Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Archive for February, 2012

6306622 L Riddhi Hopes Her Take On Ethnicity Is Authentic, But Reminds Readers Shes Writing FictionLast week, I picked out two books from the middle-grade fiction shelf at Mulhenburg, my corner NYLP. I hadn’t specifically sought them out, but was amazed at one random but major coincidence: Grk Smells a Rat (by Joshua Doder) and Small Acts of Amazing Courage (by Gloria Whelan) both have connections to India. Neither book is by an Indian author and both are of completely different genres.

I’ve only briefly thumbed through Whelan’s book and the jacket tells me that it is about Rosalind, an English girl in India in 1918. The first Indian character to be mentioned in the book is Ranjit, and imagine my surprise — NOT — to discover that he is the head servant.

Grk…,with an illustration of the Taj Mahal on its cover (although it was the spine that caught my attention and that doesn’t even feature the Taj on it), tells the hilariously-funny adventure of the British tourists Tim, Max, Natascha and their dog Grk as they arrive in New Delhi for the Vijay Ghat International Lawn Tennis Association Under-Sixteen Championship. I read this book cover to cover. It was delicious, and I devoured every page.

My heart jumped with joy when I read about Mr. Vijay Ghat: “Vijay Ghat was one of the richest men in India. He had made millions and millions and millions gambling on the stock market. He’d made millions of dollars, yen and euros too.” Finally, an Indian that isn’t a beggar or a doctor, nor a slumdog millionaire, I exclaimed. But perhaps too soon. The kids also meet Krishnan, a boy who sells them a pirated copy of Harry Potter and belongs to the Blue Rat Gang, a group that enslaves children.

As I mentioned earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire novel, but couldn’t help roll my eyes at some of the stuff captured in it — like the Blue Rat Gang. I questioned if it was cool for the author to spin a yarn about a woman who controlled thousands of children by listening to a talking rat. Did he set it in India simply because mine is a culture full of exotic things like elephant-headed gods? Is that supposed to make it believable? Perhaps not.

But then I had a long, hard think about my own writing and took back all the eye-rolls. I’ve never intentionally intended to or set out writing about Indianness as an agenda. One of my stories is about a girl caught in a punctuation war, while another is about a man and his runaway moustache. Both stories are set in India, and that is certainly NOT why they are (I hope) ridiculous. I wasn’t ever trying to milk my ‘exoticism’: in my defense, the stories unbelievability exists due to its fictionability.

But the Indianness is inescapable. My background and my culture bleeds into my writing in a way in which I have no control. Heck, I even have a character in one of my stories who is a kid from the slums. But that said, in a large portion of my work, I’m certainly NOT painting an accurate and believable picture of India myself. Isn’t it great that fiction allows us to create worlds that are familiar to ours, and yet very different? And if I can let myself get away with it, I must allow other writers to do the same.

Writing about ethnicity is always a sensitive issue. When people from one ethnicity or culture write about people from other cultures, there’s always the chance of someone being offended (this may include even those who share the same ethnicity as the author). It makes it worse when people lose their sense of humor and imagination. Often, people get offended by things that may be completely unintentional. I’m pretty sure the authors weren’t suggesting that all of India is full of illiterate con artists, servants and beggars that are controlled by talking rats, but maybe for a split-second the thought couldn’t help but cross my mind. Still, taking offence would only make me the ignorant one.

Before I came to New York, I had been warned about ignorant “white” people who would ask me if people back home really lived in trees and travelled on the backs of elephants. But I’m very proud to be in a city and in a school where I pretty sure I will never meet that “white person.” I don’t feel the need to explain the way things are back home (or to remind people that they’re not that different), because frankly, us Indians are inescapable. We’re just too many of us, and we’re everywhere.

Some of my classmates are always asking me for more Indian details in my writing, they want to see everything, smell everything, taste everything and touch every little thing, just to get a sense of how real it is. I hope I can give them a blend of what they want, while balancing out the fictional world that I am trying to create. In the meanwhile, I’m hoping to see books by great contemporary Indian authors such as Paro Anand, Kalpish Ratna, Anshumani Ruddra and Sampurna Chattarji on bookshelves here in NYC.

