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14 March 2010 @ 10:17 pm
diversity in fantasy mine  
with the wonderful accolades for grace lin's
as well as the recent (and perhaps not so recent
but ongoing) controversies regarding white washing
of covers and race fail discussions, i felt that the
issue of diversity in fantasy writing a more pertinent
one than ever.

i presented the topic to my fellow inkies. the response
was overwhelming, but many warned, there will be
Flame Wars, beware! no doubt, it is a topic that many
feel very impassioned about, and some who think, what
the heck is The BIg Deal, why does everything need to
be about color? the reader can imagine the protagonist
to be like themselves, no matter what their ethnicity.

this simply isn't true. as a reader of color with a love
for fantasy, i never saw anyone like myself in any of my
favorite books, much less on the cover.
i've been writing since around twelve years old, and it wasn't
until Silver Phoenix (when i was thirty-two!) that i wrote a
story featuring fully asian characters. before then, they
were all white--like the stories i read. it wasn't anything i analyzed
or thought about when i was younger, it just was.

i've asked four fellow writers to contribute their thoughts
on this topic. and i hope that our viewpoints and concerns
as writers will bring up intelligent and respectful discussion
here at the inkpot. this will be a long post, but i think it needs
to be, because it is an important one.

i called this the "diversity in fantasy mine", because our
diverse world cultures is such the perfect place to turn to
for inspiration in fantasy writing. it's been done before tolkien
and since. Silver Phoenix, my debut, was inspired by ancient

on the flip side, it's also a land mine.
a place of accusation and anger, where words
like "appropriation" and "exotification" are used
in discussions that almost never end well.
how does an author write about another culture
or character of color without fear of Doing It Wrong?
or being misinterpreted to the point where they are
accused of being racist? is it a wonder that some white
authors feel, you're damned if you do, and you're
damned if you don't?

it's especially tricky in regards to fantasy writing.
unless you are writing a historical fantasy--where most
details of time and place and people need to be accurate,
creative license is often taken. i know Silver Phoenix caused
some confusion. where in china did this take place, in what
dynasty? but as i've said, it's a fantasy set in xia *inspired*
by ancient china. in no way is it actually china. i wanted the
reader to feel that chinese influence through my description
of costume, architecture and scenery--but as with many fantasy
writers before me, i made a lot of things up. it's what fantasy
writers do.

is this wrong?
or is it okay for me to do this because
i'm chinese-american?
if i wasn't, would i be "stealing" for
my own gains?

and as an asian-american author, do i automatically
have the responsibility to write of my culture, for
my culture, represent my culture?

you see what a land mine it can be?
and i can only offer my own thoughts and opinions
in this post.

i think authors should write what they are passionate
about, what fascinates them. if it happens to be the mayan
culture and the author is irish-american, good for you. if it
happens to be ancient egypt and she is of japanese descent,
hurrah for you! in no way do i think an author should feel
obligated to write about his own culture, if it is NOT what
he wants to write about--if it is NOT how he sees his
characters as.

simply because personally, for me, i understand how hard
it is to write a novel, and sustain your love for it. you'll be working
on the manuscript for at least a year, most times, often beyond
a year. you can't fake enthusiasm for writing something you don't
love, so go with your heart when you write. write what you want
to write, not what you feel you should write or have to write.

as for writing outside of your own ethnicity and culture,
research well. as you would for any novel. if at all possible,
speak to people who are from that culture or ethnicity, ask
them if they're willing to be beta readers for your manuscript.
be aware of history and stereotypes--and make sure you can
stand by the characters and details you've created in your

if there is one single thing that i've learned as a debut
author, it's the fact that every reader reads with her own
filter. from reviews i've read, i often can't help but think, wow,
did they even read the same novel? ha! there is no way you
can control how a reader interprets and reacts to your
story and your characters, the ONLY thing you can do is
make sure that you can stand by your story. whether you're
writing of another culture or ethnicity besides your own or
not, every author should feel at peace with every aspect of
their story when they send it out into the world.

that is the only thing WE can control, knowing that we
did our absolute best. i hope you find after reading the
following posts that the subject of diversity within fantasy
writing matters a lot to us. and each of us have approached
it with much consideration and thought, even if our views
may differ somewhat.

shveta says :

Why bother about diversity in fiction, especially if it's such a loaded concept? A great question, and Cindy's made some wonderful points already. There's so much to say that I'm going to concentrate on two things--the notions of appropriation and of "getting it wrong."

As much as I wish we lived in a world with a level playing field, we don't. Not yet, anyway. Cindy mentioned growing up and never seeing a fantasy book that contained a face like hers, that she wrote white characters without thinking about it. For a very long time, I did this, too (which is why I'm now writing the novel I wish I'd had to read). It's what we consider normal, the standard. Anything else is Other, and we've all internalized messages and stereotypes about that Other.

But that doesn't make sense, both for us as authors and as people. Imagine saying that despite having a rainbow of seven colors to choose from, we stick to red. Red is the beautiful color, the standard, the one we choose to paint everything in. Everything else is lesser, less desirable, less lovely. Not only would we miss out on a whole spectrum of beauty, but we'd be cheating the other colors by pretending they didn't matter.

