Friday, September 28, 2012

Multicultural Characters in YA

I know this is a well-discussed topic, however, I wanted to discuss it a bit more. One of the recent emails I received from my agent—gonna take me a while to get used to writing/saying that. My Agent!—listed all the things she loved about my ms. Diversity was one of them. She mentioned a specific passage she thought was handled well.

My MC is Cuban-American. She is second generation American and doesn’t speak much Spanish. I thought hard about that when she came to me as this tall, awkward, olive-skinned, Cuban girl with a love of auto mechanics. I don’t speak Spanish, although I’m on my way to learning. I didn’t want her to be CINO: Cuban In Name Only. But I didn’t want my book to be full of my flawed Spanish either-lol.

I had two things going for me. 1. I was writing this book in English and therefore, I didn’t need that much Spanish and 2. I used to live in Miami. Anyone who’s lived in, visited, flown over southern Florida knows it’s almost like living in Cuba. I had a diverse group of friends, ate Cuban food, danced in Cuban clubs with Cuban men…hem-hem, getting off topic. My point is I decided I had enough knowledge to create a character with first generation, Spanish speaking parents and make it as authentic as my experiences would allow.

One of my MC’s best friends is Jewish. As he is a side character and we don’t meet any of his family, and I didn’t want to play on the stereotypes, there are only certain things that will point to his Jewish-ness. I did consult with a few of my Jewish friends with some of the things I had him saying and doing. One thing in particular was his Jew-fro. He has very bushy hair and while I couldn’t see that being offensive, I wanted to check and make sure.

My MC’s other best friend is black. I didn’t really have to consult with anyone as I have personal experience being a 16 yr old black girl-lol. Although, I was never the daughter of a mega-rich rapper who just crossed over to action film star. But even as I tried to stay clear of stereotypes, they are there for a reason. They are based in some truth.

Years ago I was speaking with a fellow writer who explained why she wasn’t comfortable having a main character of a different race. She said it was because she had no experience being a black, Asian, or Hispanic woman so she couldn’t write them authentically. Well, I’ve never had any experience being a man, a white woman, a vampire, or a werewolf but I write them. That’s what research is for. That’s what exposing yourself to other cultures is for. I think these are things we owe to our readers. Showing them other worlds means showing them worlds with other races outside of the one you currently inhabit.

With all that said, you have to be comfortable to write well. So maybe everything I just said won’t matter to you. But it is a huge market that’s being underrepresented.


Tamara said...

I love this and I think the different cultures were one of the things that really stood out about your book. My characters have always come to me kind of fully formed and yes, they have all been white. But just because they were, not because I only wanted them to be white. Gabby is black, but she's a pretty minor character. My first book literally only had three characters, Jess, Cacee, and Cacee's father, Ray.

Funny though, in the book I'm writing with Chance, the characters showed up in my head like they always do. Only this time, the MC, Fen, is half asian. The other MC, Daniel is half hispanic/half black. The MC love interest, Lily, is white, as is the side-kick, Cal.

I don't think it will be any different than writing any other book I'v written. It might require a bit more research into some stuff, but the characters are already pretty well-defined in my head.

All but Lily anyway. haha. I have a much stronger image of three guys (two of which are different races) than I have of the one white girl. Kinda funny how that can happen. I'm looking forward to writing it though, cause I think the mix of different cultures will really add something to the story.

Tamara said...

P.S. Do you know your Captcha is on? It just took me four tries to leave that comment. I should've probably added the P.S. to that one, cause now I'll have to try to get this one up there too. haha

Karen Denise said...

Hey Tam,

Love the reply. I totally get what you are saying. My characters come to me fully formed too. At least visually. But that's why I added that last bit about being comfortable with what you are writing. If you are white and your character comes to you white then he/she needs to be white. I would think there would be a problem with connecting if you forced a character into a race that you are not comfortable with. We as readers would know.

So basically, I think it's important to be comforable with other races and cultures yourself. As writers, all races, ethnicities and cultures will read our work...we hope. So why not be open to learning and incorporating them?

Um...I'm really going to show how blog stupid I am. Send me an email and tell me what the heck a Captcha is and how do I get rid of it! LOL.

Jai Joshi said...

I totally agree. Multi-culturalism is something that young adults are experiencing right now so it makes sense to provide them with access to books that show multiculturalism and what's good/difficult/interesting about it.