Jess’s Big News!

Posted by Jessica Verdi On February - 28 - 2012

photo 448x600 Jesss Big News!As writers, we are lovers of words. Learning new words, rediscovering old words, choosing the perfect words to come out of our characters’ mouths. But I now know five words that, when put in a very specific sequence, are better than any other words in the whole wide world: I GOT A BOOK DEAL!

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I don’t like celebrating myself. I’ve never been one for birthday parties and I didn’t even have a wedding – I talked my husband into getting married at City Hall. (It costs 25 bucks and takes about 30 seconds. Plus, you can wear jeans!) But selling my book, getting this deal… well, I kinda want to shout it from the rooftops.

My debut novel, On the Plus Side, a contemporary YA about a suburban teenage girl who tests positive for HIV, will be published by Sourcebooks Fire in Spring 2013. And it’s part of a 2-book deal (!!!), so my currently-untitled follow-up contemporary YA novel will be hitting bookstores the following October!

It’s a very weird thing, going from being a writing student with an abstract dream of selling a book to suddenly working with a real live editor and coming up with cover ideas and back cover synopses and author bios and all that stuff that will be part of an actual, physical book. A book that I wrote. I mean, holy crap, right? Crazy.

So crazy, in fact, that I’m almost afraid it will all go away. Like there was some big mistake made or the publishing company will change their minds or it’s all part of some elaborate joke. You see that picture? That’s the letter from Larry Kramer, the playwright of The Normal Heart, that was given out to all audience members at the Broadway production of the play last year. I taped it to my wall above my computer so whenever I needed inspiration while writing On the Plus Side, Larry’s amazing words were there to give me an encouraging nudge.

I put the “Happy Thoughts” note up on the day my awesome agent Kate McKean sent the book out to editors. (Feb. 28 was the close date – yeah, this whole thing happened really quickly.) Whenever I managed to convince myself that no one would want to buy the book and that I am a talentless, wannabe hack (which was often), I would look up at that note and think happy thoughts and it would make me feel better. The thing is, I’m now afraid to take them off my wall. What if by doing so, I displace some tiny, teetering part of the universe and the whole thing comes crashing down around me?

Those notes will probably stay taped to that wall until I move out of this apartment and am forced to take them down. But that’s okay. They’re a welcome reminder that this whole business might be totally crazy, but it’s also totally wonderful.

Alyson Ponders What It Means to be Jewish

Posted by Alyson Gerber On February - 24 - 2012

shabbat candles Alyson Ponders What It Means to be JewishI’ve been writing about being Jewish since 1991, right around the same time I started first grade at a new school. I was having a tough time fitting in, and on the recommendation of my teacher, my parents sent me to art therapy. In a pastel Victorian house that smelled like a mix of mothballs and graham crackers, I learned to draw my feelings. And it turned out I had a lot of them.

Since I wasn’t exactly a brilliant artist, I quickly switched to writing —  journaling. I felt alone and uncomfortable in my new world, where I was different —  the only practicing Jewish student. At times, my identity felt like a burden. Something I wished I could hide. Yet at the same time, I loved baking sweet cheese blitz with my Bubbe and singing Dayenu with my father on Pesach —  it was our thing. At six-years-old, I was just starting to figure out what it meant to be Jewish. And it was confusing.

To be fair, sometimes it still is, which makes it really hard to write about. I’m not sure exactly what it means to be Jewish. There isn’t one version of Judaism. It’s debated constantly if it’s a religion, an ethnicity, or even a race. But the part of myself I don’t completely understand is always what inspires me to pick up my pen.

When I sat down to write this post, it occurred to me that it was about to be Shabbat. So, I took out my candles, a bottle of Champagne, crackers, and a block of Robusto — my favorite cheese from Whole Foods — and blessed the delicious spread.

Somewhere out there, my Bubbe was gasping, “Vey iz mir!

