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.

 

From A to Z: Writing Diversely in YA

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

Take a look at bookish Twitter, and you’ll see a hot topic in YA popping off nearly every day. Most YA authors are passionate about their work and their audience and it’s amazing. They care about their readers and want to get them books they will love and embrace.

However, one topic comes up more often than not, with good reason. Diversity in YA Literature is very near and dear to me as an #ownvoices author. In this post, I’ll break down some hard questions about this heated topic.

Why diversity in YA?

Picture it, Cleveland, 1986. Little me, reading book after book and enjoying those books… but wondering why my life didn’t match the life in those books. I TRIED to make it match, but I often got made fun of, like when I wore a fancy dress to a school dance in 7th grade and got laughed at because everyone else was wearing their regular school clothes. Maybe if I’d read about a school more like mine (predominately black, all honors students, 7th and 8th grades, teachers who were strict in the best possible way), with a girl like me (a black girl nerd with big glasses and light skin), I wouldn’t have looked like a complete idiot at that school dance.

My point: representation matters. And not just one type of representation (i.e. the tragic gay coming out book, or the black person living in the ghetto book, or the Indian dealing with arranged marriages book), but ALL kinds of representation. All those books have their place, and those readers deserve to see themselves… but there are many readers whose narratives don’t fit that at all. They deserve to see themselves as well, and they deserve not to be told their lives, their experiences, their realities are “unrealistic” or a “fantasy world”—unless of course, it is a true fantasy with dragons and magic and so on.

So many people are desperate to see themselves in books, little me (and “grown up” me) included. And we don’t only want to see ourselves in the narrow boxes that have become the default and accepted narratives. Why can’t a black kid have magic, go to a wizarding school, and be the hero of that story? Why not a Chinese girl having a swoony relationship while she finds herself? Or why can’t we have non-binary characters having adventures with characters in wheelchairs? Why are most of the highly imaginative stories, stories with happy endings, stories with swoony love, given mostly to white characters? Exactly!

Who should write diverse literature?

So OK. It’s been firmly established that diverse books are needed. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Rich in Color are doing great work in getting this message out there.

Now, who should write the books? Who has permission to write these stories? My answer? People can write whatever they want, but they should ask why they want to write those stories. And then be willing to do the hard work to give the representation in those stories the nuances and fair rep that the readers deserve.

The main questions authors should ask themselves before deciding to write a marginalized character as the POV character:

Am I the best person to tell this story, and why? Is it about ego? About chasing a “trend”? About mixing up the cast because you think that’s what’ll sell? Or is it because this person’s story is burning, burning deep inside you and you must tell it? I get that. It happens.

This question is not just for white, cishet authors. It’s for anyone writing outside of their own experiences. Part of the fun of writing is exploring, right? In my opinion, people shouldn’t feel limited in who they write about… but they should be careful about writing it.

Say you’ve asked this question, answered it the best way, and you decide to go ahead and write the story. Now it’s time to ask yourself:

Am I willing to do the hard work to get this character right? This means research, research, research! Using resources such as Writing with Color, Writing the Other, or Disability in Kidlit. Getting sensitivity readers and listening to their feedback. Actually interacting with people from marginalized backgrounds, rather than allowing stereotypes to shape your character. You’ll probably still mess up, so taking critiques graciously and being willing to learn is important. And that’s just to start.

Is what I’m writing going to hurt someone? I don’t mean hurting someone’s feelings. I mean large scale hurt that can have deadly repercussions. Stereotypes that enforce negative feelings about certain groups. Those feelings causing people to act out around people of those groups. People dying because of hatred fueled by what some consider art, or freedom of expression. Except all it’s causing is pain.

This is a delicate topic. But if you’re writing for children, why would you want to hurt them?

Representation. Matters.

Now that you’ve answered those questions, are you still the right person for this story? If so, great. Now it’s up to you to do the hard work to get the representation of marginalized characters right, just as you would do the hard work regarding scene structure, plotting, and character arcs. Good luck!

Now I’ll answer a few more questions about Diversity in YA.

What is #ownvoices?

According to the Google machine: #OwnVoices is a hashtag/term coined by Corinne Duyvis, co-mod of Disability in Kidlit, for a book featuring a marginalized perspective authored by a person who shares that same marginalized characteristic.

You can read more about the hashtag, and its creator, here.

What’s so great about #ownvoices? 

I read a LOT of YA. Not as much as some people (like librarians) but I try to plow through as much as I can in a given year. My first choice is contemporary, but I’ve been branching out. And this is what I’ve been noticing about #ownvoices books: They have rich layers that give readers a nuanced glimpse into a world they may not have been exposed to. Small things that an outsider wouldn’t notice or include, but those small things (and big things) make #ownvoices books special.

What can I do to uplift #ownvoices and marginalized authors, including those who may be getting passed over in favor of dominant “more relatable” voices?

The fact is that published books about marginalized groups, especially POC, are very few. Too few. And that number goes down when factoring in books BY those groups of people. Now, I’m not saying there is a quota in publishing, but when I hear of people saying their book was passed over because “we already have a [insert marginalization] book on our list for this year”, it’s hard not to think along those lines.

Look, I get it. Publishing is hard for everyone. The amount of rejection can be soul crushing. I’m still in the query trenches myself. All the layers to go through, and you’re still not even guaranteed a place in a bookstore. It’s rough out there. But there are groups who have it decidedly worse than others, and we all need all the support we can get. This can be mentoring, or beta reading, or critiquing. Referring them to your agent. Promoting their books when they finally make it past sales and marketing. It’s going to take all of us to get more diverse books on the shelves and into the hands of our kids, but the hard work will be worth it.

