From A to Z: Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

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Last month, I attended the Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop, put on by Madcap Retreats, founded by author Natalie C. Parker (ed. THREE SIDES OF A HEART). I primarily write #ownvoices point-of-view characters, but I want to include organic diversity in my casts. It’s important to me to write fair representation, so I knew this workshop would be beneficial. Plus, I always enjoy hanging out with writers and authors.

The workshop took place March 9–12, 2017 in the Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee. We stayed in a beautiful lodge that was never warm enough for me! There were hot tubs, fireplaces, and yummy food every day. I got to meet some amazing writers, eat lots of chocolate, and learn so much.

We started every day with breakfast at 8 a.m., then had instruction until noon, when we broke for lunch. Then more instruction and breakout sessions until around 3:30 p.m. There was a break until dinner, and then a panel after dinner. Long days, chock full of great information.

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(via Madcap Retreats)

The big speakers were Daniel José Older (SHADOWSHAPER), Nicola Yoon (EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR), and Leigh Bardugo (SIX OF CROWS, CROOKED KINGDOM), but lots of wisdom was also dropped by Dhonielle Clayton (TINY PRETY THINGS, THE BELLES), Heidi Heilig (THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE, THE SHIP BEYOND TIME), Justina Ireland (PROMISE OF SHADOWS), Julie Murphy (DUMPLIN’, RAMONA BLUE), Adi Alsaid (LET’S GET LOST, NEVER ALWAYS, SOMETIMES), and Tessa Gratton (THE CURIOSITIES).

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(via Madcap Retreats)

There was a LOT of information presented at this workshop, so for the sake of brevity, I’m only going to focus on the things that spoke to me the most.

“Writing is personal, and personal is political.”

As writers, we have a great deal of power. We can lift up, or we can destroy. A carelessly placed word in a book could set off deadly ripples for generations. But the perfect sentence can give someone the strength to try another day.

As a writer for teens, I want to lift up. I want my readers to feel valued and like they matter. So the main takeaway I got from the workshop was that to write well cross-culturally, having empathy is KEY. If you are empathetic to the people you’re writing about, you’re naturally going to want to represent them fairly and with care. You will see these characters as 3D people, not as stereotypes or caricatures.

Writing cross-culturally does not mean simply race or ethnicity. It’s all identity markers, including but not limited to:

  • race
  • sexual identity
  • disabilities
  • religion
  • ethnicity

All of these are deeply personal markers, but also highly political. For some of us, our very existence is political. We are all programmed with unconscious stereotypes, and that carries over to our writing. So, how do we fight this?

In publishing, media, and movies, some groups are only allowed a single story. I’ve touched on this before. That story becomes the narrative for everyone in that group. Black stories are only allowed to be urban or Civil Rights or slavery. LGBT+ stories are all coming out narratives, just to name a couple. This single narrative creates stereotypes. Now, the stereotypes may not be untrue, but they are always incomplete. It robs people of their dignity.

Danger of a Single Story TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie (3:48) (entire talk)

So, how does one write cross-culturally with sensitivity and with care? How does one avoid writing this same narrative, this dangerous single story?

  1. Read widely. Check out books and writers outside of your comfort zone. Look at what came before and how it was received and criticized. Google stereotypes and work to deconstruct them. Learn your tropes, and keep them in mind as you write. TV Tropes is an amazing resource, but be forewarned—you can easily get lost in a weeks-long rabbit hole there!
  2. Write with empathy. See the characters as individuals. Be specific and intentional in creating these characters. Go deeper than appearance, the foods they eat, the clothing they wear. What is in their heart? What makes them vulnerable? Then, write for the entire audience, not just those who share your viewpoint.
  3. Get some diverse friends! Learn about them as individuals, not as one-dimensional figures to serve as plot fodder.
  4. Checks and balances. Get a reader outside your cultural lens. Get a reader from the group you’re writing about. If the cost is prohibitive, consider trade or another service. This is hard, heartbreaking work, and the readers deserve compensation. If you do make mistakes (and we all do and will), it’s OK. Accept it. Listen to feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, revise!

OK, this is a lot of work, right? Becoming aware of these stereotypes and actively working to fight them is a LOT. So why would anyone decide to take this on, if they simply want to tell stories? The answer is that writers tell truth, and the truth is that we live in a diverse world. And if you’re willing to study things like plot, structure, and pacing, why not study this important and essential part of characterization?