Bubbe did not screw around when it came to Shabbas. She made enough food for a schettle-and-a-half and packaged what was left in red and blue Maxwell House coffee canisters. Bubbe relished her identity, her traditions, and above all else her family. As far as I knew, her understanding of Judaism was clear. Mine is still not. But I know it’s part of me and my writing, always.


man holding question mark In Writing Ethnicity, Jane Wonders If Shell Truly Be Able to RepresentWhile I was growing up, most of the characters in the books I had read were portrayed as white. In fact, the only book I can recall having an ethnic main character was Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old African American girl, from Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I wouldn’t have even known about this book if it hadn’t been assigned in the seventh grade. Not only was I fascinated by how the main character was not white, but that she was also strong. I was impressed.

I was in high school the first time I saw a book written by an Asian author. When I saw The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan on the library shelf, I picked it up only because I recognized that her name was Chinese. As soon as I saw her photograph on the back cover, I checked the book out, not even bothering to find out what the story was about. I felt the ethnic connection to Amy Tan’s characters from the very first page. Later on, I began seeing more and more books with Asian narrators on the shelves. I read everything I could find.

Even though I read all the books I could find that had Asian narrators, I never thought about making my own main character anything but white. When my classmates encouraged me to try writing a story with an Asian character, I felt like I was being pushed into an area where I wasn’t comfortable, so I resisted. At first, I thought it was because I spent so much of my life in America and I just didn’t feel I knew my own culture well enough to write about it.

But then I began to re-read some of the books I had discovered during my younger years and I noticed that the all Asian narrators appeared to have similar characteristics. They had non-Asian friends and they were disconnected from their culture. They tried to hide from their friends how “weird” their families were for practicing Asian traditions. Apparently, Asian authors aren’t comfortable making their characters truly Asian. I guess I shouldn’t worry about not being able to write about an Asian narrator.

I’m trying to change. Although the main character in my most recent story is not fully Asian, it is part of her background. Her grandmother is Korean and she is closely connected to her culture. I’m not ready to make my narrator 100% Asian, but I’m hoping I can make that happen in one of my future books.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing Ethnicity: Sona Looks for the Universal in the Specific

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On February - 21 - 2012

220px Monsoon Wedding poster Writing Ethnicity: Sona Looks for the Universal in the SpecificA few years ago, when my sister Meena and I first started writing screenplays, we pondered this: do we make our protagonist a brown girl like us? Or a white girl like most of the members of some vague future audience for our films?

At first, it was a bit of a no-brainer. Did we want to actually sell a script? Why yes, we did. So we wrote about a white girl. Relatable. Fun. And still, deep down, a bit like us. Did she not suffer from frizzy, uncontrollable hair? Did she not have a bitchy boss from hell who made her life miserable? Did she not lust after the exact wrong guy? See?

But we weren’t satisfied with just that. So we made sure we put a brown character into the script, albeit in a small role. Then a funny thing happened when we were taking pitch meetings in big, bad Hollywood. When they inevitably asked what else we were working on (they always ask that, by the way), we told them about this little project I’d been developing for my thesis script at NYU, you know, the back pocket one that you’ll eventually have to make yourself because it’s so specific. It was about another floundering twenty-something (our specialty!) in the city who fell for the wrong guy, had the bitchy boss, and was essentially just a hot mess.

But this feisty chick — well, she was brown. Like us. There was something about her, though, that made her relatable to all those aforementioned potential white girls in that imaginary audience. And so that ended up being the script that everyone wanted to talk about, that everyone wanted to work with us on. It didn’t hurt, also, that Bend It Like Beckham was a surprise hit, and Monsoon Wedding had done well right before that. But of course, by the time we’d worked out all the kinks with our would-be producers, another flick with subcontinental flavor had TANKED, and so we lost our shot.

Writing fiction has been an interesting journey for me in this regard, especially when compared to the previously ethnically barren landscape of Hollywood. (Now, there’s a requisite brown sidekick on every hit sitcom or drama. I’m not kidding. I could make a whole slideshow full. Maybe I will, in fact.) (Anyway, I digress.) Given the healthy interest in South Asian Diaspora fiction the past decade, I didn’t feel nearly as intimidated writing an ethnic character as I had in the past. There’s room in publishing for brown folks like me, at least to a certain degree — and in a certain market. (Mostly literary fiction.) But! And you knew there was a but!

