Beyond Orcs & Elves: Stacy Whitman on Writing Cross-Culturally
“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.
Creating 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?
I 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.
For a moving TED talk on the reasons we need more than one worldview in our stories, check out Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, “The Dangers of a Single Story.” I also did an entire talk on this subject, which is now available on my blog (Beyond Orcs and Elves Part 1, Beyond Orcs and Elves Part 2, Beyond Orcs and Elves Part 3).
2. What are the risks of writing cross-culturally?
I know some writers fear making a mistake, “getting it wrong.” And that’s a justified fear--you do take a risk in writing what you don’t know. But even when you’re writing about something you’re familiar with, someone might say that it doesn’t match their own experience. For example, no one person can represent what “the African American experience” is in totality on an individual level. You can only reflect individual characters with individual strengths and flaws, individual experiences. And that will vary from person to person even within the same community. So to avoid making that mistake, you have to be aware of the danger of getting it wrong, but not let that stop you from doing your research and getting it as right as you can. I love this saying I recently heard from a writer: “Don’t worry about writing what you know. Just know what you write.” He was talking about writing rape, but I think this goes for anything you want to write about.
Another risk is Othering your characters of color. By Othering, capital O, I mean making the person out to be something entirely foreign and almost inhuman to whatever is considered “normal.” If “normal” is non-magical, the person of color is the Magical Negro (see “Writing Diversity: Avoiding the Magical Negro” for more links on that common trope).
3. What can you do to prepare to write a character of a different culture?
Research, research, research. I highly recommend reading Nisi Shawl’s "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation" in which she discusses several ways to help writers get it right, including actually talking to people from that culture, reading a lot, and most importantly, the difference between Invaders, Tourists, and Guests. I think when we want to populate our worlds with diversity through minor and secondary characters, we need to become at least Tourists, knowledgeable enough to respect the culture and try to get it right, knowing we might make mistakes.
I’d also like to note, as a result of conversations in last night’s #yalitchat on Twitter (the transcript of which should be available soon on the Lee & Low Blog), we often talk about writing cross-culturally in terms of white writers writing about people of color, but there are also many writers of color who feel pigeonholed to write only about their own culture. One writer said that she, having grown up in New York City, was comfortable with many different cultures but was unsure about writing a white woman from the Midwest. The same principles apply no matter where you’re coming from--research is key.
4. What are some of the Do’s and Don’ts of writing cross-culturally?
I highly recommend Nisi Shawl’s "Transracial Writing for the Sincere" in which she covers specific examples of writers who get it right, and a checklist that every writer writing cross-culturally (whether in real or imagined cultures) should ponder:
- First, get to know your subjects. Primary sources are best.
- When telling your story from any character’s viewpoint, be true to their take on the situation. Don’t give them your own anachronistic beliefs, or inauthentic, “p.c.” motivations.
- Allow minority characters to speak with their own voices, even if only in a brief comment. Contrasts between multiple viewpoints produce both diversity and depth.
- Show how race and prejudice figure in your setting, and what, if any, their connections.
- Remember that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Black people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics. Use these self-categorizations to add points of audience identification to your characters.
- Finally, offer your work to members of other ethnic groups for critique. You don’t have to follow their suggestions, but it won’t hurt to hear them.
5. How much of an impact should a character’s culture have on their identity and their plotlines?
You’ve probably talked about worldbuilding here before, and culture is a part of worldbuilding when we’re discussing fantasy. Whether you’re creating an imaginary world like Dragonlance that uses steel as currency and in which all chromatic dragons are evil, or you’re basing your world on something in the real world, it’s the same process of deciding what’s important to that character’s culture. Then you have to decide how that character interacts with his or her culture. Not every member of a culture buys into everything about their culture. No one character is “representative” of their culture. So you have to decide what cultural assumptions the character doesn’t question--for example, in an Asian Confucian society such as Korea or China, does the character believe in filial piety, so that his or her reaction to a mandate from an elder he or she doesn’t agree with would be different from, perhaps, a contemporary American’s reaction?--and what customs and beliefs that character might question or even rebel against. This will affect who the character is and how well he or she fits in with society. This might cause conflicts with characters who believe differently, and that’s when it gets interesting!
6. How can one tell that one has written cross-culturally appropriately?
As Nisi Shawl suggested in the link above, it is really important to run your work past someone familiar with the culture you’re delving into. No one member of a group can speak for the whole group, but getting their take on how well you reflected a general experience does help, especially if you have several members of that group give you their feedback. At Lee & Low Books, we also consult cultural experts, which gives us a reassurance that we’re not making, if not any errors, at least major faux pas. Cultural experts, for us, are people who are familiar with both children’s/young adult publishing--understanding the needs of literature not to read like a dry encyclopedia and to reflect individual characters’ experiences--and who are more knowledgeable than the average person. One of my consultants, for example, on a book with Japanese and Japanese American characters was a friend whose mother was Japanese and who lived in Japan for a few years as a kid, who is now studying Japanese in grad school. Another consultant was an author who writes about the culture in question, who is also a member of that culture. You might consult someone at your local university, or you might look for someone at a local museum or community organization that serves the culture in question. Writing about Korean culture? Perhaps even someone at the local Korean Baptist Church might be able to point you in the direction of an expert who would be willing to consult with you, if you don’t have a university nearby. You might have to do some footwork, but it will make your book better for you having done the research.
