break down stereotypes?

Coming to see a whole person rather than a stereotype is not about seeing a carefully-selected set of good qualities: it's simply about seeing more or that person. That means every side of that person, from the funny bits of his life that conform to stereotypes to the totally unexpected and thought-provoking. So hiding moments like that from readers in the white majority might seem like a way to protect an ethnic group, but ultimately I think it does them a disservice. Because it's in being open and honest that we take it upon ourselves to prove that a stereotype is not enough to describe us.

Scheherazade said...

I remember being criticized in a writers' group for using the 'n' word. I was told to use "African American." Since my story was based in the 60s, I replied that no one knew what an African American was in that time period and that I preferred to be true to the language my characters would have used and understood.

I think we should feel comfortable in telling it like it is. Some of it is downright funny. So laugh. Some of it's ugly. It needs to be exposed.

On the other hand, no one should demean or misrepresent another group. The test is truth and fidelity to the characters who invite themselves into our storytelling.

Carrie said...

I am sick of the general cushioning we give to everyone that isn't white or male, and even then. I just wrote a period-specific story set in WWII and used the word 'retard'. Yes, mentally-deficient people were called that back then. Blacks were called certain things, as well as Japanese. We simply cannot erase history.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Well, since I write SFF....

I'd say we should be able to laugh at our cultural differences and problems, instead of taking offense. I joke about my friend's many crushes--but only because she knows I'm joking, not mocking. The difference has to be clear.

You can do that in literature by making your characters human--real. Great literature does that. Shakespeare is pretty antisemetic to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice--but Shylock has one of the most beautiful and moving monologues Shakespeare ever wrote. He is as much a man as any other, whatever his race.

Sometimes I think I shy away from anything to do with cultures or races, because I'm afraid of getting a reaction like that crowd's. Frankly, I sometimes think WASPs are stereotyped as stereotypers. Which makes me even more jumpy.

Countries are shaped by, and often have scars from, their past. In the US, we weren't directly affected by Communism, the Holocaust, and genocides. We were affected by racism. We can't forget it, just like Russia can't forget the USSR and Germany can't forget the Nazis and Rwanda can't forget the genocide. Racism hurt us, all of us. We're revoering/recovered, but it's still a painful memory. In many ways, I think it's still too personal to be objective on.

Ellen said...

This poses some pertinent questions for me, since I'm in the process of working on a novel with two narrators, one of whom is of mixed-race descent and also has an unusual accent (it's set over 300 years in the future, so I was trying to play with how two isolated groups of humans' dialects would evolve separately in that time period).
It took me the longest time to start writing this novel, even though I fell in love with the idea the moment I thought of it. I was worried (still worry, honestly) that because I'm white, people are going to take offense at my writing a non-white character, even though race is not a central part of the novel or discussed by the characters, it's just part of the background.
But I also felt that if I didn't push myself as a writer, I would not continue to improve. When I finally started to write this novel, and really flesh out my characters, I fell in love with all of them. I don't think I'd be staying true to the characters as I envisioned them or to the story I want to tell if I white-washed the whole novel just because I'm white. So I'm writing it the way I feel is truest.
And yet, obviously I've not totally worked through my issues, because I am still almost leery to post a comment here about this. Seriously, hovering over the post button right now. It's interesting the kinds of emotions discussions like this can call up in you...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've learned as a reader that I don't like ethnic-centered stories (ie, african-american, etc.) Not because I'm white (I am) but because so many issues cloud the story, like dialect and culture. I prefer STORY over all else, and I prefer all ethnicity or other characteristics to remain in the "taste" range, rather than the "swallow".

I have a couple of black characters in my novel now, and the MC is Mexican. I never ID them, but sometimes their descriptions allude to their color or ethnicity. I like seeing readers' reactions to that without my saying it outright. Sometimes they pick up on it and sometimes they don't, but their ethnicity is not pivotal to the story, just how I personally envision them.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Oh my. What a can of worms. Has the pendulum swung too far in the PC direction these days? In some respects - yes. Why is it OK for a person to make fun of their own race/heritage, but not of another's? Or why isn't it OK to make fun of your own?

