Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing Racy

You may have noticed from my little avatar, but just in case you didn't, I'll let you in on a secret: I'm not white.

Sorry if it came as a surprise. It's so much a part of me that I don't think about it on a daily basis. I certainly don't stop to point it out, at least not until today. Even when I look in the mirror I don't notice the color of my skin or the slant to my eyes. It's just me. I've been mistaken for Filipino, Hawaiian, Black, Latina... I am all of that, and none of it. (Oddly enough, no one has ever mistaken me for English or Scottish, even though I'm also that and only God knows what else!)

Every once in a while someone will ask me where I'm from. My answer? Ohio. That is where I was born after all. Sometimes they'll laugh, they think I'm toying with them. But originally, they'll say, where are your parents from? Um, Nicaragua and Jamaica. Oooohhhh... Like that explains it.

The thing is, I've never claimed to be anything other than a first-generation American. My parents are both mixed race so in my opinion, there's not enough of any one nationality in me to claim one race. That would be shortchanging part of who I am. When I fill out those forms that ask for ethnicity, I check every box except Eskimo. As far as I know, that's the only one that doesn't apply. But honestly, if an Alaskan native shows up on my doorstep and claims to be related, I'm not going to faint from surprise. I've got everything else. Why not that too?

But as a writer, what is my responsibility to represent people like me in the pages of my books?

I've been blogging for two years and never felt the need to talk about my race. People either like reading my posts or they don't. I don't think my race has anything to do with it.

In my books, I imagine characters who are not white, but I never say what any of them are. I don't think I even mention skin color except in one story. And every reader thought from my description that the kid just had a tan. *sigh* In many of the stories I've read where they do mention skin color, it often sounds contrived. Sometimes through language or situations or names, you realize that the character isn't white. That, to me, is the most natural way to integrate it.

Or through the cover. But that's a whole other can of worms that I'm not even going to get into. Not today at least.

Because there are a lot of people like me. We were born in America, we see ourselves as American. We don't have ethnic names, we just speak English (okay, yes, I speak Spanish as well, but ignore that for the moment!).

Do I have a responsibility as a writer to find a way to represent people like me on the page?

(And btw, sorry if you were expecting a different type of racy discussion, but I write middle grade. You can visit Stina if you want a more sexy topic :P )


Unknown said...

LOL I saw your title on my dashboard and thought, "OMG, Sherrie's writing about sex!" So naturally I had to check it out.

This is even better. I struggle with it too. But race isn't part of the story, so I never know how to approach it. Usually I just leave it at names and sometimes have the character speak the other language here and there.

I get that 'where are you from' question a lot (because of my mixed up accent) and don't know how to answer it. I was born in England. My father's English and Mom's Finnish (with some Swedish and Russian probably down the line when the countries ruled Finland). But now I live in Canada.

Laura Pauling said...

I don't try and truly represent other cultures without a ton of research. I live in New England which is predominantly white community, so I do tend to write a race that I know and am familiar with. To answer your question, I think it's up to you. You can write a character with mixed ethnicity and probably do it well. But is it your responsibility? I say no. Writing the best story we possibly can is our responsibility.

Kristine Asselin said...

I love your post Sherrie. And like Stina, I also thought you were writing sexy. :)

I love reading stories that weave characters of diverse backgrounds into the story. I just want it to BE there, not obvious--unless it's part of the story to be obvious, of course. There are two kids from England in my novel and I HOPE they feel authentic. But I hate the thought of being cliche or contrived. For some reason I feel less nervous about writing dialogue for English white kids than I do with dialogue for American kids with dark skin. LOL.

You shouldn't be solely responsible for making sure characters who look like you are in your stories. I think we all are.

And I love that your answer is Ohio when people ask where you're from. :)

Anne Gallagher said...

When I read that sentence, "I'm not white," the first thing that popped into my head was, "So what color are you?" Meaning purple, green or orange.

I agree with Laura, I don't think it matters if you portray ethnicity in a story, as long as the story is great.

In teaching my daughter about the different colors people are, the easiest thing for me was (we were coloring with crayons at the time) -- people with light colored skin are peach, some people are tan, some light olive, and some people are brown. That pretty much covers it. Because people are people after all. No one should be classified as a color.

It's bad enough in this day and age to be classified as a number.

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

This is interesting because I have been wondering how I will talk to my daughter about her ethnicity. She is mostly "white," with a tiny smidge of Asian and Native American. Her skin is dusky and her eyes are almond shaped, so I suspect she will have people wondering as she grows older. But, like you, she is a mix of so many backgrounds that it's not easy to explain. She has ancestors from every white culture in the world, plus a sprinkling of others. She isn't more than 1/8 of any one ethnic group. I like how you said, "I am all of that, and none of it." So many people in the U.S. today have such rich, diverse backgrounds that there is no easy summary or box to check.

