7 Tips for Writing About Other Cultures

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I don’t make any claim to be an expert in diversity. I am a white American woman, and despite the fact that I’ve lived in Japan for the past six years, I’m still often blinded by my own privilege. But it doesn’t take an expert to notice that protagonists on the pale end of the spectrum are vastly overrepresented in English-language fiction. There is a continuous need, especially in literature aimed at kids and teens, for more diversity in fiction.

kathryn-tanquary-author-writer
the-night-parade-book-cover

Column by Kathryn Tanquary, author of THE NIGHT PARADE
(Jan. 5 2016, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky). Kathryn is a graduate
of Knox College with a B.A. in Creative Writing. She taught English
as a Foreign Language to junior high school students in Gunma
Prefecture, Japan, for many years. She currently resides in Tokyo.
Follow her on Twitter

Scientific studies have proved that people who read are more empathetic. The very act of following the characters on the page hones our abilities to understand the emotions and motivations of others. Fiction gives us a rare chance to engage with a story outside of ourselves. Why not take it?

If you’re an author who’s ever wanted to explore the world through a different lens, here are some tips for writing (respectfully!) outside your culture.

(Literary agents examine and define complicated book genres & definitions.)
1. Take chances.

If you have the opportunity to include more diversity in your work, take it. The problem of protagonists not an accurately reflecting of the spectrum of readers is especially important for children and young adults, who read more than any other age group and who are in a critical period for shaping their identities. Representation is extremely important, and so is normalizing the idea that anyone can be a hero. There are many extremely talented authors of color publishing these much needed stories, but in order for literature to really progress we all need to deconstruct the idea of whiteness as a default.

2. RESEARCH

I apologize for yelling, but this is so important I dusted off the caps-lock just in case. If you’re able to experience that culture first-hand, lucky you! But for many others, research will have to be done the old-fashioned way. The important point here is recognizing the differences between primary and secondary sources. A secondary source would be a comprehensive history of the Middle East. A primary source would be the diary of a Palestinian girl. If you’re writing about a modern culture, there’s a wealth of primary resources available through the internet. Find out what real people are talking about, what they’re concerned with in their daily lives. If possible, watch a few popular TV dramas to see what kind of stories that culture is interested in telling and what they value.

3. Always, always treat your characters as individuals.

No single character should be an ambassador for an entire group or culture. Don’t feel like you have to cram every little bit of research in. Readers should identify with your character’s human characteristics over everything else. The most interesting thing about Katniss Everdeen is not her cool hunting skills, but her unfaltering love for her sister that makes readers invest in her as a character. Remember your primary sources!

4. Past informs present.

That’s not to say that your character’s group or culture won’t be a part of their identity. Experience shapes personality and culture plays a role in shaping attitudes. Show us how your characters respond to the expectations set for them by their group or culture. Are the strict in their beliefs or do they go against the grain? How does their society respond to them?

5. Avoid palette swaps.

There is a tendency, even among great writers, to add diversity to their cast with a character who is just ethnically or culturally divergent enough to be interesting, but still white enough that the author doesn’t feel like she needs to do a wealth of research. This often takes the form of the “Half-Japanese/Half-Irish” character who calls his white friends “baka” despite being born and raised in California. The stereotypical HJHI character arc (because the HJHI is only ever a supporting character, not a protagonist) rarely touches on the struggle of multiracial or bicultural individuals. You can do better than an HJHI. Refer to #3!

(Have questions about what genre/category you're writing in? Here are some tips.)

6. GET IT CHECKED!

Oops, there goes the caps-lock again. While your research is an important foundation, never rely on research alone. Get a sense-check from someone fluent in the nuances of the culture you’re writing about. Solicit their feedback and take their observations and suggestions to heart. If they take issue with an aspect of your portrayal, don’t get defensive! Listen carefully and use what you learn to make your writing more authentic.

7. Don’t stop.

No one likes to hear this, but you will probably make a mistake. You will probably make many, even with the best intentions and the most thorough research. Some people might get upset at your portrayal of their culture. Just like during your sense-check, take that feedback and use it to do better next time.

When we think about challenging ourselves and evolving our craft, most writers think about style and technique. But evolving our contents—our themes and our characters—will not only make us more experienced writers, it will make us more thoughtful and empathetic people.

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