Writing Diverse Characters

I teach in a very diverse school, and because of that I see the need and desire for literature with characters that are diverse.  My kids get excited when they hear about books with characters like them.

I wonder if I would like reading as much as I do if I hadn’t seen characters and families that are a lot like mine.  I grew up on Boxcar Children and American Girl.  These books have white main characters and probably also have morals and cultural values that are similar to my own.

So here comes my dilemma.  They say write what you know.  Does that mean write from the cultural perspective you know?  Can I not write from a Latino or African American viewpoint because I don’t understand?  But then how do we get more diverse books on bookshelves?

I’m in a graduate program for Children’s Literature.  My classmates want to write, create, and publish books for children.  Let me breakdown the races of my classmates:

Of the 24 people I have class with:

  • 22 are white females
  • 2 are black females

There are no Asian or Hispanic people in my classes.

So who will write these books that reflect diverse cultures?  I see the NEED for them.  My kids WANT them.

This subject is on my mind for two reasons.

ONE- My most recent short story was as close as I’ve come to touching on race.  I wrote a story from the point of view of an racially ambiguous angel who saves an African American boy from being recruited into a neighborhood gang.  I had some experience with this issue, but it was still slightly uncomfortable to write in the way that it was outside my comfort zone.

TWO- I spoke with a professor today about a novel I’m working on.  I’d wanted to use references to the Underground Railroad because my novel deals with oppression and running away to freedom.  My professor cautioned me that unless my main character was going to be black, then I need to be very careful “touching” the Underground Railroad because people could take it the wrong way.  Right now, my main character is mixed/racially ambiguous, and I have a cast of characters who is very diverse.  But my cast is not strictly black.  She recommended I look into the Civil Rights movement instead.  Or connect it to the Holocaust because it sounded more connected to my themes.  But the Civil Rights doesn’t fit the aspect of my plot that the characters would be running away and looking for safe havens.  And while I can see the Holocaust connections, I wanted to incorporate some African American heritage.

I don’t have a solution to anything I brought up here.  So much of writing is subconscious and pulling from the experiences deep in the brain.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to really write from within a culture that I’m not a part of.  I guess I was hoping that I could create racially ambiguous characters and then incorporate historical allusions that brought many cultures to the setting and plot of the text.  But I guess there are serious implications to even doing that.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this subject.

This entry was posted in Writing.

2 comments on “Writing Diverse Characters

  1. Hillary says:

    Oy. We discussed this a lot in my Af American lit classes. Some people feel very strongly against people from one culture writing from the perspective of another culture. Can it be authentic? Realistic? I have no solutions for you, but I'd love to hear more about the process you're working through!

  2. Was your prof white? I wonder if that could affect his/her opinion. I think this is definitely something that needs to be heard by those most affected by it because part of it could be a fear of offending when it is a step in the right direction.

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