How to represent that in fiction? I'm not sure, but it's an interesting question to explore. There has been plenty of talk about representing specific races or cultures in fiction... but what about the many people who have no primary ethnic background? That concept is interesting and poetic in itself.

ivanova said...

I think it's a really positive thing when ALL writers include a diverse cast of characters in their writing. I don't think it's the responsibility of people of color to do this and everyone else has a free pass.

I think you should write what you are drawn to write! Thinking about what you are "supposed" to write sounds like it would block good writing.

Some of the other commenters have mentioned being white and wanting to write characters of other races, but not wanting to do a poor job and be offensive. This has been a hot topic in the science fiction community, and there are a lot of great articles about this that you can look up. For children's book writers, there's a great blog on this topic called
I think people should follow their star on writing, but if they want to write characters of color, it's definitely possible for people of all races to do this well and avoid stereotypes and cliches.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

It seems like when anyone thinks they "should" do something, it feels forced. As writers, our first responsibility is to tell a great story, and I know you do that!
As you pointed out, in the US many people have mixed races. In a perfect world, people wouldn't make a fuss one way or another about race, and I pray we can get there someday.
As for writing characters, the best descriptions of any kind always seem to work best when they are organic to the story.

Bish Denham said...

I hear your lament! I wish the U. S. would move away from the "segregating" labels. As for your writing, write what is in your heart. If race or color or ethnicity is part of it, great. If not, that's great too.

You know, growing up in the Caribbean I was never confused by seeing a "black" Santa in real life and a "white" Santa in books. Children see people as people, characters as characters. It's only as we get older that we get confused.

Angela said...

This is great. I'm about as white girl as they get, but I think its fun to write characters who aren't all white with blond hair and blue eyes.

I don't know if it's a responsibility or not, but it sure does add variety.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Love this, Sherrie. There is a lurking fear for me that who I am requires or limits whom I'm able to write about.

Who am I to write a life I've never lived? At the same time, isn't the human experience broad enough to touch everyone?

My dad is Greek and in many ways an Everyman. When we were in Saudi Arabia, everyone was sure he was Arabic. In New Mexico, everyone thought he was Hispanic. In small town Missouri, he's the guy with the funny last name. ;)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I don't think it matters at all, unless it is a key component of the story. Writing is meant to teach us what it means to be human, NOT what it means to be a color. :-)

Tere Kirkland said...

I guess it's different for me, since I'm white, but living in New Orleans, but I DO feel a responsibility to properly represent people I write about. And I couldn't write a story set in this city with an all-white cast. I wouldn't want to, and it wouldn't be authentic.

I do try to only address issues of race when it matters to the story, and not make the story about race, if that makes sense.

Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is a great example of a character not being described by race, but you slowly realize through situations, etc., that he and his family/friends are of West Indian descent, living in London.

Great post, Sherri!

Myrna Foster said...

I almost didn't open the post because I thought you meant the other "racy," but then I read your first sentence.

Sometimes race is important to the story (like in that Black Panthers story an author you recently interviewed wrote), but usually it isn't.

My brother married a girl whose mom is Korean, but she looks like her dad (last name is Nielson - tall, blondish reddish hair and complexion). Her sister looks like their mom, and people won't believe them when they say they're sisters.

Kristan Hoffman said...

Without going into a long story, I will say that I find it interesting how different people react to this issue. I'm mixed-race -- Taiwanese on my mother's side, plain old white bread American on my father's -- and because that has always been a big part of my identity, something I constantly thought about if not struggled with, I often find issues of ethnicity or culture playing a part in my characters lives as well.

That said, I certainly don't think fiction should or must always address race directly. It's not a factor in every story.

Cacy said...

Since if you don't indicate race characters are white by default, I try to find natural ways to mention what race characters are in my book because it does matter to me. I'd like to see more people of color, represented in non-typical ways in books (and movies) that aren't about race issues.

If I can't find a way to put in what people's races are through something relatively easy like a last name (not a guaranteed indicator) or a mention in the dialogue, I just go ahead and say it in the description of the character (not that race is or should be the only descriptor) and move the hell on to some fight scenes.

Sara {Rhapsody and Chaos} said...

LOL! I totally was expecting a different kind of racy ;-)

A friend of mine who wasn't white once got feedback from an agent saying they'd be more interested in repping my friend IF she wrote about characters who also weren't white. She was *really* upset.

I told her the same thing I'm going to tell you: I think you should write the characters who form in your mind. Tell their stories as honestly as possible. If the color of their skin matters to you, or to the story, awesome! And if not, just write your heart out and enjoy who you create :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Interesting post! I talk about skin color in my stories only if it's important to the plot or to get a good understanding of who the character is. This was interesting to deal with when my editor with Rhemalda was going over Monarch. :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Oh, and I thought you were writing about sex over here, too. I was like, HUH?! Hehehe. :)

MG Higgins said...