There are still some stories that I want to write that don’t really have anything at all to do with being a brown girl. Case in point? My first YA project, which is about as high concept as they come. If I made one of the two protagonists an Indian girl, it would leave readers scratching their heads. Why did the author make that choice? What does it bring to the text? In that novel, it really wouldn’t bring a whole lot to the text. But, as always, I want to represent. So I did put an Indian girl into the book — in a bit of an unexpected way. And there’s a black character in it, too, but not just to make it uber-diverse. It’s in a way that makes sense for the story and the character. The book isn’t about race, really. But the diversity adds a layer to the text. It works in the novel without overtaking the novel.

My second work-in-progress — my thesis project — is a whole ‘nother story. Ethnic identity is one of the key components in this book. It has a flavor to it, if you will. One of the biggest challenges I’m facing in working on my thesis project is that I’m writing three narrators — and they’re all brown girls, all from New Jersey, all Upper Middle class. All too easily, these three voices could meld together and sound the same, given their shared history and ethnicity, their shared community. But you see, that’s where the other components of storytelling come into play here. These are three very different characters — each has a different want, a different way of achieving it or expressing it, a different take on the world. Or at least I hope they will. The key for me in telling this story is to not just make them three brown girls. It’s the universality of the situations they face — the heart of the novel is about the implosion of a friendship, something that’s relatable to most readers. The setting and culture is specific — and therefore, I’m hoping, interesting in its own right — but the conflict is universal, graspable by a wider audience. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that I’m not just writing a book about brown girls for brown girls, but rather a book about these girls, who happen to be brown, but they’re also very much just…girls.

That’s kind of how I view writing ethnicity. Do I always write what I know? Not exactly. But there’s usually some intrinsic part of the character that I can relate to, something that makes the character universal in some way. The angst of the character, their hovering mother, their bond with a sibling, the way they tie their shoes or hate their job or eat breakfast for dinner. My characters tend to be human, after all. (No sci-fi here.) With all my writing, it seems, I’m trying to tell an everygirl story in a specific and interesting way. Kind of like with that script that was a hot property for ten Hollywood seconds.

And that script, by the way? The story’s still in my back pocket. Maybe you’ll read it one day — in novel form.

Photo Courtesy Mirabai Films

caucasia 185x300 Writing Ethnicity vs. Writing Colorblind: Amber Thinks Its An Authors ChoiceMy stance on writing race and ethnicity has always been the same. If cultural elements and racial identity are important to the story you’re telling and the character at the heart of your piece, you should make those things apparent in your work. However, if you’re not writing a story specifically about a Black/Hispanic/Asian/White/Arab/Indian/etc. individual and how s/he experiences life, and instead you’re writing a story about family/love/friendship/loss or whatever with a protagonist that just happens to be of a certain race, I don’t think that such information needs to be heavily focused on in the text.

It’s true that if it’s not spelled out for the reader, most people will assume that a narrator is white, because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to see as the norm. And it’s true that some distinguishing characteristics about a character’s appearance should be included for readers so that they can have a fuller picture of who that character is. Naturally, readers bring their own preconceived notions taken from their personal experiences and apply them to whatever text they’re reading, helping them to relate to a character or situation. But with that said, what pushes me to keep reading a novel is not a character’s race necessarily, but his or her voice, motivation, personality, point of view, and most importantly, his or her personal journey or struggle. In my opinion, if those are clear and specific in a narrative, the appearance of a character is almost irrelevant with regard to level of importance.

Now, this belief of mine has garnered some criticism during workshops because I don’t always describe a character’s appearance in the first chapter. I may say brown hair or brown eyes, but I don’t make it glaringly obvious that it’s a person of color until the third paragraph in chapter two. Sometimes I wonder why this is an issue. When I read a book about a white protagonist there doesn’t always seem to be a need to discuss cultural or racial particularities. If my story is mainly about a girl struggling with her parents’ divorce, does it matter what race she is necessarily? So much so that it must be clarified on the first page? But then I think about when I was a teenager and I wanted to read about someone who looked like me going through the same ‘normal’ things that other teens in YA novels went through. That reminds me that the distinction does matter, and always will, to an extent.