Still, red is safe. Red sells. No one's going to say, "I can't relate to red. No one will buy red." And yet we know that our world is made up not only of red but also of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. As writers, we want our writing to reflect what we see in the world around us. We want to break down the wall that says we're limited to red and keeps everything else separate.

Yet we know that the other colors have been ignored. When they try to write their own stories, they're brushed aside or told they're to focus on their color and nothing else. Meanwhile, red gets to write anything.

So we think long and hard about this and then decide to go ahead and write those other colors, anyway. Because it's not fair to write only red. Because that's not what we see when we look around. Because we care about those colors whose stories are being neglected, whose experiences we've been informed don't count. Because there's a whole world of tales to be told, and we want to help tell them.

We know it's up to us to help bring about the change we want to see in the publishing world. Fine.

How, then, how to avoid being accused of appropriation? Easy answer: Until power dynamics shift, we can't. Longer answer: All we can do is really imagine a character of a skin tone different than ours, really flesh him or her out, really try to do research and understand what factors and experiences shaped that character. We can do this with the intention of celebrating that character not as different from us, not as exactly the same, but as he or she is, and hope we did it well.

Someone who does a wonderful job of this is Justine Larbalestier. Her characters are usually people of color, but they're teens first, issues second. And they're definitely not defined by their color; it's just one more facet of who they are.

So what about "getting it wrong"? Again, that's a valid fear. No matter what we write, it'll hit someone wrong, and that's okay. All we can do is try our very best.

I may be a writer of color, but I'm not immune to this fear, either. My perception of what it means to grow up as an Indian American kid is probably very different from someone else's, and my novel may well hit an Indian American reader as false. That's fine; I'm certainly no authority. I did my job, and the reader did his or hers.

Part of writing, whether writing a diverse cast or not, is accepting that once we've done our best and released the book into the wild, it stands on its own. As long as we really did our research, sought out knowledgeable first readers, and wrote from the heart, that's all we can do, no matter what the color of our skin. If we're later told we got it wrong, we listen, thank the person for the feedback, and strive to do even better next time.

We're the pioneers on the edge of the publishing frontier, paving the way for others to follow. By consciously writing diverse characters, we do our part to help create a literary landscape where all readers know they matter, not just one set. And that's worth taking all the risks in the world, don't you think?

gretchen says :

This isn't a topic that sits well with a lot of people. I'm just going to put that out there for starters. And I'm in no way an expert on diversity or multi-cultural relations so take my words with a grain of salt. I'm just a writer, and as such I write what I know.

What do I know? I know that I was lucky enough to grow up in that culturally, religiously and ideologically diverse landscape known as San Francisco. I know that the world around me came in all shapes and sizes, beliefs and creeds. I know that in order to reflect this world, the world of my reality, I need to show my world for what it is.


When I decided to write a novel about a half-Chinese, half-Irish girl set in a Catholic school in San Francisco, I didn't do with the specific idea of portraying a "minority" character. Bridget is just based on people I knew growing up. And her friends – a gay Hispanic boy, a gay Caucasian boy and a nerdy Korean boy – are the same. These were the people I knew. These were the stories I saw. This was my world.

Funny story. I forget sometimes that other people from other parts of the country do not share the same frame of reference. I'll never forget when I was in grad school on the east coast and heard someone say for the first time "So-and-so's Asian, but she doesn't have an accent or anything." My brain had an immediate WTF record scratch stop the presses and back the truck up moment. "Doesn't have an accent?" Yeah, well very few of my Asian friends growing up had "accents." In fact, many of their families had been in California longer than my family. But see, that was the world I knew. That was the world I wanted to show.

By the way, the concept of diversity goes both ways. After describing my story and my main character to a very good friend (a San Francisco native of Chinese descent), she looked at me rather strangely and said, "There aren't any Chinese Catholics in San Francisco." Which isn't true. I know several. But from her frame of reference, all the Chinese people she knew were Christians, not Catholics, and she thought the whole concept of my character very odd.

Most of my Chinese friends in the Bay Area were second or third generation, many of them went to Chinese school, and their religious upbringings were pretty much across the board. But I wasn't writing about all of them, I was writing about Bridget. Bridget's story, Bridget's frame of reference. Bridget's world.

I guess my point is this: when I write a character – whether they are white, brown, black or purple with pink polka dots – I'm writing a character. Sometimes race, gender or religion is important to that character, to that story. Sometimes it's not. But I didn't write Bridget as a minority character simply to make her a minority character. It's just who she is.

dawn says :

I think diversity is important in pretty much any circumstance. Writing, especially with speculative fiction where we like to ask a lot of "What If?" questions, is not a place to stay safe. We should be pushing our boundaries as well as the boundaries of the reader to consider other ideas, perspectives, opinions, attitudes and experiences. It's necessary to bend our beliefs to create things like magic, new cultures, and alien creatures -- we *want* to believe. I think it's also important to create a space that welcomes new readers and readers outside our own experience to feel that they have a place in our fantastic universe. I don't want someone to ever feel like they "couldn't be a part of" the story I'm telling, that it "couldn't happen" to someone like them. I'd like fantasy to not discriminate on the basis of their readers' color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, creed or culture, but have the possibility all-inclusive. I really enjoy when fantasy worlds have people of different colors (Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea & Gail Carson Levine's Frell & Ayortha), different beliefs (Mercedes Lackey's world of Valedemar) & different myths (Ellen Jensen Abbott's Watersmeet or Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys).

