Sunday, June 1, 2014

On Writing "Multicultural" Literature


Note: This article was first published in 2013 as part of the "Writerly Wisdom" series at Donna Martin's blog entitled, On The Write Track. I made a few adjustments to a few links that were updated, and an occasional word swap. Click here to see the original post.

On Writing "Multicultural" Literature

By Miranda Paul


For those of you who don’t already know, I’ll put it out there: I’m white.

It probably shouldn’t matter, and at the same time, it should and does. Here’s why:

Not every story is mine to tell.

I know that, and I respect that.

That doesn’t mean I only write stories that originate my Midwest hometown, about characters who look like me, grew up like me, talk like me, etc. In fact, those of you who know what I write is far more diverse. But what I write is also based upon experience, research, passion, and personal connection.

Let’s consider this current #kidlit dilemma:

Even though people have been advocating for more “multicultural” literature for decades, we still need more stories about all kinds of people who come from all sorts of backgrounds and live and talk in diverse ways.

Oh, and we need these stories written by authors who are just as diverse.

Back in 1970, award-winning poet Lucille Clifton published two children’s books—The Black BC’s and Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. This certainly wasn’t the beginning of multicultural #kidlit, of course. But I begin with Lucille because she was my first professor of children’s literature, and because she championed the idea that children needed both “mirrors and windows. Mirrors in which they can see themselves, windows in which they can see the world.”

I was blessed to be initiated into the craft of writing for children by such a kind, strong, and gifted woman. Her books offered positive, contemporary portraits of African Americans without racial stereotyping. Her books are wrapped in authenticity, humanity, and universal truth.

Lucille’s example of consciously giving children access to “windows and mirrors” stuck with me as I headed off to teach in West Africa later that year. There, my students had a significant lack of books that accurately depicted individual, contemporary African settings and characters, and I’ve been working over the last few years to build libraries with relevant books. I also married interracially and when we had children, this idea became very personal. Most picture books were “window stories” for my children. Far fewer were “mirrors”, with characters who looked like or had families like our own. Thus, I’m always on the lookout for great “multicultural” books (although most times, the separation and separate-shelving of that label irks me) that depict biracial families, children with grandparents living abroad, immigrant parents, a second language in the home, West African and Caribbean cultures, etc.

Let me now get back to an earlier point, about not every story being mine to tell.

Although I’ve written several stories that are classified as “multicultural”, they’ve mostly been stories I have a personal connection to and resulted from experience, research, and collaboration with people within the culture.

There are a lot of underrepresented cultures or lifestyles that interest me, and I see a need for stories about them in the publishing market. But ultimately, at the end of the day, each story should be about a character, in a specific place, at a specific time. That means DETAILS. I am not always the best person for writing those details, especially if the culture is one I’ve not experienced firsthand.

The thing is, not only do children deserve stories that contain “mirrors,” but the author bio or photo needs to reflect diversity as well. Growing up, I never got the chance to actually meet anyone who wrote for a living, and the lack of a model seriously affected my confidence that writing for a career was even possible.

So when I got invited to a school with other authors, I noticed immediately all four of us were white women with blond hair and blue eyes. I had to question what unintentional message this was sending to the kids. Perhaps our lack of diversity meant nothing on a conscious level. Maybe the kids didn’t notice. But what if there was some sort of subconscious message at work? Don’t they deserve to see authors who look like them, in order to ignite a sense of possibility that they, too, can be authors?

I think it’s extremely important for authors who are not of color to remain encouraging and supportive of the organizations who are consciously making an effort to address the call for diversity in children’s books. I am thrilled that publishers such as Lee and Low are hosting a New Voices contest for authors of color and it’s still open to entries until September 30. The Coretta Scott King award and Pura Belpré multicultural children’s book awards are critical in realizing visions where all children can find both windows and mirrors in books.

Whatever your race or ethnicity (or diverse experience!), don’t feel as though multicultural literature means only writing about your own heritage. And it's not about making the culture or setting more important than the story or character. At the same time, don’t feel as though a marketing need or lack of books on a subject qualifies you to write that particular book. If you feel like an outsider, your narration will seem distanced and inauthentic, and your reader won’t have access to a true window or mirror.

Writing multicultural literature is a daunting task, but there are individuals and organizations out there to help you. Mira Reisberg at Hummingbird Literary has made it a point to seek out multicultural stories, and a few agents at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Full Circle Literary mention a desire to see multicultural submissions on their websites. (Addendum: Foreword Literary has also directly tweeted me stating they are committed to a diverse range of authors and stories.) The Highlights Foundation (hey, I’m there right now!) can help you find out which stories might be yours to tell, and how to present authentic and diverse characters and settings. In fact, they have an upcoming workshop called Writing Across Boundaries (update: I don't see an upcoming workshop specifically on diversity / writing across boundaries retreat this year, like there was at the time I posted this last year.)

Remember, if you have the passion to write a multicultural story, honestly address your bias or fear of writing across boundaries and why you're writing it (hopefully not just because you think a diverse book will sell or you wanted to try something new). Keep in mind the child who deserves that window to another world or a mirror of her own. And don't forget to go way beyond Internet research. Go immerse yourself in that world.

7 comments:

pennyklostermann.com said...

You have such an intelligent way of bringing your heart to your posts, Miranda! This is an awesome post. I think books have to have an authentic feel and that we can't just decide to write a multicultural book without having some experience to bring to the story. It won't feel authentic. Every story isn't ours to tell and if we try just for the sake of hitting a market, it won't work. It won't ring true.
Have a wonderful time at Highlights! I hope to do that some day :-)

Tina Cho said...

Excellent information and advice, Miranda! I agree that even though one might not be from that culture, they need to really research it to make it a true mirror or window. I have a couple multicultural stories that I'm trying to get published (the traditional way).

Cindy Williams Schrauben said...

Great info, Miranda. I wouldn't pretend have the emotional knowledge necessary to write cross-cultural. I hope, though, that I am able to help these stories to be more widely read and marketed.

jan godown annino said...

Thank you, Miranda. Both for the "other" world of living authors should remember they dwell in & for the thoughts about writing the "other."
Amy Bowllan, who created the Writers Against Racism series at School Library Journal's, was enormously uplifting to me when I debuted a picture book on a Native American topic, which is outside my heritage (except for one distant relation by marriage.) It took an enormous two decades for me to approach the biography topic, who I knew through her newspaper work, but whom I thought should be profiled by someone in her community. The publisher took a top-drawer role in establishing that advice on the text would be sought from the Tribe historians/curators/museum staff. It was an empowering experience that I would repeat, again, if I were drawn to another amazing person such as Betty Mae Jumper. Again thank you for including diversity among your key topics.

Jan Godown Annino/Bookseedstudio

Jilanne Hoffmann said...

I am a blonde, Midwesterner who now lives (and writes) in San Francisco. I've written about many people from diverse backgrounds as part of my freelance work for an adult audience. I'm not going back to some of those stories and thinking about rewriting them for kids. If you have a story that needs to be told, it's important to get it out there, no matter the author's background. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Jilanne Hoffmann said...

The previous post should have read, "I'm NOW going back..."

lindaschueler said...

I love the windows and mirrors analogy!
I also married interracially, and I am always looking to find some stories to better reflect my child's world. Since I have not yet found them, I am starting to write them.
Have you thought of running some workshops/courses yourself?

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