If I do not know the race/heritage of the author, would I view the writing differently?

A friend of mine shopped a screenplay about his white trash family. He was told to change the characters to African American and it would sell. He did. And it did. Why did the race change make it more marketable? Are we more willing to laugh at trashy African Americans than trashy whites?

If the world were suddenly struck color blind, would that make a difference or are the socio-economic gaps still too prevalent?

My mind is racing, Moonie, and I have no answers.

catdownunder said...

"You're not Koori (or Nunga) so don't write about us. You don't know." This is what non-indigenous Australians will be told by indigenous Australians. Publishers tend to be very wary of what they publish as well. There is a very strong element of political correctness. At the same time they want "Australiana".

Gemma Noon said...

The Rejectionist said:
There is no universe in existence in which it is appropriate for white people to deploy stereotypes about people of color, well-intentioned or otherwise.

Um. I sortof see the point you were making here, but don't you think that is basically impossible? Or are you saying I should avoid putting in any characters who aren't of my own racial background in case someone thinks I am stereotyping? I mean, if I paint my character in a positive light, I could be accused of well intentioned stereotyping...

And why does it particularly apply to white people talking about people of other races? Is it less offensive for Chinese to mock African? How about inter-white racism? Because Italians, Slavic, Jews and Gypsies all fall under "Caucasian" but are different races. Is it okay to stereotype them? What about if you are the same race, but a different nationality?

Maybe I'm wrong, but if I shy away from using characters whose ethnic background is different from my own for no other reason than a fear of being accused of stereotyping, wouldn't that make me racist?

The Rejectionist said...

Well, we have no idea what people mean when they use the term "politically correct," and it seems like most of the time those folks have no idea what it means either. The "PC Censor" conversation-killer bomb gets dropped in situations as diverse (no pun intended) as "I am so displeased, as a white man, that in this politically correct era I am no longer able to grope the breasts of my female employees whilst shouting the n-word," to "I am so displeased that the President is no longer Republican and I feel I cannot express this opinion in a public forum without censure." "Political correctness" is not a particularly useful framework for conversations about race and identity, since it seems to get used most often to shut people up or castigate them for asking for respectful treatment.

It's also pretty interesting that a subtext of this conversation seems to be (mostly) white people talking about what it is and is not racist and what stories it is and is not okay for people of color to tell about themselves, which is problematic at best, considering we're not the folks affected and maybe shouldn't be setting the terms of the dialogue. There are lots and lots and lots of awesome blogs by writers of color on this very topic, and on what it means for white folks to write characters who aren't white. Check out Color Online and White Readers Meet Black Authors for starters.

And now, off to destroy Keith's career. Heh heh. JOKING, KEITH, JOKING.

gentlewomanthief said...

What a wonderfully thought-provoking post - well, it's provoked my first comment after reading your blog for a long while now...

Safe to say, this is a difficult one to answer - it's something I've been wrestling with myself ... My WIP (fantasy) is set in a city that is home to many different cultures and races. I wanted to write fantasy that was not white-washed but also that was not about race.

I also had a personal agenda - I'm half Turkish Cypriot, but my upbringing was a lot more British than Turkish and I feel a little out of touch with that side of me, so I've set the story in a fantasy version of historical Istanbul/Constantinople. It's a great excuse to research and connect with the culture and ask questions of my relatives (and eat plenty of baklava!).

When I write about my characters I think of them as characters, as people, as individuals. I don't think about them as (fantasy-world version of) 'Asian' or 'black' or whatever. I suppose I am in the fortunate position of being able to create the cultures and therefore break the stereotypes. However, I do try not to describe characters in stereotypical racial terms - both those thought of as offensively racist and those that are simply trite and perhaps carry an implicit judgement/prejudice (the 'chocolate' colour of her skin, for instance).