I could say it was because I love anthropology and cultural myths [that I wrote about different ethnicities and cultures], which is true, but honestly, it makes it sound like I had a choice! Consuela's story, SKIN & BONES, came to me in a rush and she is Mexican-American. She just *is* and with her story being based on Dia de los Muertos, that is where her story began. I had to research, learn, ask questions and travel to explore things I'd never really thought about before and I loved it. I love her character and her story! My latest WIP borrows a lot of myth from some favorites I learned in college: legends from the Amazon and Norse mythology. I like anchoring my fantasy in some basis of reality where there's something that resonates as "possibly true." I *do* use some of my own culture, experience, and religious upbringing in my writing, but I'd like to think that I do so consciously and not by default.

I guess my biggest fear is that I'll offend someone. Maybe not push buttons (because good writing can and should do that) but there is a worry that I don't handle material outside my experience with "enough" respect... whatever "enough" means. (Un)fortunately, I try to be an equal-opportunist in my writing across boundaries and I realize that can be misconstrued as being disrespectful and I, the author, have to own that, which is scary. But if I'm *really* committed to treating everyone equally, then all of my characters, regardless of whether they are male or female, gay or straight, Causian or Latina or African-American or Asian or whatever, have an equal chance of being the hero or villain, kind or cruel, right or wrong, a bully or a victim. I can't pull punches and depict anyone differently for fear of being Politically-Correct. People are people and are rarely ever just one thing. Characters of all ethnicities or cultures are multi-dimensional; this means that I have to make a conscious effort NOT to shy away from characters being true to themselves and their actions even if they are a minority (or even if they share the same ethnicity as me). This is a huge leap of faith and once the text leaves my hands, the story has to stand on its own. That is something truly terrifying, vulnerable and ultimately, hopeful. We have to trust our readers to be generous and intelligent, and to my mind fantasy readers are -- I think -- the most open-minded readers of all, able to suspend belief beyond their own comfort zones and see what might be there.

My own guidelines: be honest and humble. No matter how much I know, there will always be more that I do not know. Many, many people know elements of this "Other" better than I do, and while it is imperative to do responsible research (wiki is never enough!) and respectful inquiry (talking to real people, experts and teens, is the best!), there will *still* be so much more that I cannot possibly know, and I have to own that. So my job is to portray a person, culture, myth, social status or story with as much respect as I can -- to breathe it "true" to the best of my ability and let it speak to a reader as somehow being real. My aim is not to be perfect, it's to seem "real." This is fantasy, so you *can* make up a lot, but since I like to have at least a toe-hold in reality, I try to do it justice by lots and lots of research.

I'm also a visual person so going to museums, examining, art, listening to music or attending festivals or performances of other cultures helps me feel and see what stands out as important. Unfortunately, what should be celebrated or highlighted to me as an outside eye, I know that I'm blind to a lot of the subtleties and symbolism: I can easily miss a lot of things that I don't know how to see or don't know what to look for... that's when asking questions helps! I'm not afraid to look foolish or ask "dumb questions," I'm FAR more afraid of making a mistake and putting it on paper for the whole world to see! I try to approach everything the way I'd like someone to approach me -- like a Golden Rule of Asking -- if someone wanted to ask me what it was like being a 30-something, married Jewish American female, how would I want them to ask? (And when someone *does* ask me something that sounds "off," I try to remember not to be offended, but honored that they are dropping some social walls in order to learn something new and felt comfortable enough to ask me.) It's a dance on a high wire, but being a writer, you can't be shy. The benefit -- i.e. a good book -- outweighs the risk.

Skin and Bones, Dutton, spring/summer 2011

lena says :

When Cindy brought up the topic of diversity and the challenges of writing multicultural fantasy, it caught my interest. My work-in-progress is a fantasy for young adults, set in a world shaped by Maori culture & folktales. A while back, I read some of the #racefail discussions online and began to worry about appropriation and culture lifting. I’m struggling with how to proceed. It's hard to express how much it would pain me if someone of the Maori culture were offended by my work.

I’ve been drawn to other cultures since I was young and my dad would come back from a tour of duty, bearing gifts from around the world. The dolls he gave my sister and me weren’t the kind you played with. They lived in a glass cabinet and we took them out occasionally to hold them, very carefully. These dolls are in my office now as I write this, dolls from Scotland, Costa Rica, Peru, Alaska, India, China, Japan, Spain, Portugal... And they’re all wearing these amazing outfits, clothes that inspired awe in the younger version of me. Who were these women? What were their lives like?

Also, my dad grew up in Paraguay and moved to the states as a teen. That side of the family laughed a lot and enjoyed life. Whenever we got together, the conversation would inevitably break into Spanish. How I longed to speak that wonderful musical language! (Maybe that’s why I later took Spanish in high school. :)) And then there are my two cousins who are half Guatemalan. They lived there during their early years. As a kid, I'd look at a photo of them in traditional Guatemalan dress and think they were so much more interesting and beautiful than I was.