7. How can one take inspiration from a real culture for a fantasy society without being exploitive?
This is a genuine concern, especially for cultures that have been marginalized for centuries such as Native American people. I’ve often heard writers tell me they included some kind of Native American stereotype ala BROTHER EAGLE SISTER SKY out of “respect” to Native Americans, but “respect” doesn’t mean some nebulous “honoring” a culture by inserting a stereotypical caricature and calling it diversity. (Read the School Library Journal review of that book for some clarification on that. My favorite line is that the supposedly Pacific Northwest Indians in the book look like they came from Sioux Central Casting.) This is one of the reasons why, for example, Native Americans often object to the use of their people and cultures as sports mascots--often they incorrectly attribute beliefs, appearances, and practices to all Native Americans that probably never belonged even to one Native American people. Especially with Native American cultures (notice I use the plural there, because there is no one Native American culture--there are a number of different cultures hailing from different climates, with different beliefs and traditions), be sure to do your research and especially consult resources such as Oyate and American Indians in Children’s Literature--even if you’re not writing children’s literature--to get several Native Americans’ perspectives on books currently published. Seeing how they react to those books can hopefully guide you on directions not to take.
With other cultures, it’s similar, but with varying levels of welcoming for outsiders writing from their perspective. The biggest takeaway is that people are individuals. Don’t ask your black friend if your character sounds “black enough.” (See “Is My Character Black Enough” for more on that topic. Note particularly the comments section, where several people of color have chimed in with their points of view.) Recognize that people of any color will have different experiences depending on socioeconomic status, religion, family influences, friends, and the region they grew up in just as much as race/ethnicity, and do your research accordingly. Not all black people grow up in the inner city, not all people who live in the inner city are black and Latino, and most definitely not all people who live in the inner city live in the projects and join a gang. For that matter, not all people who live in the projects join a gang or live in fear of their lives. If you do want to write about people living in the projects in the inner city, take a look at the LARGE number of books already out there with that setting. How can you contribute something unique? Or would it be more interesting to write about Vietnamese farmers and fishing industry workers in the Mississippi and Louisiana bayous?
In other words, we need to look beyond stereotypes for inspiration. I can’t tell you how many African American parents have told me how tired they are that their kids only get to see themselves in books about inner city poverty and crime, slavery, or the Civil Rights movement. While certainly these are important points in our history, goodness, let’s get some more butt-kicking PoC out there in fantasy!
The most important thing to remember about dialect is to give the flavor of it mostly through sentence structure, rather than weird spellings and apostrophizing--I think a modern reader often finds Twain’s dialect to be hard to read, even if it worked for his time period. I would suggest going to look at the Nisi Shawl links for really great examples of how to do it right--there are no unreadable apostrophes, but rather unique sentence structures such as “Try and don’t put nobody in that number-six bedroom till I get to it at the end of the week.” It conveys the information that this person speaks differently than someone speaking standard English without trying to degrade the speaker in comparison to someone who does.
9. How can one make sure one does not play into damaging stereotypes, and yet at the same time, does not shy from aspects of a culture that may be important to that culture, but which the author finds distasteful?
This is where distancing oneself from the characters one writes is so important. You are not your characters, unless you’re writing a Mary Sue on purpose. (And if you are, why?) How does your character view the issue? If you feel it’s really important to indicate distaste for something in some way, there are subtler ways, such as having another character bring up an objection, or for the character to feel ambivalence about it yet obligation toward the practice, but it’s important to frame it in a way that works for the character.
I actually just dealt with this in a manuscript I was reading, in which the character’s view of women and certain minorities was distasteful to me but reflected the cultural indoctrination the character had received (since it was a submission that I haven’t contracted, that’s as specific as I can get). The character was a member of one of the minorities he’d been indoctrinated against, and it was part of his character growth to realize that maybe what he’d been taught was wrong. It was truly something that had never occurred to him up to the point of epiphany. There was, however, another character who provided a counterpoint and made him think about why he held certain opinions, and the conflict was natural to the plot they were navigating. It wasn’t preachy.
10. Any tips for creating well-rounded characters whose identities take into account their culture, but focuses more on how a character defines themselves (ie, a writer, a daughter, a geek)?
For a main character, their culture will come out through their practices and the description of their home or other environments, their interaction with their community, and all sorts of other tiny little details that will add up to a well-rounded character. For example, a devout Muslim or Jewish character will eat certain things and not eat other things, which doesn’t really need calling out necessarily, but might come up in the course of a scene. A kitchen scene in an Orthodox Jewish home would involve two sinks. Little details like that, worldbuilding details, convey as much information about the character as anything the character might tell you from his or her point of view, and sometimes more (does the Orthodox Jewish character put something in the wrong sink? perhaps that says something about their slipping faith, or perhaps it means they’re absent-minded and another character might react accordingly).