Great post and question. I think only you can answer it for yourself. An interesting question for me is whether it's okay, being caucasian, to write about other races. I've heard both sides of the issue and haven't made up my mind.

Chelsea Pitcher said...

I don't think it's your responsibility as a writer to imply race if you don't want to/like to. I think it's the responsibility of readers to think outside their (sometimes racist) boxes. In other words, they ought to read more books written by authors of different races, sexes, classes, sexualities, etc., and maybe they will stop making assumptions about race if the author chooses not to be explicit about it.

Tammee said...

As a black writer, I do not believe I have a responsibility to write all "black stories", however, as of late my WIPs (which are all historical) are stories about black people. And as I continue on my writing journey I think that I will always have black characters front and center, not because I owe it to anyone or feel guilty, but because I think there are so many stories that haven't been told about black folks and Asian folks and Hispanic/Latino folks etc.

You should write what feels right to you, and be true to the characters, ie. don't make Cindy black because you didn't fill your minority quota, but because that's who she was when she came to you.

And btw, I think it would be great to have a character with a background similar to your own, who doesn't have any great anxiety over it, who can say I'm from Ohio, but who still can show that she is a product of all that she came from in small ways, and for whom that background is not the main feature of the story.

Lori W. said...

What a sneaky title for a post! ;) Very interesting topic and comments. I loved your advice about characterization being revealed through dialog, how other perceive the character, etc. vs. a description of skin color.

A person's ethnicity is either important to the story or not. I think (as Tricia said) that the first responsibility of the writer is to the story. And I also don't think you have to come from a certain ethnic background to write from that POV, but I guess you'd better have a great imagination and do your homework.

I do think it's the responsibility of publishers to reflect the diversity of the world. I want to read about people from other countries and people from Ohio who get asked "Where are you from originally?" I picture you answering that annoying question w/such grace.

I'm happy people are trying to reflect the diversity of the U.S. in all forms of media. I think we're moving away from stereotypes more and more each year. Think back to television in the 70s and 80s. Ugh.

Jackee said...

I loved your honesty, Sherrie. And I loved the title too! LOL! Seemed so out of your personality at first. :o)

For me (and I'm sure you too), we write about the characters who ring true to us rather than what their race is. I think most of us don't look in a mirror and see a race. Honestly, I barely notice other people's race because it doesn't matter to me.
That said, I loved how Rick Riordan managed to make a white-skinned sister and a black-skinned brother the MCs in his Red Pyramid book. Then had that mixed family situation weave into the story. It was genius.

Have a great Thursday, my friend!

Becky Levine said...

Sherrie, I wanted to answer this yesterday, but I think I needed it to simmer. So here goes--this strikes such a chord for me.

I am Jewish. Okay, so the name & the hair are probably giveaways. I am not religious-pretty much nobody in my family has been for 3-4 generations. But that same family has its roots in so much Jewish past--immigration to the US at the turn of the century on one side, leaving Germany in the late 30s on the other. For many years of my life, I faced (and sometimes fought, sometimes didn't)assumptions from others about who I was/wasn't. I'm pretty clear that I'm ME, but for some people that doesn't seem to be enough definition.

Again, your writing about this struck a chord--the MCs in my books so far have been Jewish, in that I know they are, or part Jewish. And yet not a word about it on the page--again, why put a narrow, one-dimensional definition out there? When I started this latest WIP, though, the historical, it started to become very clear that if I was going to be writing about the daughter of immigrants in 1910'ish Chicago, she was going to have to be SOMETHING. I resisted for a very long time making her Jewish, because it feels--again--like opening her AND me up to all those assumptions and, frankly, arguments. But really, the WIP was demanding some extra identification, and I found that I pretty much couldn't make her non-Jewish--I wasn't going to have a CLUE how someone else's world was tied to her ethnicity. So...and then the story started to connect itself to my own past, to my Grandmother's childhood in Chicago, to the stories about her and her sister quitting public school after 8th grade to go to secretarial school, to all the transitions and changes I know my family made when they came here. To my mom, even, who came her in the late 40s and moved bravely forward into a new world and culture.

So I'm writing my MC as the Jewish-American daughter of immigrants. And I still struggle with this, second-guessing whether people will lay their assumptions on my book and argue with me about it. And thinking about my own agenda and my own beliefs about race, ethnicity, mixing people's lives instead of isolating them. And wanting to use Jane Addams' world as a base, to show that people do and did cross lines, push back barriers, and share lives that others would demand they keep separate.

And, I guess, if I have to, if I GET to--I'll have the argument.