Was it all about the clothes? I wonder now. lol

As a writer, I’m still drawn to other cultures. I was drawn to Maori folklore because I found it FASCINATING and my research sparked a lot of creative energy. In a way, the setting chose me, not the other way around. But I’m not an expert in the field. I’m not Maori by heritage either. Instead, I'm (distressingly) white American. All I have is research and imagination to guide me.

I'm left feeling conflicted. Do I risk setting this story in a Maori world, which was my original vision, or do I fictionalize everything, taking the ”safer” route, and potentially depriving my story of cultural richness?

Wait, a little voice inside me says, this is just fiction and isn’t all fiction an appropriation of sorts? We read a news article and it plants a seed, one of many. Those seeds somehow merge together and begin to grow, eventually mutating into an entirely different species of plant (to torture a metaphor!). That news article was one of the initial creative seeds.

I think there’s truth in that, but I also believe we need to be especially careful and respectful when dealing with a culture other than our own. I think we need to research extensively and develop as close a personal connection as we can to that world. And somehow find a way to work through any feelings of fear and indecision.

Fear and indecision? Yeah, that would be me.

I recently read an article by Karen Healey about how she sought out cultural consultants to vet her Maori fantasy, GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD. She had this to say about her own fears:

“So I'm saying this not to evoke pity for the poor little white woman, but because my fears were, if not entirely groundless, wildly exaggerated, and because no matter how scared I was, I still had to do it; having done all the work I could do myself, I had to ask for these perspectives.”
--Karen Healey, http://karenhealey.livejournal.com/815447.html)

I can relate to her terror of making a misstep and offending. That really speaks to me. And I’m tucking away the advice to find resources to vet my work. What does this mean for me and my story? I don’t know yet, but I’m learning it’s not just about writing the book (which is hard enough in itself!): it’s perseverance, it’s sweat, it’s craft & research, and it’s also about being brave.


what are your thoughts?

cindy pon
Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia
April 28, 2009, Greenwillow/HarperCollins

Current Mood: curious
kellyrfinemankellyrfineman on March 15th, 2010 12:22 pm (UTC)
Wonderful discussion, ladies. I know I struggle with how to identify a character by race without making it about race. (Gee, I hope that makes sense.) I've got an African American best friend in a chapter book, and although I know for a fact that's what she is, I'm pretty sure a reader might not figure it out. Will have to think and ponder and research how to make it clearer without making her character "about" that. And to do so without offending people, and to avoid stereotypes - tall list. But at least I'm going to take another swing at it now, so I thank you for this post.
annastanannastan on March 15th, 2010 01:15 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post. I've been struggling with this issue in my current WIP which is based on Polish Gypsy folklore. Although my story is about individual characters and set in a fantasy world, I also want to respect and be true to Gypsy culture. Hopefully my research and commitment to my characters will help me find this balance.
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on March 15th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
I can appreciate your desire to be respectful of the Gypsy culture, Anna! I feel much the same way.
dawn_metcalf: Smile!dawn_metcalf on March 15th, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC)
Thought-provoking & certainly something I have a lot of opinions about...too many to post here! ;-) Suffice to say that creating a character true to him/herself is paramount and having the confidence as a writer to tackle things outside our own experiences and comfort zones is how we all grow -- on *both* sides of the page!

Glad to hear peoples' takes on this!
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 15th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
i've added your comments, dawn!
thank you!!
ebooraem on March 15th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
This post brought tears to my eyes--a much-needed calm analysis of a highly charged subject. (Also, I'm slayed by the thought of young Cindy writing only non-Asian characters because that seemed like the norm.)

Having grown up in a mostly white suburb of Boston, and having spent the past 25 years in Maine (the acknowledged "whitest state in the nation") I admit to a lot of paranoia on this subject. My WIP has a Cape Verdean character, and I'm researching her within an inch of her young life. I expect many sleepless nights before I'm through.

My hope for our world is that writers 50 years from now will look back at these discussions and wonder what all the fuss was about. There's no way to make this an easy progress--we just have to grit our teeth and learn from our mistakes.

Thank you, Cindy, Shveta, Gretchen, and Lena.
katecoombs on March 15th, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
Great post--thank you! I think about the manuscript I just finished, a teen paranormal, which has a white MC and key characters who are Korean-Black and Latino. It occurred to me that people might say I stuck them in as "tokens," but I'm with Gretchen: I grew up just north of L.A., and the population is diverse, which I really like. I traveled to another state once and felt weird for a couple of days until I realized why--everybody was white, and that felt off to me.

The thing I like best about this post is its air of earnestness and respect, also courage.
robinellenrobinellen on March 15th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
It's definitely a fascinating topic. And it's so true that I tend to think of the whole world as being like my experience. In my teen years, although white was the majority, it wasn't by much. The 'other' majority was hispanic, with asian not too far behind that. So for me, the world was always a blend of races and cultures. When I write, I always have other ethnicities amongst my characters, because to me, that's 'normal' (um, usually the love interest is a POC, because, again, that's my experience). Maybe someday I'll feel confident in my writing enough to write a MC who isn't white -- I'm writing guys now, so I'm getting bolder ;)
jencervantesjencervantes on March 15th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
Wonderful topic and so timely. I agree that we need to be mindful while at the same time doing what Cindy says and that's writing what we love, writing from our hearts. I think what is most important is to

avoid stereotyping
avoid loaded words
omit distortions of the particular culture
create complex genuine characters
consider standards of success: are the characters strong and independent and not reliant on another race or culture to make them shine?