And then you let the plot and the way the character interacts with his or her world to show that character’s self-defining attributes. Going back to our absent-minded Orthodox Jew, perhaps he or she is a scientist working on a virus that could be engineered to save the world in some huge way. Their inner thought process about what they’re researching might overtake them at dinner and cause them to put their dishes in the wrong sink. More important characterization (and also a stereotype, but go with me here): absentminded professor who wants to save the world. Minor detail that also gives us characterization: this person is Orthodox and that practice is important to him or her, but today’s a bad day. Or, religious practice isn’t as important to him or her as science. Depends on the direction you’re going with the character.
11. Using animals (fox, minx, shrew, etc.) to describe women and commodities (caramel, chocolate, coffee, etc.) to describe racial color have both been pointed out as being a bit disturbing. Are there any other things of which cross-cultural writers should be aware, and how can one avoid falling into these pitfalls?
They’re not just a bit disturbing--they’re often offensive, and certainly not advisable. I’d also suggest avoiding tropes that are so overused they’ve become stereotypes, such as the Magical Negro. If you want to go down a rabbithole of the internet (from which you may never emerge), check out TVTropes, where I’m sure you’ll be able to find many more stereotypes to avoid.
12. Sherman Alexie and other authors have been quoted as having reservations that writing another culture can take opportunities away from that culture to express themselves. And yet, on the other side, there is significant concern that many cultures will continue to be underrepresented. How can we solve this?
In general, I agree with Sherman Alexie that we need more writers of color. One of Tu’s missions--as a part of Lee & Low--is to discover new writers of color and celebrate their work. But it isn’t enough. Sometimes it’s a chicken-egg cycle: are there not enough writers of color because of institutional racism that prevents kids of color from growing up to think they can become authors, or is it because there aren’t enough books featuring people of color (by anyone) showing readers of color that fantasy is awesome? So I personally encourage both. I’m actively seeking writers of color and I’m hoping that more fantasy books featuring PoC as the hero hook readers of color, who are underrepresented in fantasy readership. It’s not a zero-sum game. The more books that get it right, the better, and I don’t want to live in a world in which we’re told that we can’t come to understand each others’ points of view.
13. How has writing cross-culturally changed in the last hundred years, and where do you expect it to go over time?
In the last hundred years? Oh goodness, yes. That’s an easy one! :) There was definitely a lot of misappropriation happening 100 years ago, and I hope that as time goes on, more people will come to understand the line between misappropriation and appropriate cultural appropriation, to use Nisi Shawl’s phrase.
14. Are there lessons we can learn about how to portray our own cultures from this?
Sure. Just as there is no one way to be black or Native American, there’s also no one way to be white, Asian, Latino, Pacific Islander, etc. etc. etc. Better worldbuilding, plotting, and characterization can always be applied across the board.
15. What are some of your favorite multicultural fantasy books? (and what are your favorite examples of strong cross-cultural writing?)
Well, I can’t help but plug Tankborn by Karen Sandler and Galaxy Games by Greg Fishbone, both very good examples of writing well cross-culturally. Karen’s book uses a twisted version of the Indian caste system on another planet, a dystopian world in which genetically engineered non-humans--GENs, this culture’s version of the Untouchables--serve their superiors in Assignments from the time they turn 15. Karen once had an Indian coworker with whom she had many conversations about his culture, which inspired that part of her worldbuilding, and she did a lot of research to get the Sanskrit-inspired terms right. Galaxy Games stars a Japanese American boy and his Japanese cousin being recruited for the equivalent of the Olympics or the World Cup in space. Greg lived and studied in Japan, and he has a strong sense of Japanese culture, especially the wacky sense of humor so often found in manga and anime for kids. And in March we have Vodník by Bryce Moore coming out. Bryce’s wife is Slovak, so her family connections bring him to Slovakia every year, where he did his research on Roma in Slovakia for the book.
Other examples of multicultural fantasy, some of which are written by writers writing cross-culturally, can be found at my website, where I keep a list of multicultural fantasy and SF for children and young adults (be sure to also read the comments, where more books have been suggested). I really need to update the list, so you can also look at the Diversity in YA site’s monthly roundups from 2011 of new books, as well. That’s just in fantasy for young readers, of course. Also look for books (and these are recommended by friends, as I’m not an adult fantasy person, so hopefully you’ll find them good but I haven’t personally read them all yet) by N.K. Jemison, Nisi Shawl, Tobias Buckell, K. Tempest Bradford, L.A. Banks, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalini Singh, Meljean Brooke, Patricia Briggs, Faith Hunter, Devon Monk, Alaya Johnson, Terrance Taylor, S.J. Day, Jane Lindskold, Eileen Rendahl, Mario Acevedo, Marta Acosta, Laura Anne Gilman, and Charles de Lint. See more recommendations in the comments on the Genreville blog entry where I got several of these suggestions.
It might also be noted that some people feel that “multicultural” might not be the right word; more of this discussion can be found in a post I wrote two years ago (so it’s a little dated, but hopefully leads to interesting discoveries): “Is Multicultural the Right Word?”
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Stacy Whitman is the editorial director of Tu Books, the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery imprint of children's book publisher Lee & Low Books. She holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College.