Finally, if you are writing cross-culturally, please be mindful of your privilege and whose spot you may be taking. Many authors of certain marginalizations are still being told “We already have our [insert marginalization here] book for the year, so we’re going to pass on yours.” And that spot is usually taken by someone from a dominant group. Ask yourself, always ask yourself, is this your story to tell? Are you willing to do the work to deconstruct stereotypes and avoid presenting people as one-note? Are you willing to focus on the smaller things, building a character from that soft place inside? Are you willing to be empathetic? If so, then you’re 90% of the way there.

The right book can create empathy, understanding, and possibility. The right book can change the world, or the world of one person. The right book can save lives.

Look at all these people who want to change the world.

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(via Madcap Retreats)


This post is brought to you by Ronni Davis at ChiYAwriters.com.

 

Inspiration Station: On Sculpture and Writing and Having Conversations

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

Some say it resembles a human skull; others say it’s a mushroom cloud. To me, Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture suggests the possible.

moore_nuclearenergyUnveiled at 3:36 p.m. on December 2, 1967, Moore’s sculpture commemorates the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction initiated on Dec 2nd, 1942, at, you guessed it, 3:36 p.m. It seems strange, perhaps even beyond the pale, to mark a moment that eventually led to so much death and destruction. But I’m one for remembering. For knowing the past so that we don’t replicate it, so we can learn from it. I never saw this sculpture as a celebration—indeed it’s not a beautiful work of art in a “traditional” sense, but it is conversational—as, I believe, Moore intended it and as I take it.

Perhaps more than any other physical thing, sculpture to me is most like writing. The artist or the writer begins with an idea, an intention and molds and crafts her medium to fit that concept, tell that story. But once that piece is in the world, it’s for the observer or reader to continue that conversation.

Nuclear Energy engages the viewer. It invites you in and through. This 12 feet x 8 feet weighty chunk of bronze, is solid and yet somehow airy. There are moments when it seems it can take off, unshackle itself from gravity. Smooth, worn, rough, it both blocks the light and lets it pass. Like Enrico Fermi and the other physicists of the Manhattan Project, this sculpture has and can keep secrets.

Often I’ve seen students huddled in the sculpture’s niches, rapt in conversation. Once I saw a Nobel Prize winning physicist sitting back in one of the recesses, eyes closed, head tilted back, face utterly peaceful. I’d like to to think he was solving some of life’s great mysteries, but perhaps he was merely thinking about his lunch. I’ve sat in that sculpture myself, many times—searching for shade, a place to rest, or a moment to think in a quiet hollow. This sculpture calls to the passerby to engage; it invites you in.

At some point, Moore must have thought his sculpture was done, that it was ready to be made public, to be seen, to be known. As I come closer to my publication date, I think a lot about what it really means for a writer to be finished with a book—the time between first draft and final pass pages, where the moments to make changes in the story narrow until they are gone. But that book is just beginning to breathe and be a part of a conversation. That book is on a new journey—true, it can’t really be changed, but it can still evolve.

Moore’s sculpture changes with the viewpoint the observer brings, with the sun and shadow and clouds. What a wonderful metaphor for writing—for holding on and letting go. For moving from a writer’s soliloquy to the wide and varied chorus of readers who honor the writer by engaging with their words, who carry on the conversation.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

From A to Z: Who are you, anyway?

From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

question markI recently submitted an application for a volunteer position that included a prompt for a brief personal essay: Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been thinking about that prompt in the context of writing fiction, since I’m transitioning from a manuscript whose characters I’ve gotten to know over six years to a brand new world with characters I’m still feeling out. I’d really love for them to tell me more about themselves.

When a reader comes to a story and meets new characters, it’s with this same question. But readers aren’t afraid to pry—in fact they’re expecting to—so the real question they’re asking is much deeper: Who are you, anyway?

In my opinion, this question must be answered on at least three levels. Today I’m going to walk through what those levels are, how to touch on them in your own writing, and how they interact with one another.

1. We are who people perceive us to be.

In middle and high school, this reality seems inescapable. Even after that, most of us remain conscious of it for the rest of our lives.

This is the most basic way to answer the Who are you? question: it includes age, race, cohesion to gender norms, and perceived sexuality. It includes the way we dress, the color of our hair, our posture and mannerisms and accents, the names we were given and the names we choose to use.

We might not like it, but humans are creatures of habit and prone to snap judgments: Who we are on the surface will always color the way we’re able to navigate the world. This reality should impact our characters too. That’s why you can’t only tell me that a character is, for example, an immigrant: in order to believe it, I need to see how that surface-level detail impacts other aspects of their lives.

Which brings us to:

2. We are the person inside our own heads.

The image we project on the outside matters, but so do the conversations that happen in the privacy of our own brains. These conversations are directly impacted by how others perceive us, but they also include all those moments of self-doubt, of pride, of desire, of superiority, of cruelty, and of regret that we might never share with other people but that are nevertheless part of our identity.