Many of my favorite books, like Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, are written by black or mixed authors about black protagonists, and I do admit that I seek out such works so that I can try to find a character who understands some aspect of my experience. Many people do this, I feel, especially since a character’s identity is often important to a story. Yet, a fair amount of my favorite books are also written by authors of other races about white protagonists or protagonists of other ethnic origins, like with Jenny Han’s novel, The Summer I Turned Pretty. Do I relate any less to those characters? Not really. Their experiences and viewpoints, spelled out richly on the page, cause me to yearn to know what will happen to them on their journeys as well.

Still, regardless of what race a protagonist is, sometimes when reading I don’t relate at all to an emotion or feeling or incident that the character experiences. For instance, I can read a book about a black girl and not be able to fully relate to that character because of our different backgrounds and struggles. Every person, no matter what ethnicity or race, is unique in experience and thought. A character’s differing decisions and outlooks and a reader’s ability to understand and/or be intrigued by them account for a novel’s strength in some regard.

Overall, I believe that writing race is difficult. Will what you write affect people’s perception of your people as a whole? Or is it just a part of that particular character’s experience? Will people read your work as widely if you focus on a character considered to be an ‘other’ in society? Will you be pigeon-holed into only writing about a certain type of person? These are all questions that a writer might consider before beginning a story. But a better question is perhaps this: what is necessary for you to include in order for you to tell the story you want to tell in the best way possible? It’s a question that only you can answer. For YA readers in particular, finding a character that speaks to them and their personal struggle is crucial. But the way such characters are written depends on authors and their conscious and deliberate decisions about how to best tell the stories they were meant to tell.

Image Courtesy of Penguin Group, Inc.


Steven Questions the Notion of Authenticity

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On February - 17 - 2012

authenticity erased Steven Questions the Notion of AuthenticityDuring my first semester at The New School, I found out that there would be no young adult or children’s literature class offered in the spring semester. Of my first year. My reaction: “Uhh … what?!” Being that I was going for my masters in Writing for Children, I kinda, sorta, maybe figured that the program would offer us, oh, I don’t know, enough courses for us to be properly educated in the world of children’s lit.

Nope. I was thrust into a shark tank of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writers. The snobbiest of writers exist within those three disciplines. So how was I going to pick which literature course to take? They all sounded like snoozefests. Until I saw the “Writing in Vernacular” (I think that’s what the course was called) description. The booklist was intriguing and exciting. I figured, “Hey, if I have to take a course outside of my discipline, I guess this will have to do.”

I’m glad I did.

One of the main lessons we were taught was the notion of “authenticity.” What makes you believe the words on the page? If you were reading a book like Push by Sapphire and you found out at the end that Sapphire was a sixty-year-old white man who grew up in Beverly Hills, would that make you question the voice and, ultimately, the raw believability of the entire novel?

We see a lot of white characters written by black writers, but somehow we never question when that happens. One immediate example that comes to mind is fellow New School alum Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary. Protagonist Dade Hamilton is white. Author Nick Burd is not. Yet, there is not one moment in that book where I question the authenticity of Burd’s writing. Not one. Why is this? I often seek the answer to this, but I can’t seem to figure it out. Is it because “white culture” is oversaturated in our popular culture, from musicians on the radio to certain “spotlight” actors and Hollywood plotlines, to billboards and commercials and more? Had the roles been switched and a white author was writing about the experience of a black character, well, I don’t know; I’d be hesitant to believe it.

Maybe it’s because, as showed to us in that class on vernacular, there really aren’t books out there where the main character is black and the author is white. Not any good books, anyway.

I could ponder this and question the motives of publishing houses everywhere, but I still don’t have an agent or an editor, and I’d like to not alienate them quite yet. But I want to know: why do so many black writers write white? Is it because publishers think that only books with white protagonists sell? Is there less of a market for the Coe Booths of the world? I don’t know. I can only explain my attitude towards writing about an ethnicity that’s not my own.