"Someone who does a wonderful job of this is Justine Larbalestier. Her characters are usually people of color, but they're teens first, issues second. And they're definitely not defined by their color; it's just one more facet of who they are."

YES! We can create stories that cross borders where the characters are teens/kids first experiencing being a human being. Where the story itself can transcend the culture, race, etc. depicted in the book.

Being of Mexican/Spanish/Anglo descent I, too struggle as I create characters of color. There are MANY Hispanic experiences and we are not defined by one religion, food, music, etc.

thanks for such a great post, ladies!

cindy_poncindy_pon on March 15th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
fantastic points and really
appreciate your input, jen!
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on March 15th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks Cindy for such an amazingly heartfelt and thought-out article on a difficult subject, and to everyone else for adding their thoughts. So many different reasons for drawing inspiration from non-majority cultures, whether our own or others!

What Cindy said about writing white characters really hit home with me... this is something I thought about when I was 10 and writing Sweet Valley Twin/Babysitter Club rip-offs, because I didn't know how to write Christmas celebrations (and didn't really want to) but assumed without much thought that my characters "couldn't" be Jewish. My 10-year-old solution was to never have anything in my books happen in December. :)

I'm glad there are so many other options now, fraught with difficulty though they may be.
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
i read sweet valley high too!
and yes, i can see how you can
totally relate to me, wow.
let's just skip the month of december! =O

my family went to vegas on christmas
day often. ha!
nandinibnandinib on March 15th, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your thoughts Cindy, Shveta, Lena, Gretchen. It's really interesting to read such a range of views. I agree with so much you've said. Research, respect, vetting, taking risk, writing what you know, writing what you don't know, writing what you're drawn to. So much to think about; obligation, appropriation, filters. I definitely feel the obligation to write about my culture, but good story telling comes from passion not obligation. In the end I think we have to write the stories we're drawn to. And appropriation. Aren't people within a culture/ethnicity the best ones to tell their story? A talented writer can tell a story about anyone if they care enough, I think, and should be free to do so. But there is something about an insider viewpoint which is very valuable. I hope we see more POC writing their own stories in the future (as well as any story they feel like writing) Also, I think we ALL have filters as, Sveta and Gretchen pointed out. It's good to be aware of them!
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 12:58 am (UTC)
i think everyone is aware and empathetic on very different levels. and we all experience life so differently, it's no wonder people are up in arms when something like this comes up for discussion. (or anything related to race.) you can say we are all the human race...
yes, in an ideal world.

but i'd venture one of the first things most of us notice about one another is skin color--right after gender.
Caroline Hootonhooton on March 15th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
how does an author write about another culture
or character of color without fear of Doing It Wrong?
or being misinterpreted to the point where they are
accused of being racist? is it a wonder that some white authors feel, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't?

I can relate to all of these questions.

Let me start by saying that as a white person, I am sick of reading about white people. Sick of it. Blondes bore me, brunettes fill me with apathy, red-heads are yesterday's news.

I want to read something that reflects the world I live in - which if you get on a bus in almost any major city will see you encountering people of all kinds of skin tone, colour, religious and ethnic background and sexual persuassion. Having one token Afro-Carribean or Asian character in the background is not going to cut it for me.

My WIP has a multi-ethnic cast of characters and as I'm white (in fact, I'm probably the whitest person on the planet in every sense) it's been a never-ending source of personal angst.

For starters, my female MC (Ellie) is mixed race. Her mum's Afro-Caribbean, her dad's white.

One of the things that I wanted to do with the family set up for the character was to play around with the way too common stereotype of absentee fathers in that it's the white father who's out of the picture (in the sense that he's working in Dubai).

At the same time, I needed Ellie's mother to be a big motivating factor for some of her actions in the plot and that involved putting the pair of them through a car crash that leaves her mother with a very severe brain injury (I was playing around with the concept of the sleeping princess and was sick of seeing comas being depicted as something cosy that people magically wake up for all whole and in one piece).

I spent months worrying that people would think that I was racist for putting the parents in that situation.

Because of this situation I have Ellie living with her grandparents, with a grandmother whose faith sustains her through an awful circumstance. I've spent months trying to make sure that this is not a cliche and that she's well rounded. No idea if I've done it or not - although hopefully the fact that none of the POC who've read the manuscript have raised it as an issue means that it works.

One of the main anatagonists in the book (Mother Flesh) is a one-legged Chinese pensioner who is over 40,000 years old and can kill or heal you in any one of a million ways. She's got all the best lines but she's utterly evil to her morbidly obese daughter and her obese grandson.

On the side of the good guys is a Nigerian (whose daughter and son become important later on), a Russian and an Indian lady (who starts of mumsy but becomes bad ass). There are also two lesbians in a relationship that's never spelt out but quite clearly there on the page.

The main antagonist is white and his henchmen/women are white (one of whom is Swedish - no particular reason, he just felt Swedish).

I don't dwell on race or ethnicity in the book - some of the characters are described as black or Indian and I pick words from foreign languages to throw into the dialogue and make it more authentic - but I was more interested in who the characters were and what they were doing than I was in giving a detailed ethnic breakdown.

