Tuesday, April 9, 2013

4 Lynn Joseph on Diversity in Writing

Diversity, By Any Other Name, is Still Sweet

By Lynn Joseph

I am known as a “Caribbean” writer. Is it because I am from Trinidad, where I was born, and where I lived for the first nine years of my life before assuming a bi-country existence; nine months in the United States and three months in Trinidad every summer until I was 21? Or is it because, birthplace aside, the settings for most of my books are on Caribbean islands? But suppose I was born in the U.S. or England, or Thailand, and I wrote books set in the Caribbean, would I still be considered a “Caribbean” writer?

I ask that question because most of my schooling, from the age of nine has been in the United States. I attended a predominately all-White high school, college and law school. Now, I am happily pursuing my craft in a MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts where the majority of students and teachers are White. Why am I considered a “Caribbean” author if I learned to write creatively in all-White establishments? If I grew up reading books about White protagonists (Beverly Cleary’s as a child; the Trixie Belden series as a tween)? Why is it “acceptable” that I write about people of color but another writer fears she might offend someone? And, why did I feel compelled to write two books set in the Dominican Republic, featuring Dominican characters, when I can’t even speak the language there?

The truth is that lately I’ve been hearing so much “concern” about authenticity in diverse literature that even I, a “Caribbean” author, am becoming fearful to write about characters from a background that is not mine! More importantly, if I had immersed myself in this puzzling issue of what it means to write diverse stories, I might have steered away from writing The Color of My Words or Flowers in the Sky knowing I am not Dominican and can not speak Spanish, try as I might. Because if the measuring stick is that we write only about what we know, maybe I would have stuck to writing about the high school friends I knew so well, who are all Caucasian.

So, I am just going out on a limb here and saying it plainly: Please, dear writers of YA fiction, please consider coloring your characters without fear of criticism. Write them with the same conscientious mindset you give to creating any of your characters. Because writing authentically means doing so across the board, not just if you have a diverse character in mind. And if you are writing conscientiously then you can write diversely.

It makes me, a reader, very happy when I discover characters of color doing ordinary things in novels, like the character of Julia in Rebecca Stead’s Newbery winning When You Reach Me. She’s Black! I had no idea. It wasn’t obvious, and in fact, when I discovered her race, I re-read the beginning to see if Stead had mentioned it and she had! With an art project. But it was subtle and technically brilliant.

In Susan Fletcher’s dracling novel, Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, there is an Indian graduate student and a Black professor/scientist who play major roles although the novel is set in Oregon and Alaska. In Sarah Dessen’s novel Just Listen, protagonist Annabel has a Chinese best friend named Clarke who is adopted. I feel a thrill when I see diverse characters in novels, so I can just imagine how children and teenagers like me must feel, too. It’s a recognition, an affirmation, and a empowerment that, oh yeah, we exist, we are worth writing about, and we are strong, individual characters in our own right.

Patricia McCormick, with whom I was in a writers workshop two years ago, plunged headfirst into researching and writing about characters from other cultures; a Nepalese teenager sold into sex slavery in Sold, and a Cambodian kid who survives the horrific genocide of the Khmer Rouge in Never Fall Down. Both are amazing books and no one cares that McCormick is White.

The same is true about my writer friend and neighbor, Peggy Kern. Peg is White and has successfully written two novels for the Bluford High series, The Test and No Way Out, both featuring Black teens in urban settings. Her new novel Little Peach is coming out next year and is about two Black teenagers caught up in the gritty world of teen prostitution. Do we care what Peggy’s race is? Hell no. This is an important topic and Peg has done her research. And since all of Peg’s books are about Black characters dealing with real-life urban issues, can we call her a “Black” writer? Probably not.

The bottom line is, we need books with diverse characters doing ordinary things, and books that address multi-ethnic situations, and books about the complex issues from the margins of society. All of our world’s children benefit from reading books that represent this planet’s multiple points of view. Because ultimately, there is only one human view and we writers need to open our minds and hearts to presenting the views of others who may be less represented so that we can be co-joined. It’s like what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “Beyond the world of opposites is an unseen, but experienced, unity and identity in us all.”

So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to write authentically about other cultures and how to feature ethnic diversity in your books regardless of your race and background.

1. Look at where you live

Most of us live in multi-ethnic communities, even if, from your vantage point as an adult writer, it may seem homogeneous. For instance, my sons attended high school in Long Beach, New York, a predominately all-white enclave. I stayed at home and wrote, and I hardly saw anyone at all unless I ventured to the Mall thirty minutes away. That was until my sons began bringing their friends to our home. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a talented Black artist named Shaakir, an Ecuadorian girl, Poullete, whose second language is English, a half-Puerto Rican football star named Lorenzo, the president of the high school African-American Club named Gavin, who is 100% Irish, a perky cheerleader named Kelly, also Irish, a beautiful videographer named Sarah who is Italian, and a Peruvian guitarist named Mike. My sons are both African-American. My home was a melting pot of racial identities. I didn’t have to go far to experience divergent viewpoints.

However, if your immediate surroundings are less than stellar in terms of diversity, then expand your horizons. Visit museums, restaurants, give talks at high schools, attend documentary film festivals, read magazine articles, join clubs that feature other cultures, because if you’re interested in including some diversity in your work, you will need to open your mind and heart to EVERYTHING!

2. Interview People of Other Cultures

Pat McCormick told of how she was introduced to her neighbor in New York City who turned out to be the source for her story Never Fall Down. It is his story that she fictionalized. But first she interviewed him extensively to bring his life and words alive in print. I do the same thing. I interview everyone! I probably drive people crazy but I ask a million questions whenever I meet someone whose life is different from mine. For The Color of My Words, I met a waiter named Guario in a restaurant in the tourist area in Sosua, Dominican Republic. I began asking so many questions that I ended up going to his home and meeting his family. I went back often talking to them in my awful broken Spanish and just hanging out as an observer and I ended up setting my story right there on their porch.

