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Writing Cross-Culturally

By Stacy Whitman and Karen Sandler

Tu Books Editorial Director Stacy Whitman and Tankborn author Karen Sandler hosted a #YALitChat conversation on Twitter about writing cross-culturally. Authors, agents, and editors weighed in with suggestions and questions. Read on for highlights from the discussion, or check out the full transcript here .

How do you define writing cross-culturally?

Writing cross-culturally encompasses a lot: it means writing about a racial, cultural, or ethnic group that is significantly different from your own. We all occupy multiple identities—“A male teenage African American skater is negotiating at least four cultures,” according to @brucewriting.

Another category included in writing cross-culturally is religion. “As a Mormon, it really bothers me when writers get my culture wrong,” notes Stacy Whitman. It’s also important to remember that within a particular culture, geographic location influences particular mannerisms. For example, if you are a New Yorker writing about a character from the Midwest, expect there to be differences.

How do you determine what counts as cross-cultural if you grew up around multiple cultures?

It’s an advantage to be exposed to multiple cultures growing up, but authors should still try to identify which culture(s) they consider to be their own. Even if you grew up in close proximity to another culture, you may still view it differently as an outsider. According to aspiring literary agent @leonicka, “Your perception of different cultures may be different from the way those cultures define themselves.”

How can you familiarize yourself with another culture?

There are multiple ways this can be accomplished. The first step is ignoring your preconceived notions about the culture that you are trying to learn more about. Beyond that, there are several good avenues to a better understanding of another culture: watching foreign films and television, learning a language, visiting authentic ethnic restaurants, attending cultural festivals and events, and reading local media such as newspapers and magazines.

What are some useful ways to indicate to the reader that characters are non-white, particularly where usual racial origins do not apply?

Some authors suggest being up front about skin tone, so that readers cannot unintentionally “whitewash” characters by assuming that characters are white unless specifically told otherwise. One way to do this subtly, as @audrey_gonzalez suggests, is to use comparisons between characters: “A is darker than B, or C has x kind of hair/skin/etc. that's normal for Ds.”

Stacy Whitman tells authors to avoid comparing skin tones to foods. And Karen Sandler suggests focusing on the oppression of an oppressed race where applicable, rather than color.

What are some fears associated with writing cross-culturally, and how can authors combat them?

Some assume that there isn’t a market for a diversity, but Tankborn author Karen Sandler emphasizes that this is not true. Authors like @tracyclark_TLC and @cindypon also point out that authors are often held back from writing cross-culturally because they’re afraid of accidentally disrespecting, insulting, or stereotyping another culture.

One way to combat the fear of getting things wrong is to use expert readers to make sure you’ve portrayed a culture right. Be empathetic and willing to examine your own privilege. And, as Stacy Whitman says, be willing to make—and admit to—mistakes. That’s the way to get better.

Writers who tread carefully and thoughtfully can successfully reflect the diversity of society within their pages. However, as @leonicka says, “No character should be cross-cultural ‘just ‘cause.’ Every trait/experience/mannerism should have a purpose.” Karen Sandler agrees that race is part of each character’s backstory, and should serve the plot somehow. And Stacy Whitman adds that whether or not a character’s culture is tied to the plot in a big way, it will inform things about that character and the decisions he or she makes.

What kind of mistakes do writers make when diversifying their writing?

Stacy Whitman notes that there are many tropes authors utilize that readers of color or readers within a certain culture may find annoying. One example is “politically correct” language, which may not be used within a specific culture. Author @tracyclark_TLC gives the example of a trip she took to Ireland to do research for her novel: “I was chastised for asking if they were speaking ‘Gaelic.’ He said, ‘We speak IRISH.’”

Author @malindalo warns that using unfortunate metaphors is a definite no-no, such as using color to identify good and bad. For example, sometimes in fantasy evil forces are dark skinned while everyone good is white. This reinforces problematic stereotypes even in fantasy worlds.

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