The point though is that at the end of the day, all of these characters and their ethnicity etc are there on the page, but they're not what the story is about. They're just characters who react to situations in the same way as any character would. I figure that if anyone reads my WIP (assuming it's published one day) and they say "oh yeah so and so is the Chinese character", then I've failed.

I'd rather have readers say "X is the character in the trench coat who said this" or "Y is the character in that scene who did this".

Edited at 2010-03-15 05:34 pm (UTC)
inthewritemind.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. As a caucasian writer, I hardly ever write my own race. Most of my stories are set in different cultures around the world, mostly in Japan, but also some in Israel and a culture in a fantasy world based off medieval India.

Do I worry what people will say about a "non" ethnic writer branching out? Sometimes but I really couldn't care. I can't please everyone, and I'll write what I'm passionate about whether that's my own European heritage or one completely different from mine.

I do know I have research cut out for me to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping, but that's what lovely betas are for :)

Also...I never like saying I'm "white" (since the last time I checked my skin tone was NOT the color of typing paper) and I'm not transparent--my skin does have a little color in it :P Nor do I like saying "people of color" because it just sounds outdated to me. :P
inthewritemind.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2010 07:08 pm (UTC)
One more thing...
One more thing...if you are Caucasian and want to write about your European heritage (of which I also take a great deal of pride in too!) don't feel "distressed" that you're just "white American." Be proud of who you are! :) I love doing research into my family's variety of cultures, most of which are European, and I don't see anything wrong with that. It only becomes wrong when you think you're culture is superior to others. But being proud of who you are is nothing to be ashamed of.

It sometimes distresses me to see other commenters lamenting the fact they are Caucasian. Really? You shouldn't feel that way; every culture is just as colorful as the next!

And now I step off my soapbox :P
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on March 15th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
Re: One more thing...
That "distressingly" comment was mine and should have included a wink smiley. But it's also a genuine feeling. :/ I feel diconnected from any ethnic heritage, maybe because I'm such a blend, and also because as a Navy brat, I was on the move a lot. I don't even have a "hometown". :) I will say I can now appreciate having moved around a lot, because I learned to adapt quickly. I became an observer of people, which has fed into my life as a writer.

Our backgrounds so deserve credit for informing our world view... :)
katecoombs on March 15th, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Re: One more thing...
I've experienced this in a microcosm because all 7 kids in my family are adopted, and my older brother and I are white (or rather beige!), then I have two Korean sisters, two Filipina-Caucasian sisters, and a Samoan brother. I always felt like the boring one, plus no one ever believed I was adopted, too!
inthewritemind.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)
Re: One more thing...
That's understandable. I think many of us who are "white" on the outside definitely have a lot more of a mix than we think (and that goes for every other race too!)

I'm a bit of a genealogy nut too, so that's probably why I take such pride in my various degrees of heritage (currently researching to see if one of my great grandmothers from the 18th century was African American).

I think it's important that we don't make sure we don't put so much emphasis on race and end up putting up more walls around us because of it. Each and every color is beautiful in their own right :)
inthewritemind.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
Re: One more thing...
Oops. I meant "that we MAKE sure". One too many "don'ts" in there :P
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
Re: One more thing...
i'm not even first generation chinese-american and i can tell you how quickly the culture is lost. first with the language. believe me, i think about it a lot.

it truly is sad to see how quickly our ancestor's history and culture can be so easily forgotten over the years.
Heather Tomlinsoncalepin on March 15th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
A couple of quick comments--

1. As writers, let's celebrate Publisher Lee & Low's acquisition of Tu Publishing as a middle-grade and YA imprint of multicultural fantasy by giving them plenty of great manuscripts to choose from! ;)

2. When we're looking for fantasy novels to share and recommend, we can check out the lists a number of bloggers have created, of fantasy novels with non-white characters and/or diverse settings. (Chicken Spaghetti and Marie Brennan come to mind.) I also posted on the subject over at Tor.com recently, although I think that list will be more helpful when I've had a chance to annotate it regarding "alternate world" or "historical" fantasy.

Very much appreciating the honesty and respectfulness of this discussion!
(Anonymous) on March 15th, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
In a way, any of us who write YA or MG fiction with child or teen characters are already doing this--writing "the other", and trying to do it as respectfully and humanly and truthfully as possible.

Great commentary, everyone.
marissa_doylemarissa_doyle on March 15th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
That anonymous was me. Duh.
A Deserving Porcupine: rebeccarockinlibrarian on March 15th, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
Last year when all the buzz was going around about the Liar cover, I actually wrote a post on this very subject, multicultural fantasy. (I even used the word "mining" in my title!) Then as all the web discussions on race and representation continued I felt embarrassed by it, like who was I to talk about this, white and rural and Christian and straight and every other majority you can think of, with none of the characters I've ever written being overtly anything different. But thinking about it, I may be naive, but everything I said was true: I'd LOVE to see more fantasy based in other cultures! That's all I meant to say. I don't know who should write it, but the point is I'd want to READ it. Cindy, I have to say I've wanted passionately to read Silver Phoenix the first time I read anything about it; and as for When the Mountain Meets the Moon, I've SALIVATED for that one, and I happen to know we've just ordered it for our library and I'm going to read it FIRST!

