Writing Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Racial Characters in the Time of Growing Identity Politics
Be afraid, very afraid to jump into writing about characters who are not of your race, sex, age, nationality, experience or ability. But be brave and do it anyway. We all need to be able to get into each other’s heads and empathize deeply. The survival of the world ultimately depends on it.
Ten years ago, I walked into an appointment with a New York agent who liked my work, but with one look at me as I walked in the door, my dreams of representation were history. “I thought you were a black writer. We can’t possibly sell a mystery about a black family written by a white author.” Since then, I’ve been collecting thoughts on this false assumption.
Despite Trump-era nationalism, a growing number of our planet’s inhabitants live in a multi-cultural world. And it’s only going to become more so. I can understand how it raises fear of change and disenfranchisement. White privilege is slowly on its way out. Sorry folks, all the marching in the streets with torches, chanting Nazi slogans and murdering innocent pedestrians is not going to stop it.
Embrace the future. I can’t imagine writing just about a bunch of white people. I’m white, but I’m also part of a melting pot that needs a wide variety of ingredients to serve up a world-class comfort soup.
Racial, ethnic and sexual politics are at the core of our shared history. In my Lucy Vega and Beatrice Middleton series (debut April 1, 20178 with Deadly Focus,) I step inside a black woman’s head and share the things I can—devotion to family, seeking the truth and fighting for love and justice. I chose to focus more on our shared humanity than on race.
The author may not always get it right, but that’s life. Take the risk and open the dialogue.
Identity Politics Identity politics can be defined as political activity or movements based on or catering to the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, or social interests that characterize a group identity.
But things are (possibly) starting to change. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue appears to be the culmination of something that’s been going on for the past few years: the thawing of cultural ownership. If this is not yet a full-fledged movement, it is certainly a pivot.
“White writers are returning to the subject of race, and they are driven not by some ham-fisted, white-guilt social consciousness, as William Styron was, but from the realization that the story of race is their story, too. They’re not cultural carpetbaggers—they’re taking a long look in the mirror and assessing the impact of race and racism on themselves.”
Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels Susan Triss writes further about Cultural Diversity in Mystery Novels. The following article was published this year in both the Poisoned Pen Newsletter and the Sisters in Crime Quarterly Newsletter December 2017.
In September, I wrote about including real life diversity in mystery fiction. Depictions and plots that reflect that are an important part of the issue, but it does not end there. Deeper and more complicated is the question of how to write important characters from backgrounds not our own. If you want to see a bunch of writers with smoke coming out of their heads, suggest that it is not possible, or even merely that it is hard to write different gender, race, ethnicity, or any other difference, and do it well. It’s such a touchy subject that even as I write this, there is a heated discussion on a mystery writers e-list. “Censorship” has been mentioned—with heat. It’s true that writing only what we know personally— our own gender, own age, own background, own experiences—would be pretty boring and limited. Writers observe and imagine! Nothing is off limits, although, doing it well might be harder than it seems at first.
A Time When “Everyone Knew” After all, it’s not what we don’t know that trips us. We all know how to research. It’s what we think we know, but we don’t. Let’s not forget there was a time, quite recently, when “everyone knew” that women are not logical enough to do law, all Asians are good at math, and all African-Americans are athletic. Some people would still sign on to those ideas, even without hatred, and never recognize that it is prejudice. And there was a time, not even that long ago, that “everyone knew” that “ladies” were too delicate for the workplace, Africans were not fit for any work but manual labor, the Irish were drunks, and Jews cheated at business. Need I go on? It’s certainly disconcerting to read old favorites from earlier 20th century and see the everyday, ordinary prejudice. It was “normal” to write it because “everyone” knew it was true. For instance, the casual anti-Semitism in British mysteries of the pre-World War II decades is chilling in light of history. Another example comes from my early career in children’s books, at a time when everything was being reassessed. A beloved classic book included an African prince who reads fairy tales and goes off to find his own Sleeping Beauty. And when he awakens a girl sleeping in her garden she says, “You are ugly. You are too black.” So he puts white coloring on his face. Anyone who is not appalled by that is not thinking hard enough. And yet, at the time it was published, there was no problem with it.
Passing The Reality Test It seems fairly arrogant to assume that everything we—in all our talented glory—think we know, now, about “other” communities, would pass the reality test by someone within the community. We don’t need to look any further than some lauded 20th century male American writers who could never separate their own feelings about women from writing about women. It was always from the outside, the male gaze in action, and their women are never quite convincing. At least, to women. On the other hand, one of the most powerful depictions of being an old man I’ve ever read was written by a young woman in her twenties. She was writing outside her experience in multiple ways but it was so sensitively observed, so complex in characterization, that it seemed powerful and truthful. Of course, I don’t know what a very old man would say. Complexity might be the key word here. If you want to go beyond populating the background of your book with believable diversity, and make that character a bigger part of the story, then make him or her complex. As we all are. The Mexican worker in the grocery store has big dreams for a smart child. The teen in a wheelchair is going to a rock concert. The Nepali manicurist has conflicts with her teenage son. The Jamaican nanny just became a citizen. And they all have feelings and opinions about all of it. We need to read and ask questions, a lot, before we decide what to include.
Finding the Importance You may be able to include a minor character, but not an important one. You may be able to include an important one, but not as the narrator, because you would not have the voice or accent just right. People who speak Spanish with different accents in their native language also speak English with a different accent. And there’s more to sounding West Indian than sprinkling in “mon.” I have actually stopped reading a few mysteries because they seemed so unconvincing and only found out later that the author, writing in the first person, was using a different gender voice. There are no easy answers. Why should there be? Incorporating diversity has been a tough subject in our whole society from the beginning and is only bigger and harder lately. In our writing lives, I think a good start is to really listen to what people say and how they say it, to research, to question our own assumptions, and to be respectful. A caricature of any kind, a hateful name, even a stereotyped compliment, has no place in honest writing.