As writers we should be trying to avoid trite and stereotypical anyway. We should be breaking moulds, creating and re-creating.

When writing about someone from somewhere else (be that geographically or in terms of their background) I usually have an idea of what the core of their personality is (which has nothing to do with their background) and then I research and research and research about that background. What fits with them and what doesn't - what would they be like and what wouldn't they be like.

For instance - in the UK it mght be considered stereotypical for a black person to talk in a certain way. But that doesn't mean that just because I happen to be writing about a black British person they should automatically talk in that way. I would consider what they were like and their history - I would piece them together rather than being lazy about it - and use that to work out how they should speak. I wouldn't say "oh, he's black so he should talk like this".

Perhaps there's a good reason for them to talk with that particular accent (living up to an older sibling, say, or trying to fit in to avoid bullying, etc), in which case I would shy away from other aspects of stereotypical behaviour or stereotypical attributes.

I suppose what I am trying to say in my round about way is that no real people are stereotypes. They might have certain features of a stereotype, but for every one stereotypical feature they have, I bet they have ten more unique attributes.

Stereotypes do come from truth, yes, but they come from an amalgamation of a few aspects from many different people who were always more than just those stereotyped attributes.

Bernard S. Jansen said...

Forget ethicity: the question is simply, "What's OK to say?"

A writer's standard about what is okay belongs to the writer. It can be informed by a variety of sources, but must never be dictated to. That is censorship.

What is the goal of this standard? To not cause offence? Deliberately causing offence is easy, but avoiding it impossible. Not hard: impossible. You don't need race, ethnicity or gender to do it. I recently offended a reader with a flash fiction piece about a coal miner working a shift roster who lost touch with his family, such that his wife left him. The offence? He thought I was judging shift workers.

If you find you've caused offence, you need to take another look at yourself, what you wrote and how the offence was caused. Sometimes you may decide to change your standard. Sometimes you need to shrug and say, "Get a life."

PS: Minefield topics are a great way to generate a lot of comments to a post.

Keith Popely said...

Beloved Rejectionist, I have a mad crush on you.

Laura said...

I have a couple thoughts sparked by your entry.

First, I love ethnic writing and literature -- I love to learn about other cultures and ideas, other ways of life and experiences, and what better way to learn those things than through reading? If someone doesn't share them, then how can I know?

Second, people talk about "exploitation" and "accidental racism/sexism/whatever-sim." One, if someone is making the conscious decision to share their experiences and stories, I don't think it's necessarily exploitative. It's part of that impulse to share that's always been part of the human condition. Two, are "accidental -isms" really possible?

What I mean by that is when person A tells a story that person B construes as racially/sexually stereotypical or offensive, but person A didn't intend it that way and in fact has great respect for said race/gender, then is it person A's responsibility to explain themselves to person B, or should they just say, "Well, win some, lose some."

Of course, if an author is alienating everyone with their ethnic writing & storytelling style, they may want to rethink their approach.

My final thought is related to a discussion on race and ethnicity we had once in a Political Issues class. The class discussed how ethnicity could cross racial boundaries, and how a person could identify as multiple races and ethnicities. Added into the discussion was how our various religious upbringings create entire new group dynamics that once again set us apart -- a first-generation Italian-American raised Catholic has an entirely different experience than a second-generation Italian-American raised LDS, for instance.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I've thought about this a lot because I'm white but grew up in Hong Kong and just moved back to America after eight years in Mainland China. One of the characters in my first book (set in Hong Kong) was Chinese with poor English. The whole time I was writing her I was worried. Was I being racist? Also, she had a lot of personality flaws. For one, she was a pathological liar. I worried I'd come across as racist for that, too. I think it would've been easier on my conscience if I actually looked like I feel on the inside -- Chinese.