There. My vent. Is it my responsibility to do this? I don't know. I have two views on this--I truly believe that the writer's main responsibility is to their story. I feel like my story has and is demanding this from me. On the other hand, if I get a chance in other books to talk more about this line-crossing, about this building of mixed communities that I believe in and hope for, SHOULD I do it? I think only I can answer that for myself--nobody else gets to tell me one way or the other, I'd say. And ditto for you?

That DID run on. Told you you got me thinking! *Hugs*

Amanda Hoving said...

What an interesting post and fabulous discussion in the comments! Like Becky, I will ponder and simmer. Thanks for giving me something to think about as I write today.

Krispy said...

Argh, I think blogger just ate my comment! Okay, will try to rewrite.

First, THANK YOU for having this discussion on your blog! I think it's an important one to have.

While I think there needs to be more people of color represented in fiction, I don't think authors who are POC have any more responsibility to write POC characters than anyone else. Writing, after all, is something that we do because we love it and it's fun, and ultimately, we write for ourselves. You should never feel pressured to write something you don't want to write.

That said, I know I've become more aware of the lack of and need for characters of color as I've gotten older. In a society as diverse as ours, it's a shame that this diversity isn't often reflected in fictional worlds. I've noticed in my own writing that a lot of my characters are white by default, and I realize now that's a result of having grown up in a society where the dominant figures in our culture are white. I think it'd be lazy of me to keep going along without being aware of this trend in my own writing and really thinking about it.

P.S. You totally tricked me with your 'racy' title! I thought you meant the other one too, and then I was like, 'Wait, doesn't Sherrie write MG?' Haha.

Unknown said...

Interesting post! I'm white with European descendants, and I currently live in a city with a high percentage of white people. However, two of my best friends are not. One is East Indian and one is native Canadian/white mix but she looks Native. When we go out together, which we do a lot, I wonder what people see or if they even notice.

As a writer, I don't feel compelled to write white because I am white, but it is the culture I know best. I try to stay true to the setting. I have one book set outside Boston and since I've lived there before, I know there is a significant population from Brazil. To write that story and not include this element wouldn't have been authentic. My MC, who is mixed race, has a best friend who is Brazilian. I don't say this. I don't describe her skin. I gave her a name that could be Hispanic, long dark hair that my MC covets, and had her talk Portuguese to her family. I think this is enough because the story isn't about race. It's a about people.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

OK, I had the same reaction as Stina! LOL

Race is such a complicated, sticky topic, and I'm glad you brought it up. We need more discussion about it, in so many ways, but all of it positive-leaning.

I've written characters-of-color and had a range of reactions, not all of them positive. For me, I was just writing the reality of the future-world I was envisioning, and it was decidedly not race-based. But it's such a hot-button topic in the world-of-today that it gets seen in that lens.

But to your question: Do you have a responsibility to write characters of mixed race?

Do I have a responsibility to write stories about women who were sexually harassed, just because it happened to me? Do I have a responsibility to write strong feminist characters? Do I have a responsibility to write about impoverished Polish immigrants that came over on the boat, just because that's my family history?


The only responsibility you have is to use your talents and share your creative vision with the world. And you DO have a responsibility to do that, because otherwise the world will be a little less bright because of it.

Rebecca Gomez said...

Coming in to this late, but I don't really think about race as I'm writing. Of course, that would be totally different if race was a factor in the story. But so far, that hasn't been the case. The main character in my novel in verse is dark skinned and has straight black hair, but I have no idea what race she is!

My kids are mixed race (husband's family is from Mexico and I'm a blend of various "whites"), and I've been asked if my older daughter is "mixed" before. It makes me laugh, because, yes, she is mixed, but probably not the way they are thinking.

Sarah Laurenson said...

I know the popular perception is that the default race is white, but I'm not sure that's really true. Yes, when I read a lot of books, my head leans to white if not stated otherwise (explicitly or implicitly). However...

I bought Passing for Black awhile ago. Author of color, I assume. Black women on the front cover (that's what drew me to pick it up in the first place). Started reading it and automatically went to the thought that all the characters were black. They aren't.

It was an interesting piece of my learning journey.

One thing I do notice in my reading is that I sometimes gloss over descriptions - not my favorite part - and will miss the author's statements on the race of the character.

Race has been an odd thing for me. I am very white - literally, you can see a lot of my veins - and raised Christian. I grew up in an inner city black neighborhood and then a Jewish neighborhood. I watched a lot of British TV. When we moved to the South, white people noticed how comfortable I was speaking to black people and they pointed it out to me like it was unusual. My father was extremely racist. My mother was the opposite extreme. To my chagrin, I find I'm somewhere in the middle, but I'm working on getting to Mom's side.

Translating that to my writing has been a lower priority for me while I was learning to write. Now it's rising a lot closer to the top as I consider my characters and who they really are as well as what I would like to say to the next generation.

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