Folklore is rich and fascinating whatever culture it started out in, so I don't see why the folklore of the culture ones ancestors came from should be the only folklore to interest a person. When I first became interested in folklore I wanted to read ALL of it. I was shocked and saddened recently reading something about folklore and how people only buy it FOR the multicultural aspect, something like "okay, we need a story from China, here's a Chinese Cinderella, okay now China's covered, let's find a story to represent India now." Stories are stories! I want them ALL! And I not only want ALL the folklore, I want fantasy that draws from ALL the folklore, too!
katecoombs on March 15th, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
Story greed--I've felt it! It's like when I try to get kids hooked on the idea that they personally OWN every single book in the library, all those possibilities! Amen, RockinL!
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
thank you for commenting!
i've had so much librarian love for
Silver Phoenix i'm truly grateful.

and we're so thrilled for grace lin's
well deserved accolades!
Shveta, bursting with stars ॐ: Lavender faerieshveta_thakrar on March 16th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
Thank you for the great comments, everyone. This is definitely a thorny subject, and yes, we have to be careful of appropriating without respecting. But in the end, we all have to work together if we want to see things change.

So I'm glad to see such an interest in representing the world as it actually is! Hooray!
kellion92 on March 16th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
Thanks for taking on this subject, ladies (hmm, all women? including commenters? well, there is certainly plenty of diversity even among one gender). Some people live in a single ethnicity community and that can be interesting, but that's not my neighborhood. I appreciate fantastic worlds that reflect and illuminate the real one.
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
we need more male inkies!
ha! tho i DID invite a male author
to share his thoughts but he unfortunately
wasn't able to write anything due
to a difficult week.

would definitely love to hear from some
guys--tho a guy friend who writes spec fic did comment on my fb. =)
Caroline Hootonhooton on March 16th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
I'm gathering up the courage to invite a UK male author I kinda sorta know to join. The only thing is that I know he's phenomenally busy at the moment with deadlines so I'm trying to pick the right time to pounce like a ninja.
blackteensread2.blogspot.com on March 16th, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)
Awesome :)
Fantastic discussion ladies! Everyone brings up great points and I eagerly await all of your WiPs/soon to be published books :) I so enjoyed Silver Phoenix!

I appreciate an author having a multicultural cast. But even more important is that they do the research and test it on people of that cultural background. As stated above, all readers read things differently and there will always be someone not happy with your novel and how you portray a character and that's ok. The fact that most authors realize that they have the power to offend with how they portray a character and they want to minimize that as much as possible is awesome. It shows you really care and not all authors do (I don't know of any YA authors who don't care, you guys are the best!)

Anyway, thank you all for writing about worlds that are a bit reminiscent of our own that embrace our diversity while still remaining far flung into the distant future. As a child I didn't see myself represented in many books, but as I get older I see the children/YA book market changing and ever so slowly increasing in diversity. thanks to authors like ya'll =)
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Awesome :)
ari, thanks so much for stopping by!!!
as well as adding your very eloquent thoughts!
Niamh Sageniamh_sage on March 16th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this post! It's both interesting and instructive to see the common threads showing in everybody's contributions (the comments as well as the posts), particularly regarding the advice on how to represent diversity well.
Cat Hellisencathellisen on March 16th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
I am 100% behind the advice to write what intrigues you, what fascinates you, what you love.

And ultimately, we write about people. (because they intrigues us, fascinate us, we love them?)

Watch a news report where some woman in some country you've never heard of loses her child in a bomb blast, a tsunami, to a stray bullet, a drunk driver.

For one moment in time, you will speak her language. That pain is human. The reality is you may never fully understand another culture, but you can understand a human.

I guess I'm not really making sense here. :D Put this way, the more I look at different cultures, the less I see the things that separate us, and the more I realise we're all so very much the same. The details may be different, but the cores remain eternal.

That's why I think any writer can write honestly and compassionately about a culture which is not their own. Yes, research is going to make a huge difference, and having a good beta reader catch any awful flaws you might have made, but a writer who feels for people in general, should be able to do any culture justice if they're willing to.

(fwiw, most of my books deal with racism in some form or another, it's the mire in which I was raised, and it has affected me and my writing. I don't write about any particular real world culture, but the parallels are most certainly there.)
Cat Hellisencathellisen on March 16th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
also look, my spelling, it intrigues me, but not in a good way. *sigh*
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)
mao mi, i think it's so true.
that to write about a different culture
will help one to be more sympathetic
or empathetic to situations, lifestyles,
habits, religion, etc different than our own.

i think what's so amazing about people IS
how different our cultures can be, but at
the heart of it, how similar.
kelljoneskelljones on March 16th, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you all for encouraging conversations like these! I really appreciate the discussion.

One of the things I find scary but also encouraging is that discussions of race and fiction highlight the power of words and books. Sure, it's terrifying to try and get it right. But it's also amazing and exciting to hear what it's been like for readers to meet someone like them in books, and to read (or write) the kind of book they always wanted. Ignoring the power of words doesn't mean I can step outside of the dynamics as a writer -- choosing "safety" means my power enforces the current status quo. Do those choices scare me? Yes. But do I wish books had less power? No.
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
again, such a wonderful point.

there is definitely power in stories and
words. it's amazing it's frightening and
it's wonderful.
Juliet Valcouer: Titanic Plebiansjulietvalcouer on March 16th, 2010 06:12 pm (UTC)
Here via cassiphone's journal, not a regular reader but found the topic interesting.

