From A to Z is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.
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.
(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).
(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:
- sexual identity
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?
- 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!
- 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.
- Get some diverse friends! Learn about them as individuals, not as one-dimensional figures to serve as plot fodder.
- 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.
(via Madcap Retreats)