Coming from a multicultural background myself, I decided to write about this topic (and about writing outside your group). I’m essentially Latina, but in Brazil, for example, we rarely use this termination. We are all brazilians, but our culture has a pride on saying where your ancestors come from or who they were. Brazil is statistically the country with most people from mixed-races, and this is something we’re proud of. We’ve had different immigrants and people coming to our country, and our people mixed. My best friend is descended from Russian and Polish. The other one is black with Polish background. Italian and Black. Japanese and Arab. And ever so on. My mother’s descended from natives, spanish and portuguese, and my dad’s grandfather was German (thus my surname). All in all, we try to value all these cultures that came to our country and incorporate them. (That’s not saying Brazil doesn’t have racism. It has, and it’s a deep ingrained and often veiled problem, maybe topic for another post entirely). But coming from a country that is known to be so diverse and welcoming, in a way, I always imagined a lot of my fiction with a more multicultural background.
The other day I was writing about how I’m Brazilian and still tend to write a lot of white MCs, even though I’m Latina, and how I’m not sure how YA incorporates into the market. It’s why I tend to step aside when it comes to picturing my own country and my own culture. But still, when I turned to writing, I still wanted to picture the very diverse world I lived in and know by heart.
My first MS featured a Japanese-English girl with a best friend who was a black guy and roommate from India. At the time, I wasn’t well-versed in the woes of feminism and intersectionality, and wonderful projects like ‘We Need Diverse Books’ and #ownvoices, but I did what I could with what I knew — these characters were my characters and they were well loved, and I did my best. When I look back, I’m still proud of them, but in reading, I see so many things I have to edit and consider.
You see, at the time, I hadn’t given so much consideration in regards to marginalization and cultures and how important that is to shape a person. As a person who has always loved history in all its shape, it’s one of the things I always loved the most – learning about other cultures and other people, how they lived and their religion. Still, you can’t help sometimes give a little bit of judgement because you are from a COMPLETELY different culture and we have a standard Western-view of things we need to set aside. A very stupid example me and a friend were talking about the other day: nowadays, parents never encourage sex before marriage, but in Middle Ages it was totally a thing – if you have sex, you get married, and the sooner the better (and not the other way around). But as someone who has always loved to learn, sometimes my brain took me into cultures and places that were not really my own.
Last year, I first ventured into this with a YA Fantasy inspired by the Pre-Islamic Middle East. There are lots of trope elements – jinn, magic, desers and yes *cringes* an arranged marriage. Really, this things have been around for a while and pretty much no one gets them right (so yes, this is a reminder: GET A SENSITIVITY READER!). Sensitivity readers are great to make sure you don’t mess up things that have already been messed up –and most of all, keep you in the right place. Don’t go all patronizing into things (arranged marriage is EVIL AND IT SHOULD BE KILLED WITH FIRE!!! or ‘women should be free’ or some shit that I’ve seen a lot of white authors make up. I’m not kidding). As Latina, I’ve seen my own country and culture be misrepresented about a hundred times, and I’m not eager to do it myself.
Does that mean I still can write this story? Well, the answer is complicated.
I’m not going to be the person to tell you ‘DON’T WRITE THIS’, because personally, I think you should write what you want, but also please be aware of the consequences. If you fuck up, you’ll be called out on it. And you better apologize if you got things wrong. Writing POC and LGBT isn’t a walk in the park, and don’t you dare tell me something along the lines of “well, I see them as people”. They ARE people. If you see them as any less than that, you’re a racist and a bigot. Justina Ireland put it on twitter the other day ‘To write a white character, I remove all the microagressions and pressures of society’. It’s a quote that ressonates deeply, and I couldn’t agree with it more.
Which comes to the important part of the post – if you’re writing outside your culture, not only get a sensitivity reader, but also be extremely careful of the subject you’re writing about. If you’re like me, and want to see Indian fantasy with brown girls, or a slayer Samurai girl in medieval Japan and so on, research. And that’s OK with it — fantasy is a wonderful world in which you create the rules. Why create racism and sexism when you can have a world free of all of this? Your brown character in fantasy doesn’t have to face racism, because well, maybe, racism doesn’t exist in your world. Why bother writing fantasy and sci-fi if you’re still stuck to real world rules?
But something you shouldn’t write is contemporary and issue book. As a Latina, I would NEVER know what it’s like for a girl growing up Muslim in the USA. Never, ever. As a Latina, I do know the experience of immigration and going to a country where you don’t speak the language and people look a little weird at your parents. These are very different experiences and they should be handled exclusively from #ownvoices, someone who can bring their own experience into writing this things.
So yeah, go ahead. Create worlds and spaceships and galaxies were POC and LGBT are welcome. Growing up in a country with so much diversity, that’s one of the things I love most about Brazil — getting to know so many different things and cultures, and it made me appreciate how different people can be and how big and great the world is.But always remember – you may not be the best voice for this. Or, you have to work harder to make sure you represent people right.
You care about this culture? You care about this people? Then make sure it shows in your writing.
TL;DR: Writing from outside your background is OK, as long as you do immersive research, then have sensitivity readers tear your MS apart again and again until it’s good and polished.
I’ll leave you with some other links:
- Jennifer Laughran’s ask on tumblr and Miriam Foster’s added response
- Sensitivity reader data base from Writing in the Margins