January 27 is Multicultural Children’s Book Day, and it brings me around to an interesting conversation that’s underway in the publishing community–whether anyone has the right to tell stories outside of their race or culture. I have friends whose story ideas have lately been turned down because they wanted to write about a race different than their own.
I write a multicultural children’s series set in World War II called The Home-Front Heroes, and from the moment I conceived of the series, I knew I’d be writing about different ethnic groups. Why? Because to tell the American story during one of the most critical times in our history, it’s impossible to view it through the lens of just one city or neighborhood. In the 1940s, it was rare for people to travel more than 50 miles from their homes. Your city, your neighborhood, and the people who surrounded you were your experience with the world. In many ways, that is still true today.
In my first book, my female character is white and living in rural Illinois. In the second, he is Japanese-American living in an internment camp. In the third, he’s Mexican-American living in San Antonio. And in the fourth, she’s Jewish and living in the Bronx. As a writer I had many concerns when starting these books:
–I did not live in the 1940s, so I would have to gain knowledge about that time period.
–I did grow up a young boy, so I would have to talk to my male friends, my husband, and my son to see how young boys think.
— I did not grow up in a small town (like my Illinois character) or a big city (like my children in the Bronx or San Antonio).
–I did not grow up Japanese-American or Jewish, and even though I am half-Mexican, I did not grow up strongly in that culture either.
I knew from the outset that this series would require not only deep research, but also real empathy. I would have to listen very carefully to the people I interviewed about their experiences and hold space in my head and heart for their truths, as they were told to me.
All writers write outside of our experience, even memoirists, because even though you lived it, once you cross that line and tell us what your mother said and how she said it, you are bringing your own interpretation to her experience. What I know full well as an historian is there is no such thing as absolute truth or even absolute fact. There is only how we interpret it, and our intention when we do so.
I’ve written numerous stories about men and women from various backgrounds, and I never take that responsibility lightly. I admit to having felt apprehension when my story about the African-American WAC in World War II was published in my book Dancing in Combat Boots. I wrote that story in dialect, because that is how the woman I interviewed talked. To be honest, I couldn’t have written it any other way if I tried. I worried when it came out, though, that I’d be criticized for that choice.
But my source called me when she received the book. She was thrilled. “And thank you for making me sound black,” she said. “Because now anyone who reads this story will know immediately this was my people this happened to.” Whether you agree with my decision or not, all that mattered to me was that I had done right by the woman whose story I told. To the best of my ability, I had captured her truth.
In other words, as one writer put it, there has to be a “why.” If there is a good reason for you to write that character, do it. But if you are throwing in a multi-cultural character just because, refrain.
As artists of all kinds, though, I believe we have a duty–a responsibility–to tell the stories that need to be told, especially now. Now is not the time to suppress a story simply because you’re not sure you are “allowed” to write it. Now, more than ever, we need diverse stories and perspectives and we need people who will tell them with respect and empathy. If you can do that, then embrace your art!
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