I've only sold short stuff and not for a while, but in working on MSs for books I find I'm kind of worrying from another perspective--I write mostly "white" characters (in the book actually well in rewrites one protagonist's a more or less typical modern WAS-P-in-name-only, the other is Catholic and half-Irish, half-Polish, which is far more "normal" where I come from, well, except the Irish part.) It being a kind of fantasy, the two major supporting characters are a bit odd (one is first-century Roman, the other nineteenth-century half-Russian, half...uh...Pacific rim culture). Other book protags are a Hungarian and a Metis, 'epic' fantasy I've been kicking around is made of equal parts Asia (mostly "Indochina", Chinese, Japanese, and Central Asian inspirations.)

Which sounds FAIRLY diverse (as a Polish-Ukrainian I tend to get resentful of being called "white" like I have exactly the same cultural background as Scots-Irish or German or whatever when even Poles and Ukrainians aren't THAT similar outside both speaking Slavic languages.) But then I read thoughts on representation of "people of color" and I look at what I write, especially the urban fantasy, and I feel like I should be running quotas.

I just find certain cultures more interesting (tends to be First Nations and in particular Metis, Central Asia, Australian Aborigine, Eastern European, Ainu) than others. So when I was doing a paper as an archaeology undergrad, I would do something on Aboriginal rock art, not on the Yanomami of the Amazon basin. If I'm buying art, I find Chinese brush painting and Japanese ukiyo-e prints more aesthetically pleasing than African tribal masks. When I write characters, I make them either like me (Catholic, middle-class, female..okay, one character) or I make them people I find interesting--the liberal WASPish person who IS one of those people with Scot-Irish-German-Cherokee-whatever-on-the-Mayflower (being only second-generation I have trouble comprehending having that muddled a background), the Metis woman with voyageur and Ojibwe ancestors, a culture built using a Southeast Asian "foundation" in a fantasy world. Then I feel like--do I have to add characters I don't really feel to make it "diverse" because if I don't, I'm being racist? Should I adapt elements of real cultures for a fantasy book when that's not my background? If I create a fantasy world that obviously takes inspiration from the real world, is it racist to only include things from cultures I find interesting? If it's mostly an Asia/Eurasia analogue, do I need to add an Africa analogue because, as a "white" writer, not doing so means I think Asians are better than Africans? If I don't include Hispanic Americans as major characters (despite not knowing many, speaking Spanish, or having much interest in the cultures) is that whitewashing?

And then just to make it more fun--do all my villains have to be white/European? (Well, they can't be in the "epic" fantasy, the closest anyone comes is one group is about equal parts Cossack/Mongol/Scythian and I imagine most characters as having Eurasian or Asian skeletal/facial features.) So far they are. If I added a villain from a "minority" group, is it racist? When portraying people not of my own ethnic group (or at least who aren't Caucasian as I wouldn't include, for example, Germans in "my" ethnic group) am I obligated to only portray them in a positive manner? This comes up in anthropology, too, so it's not a new issue but one I've never had a satisfactory answer to--if I'm portraying a group to which I do not belong, am I obligated to take their worldview at face value? If there are negative aspects to a culture (the hisorical and sometimes current treatment of the "Burakamin" in Japan, for example) am I obligated to follow whatever the dominant cultural position on the issue is?

It's usually about this point I say "eff it" and write what amuses me. But I worry about people reading it and saying "You need more of X people. Otherwise it's unequal."
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
i think as long as you are aware of the choices you are making for your story and your characters and can stand by those choices--that's all any of us really can do.

Juliet Valcouerjulietvalcouer on March 16th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
I guess I feel like I don't want to offend anyone, either! It's not that I think someone's culture is worse than others (unless they're into fgm or something, then I feel entitled to judge), I just find some more *interesting* than others. Not that the others are boring.

It's strange; no one thinks you're odd as an anthropologist or historian if you specialize in a culture that's not your own, when you're really being much more critical than you are in fiction. I'd rather people write about me than sociologically analyze me.
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
it's not the united nations--
it's your story. and if you are published,
you WILL offend someone, somehow or other.
ha! it's inevitable. so i guess i point back
to my original comment. =)

you need to write what draws you
and makes sense for YOU! i admit, i'm
very selfish about the entire thing.

(Anonymous) on March 16th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Tanita Says :)
"but many warned, there will be
Flame Wars, beware!"

Isn't it nice to be surprised? No flames, just thoughtful conversation. Thank you for starting it off.
cindy_poncindy_pon on March 16th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Tanita Says :)
patty1943: pic#85360854patty1943 on March 17th, 2010 05:32 pm (UTC)
This is interesting and important discussion.
I only have one objection, and it is a pet peeve of mine: "Christian not Catholic"???
Since when were Catholics not Christian? The others are called Protestants or Orthodox. They are all Christians.
To see it inadvertently (I am sure) repeated in a post about diversity is pretty disconcerting.