Thankfully the book was never published so I didn't have to endure any public criticism. But there may be another Hong Kong book in my future, and I'm not sure how I'll handle these issues when I write it.

Thanks for the great post, Moonrat! Very thought-provoking.

Gordon Jerome said...

Geez, now that you mention it, I totally used the ethnicity of people from south Louisiana in my short story "The Ghost of Atchafalaya Swamp. Yep, pretty much so every possible stereotype. But it’s okay for me, because I really don’t care. You have to care, you see, in order for these ethnicity issues to really cause you a dilemma. I mean the first time you hear one toothless loser call another toothless loser white trash from across the trailer park, you realize you might as well sink into it.


Look, the way I see it, my wife and I came here from Colorado, and before that, Southern California. Now, I talk like I’m from the sticks. Their accent has infected me. I’ve been linguistically raped. I figure I deserve a little payback.

JS said...

The thing about fiction is that it is not the same as truth.

Fiction has to make sense where truth doesn't. One of the ways humans make sense of the world is through stereotypes. Thus, when people are writing fiction, they have to be extra careful about stereotypes.

In my WASPy/Irish-American middle-class family, there are a lot of people who are emotionally repressed drunks. This is true. There are also sober people who are warm and generous and kind. And there are people who drink responsibly who are warm and generous and kind.

The thing is that, in my family, there are lots of people, so I don't see my Uncle D. as somehow emblematic of "the way WASPs are."

In a book, though, if you have only one WASP character and you make him an emotionally repressed drunk, you're reinforcing a stereotype, which is lazy. If the one Irishman is a brawler and the one Scotsman is parsimonious and the one Armenian is clannish, it's just Stereotypes On Parade.

Is this fair? Fiction isn't fair. You can't use the same number of coincidences in your fiction as happen in real life, either.

Merry Monteleone said...

Okay, I just have to say something because I think some of the people using the acronym don't actually understand its meaning:

WASP means White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It refers to people of a higher social and economic status of British decent. It explicitly does not refer to any other white european. Being of light skin tone does not make one WASP, and personally I shouldn't think it would make anyone want to claim snobbery but maybe that's just me.

The phrase is meant to distinguish between classes. I think people have come to use it generally for anyone who happens to be of european decent with light skin, but it's intention was to set those of us of Irish, Italian, Scottish, German, and any and all working class, even those who happened to be white and protestant, beneath those who were of a certain social status.

And, as long as we're on the subject here, prejudice doesn't only permeate racial and ethnic discussions - socio-economic bigotry is still very much in vogue, though there's not nearly as much discussion about it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Oops... sorry, I keep using the word, "decent" in place of "descent" and they're decidedly different.

Say that three times fast :-)

Anita said...

I think It's OK as long as it's either your personal experience or something you've researched very well.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Some of it is the relationship you have. For example:

I go to college in [Centerville], not the college in my hometown of [Edgetown]. The colleges are big-time rivals, but I went to Centerville for academics, not teams.

I bought a shirt in Centerville that reads, "Edgetown--keeping UGLY girls out of Centerville since 1869." I heard the store that sold it got some complaints from a feminist because it classified girls by looks.

I, on the other hand, love it and wear it in Edgetown. My friends know me and why I chose Centerville, and we all think it's hilarious (it also helps that I'm a girl).

In sum, I think it's knowing the person as a person that makes the joke possible. The same goes for characters. The character has to be more person than stereotype. It's the one-dimensional characters who should really be offensive.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I don't know, but it seems racist to me to say only white people know how white people feel, act, etc. and the same is true of all other races.

I think we're people first and cultural roots can be mixed up with other races. For instance - I'm as white as they come. I can blind people with my bare legs. From ages 2 to 7, I lived in an inner city neighborhood and went to a mostly african american school.

After I moved to the south, I had people marvel at how well I got along with african americans and how I talked differently than when I talked to those white southerners. It was not a conscious decision on my part, but rather a reflection of my chameleon leanings and my cultural heritage. We spoke a same language and I'm not talking dialect.

