Stories That Cross Borders and Boundaries

Multicultural literature is the new buzzword in town and authors Jennifer Cervantes, Christina Gonzalez, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall have some great tips on how to do it right! The following tips on authenticity with a multicultural voice was shared at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference.

A Little About Each Author:

  • Christina Gonzales – “I am the author of The Red Umbrella. I am an SCBWI success story. I met my editor at an SCBWI Event. I wrote my book in 6 weeks (to finish it, per the editors request to see it at the conference). My parents are Cuban. My mother-in-law was part of the exodus which takes place in my book. My heritage is part of me and part of my passion.”
  • Guadalupe Garcia McCall – “I am from Texas, and before that Mexico. I came to the USA at the age of six. I teach poetry. I tried marketing a collection of poems, and found an editor interested in my work but who doesn’t sell poetry. She asked me to re-write the book as a novel in verse. Under the Misquite was the result. It is the story of a girl dealing with her mother’s cancer.”
  • Jennifer Cervantes – “I am a bi-racial child. I am half Mexican half Anglo. My book Tortilla Sun is an exploration of identity, and it does reflect my own personal experience.  My culture is strongly reflected in my books.”

Why is Multicultural Literature the New Buzz Word?

  • Multicultural Lit is the newest buzzword that you hear from editors and agents.
  • The real question to ask is why do editors and agents want multicultural literature?  The answer is it’s all in the numbers. On half of all kids under the age of five are minorities. They can see where the future of the market is going.
  • Multicultural kids want to see themselves in books.
  • These books are a window to a new culture for everyone one else.

There Are Two Types of Multicultural Books: Culturally Generic and Culturally Specific

Culturally Generic Books:

  • These books are wink to a culture, but not meant to teach about culture.
  • You will often see a supporting character with an ethnic last name like Hernandez, but they don’t speak Spanish.
  • Race is not the point of these books. Being multicultural is a character trait but it is not the crux of the novel.
  • Examples: Gaby Triana’s Riding the Universe, The Gone Series, Leading Violet.
  • There is definitely a place for these kind of stories.

Culturally Specific Books:

  • This is a traditional multicultural story.
  • The culture is endemic to the story. These are often historical or truly immersed in the culture.
  • Examples: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian By Sherman Alexie.

If You Want to Write a Multicultural Story, You Should Be Aware Of…

  • You must ask yourself if you are writing a culturally specific or generic story, and why.
  • What are you trying to achieve? Does culture add to the work or is it superfluous?
  • Beware of stereotypes when writing.
  • Are you an insider or an outsider? How does this affect your writing? (Insider is a term for someone who grew up in the culture).
  • Don’t paint all multicultural characters with the same brush stroke.

How Do You Approach Multicultural Books the Right Way?

  • Take evaluative measures. Be aware of how to avoid stereotypes. These can be the greatest pitfalls.
  • No distortions! Befriend people in the culture. Ask questions, check facts. Find primary and secondary sources and have them help check your dialog, etc. People love to talk to writers!
  • Beware of insulting those in the culture. Make sure your characters are fully developed and multi-layered.  Complex!
  • Be aware that there are different dialects within the same language (Spanish for example). People speak differently in California vs. Arizona vs. Texas vs. New Mexico. Think about this like the use of the word soda. It can be called: soda, pop, or coke, all depending upon where you live and the slang for that area.
  • Characters should be strong enough to solve their own problems. Don’t have another culture bail them out! There should be personal strength within the character.
  • You don’t have to be PC on every little thing. But be careful, there is a fine line.
  • The idea of the hero is important in race related books. Don’t have the characters bail out, or undermine the culture.

How Do You Show Culture When Writing?

  • Don’t say “so and so is __________ (insert ethnicity/race here).”
  • Use sensory details to show ethnicity. What type of food do they eat? What is their name? What type of music do their parents listen to? What kind of nick-names do they have? What slang terms do they use?
  • Beware of cliché areas that certain cultures are thought to live in. For example there is a cliché that Hispanic cultures in books about Hispanic teens should be set in Los Angeles, Miami, or New York. In reality there are very large Hispanic populations all over the place – particularly Oklahoma, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

Must You Be An “Insider” to Write a Multicultural Book With Authenticity?

  • There is a controversy that only insiders (those brought up in the culture) are the only ones who can write multicultural books with authenticity. We disagree.
  • With the proper amount of research and homework you can be very authentic. You have the skills!
  • Saying only an insider can write an ethnic story is like saying no one can write historical fiction unless they were alive in that time period! But there are lots of historical fiction novels! The key is research!
  • There is even pressure for those that are insiders to “get it right.” We all have fear as we write, and we all want to do it well.
  • In the end, know that not everyone is going to like your book. This is true for all books. Embrace it and move forward.
  • The best you can do is know that you did your research and you wrote the story you wanted to tell.

Where Do You Get Good Sources?

  • Try international students at colleges or universities. They love to talk about their cultures and experiences. Do note that they may be privileged.
  • Beware of internet information.
  • Friends and Family.

Good Stories Transcend Culture:

  • Most stories will transcend culture. Find the universal themes in your book and use them.
  • Grow your novel.

Other Points of Interest:

  • Code-switching is when someone fluidly changes from one language to another such as Spanish to English.
  • Hispanic-Americans are looking for stories about them! But they are looking for multicultural generic books, not just the history of the culture. They want to see themselves reflected in modern culture and in contemporary novels.

Writing Exercise:

  • Write about a multicultural character who has come home for dinner at night. But don’t tell us their ethnicity. What would they do. Have a friend read it and see if they can guess the character’s ethnicity.

Jennifer Cervantes grew up believing in the magic of story and often asked “what if…” She is the author of Tortilla Sun and is a faculty member at New Mexico State University where she teaches writing, and young adult literature. You can learn more about her at www.jennifercervantes.com.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez is the author of The Red Umbrella a compelling novel about a 14-year-old girls journey from Cuba to the USA as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Christina is an SCBWI success story as she met both her agent and editor at SCBWI Conferences. You can find out more about her at www.christinagonzalez.com.

Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite a novel-in-verse. Guadalupe was born in Piedras Negras, Cohuila. Her family immigrated to the US when she was six, so she could attend school. She is an English/Language Arts teacher in San Antonio, Texas.

7 thoughts on “Stories That Cross Borders and Boundaries

  1. I’m so glad I saw this. You address many of the issues I’m encountering in the course of writing a YA novel set in the Bahamas. I lived there while I was growing up so I’m an insider -which helps. Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful post. I’m retweeting it on Twitter.

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  6. Lovely post! I’m sure that you’re aware of Mitali Bose Perkins’ nice post on writing multicultural characters: http://www.mitaliblog.com/2008/10/ten-tips-about-writing-race-in-novels.html
    I of course think all authors in a multicultural world must be responsible to represent that world – but get worried when ‘multiculturalism’ is gestured to but essentially what’s going on is stereotyping or exotification.
    An important topic for multicultural authors, but all authors, readers, and the publishing industry as well!
    –Sayantani
    (where I blogged about this recently: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/11/hands-off-my-cultcha-should-only-ethnic.html)

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