My thoughts: I can’t possibly describe something that I haven’t lived. Sure, I’ve never lived in a fairy tale-esque world, nor have I lived in space, but neither has anyone else, so there’s nothing to compare my words to that exists in the tangible real world. I would feel like I’m assuming, based on what I know from my friends, what being a part of a black/Hispanic/Arabic/Asian/etc. family is like. And that’s not good enough for me.

The professor of my class, Bob Antoni, generally writes his books from the perspectives of black women from Trinidad. He’s white. But what made the difference for me, what made me cross the line from questioning his authenticity to believing him as someone who could genuinely depict an accurate portrayal of the life of a Trinny woman, was hearing his life story. He grew up in Trinidad. He knows that culture like—wait for the cliché—the back of his hand. When he read his writing, he spoke in a Trinidadian accent. When I closed my eyes, I never would have thought the man sitting feet away from me was white.

So what are “black” and “white”? I’ve always said that neither matters. Like the incomparable MJ once said, “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby/It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” And skin color has never meant anything more to me then just that: skin. But when I think about writing from the point of view of a black character, it’s not that simple. I think: “I can’t possibly write an accurate portrayal.” Would a book with a black protagonist be a beacon of truth to the black community? I’m going to say no. Maybe I’m just operating with preconceived notions of what “authentic” means. I don’t know.

Ultimately, I do believe it’s an authenticity issue. For me, at least, it is. But then again, I’m only generalizing white authors. What about all of the black authors? Where are all the books with black protagonists? That’s what I’d love to see. I think that for writers to accurately write about black characters there needs to first be an increase in black writers writing about black characters.

What do you all think?


Photo Credit: BaazarVoice.com

White Girl Problems: Caela talks about Writing Race

Posted by Caela Carter On February - 15 - 2012

47a1dd11b3127cce98548b6c84e700000035100Abt3Llq5YtGKg 212x300 White Girl Problems: Caela talks about Writing RaceI have started and deleted this post four times, five times, six times…I’m determined to write something about this topic, but, it seems like….It feels as if….It’s just that, well–

I keep getting stuck.  What do I have to contribute?  I’m worried that anything I say will come off as insincere, insensitive, offensive.


Because it’s FLIPPIN’ HARD to talk about race when you were a privileged white kid. (That’s me.)

(Note: I did not say that it is hardEST or hardER than if you were any other kind of kid. My guess is that it’s hard for everybody. But, for now, I’m speaking for myself.)

And it’s equally hard to write about race in fiction. But I do it anyway. The truth is that I spent my childhood in mostly-white schools in mostly-white towns, and basically comfortable. But the other truth is that in my adulthood I have become quite accustomed to being the only white person riding on a city bus, walking down a street, or sitting in a room. I have often said that while I’ve always wanted to be a writer, it is my students — their passions for reading, their raw emotions, their openness, their enthusiasm — that inspired me to write for teens.

And, well, those students don’t look anything like me. They aren’t white. Or privileged. Or female. (Yep, most of them are boys.)

So, naturally, in the two books I’ve worked on at The New School the main characters both are upper-class white girls. Ha. But I do strive to at least touch on race in each of my books. Because, contrary to popular practice, white kids are not immune to race. Even white kids who grow up in all-white towns with all-white friends are not immune to race.

So, yes, in Me, Him, Them and It (my debut, to be published in 2013 by Bloomsbury), pregnant Evelyn deals with race (and stuff). She figures out that it actually means something that her adoptive aunt and hero is Chinese, and a lesbian. She faces being the only white kid in a room of Latina students. And when she finally makes a pregnant friend, she has to face the fact that life could be worse, a lot worse, if she was also broke.

But my books are not about race. Or religion or sexual orientation or social class or any of those issues. Race simply happens in the story and so does everything else. Evelyn doesn’t come to any conclusions so that these human differences make any sense. Of course she doesn’t. She couldn’t do that unless I could do that, and I know I can’t.