This, of course, does not include my years as a Christian in a Jewish neighborhood or the amount of British TV I watched.

Personally, I think the emotional core is what matters. If a writer can tap the emotional core of a character, then they should write that character however seems to fit. Some characters are meant to be mean, nasty, stereotypical, etc. Someone else said it first, but I agree that the characters need to be more then 1D. Would a book even get published with 1D characters?

Katherine said...

What a great topic, Moonrat. Thank you, and thank-yous to all the comments too.

I understand that "ethnic" writing is a sort of publishing category, but I want to take a step back here and point out that ALL writing is ethnically informed. Let's face it, "non-ethnic" tends to mean "white", and not just a generic white, but a WASP white.

I have a Croatian father who looked vaguely Middle Eastern, a white Dutch mother, and I grew up in a small town sufficiently racist and homogenous that kids at school told me my dad was a "wop" (sorry if that's a hot-button word for anyone). We were called "the foreigners" for the entire ten years we lived there.

My parents only taught me English because they didn't want me to get behind at school, but I always feel like I'm reading "foreign" literature -- even after getting my English lit degree. My favourite authors tend to be British, Irish, and French (thanks to the Canadian school system I can read French well enough to get through Camus and Saint-Exupery). A typical evening in my childhood meant a supper of sauerkraut and sausages followed by some time spent reading Agatha Christie or Charles Dickens.

So, which ethnicities am I allowed to write about without fear of accusations?

As far as I'm concerned, anything I bloody well want to so long as I don't do a bad job of it. As many previous commenters have pointed out, one's DNA and one's cultural upbringing and worldview can be poles apart. Really it all boils down to "write what you know."

moonrat said...

I'm reading all these comments, guys, fyi. I'm not weighing in again because I figure I've already said my piece. But it's very interesting to see everything else that comes out.

dellamarinis said...

Thank you for your interesting post - you've raised a good question and I also feel it's a tricky argument. As an American of Italian ethnicity, I know that Italian immigrants to the U.S. were also once the object of disrespectful stereotypes - and they may still be if you consider their disproportionate association with the mafia in Hollywood films. It's an unfortunate aspect of this argument that it seems more acceptable to stereotype an advantaged group - or one that has become so - rather than a disadvantaged one. And even if we agree that all negative stereotypes are wrong, how do we distinguish the merit of a true story from an unbecoming cliche? I think it's all a fine line and involves intention (the road to hell aside :-) and interpretation because there are just too many stereotypes in this world, negative and positive, that we are bound to trip over. Maybe if we just stay conscious of these pitfalls as both readers and writers, we can rise above them.

Gary Corby said...

How is anyone going to learn about different cultures and races if everyone's too scared to write?

Catdownunder, Peter Temple in The Broken Shore writes a murder mystery set in a small Australian town, including the Koori experience, and IMHO his depiction is exactly right. Highly recommended.

Emily Cross said...

ilyakogan wrote: "I remember telling an Irish joke in a private house in London suburbia... I got laughs but was told not to tell it in a wider company."

I'd love to know what the joke was ;P

Re:sign, - thats in our history books alot. We weren't the most liked people in America (or other places) for a long time. Heres another picture thats in history books too.


JS said...

WASP means White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

I am assuming that this was directed at me, because I'm the only person who used "WASP" in the comments?

If so, please note that when I describe my family as WASP/Irish-American I mean to indicate that it is, on both of my parents' sides, a mixture of WASP (Mayflower, actually) and Irish-American ancestry.

My Uncle D, (actually a great-uncle) is 100% WASP. But thanks, Merry Monteleone, for lecturing me on how to describe my own heritage.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

The thing about minefields is, if you stop to think you're only torturing yourself. Run baby run. We are what we are. If I shout black bastard in an empty room I'm not racist. I'm lonely, but I'm not racist until someone judges me to be. If we care about/notice stereotypes, isn't that a stereotype?