Who’s with me?

I want to read more diversely. Can you recommend some diverse books and authors?

Yes! There is a Diverse Reads 2017 Challenge, which lists loads of diverse books for you to check out. Click here to find out more.

Diversity in YA is very, very important to me, not just as a writer, but as a reader. Art can and does change lives. And writing diversely, with care, is an amazing way to do so.

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

Examples of Excellence: Amélie Sarn on Love, Hate, & Longing

Examples of Excellence is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that delves into the work of artists who demonstrate excellence in their craft.

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I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
By Amélie Sarn

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I didn’t intend to write about this book. Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to write about this book.

But it won’t let me go.

“These young girls came here expecting hospitality and warmth, and here we are giving them morality lessons. . . I know that each one of us has to find her own path, and that it shouldn’t keep us from laughing, singing, and dancing together.”

– p. 101

At a time when everyone seems to feel that their beliefs—that their very way of life—is under attack, the sisters in this story show that different ways of life can coexist in harmony. Or they can collide in terrible tragedy.

It’s our choice.

Sohane: “You know how I hate seeing girls exposing themselves on billboards and in magazines. I don’t want to be like them. That’s not what it means to be a woman. I need to be respected.”

Djelila: “I want to be respected too . . . Without having to disappear or hide my face.”

– p. 57

Djelila and Sohane are two sisters of Algerian descent growing up in France. They live with their parents in a largely Muslim community, where not everyone agrees what it means to be Muslim or what it means to be French.

Together, Sohane and Djelila beautifully demonstrate the multiplicity of narratives that inform feminism. And their differences highlight the importance of a feminism that does not demand uniformity. A feminism that respects equally the choice to wear a head scarf and to dye your hair. The choice to conceal and to reveal.

Because it’s the choice that matters.

Djelila: “I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don’t want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself.”

– p. 131

Sohane: “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of being Muslim and of practicing my religion. I’d like people to accept that. I don’t intend to harm anyone.”

– p. 86

Djelila and Sohane want the same things. They want to live freely and without fear. And without anyone else feeling fearful of them.

But their communities—their Muslim neighborhood, their secular school, their Algerian relatives, their French teachers—force them to choose one side or the other. Force them to fit into narrow boxes. Force them, really, to have no choice at all.

And the results are devastating.

Most journalists talk about what they do not know, about matters they don’t take the trouble to understand. They adopt the clichés that suit them—take one aspect of an issue until it becomes a caricature. . . I can’t say that this isn’t reality. But it’s only one reality among many.

– p. 55

This heartbreaking book shows us why diverse stories matter, in journalism and in fiction. Why we need many narratives. Why we need to weave a tapestry, not consign ourselves to a single thread. A thread that so often trips us up.

Amélie Sarn takes care to avoid stereotypes and clichés in telling this story. Despite the conflicts in Sohane and Djelila’s wider communities, Sarn paints their family’s apartment as a warm sanctuary. She paints their mother and father as supportive, loving parents who fight for the right of one daughter to play basketball and the other to wear a head scarf.

Clearly, this story touched me. I want everyone to read it. Not because I think it’s perfect. But because I want to discuss it. I want to hear what you think of it. Yes, I feel it brings nuance and complexity to an all-too-often simplified subject. And I want that nuance to be shared. But I also want to know what this book misses.

I want to see what other threads we can add to this tapestry.

[W]e dreamt of a life that we would build, a life in which no one would step on our feet, in which we would walk with our heads raised. The world had better watch out!

– p. 62

In a political climate fueled by fear, this book is a reminder that the world is wide enough for all of us. There’s no need to feel that your way of life is in jeopardy just because someone else chooses to live a different life. There’s no need to believe that opening the door to many diverse narratives closes the door on your singular story. There’s no need to fear those who are different from you. Or to make them fear you.

The world was wide enough for Sohane and Djelila.
And, I promise, the world is wide enough for you and me.

Notes:

The author, Amélie Sarn, is French, but as far as I could determine, she is not Muslim or of Algerian descent. She mentions in the acknowledgments that she sought guidance from those in the Muslim community. As someone who is not French, Algerian, or Muslim myself, I cannot fully comment on the accuracy or sensitivity of the representation in this book. It appears well researched, but I welcome and encourage other responses, especially from those who are members of the depicted cultures.

To start the discussion, here are two other perspectives on this book:
Review by Sarah Hannah Gómez
Review by Ruzaika Rifaideen

This book was originally published in French. I read the English translation by Y. Maudet. If you’ve never read French prose before, you might be surprised by how spare it is, but I urge you not to mistake this book’s brevity for a lack of depth. On the contrary, its short passages delve so deeply into the subject matter and its simple descriptions are so raw that reading this book is like trying to hold a burning coal in your bare hands. Yes, it’s that intense and packed with heat.

I use the expression “the world is wide enough” with all due respect and acknowledgement to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in the song “The World Was Wide Enough” from the musical Hamilton. Miranda wrote that line based on a quote from Aaron Burr, who in turn lifted the phrasing from Laurence Stern’s novel Tristram Shandy. For more on the history behind this line, see the Genius annotation of Miranda’s song.

Please be advised that this book contains a scene of graphic violence against a young woman.

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This post is brought to you by Lizzie Cooke at ChiYAwriters.com.