3. Look for the Similarities

This was the key for writing about Ana Rosa, my main character in The Color of My Words. She’s a girl who longs to be a writer. I know this girl. It doesn’t matter that she lives in a foreign country or speaks a foreign language that I can’t grasp. She’s a twelve-year-old like any other, with a crush on her older brother’s best friend. She feels isolated and different in her neighborhood because she likes to sit in a tree all day and write, and she has dreams that she thinks no one else understands. Worst of all, her major crush is in love with her older sister! Sheesh!

While your character may be a different race or ethnicity, ultimately he or she is human and has the same emotions, desires and dreams as any teenager. Identify your protagonist’s shared humanity before you focus on her culture and differences. Write from inside her heart before you write from outside of it.

4. Read Up on Diversity Issues but Don’t Be Paralyzed By Them

The Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee was recently formed by a group of book editors interested in promoting and increasing diversity in children’s literature. I read their articles regularly and find some that reinforce my beliefs, some that open my eyes to issues of stereotypes such as Diversity 101, and some like Forced Multiculturalism, about the fact that to many kids what adults perceive as “forced multiculturalism” is not forced to kids, so do include minorities in your group of characters. There will always be “issues” to argue over when it comes to how we identify groups of people. Should we capitalize the word Black and White? Should we say African-American instead of Black? Don’t fret too much on the politically correct names. The copyeditors will figure out the appropriate words for the time period of your novel when the time comes.

I wanted to accurately identify the orchids in Flowers in the Sky that Nina grows on her fire escape, but I wrote and left bank spaces and went back later and filled them in. The same is happening with my current work in progress. My male protagonist is a surfer. I am concerned about nailing the surf lingo, but I am not letting that hold me up. I write the story and leave blanks whe I don’t know the exact word for something. Later, I do more research either online or I hang out on the beach and interview surfers or I watch surfing documentaries and read books on surfing, because I want to be authentic. Which brings me to my last point.

5. Be Authentic By Doing Your Research

I cannot stress this enough. You can write about anything at all. Anything. As long as you are committed to doing the necessary research to bring your topic alive for readers. Be real! It may involve traveling, interviewing people, just sitting and observing, but do it! Writers tend to overlook the research because they are so busy focusing on plot and character and structure and outlines. But the craft part of writing is the last thing I worry about. First, I want to know my subject, and my characters, and their world. And I can only do so by living it.

Not for nothing, Rita Williams Garcia acknowledged six different high schools that allowed her to roam their hallways and take a seat in the back of their classrooms so that she could research her National Book Award Finalist novel, Jumped. Now, that’s what I’m talking about! Rita is Black, and her characters in Jumped are mostly all Black or Hispanic, yet Rita was out there in the high schools doing her research before she took pen to paper to portray the truth.

And isn’t that what we writers ultimately are trying to do. Tell the truth. So I urge you to tell it from every viewpoint, from every perspective, and include as many divergent voices as you can. But make it Real! And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they call me a “Caribbean” writer because of where I was born or my subject matter. I’m going to write what is dear to my heart.

About the Author

Lynn Joseph was born and raised on the island of Trinidad and is the author of books for children and young adults, including The Color of My Words, A Wave in Her Pocket, The Mermaid's Twin Sister and Coconut Kind of Day, all of which take place in the Caribbean. She travels extensively and has lived in the Dominican Republic, and on the Caribbean islands of Carriacou, Anguilla, and Water Island. She is also an attorney and mother of two wonderful sons, Jared and Brandt. Her new Young Adult novel, Flowers in the Sky will be published by HarperCollins Children's Books in Winter 2013.

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About the Book

Fifteen-year-old Nina Perez is faced with a future she never expected. She must leave her Garden of Eden, her lush island home in Samana, Dominican Republic, when she's sent by her mother to live with her brother, Darrio, in New York, to seek out a better life. As Nina searches for some glimpse of familiarity amid the urban and jarring world of Washington Heights, she learns to uncover her own strength and independence. She finds a way to grow, just like the orchids that blossom on her fire escape. And as she is confronted by ugly secrets about her brother's business, she comes to understand the realities of life in this new place. But then she meets him—that tall, green-eyed boy—one that she can't erase from her thoughts, who just might help her learn to see beauty in spite of tragedy.

From the acclaimed author of the color of my words comes a powerful story of a girl who must make her way in a new world and find her place within it.

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  1. It's funny in my book ELEMENTAL I have a character who has a black father and a Hispanic mother. I never even mention his parents in the book and only comment on his skin color maybe twice. I always look at it this way, people are people and yes things about us may define some of the way we think, but if you just try to figure out who the person is not what the person is you often get a real to life character.

  2. Excellent points. Thanks for all the reminders!

  3. Lovely post! I think the level of research depends on how different the character's lifestyle really is from your own. Giving your MC an Asian-American best friend probably doesn't require all that much research if you've grown up with other Asian-Americans. Writing an Asian-American as your MC might require a little more research. Writing an Asian living in Asia will require the most research.

    But including diversity is important and realistic, because how many of us still live in a bubble in this country?

  4. Thank you for your insights. This was just what I needed to read. I'm brainstorming on my next MG novel and planned to have the antagonist black and the MC white, like me. I've been reading every book I can get my hands on, and now you've given me more titles. Yay! I was worried I couldn't write about a black girl and be authentic, even though I've taught school and loved every child. Now I feel pulled to complete this project.


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