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Is Multicultural the Right Word?

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By Stacy Whitman

I wrote this as a comment to this thread over at Through the Tollbooth, and found the post getting way, way too long, so I decided to bring it back here to open up the discussion. (That thread is part of a larger conversation about Native American content in children's books which is well worth the read.)

I really appreciate the thoughts of that post and of others I've read. I've been lurking at Through the Tollbooth for a little while, and they've had a number of great discussions on this topic and on writing cross-culturally, so writers, check it out.

I especially find interesting the idea of the word "multicultural" being taken off the table. I've been slightly uncomfortable with the word myself from time to time, honestly—because I feel much the same way about it as Uma Krishnaswami on one hand, and because it's a stumbling block for some people, on the other. (I'd like, for example, for the books we publish to open up worlds for readers in my hometown, a small western Illinois farm town—where some prejudices run deep—just as much as they might reflect an African American reader. Mirrors and windows.)

I recently saw a YouTube video linked by Renee from Shen's Books, I believe, of a presentation in which someone used the term "interculturalism" (sorry, no link—it's been too long). This is the idea that there can be a flow of information between cultures. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it's defined there as "an inherent openness to be exposed to the culture of the 'other.'" I like that definition—the idea that whoever we are (especially if we're in a majority group), we need to see past our own noses, so to speak. But I'm not sure that it's the right word for what we at Tu Books want to do, because it seems to come with political meanings as well. Yet I don't really disagree with many of the ideas (freedom for all, while embracing a variety of cultures), so perhaps that's moot.

Anyway, all that to say: I'd love to just say we're opening a small press that focuses on fantasy and SF for children and young adults and have it be a given that it would include publishing stories about all kinds of cultures and that the characters would be all hues of the rainbow. And to be able to assume that we'd then get submissions that would reflect those ideals, and that those books would then fly off the shelves by themselves, for their intrinsic interest.

Hopefully they will fly off the shelves for their intrinsic interest, actually—because we want to acquire books that are about the adventure, the quest, the mystery, the magic, and most of all, the characters, and have the culture or ethnicities of the characters be the milieu in which the story is steeped, the history that might influence their decisions, the structure of a culture they must navigate. In the case of a fantasy set in a historical setting, for example, characters off adventuring in a Korean setting will deal with certain kinds of magical creatures and cultural obstacles that would differ from what characters in a Kenyan setting might, which would differ again from what a modern U.S. setting might supply. Yet there will also be universal emotions, something everyone reading no matter their background can identify with.

But I don't know that fantasy is there yet. Some realism and picture books, I think, do a great job at that (though I think we also need more of that kind of story in those categories as well), but genre fiction in children's and YA books still need some work in that regard, and I think by emphasizing "multicultural" in our mission, we can help with that.

Cindy Pon's excellent Silver Phoenix and a relatively short list of others notwithstanding, I think there's room for this niche to grow and to find a readership in a wide audience. I think that when we have a Latino Harry Potter (i.e., a book about a boy wizard who happens to be a Latino, and therefore his Hogwarts might be in Mexico or Texas or California or in any location with a strong Latino cultural influence), when we have a book as popular as Twilight featuring an African American or Native or Southeast Asian character who deals with the average high school angst and a bunch of supernatural beings, then we'll have arrived at that point.

However, I'm open to feedback—in fact, I love it, because it will help me to make sure that our books reach the readers they're intended to reach. If "multicultural" isn't the right word, is there a better one? If we were to drop "multicultural" and just emphasize in our submission guidelines that we're open to stories from all over, would it work?

Because the idea is not to market niche books to a niche audience, the way that "African American books," for example, are often currently marketed. Interculturality is definitely something I expect to happen with the books we publish—I hope that readers of all backgrounds will love them because they're good stories, period.

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