I’m not saying that this is the only or the best or even a good way to write race as a white author. I won’t pretend to be able to opine on how it should be done. But I do know that, while simply writing all-white, straight, same-class characters who don’t need to deal with these spit-fire political issues might be less controversial, for me it would break the Golden Rule of fiction–write what you want to.

images 2 150x150 White Girl Problems: Caela talks about Writing RaceThe truth is that I’d love to write a book that actually tackles race head-on, one that features girls of totally different backgrounds learning how to communicate and respect each other. And have fun.  In fact, I’ve been working on that book for years now. It features a black MC who is from the neighborhood where I worked in Chicago. But I keep putting it away. I keep switching the voice and the narrators. I keep wondering whether I’m really qualified to tackle the huge issues of race and class, even though issues might be why I picked up the pen and started writing for teens.

Hopefully, one day I’ll get the guts.  For now this white girl is too chicken.

Photo credit: Image Vision

Amy Wants Her Multi-Cultural Bent to Be Crystal Clear

Posted by Amy Ewing On February - 14 - 2012

skin colors 711079 sw1 300x225 Amy Wants Her Multi Cultural Bent to Be Crystal ClearIt is the sad truth that, unless a character is very specifically described otherwise, the majority of readers will assume he or she is white. It’s our default setting. And sometimes, even when a character’s ethnicity is described, we can skip over it, creating our own image. I remember when the cast list for The Hunger Games was released — I immediately called up Jess and asked, “Rue is black? I always pictured her as blond.” To which Jess replied, “I thought she was a redhead.” We both dived into our copies of the book and found that Rue is described as having “satiny brown skin.” Suzanne Collins couldn’t have made it clearer, and still, Jess and I came up with two very distinct, and incorrect, images of her.

It’s sometimes difficult, in writing fantasy, to distinguish races and ethnicities —and often, I’m simply making up my own. My current work-in-progress takes place in an unspecified city in an unspecified place. I have to find other ways to describe a character who, say, I envision as Asian, because Asia doesn’t exist in this world. I want to give the reader a very clear picture of the person I can see in my head, because it’s important to me that this city be multicultural when culture has blended together — skin color has no bearing on a person’s status in this world. I’m not always successful; there’s a lot of trial and error. When I ask one of my friends, “Did you get that the Duke is supposed to look Indian?” and get a, “Oh, I thought he was white,” then I have to go back and see how I can make the character’s identity clearer. It’s a tricky line to walk but a necessary one — because who wants to read about a world where everyone looks the same?

Woman at typewriter Corey Thinks Compassion is the Best Entry Point for Writing Other Races and ReligionsFor a long time, writing, for me, was a way to regurgitate my own experiences, work through them, and share with the world what it meant to be Corey. I was endlessly fascinated by my own life: why did I ever love that one guy with the funny hair? Was the end of that friendship my fault? How fabulous is living in the East Village? When did my parents become real, fallible people and not just authority figures? In my early twenties, I was able to be satisfied by mining those and other fascinating, navel-gazing questions. And I’m sure I will return to some of those stories, or the book of essays about spending a decade being neurotic in NYC that I daydream about. But a few years ago, I lost interest in my EXACT experience, and started wondering how I could write about other experiences, with the same accuracy and emotional resonance that I aspired to in my personal-experience-driven writing.

I’ve found that what works for me is finding an entry point. I have never been Amish (or, really any religion), but I know what it feels like to question something that you once believed to be true. I have never been a racial minority, but I understand what it is like to have a set of qualities assumed because of the way you look, and I have never gone through treatment for OCD, but I know what it is like to have anxiety control your life. (Oh, do I!)
Does this make me an expert on other races, religions, or genders? Absolutely not. My imagination is not big enough to comprehend ALL the struggles and joys of being part of a community or identity that is not my own. And I will probably never write a book that deals exclusively with that experience. I’m simply not qualified. But with a healthy dose of compassion, some serious research, and the correct entry point, I think it’s possible to write a character that is NOT tiny and blonde and riddled with anxiety.

Well, maybe not that last part. I’m pretty sure I could never write a character who doesn’t exhibit some serious neurosis. That is just too far of a stretch.

Photo: Wine Press of Words

pixel Corey Thinks Compassion is the Best Entry Point for Writing Other Races and Religions

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