We're better than this. Tell the truth, write the truth. We've all been angry and hurt and said and done things we can't change. I'm sorry.

We feed the beast. We're feeding it now.

Merry Monteleone said...


I apologize if my comment upset you. This wasn't the only board/blog I've read on a similiar subject matter in the last few months (though obviously, I should have made it clear that the comment was directed at a wider audience than those who had commented here).

The point of the comment wasn't even entirely about the meaning of the term 'WASP', it was this:

prejudice doesn't only permeate racial and ethnic discussions - socio-economic bigotry is still very much in vogue, though there's not nearly as much discussion about it.

It wasn't intended to irritate you or anyone. It was intended to promote discussion that extends beyond racial/ethnic issues. The truth I see is that every class, ethnicity, race, religion, and political variation has felt maligned at some point by some group. Saying some forms are okay while others aren't acceptable only serves to widen gaps.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Dunno. I have a looser interpretation when I say I'm a WASP. White, check. Protestant, check. Anglo-Saxon, ish. I've got more German in me than anyone else, but my ancestors are backwoods farmers several generations back, and Europe is far enough in the past it doesn't matter to me whether my blond, barbaric ancestors were on an island or not.

After a while, who your ancestors might have been doesn't matter nearly as much. You are an American, and that doesn't hinge on ethnicity.

Anthrophile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthrophile said...

I don't mean to be obtuse, but why would it be crass to have an interest in "where you came from"? I am a black American -- such stories were forcibly taken from us: languages, cultures, religions. As someone who’s had huge chunks of my ancestry completely lost to me (on a more personal level, my mother was adopted) it seems to me to be manifestly appropriate to seek out one's history.

That said, I do believe that whether or not you have the "right" to say something does indeed often depend on who you are. One can tease one's own baby brother, so to speak. But you defend him from outsiders. It's a question of... hierarchy? There are things that can be said between members of a group that are obviously not intended to set one person above the other. Between different groups, however, it can more often (not always) be far more hostile, even if unintended.

(sorry! I had some computer failure, in there...)

moonrat said...

Anthrophile--sorry, I was just being sarcastic. I lived in England for a while and most international (esp British) friends I've met have been very sarcastic themselves about the American penchant for getting back to origins. From their perspective, I guess I get it--say you're Irish and a noisy American family 6 generations removed overruns your village claiming to be related. But from our (American) personal growth perspective, I definitely don't think it's not a legitimate quest, for the reasons you site and even more.

Anthrophile said...

@ moonrat -- I see. Sorry! (I'm new. :-D)

And I can see some overlap too; there can be a bit of presumptuousness in us Americans of [insert *whatever* ethnicity here] descent when we think that we know or understand more about the places we came from than we actually do. I've definitely heard much the same sarcasm from sub-Saharan Africans about African Americans.

It's always a risk, isn't it? Trying to achieve understanding between people... But we shouldn't let it stop us. (To that end, I'm quite happy to have found your blog.)

moonrat said...

well welcome :)

Emily Cross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily Cross said...

Anthrophile - As a 'non-american' (as Moonie has said) i've found myself and others wonder about why American's trace their ancestry so intently.

I mean, If i'm born and raised in Ireland = Irish, right? and If you're born and raised in U.S. then = American (not half irish, half etc.)

Anyhoo I think you make an excellent point (which is enlightening), that we all seek out our own history and identity, and often this involves looking at our ancestral roots. I think that this is often forgetten because we're so snug in our own nationality and is important to bear in mind

If that makes sense?

_*Rachel*_ said...

Perhaps it's that the overwhelming majority of Americans CAN trace their ancestry to another place. I can say my family's been in the area for several generations, but before that? My ancestors dug up their roots and shipped themselves to a new continent, and there's something fascinating about that. And I can trace it, too, if I put in the time and effort.