This comes through especially clearly for characters in first-person or close third, but it should be felt in any perspective. Who we are in our heads informs the things we choose to talk about and how we talk about them. It informs the options we think we have available to us and our perceptions of right and wrong.

The people we are in our heads are often the most interesting, and these quirky, specific things are what bring characters most to life—but to be fully realized you have to be honest about them, including times when your characters’ values and beliefs come into conflict.

In the privacy of our heads, we tell ourselves secrets. When we’re writing a story, we’re letting our characters share those secrets with strangers.

And in sharing those secrets, we realize that…

3. We are the choices we make, given the constraints we’re handed.

We all have constraints. Some constraints hang out for everyone to notice (see point 1), while others live below the surface but are still very real, including trauma, mood disorders, and emotional baggage. Other constraints might include income, geography, and the expectations of the communities you’re part of. In a story, a character’s constraints will also include the overarching plot.

What we believe influences what we do, though it doesn’t control it. A character might believe himself to be brave, but that won’t stop him from committing a hit-and-run. A character might believe herself weak, but that doesn’t preclude her from jumping into a lake to save a drowning child. Individuals who seemingly face the same set of constraints may react differently given their personalities, experiences, and other constraints we may not see or fully understand.

It’s easy to write characters who do stuff, but that’s not actually why readers are coming to your story. More often than not, they’re picking up your story because they want to see characters make tough choices (and subsequently do stuff). Your plot should seem to grow out of these choices, rather than the other way around.

The more clearly you’ve drawn your characters’ internal life, the easier it will be for you to understand the choices they would make (beyond what the plot might want to dictate). This will also make it easier for a reader to understand and believe a character’s choices, even if they disagree with them.

When you ignore one or more of these levels of identity, you create flat characters.

You won’t capture everything in the first draft, or even in the second. Think about how much learning you’re still doing about yourself, and you’re inside your own head 24/7!

Give yourself permission to write flat characters as you come to understand who they are. But also push yourself to ask how each aspect of their identity informs the others. How do their beliefs contradict or facilitate their actions? How do their actions cause others to change their opinions about them? How do the opinions of others influence their self identity and their future choices?

The interactions between how others react to us, what we tell ourselves, and what we choose to do in a given situation are what make us fully human. They’re what make us fascinating and contradictory and frustrating and heroic and unique.

So. With that in mind, let’s go craft some characters and find out who they are, anyway.

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This post is brought to you by Anna Waggener at ChiYAwriters.com.

Chicago Reads: #FAMOUS

About #famous:

Debut author Jilly Gagnon bursts onto the scene with a story equal parts bite and romance, perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Jennifer E. Smith, about falling for someone in front of everyone. 25116429

In this modern-day love story: Girl likes boy. Girl snaps photo and posts it online. Boy becomes insta-famous. And what starts out as an innocent photo turns into a whirlwind adventure that forces them both to question whether fame—and love—are worth the price . . . and changes both of their lives forever.

Told from alternating points of view, #famous captures the sometimes-crazy thrill ride of social media and the equally messy but wonderful moments of liking someone in real life.

On February 24th, Lizzie and I had the pleasure of attending Jilly Gagnon‘s reading at The Book Cellar for the launch of her debut, #famous!

The Book Cellar is a fantastic venue—they have coffee, wine, and snacks available to enjoy during book events and book club meetings, or just while browsing. For Jilly’s event, there was punch and chocolates available, as well as a gorgeous and extremely delicious cake that looked exactly like the book cover. Jilly wore her prom dress—her actual prom dress from high school!—to pay tribute to the prom scene in her book. Lizzie brought a tiara, which Jilly wore during her reading.

Jilly chose several passages to read. The first established her adorkable characters and fabulous voice, and we gradually moved on to explore more serious topics—how social media can lead to bullying, and how it affects boys and girls differently. We had some wonderful discussion about Jilly’s inspiration for the book—Alex from Target—and how she decided to explore more serious themes in the midst of a super cute romance.

I love the dual POV in #famous and how Kyle and Rachel’s voices are so different. I also love how unique Rachel is with her snark, her maturity, and her unique view on the world. I also love that she knows who she is and embraces that, but it alienates her because, high school. I related to that a lot.

Jilly and I will be having a young adult author conversation about complicated relationships on April 23rd, 2017 at Women and Children First at 4:00 p.m. We’ll be joined by the lovely Stephanie Kate Strohm (It’s Not Me, It’s You) and NYT bestselling author Brittany Cavallaro (A Study in Charlotte; The Last of August). We’d love to see you there! Details for the event can be found here.

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This post is brought to you by Gloria Chao at ChiYAwriters.com.