Beyond Orcs & Elves: Stacy Whitman on Writing Cross-Culturally

CrossculturalWritersdontcry“Write what you know” was never really on the table for fantasy writers. At least, not in the literal sense. Trucking with elves and dragons is something sadly left up to our imaginations. But that doesn’t mean that we can just make everything up. Just like having dragons in your book doesn’t mean you can ignore the laws of physics—except, possibly, when it comes to letting dragons fly. Even when writing a fantasy book, you still have to do your best to write well-researched, complex characters who are more than the sum of their stats, whether you’re writing about someone who can play with magic, someone who is living life backward, or someone from a culture not your own—be it real, or imagined.

StacyCreating fantasy cultures and writing cross-culturally in particular can prove a challenge. It’s also a hot subject in fantasy right now, and to address it, I knew I really needed an expert. Fortunately, I was able to get a hold of Stacy Whitman for some much-appreciated guidance.

Stacy Whitman is the editorial director of Tu Books, a multicultural fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint for children and young adults--an imprint she originally founded as a small press before being acquired by Lee & Low Books. She’s a veteran of publishing as well as many discussions and presentations on writing cross-culturally, and I know of no one better to help guide authors through creating their own rich, diverse fantasy worlds.


1. What are the benefits of writing cross-culturally?

VodnikI think anytime we reach outside ourselves and our own view of the world, we can benefit with a greater understanding of other people. Whether that’s writing the opposite gender, writing about real-world cultures other than our own, or in fantasy writing, making up a new culture entirely--or even writing within our own cultural influences, your character is not always going to think the way you do. Seeing the world through your character’s eyes will make your story richer.

Too often I hear writers say, “I don’t know anything about being [insert ethnicity or race here]. Why would I include diversity if I don’t know anything about it?” But then we run the risk of populating our books with a monoculture, and so few places nowadays are still monocultural. There are exceptions--I come from a town in the Midwest that isn’t very diverse--but even in those exceptions, when we look for diversity, we’ll find it. And we should reflect that diversity in the worlds we create.

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Growing up as a black girl with a love for reading and my head always stuck in a book, I will say there was always a lack of stories in fantasy with someone I could relate to. Good writing is good writing and even though the lack back then spoke for itself, I was never one to step on my brakes when it came to a good story. There are authors I read now such as Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, Sheree Renée Thomas, N. K. Jemisin, Troy CLE, Nalo Hopkinson (and I’m just naming a few) that I do have to wade through Amazon or a Barnes & Noble to find; believe me when I type African American fantasy that’s not what I get as a result.

When I’m at my local bookstore its typical to see the Caucasian girl wielding a knife in her hand with a badass pose or ethereal stance that sets up the fantastical delights that await beyond the cover. What I wouldn’t do for more swirl on our bookshelves. Stories about people of color in fantasy worlds is nothing new in the publishing world, I believe the need for more diversity in the market among all races is definitely bringing more light to a very neglected slice of the market.

It’s good to see this subject being talked about and recognized by people of many cultural backgrounds. I can’t lie that it does sit at the back of my mind like that large elephant in the room, if fantasy stories with people of color will get more recognition because white authors are branching into it and writing stories about these characters when there has been an overlooked plethora black, Hispanic, Native American, etc. authors who have already been published. I’m not saying they don’t get any recognition but the shelves speak for themselves…as do the search engines.

Yes, it’s frustrating when the Magic Negro stereotype stretches across the board into television, movies and books. It is prevalent and I’ve been “Oh lord not another one,” every time I see it. It gets to the point where I’m not surprised by the redundant display of colorful sacrifice for the good of all. I cannot tell you how many times I’ll watch a movie with teenagers and the token black person in there with a few lines of badly rehearsed slang just to send the message of “see we have one of you in there too!” (Eyes rolling heavenward.)

As far as being black enough, that discussion is like a salad bowl in its own right. Not all people who grow up in a ghetto speak Ebonics, it’s were some of the most articulate poetic forms of language have come from. I was born and raised in Oakland, California and still that term seems very ignorant deemed by our city council when I was a teenager; much to the anger of my mother and many parents in my community at the time. I have been on the phone with people who have never seen my face and had “such a good feeling about me” but when they saw me in person, but face to face to face, they give the wide eyed “oh.” It was to the point that I found that ignorance in people the norm. But the thing about ignorance, one can be taught to rise above it, that is if they choose to.

Case and point, write a damn good character or else run the risk of writing your character into a very shallow and uninteresting box. When you start asking the question “Are they this enough?” research and feedback is great, but also understand that people of all cultures are just like anyone else, complex and never the same, so don’t do your character or anyone else the disservice of only lettuce when tomatoes and onions make it look so much more interesting.

Last but not least, there are millions of books that can spin poetry on white skin in terms of cream, smooth alabaster, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. Broaden your mind and get poetically creative when you deal with skin color, it’s not rocket science, it’s—well color! Have a ball. Some posts by authors that are interesting, and
Until the industry gets it drilled into their heads they can hinder as much as help authors no matter what color, nothing will change.

Anyway as an aspiring author I think this post makes one think a lot about thinking outside of the box on this issue. I hope many others start asking themselves constructive questions. Like it or not, these are conversations that we should have about one another if we want to make something magical happen that transcends beyond the fantasy in our books.

Posted by: Brandy | Tuesday January 10, 2012 at 9:17 AM

If I could have written this myself and put it on my own blog, I totally would have. This is a fantastic post, Stacy. I am officially adding it to my resource list for my writers. Thank you!

Posted by: Jevon Bolden | Monday January 9, 2012 at 2:17 PM

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