Because America is a nation of immigrants, we've got in a way one of the most diverse country on Earth. Other countries have varieties of ethnic groups, too, but our varieties come from the whole globe, even if we've drawn more from Europe than anywhere else. Expatriates can't forget their homelands, and most Americans are expatriates, if several times removed.

karismeansgrace said...

You know how I feel about this :) My fear of being niched as an AsAm writer is out of control.

The interesting question here is if I'm allowed to write a race I'm NOT. I remember in the first novel I was attempting, I wanted to make my main character Latino. Then I realized that just would never work. I didn't feel comfortable. Recently, for a workshop, I wrote a short piece from the perspective of a minor character in my novel, who happens to be African-American. I read it aloud in class, but I felt almost TOO aware that there were two African American girls in the class, and while I don't think I pulled anything stereotypical, I worried I might have inadvertently done so. The thing is, if you aren't intimately familiar with another race/ethnicity or at least done your research, it's probably easiest to fall back upon what you DO know, which often can be stereotypical, even if it wasn't meant maliciously. You know? So, yeah, writing other ethnic characters gives me pause.

But ARGH I hate it! I don't want things to HAVE to be about ethnicity. Rawr.

I'm having trouble logging into my blogger account, fyi.

-marytza- said...

This is a great topic, I am joining the party a little late but loved reading the comments.

I'm a writer of Mexican descent. I write fiction about Latina women and culture because that is what grows in my head. I also write really bad sci-fi. But even then, my characters tend to be Latino and in situations that are familiar and specific to Latino culture: Day of the Dead, brujos, game shows with supersexy ladies...it isn't intentional. I just don't know how to think any differently.

For me, it is more effective to get naked when writing rather than put on costumes.

Maria said...

For me, writing or reading about ethnic situations is enlightening and I especially love the funny, personal stuff. Is it racist? Not usually. I think sharing stories breaks down walls. If the story makes fun of a family situation in good fun, I can heavily relate. Because we ALL understand the dynamics of "family" whether the frustration, event or circumstance is found in a specific culture/race or not.

It is not racist to tell stories about who we are. Nor is it racist to laugh at ourselves. Telling family stories is often laughing at ourselves--and it's sharing who we are with others.

Any story can be misused or misguided, but I doubt the situation you describe was anything more than sharing a funny, heartwarming episode.

susiej said...

Wow. This is fascinating and so timely for me. I'm working on a novel that has all races of women (its set in a prison) and I had never thought about whether I should or had the right to portray people of other races than mine own. I just created the characters the way I create all characters- based on people I have known, little bits of all my 44 years of of living in this world and the things i've observed about people.

In fact, that's actually a big part of the novel- a sheltered white woman learning to open her eyes to the world all around her by being thrown so far out of her comfort zone.

atsiko said...

I write mostly fantasy and sci-fi, and a question I have often had trouble with involves specifically “racial” issues. As in, skin color, not ethnicity. It’s a made-up world, the ethnicities are going to be different. I had an early novel I wrote, and the MC was black. Not African-American, not African. They just had dark skin. And I got several comments saying as a white (English, German, Scothc-Irish) writer, I didn’t have the right to write a black character, or that I shouldn’t, or, more toubling, that I was getting things wrong, or stereotyping, or that they character came across as too “white.” So, I’ve observed that the issues change depending on the kind of fiction you write. Most of the discussion here seems to deal with “realistic” fiction, and the RaceFail in 09 dealt with more cultural appropriation in future societies descended from Earth. The fact that a fantasy world with vastly different history from Earth’s is still compared to Earth norms in terms of the cultures associated with various skin colors is telling, I think, of the fact that people on both sides of the issue of race in fiction are a little bit over-sensitive.

I am not trying to downplay the significance of this issue--although I disagree with The Rejectionists statement that “whites” can never take the same opportunities as racial and ethnic minorities. This is a very significant issue. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.