Is the Race Card Old School?

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Mitali Perkins.


When my book Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge) came out, one reviewer said I was “drawing on my cultural roots” to tell the story.

I winced when I read that line.

I was writing about Naima, the Muslim daughter of an impoverished rickshaw puller in Bangladesh. My grandfather was a Hindu landowner who exploited people like Naima. The rift between me and my character was almost as wide as a daughter of a slave-owner writing about the daughter of a slave. Sure, we’re both Bengali, so we share a language and other cultural commonalities. But why is race the primary authenticity card when it comes to granting storytelling permission? What about power, gender, class?

The bottom line is that all fiction crosses borders. Age: middle-aged people write about children. Gender: women write about boys; men write about girls. Class: suburbanites write about inner-city kids.

If we don’t write an imagined life, we craft memoir.

Does that mean anybody can write anything when it comes to fiction? It must, with caveats. Because what an author learns before the age of seven does matter in fiction.

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“I Want to Write What I Know”

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Bil Wright.

“Write what you know!” Isn’t that what English teachers, writing instructors and even guest authors encourage beginning writers to do? Many young writers, eager to begin to unravel the mystery of how to tell a story “successfully” hold onto this advice as a foundation for their writing careers whether it be professionally, academically or writing for their own enjoyment. Certainly this adage provides a certain comfort level; writing about what is familiar almost guarantees, if nothing else, a level of credibility and even authenticity, doesn’t it? And certainly, for any writer wanting to make a deep connection with his/her reader, authenticity is a quality that is highly desirable. So then does that mean I should stay away from writing about topics or characters, indeed people who are less familiar to me? Perhaps I should not include them in my computer created world, lest I fall short of making them totally believable to my reader. Perhaps I should compile a list so that I’m careful to avoid these topics and characters as I proceed to tell my stories.

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Authentically Me

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Sharon G. Flake.

Growing up I did not see the value in being my authentic self.  I was skinny, long-legged, and shy with big rabbit teeth.  Some adults and kids even called me Olive Oyl (Popeye’s Girlfriend) —enough said?

I remember wanting to be like my neighbor Yolonda.  She could wear a blanket and look red-carpet ready.  I on the other hand, could never quite make fashion work, even today.

By middle school comparing myself to others was a fine art.  There was the blond I sat next to who had the most exquisite handwriting.  For years I tried to emulate it.  In high school there was Pam. She absorbed information like a sponge.  Earning high A’s with ease or so it seemed.  I would study until my brain froze, only to end up with a lack luster B or C.

Thank God for my freshmen college English class.  Before then, I do not recall feeling one-way or the other about writing.  Yet somehow my professor lit a flame in me. No longer did I need to be a carbon copy of others, at least on paper.  My writing was opinionated, fearless, and political. I was determined to use my work to give voice to the powerless.  And because I loved the community I grew up in, I never hesitated to draw on its strengths, challenges and uniqueness.

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First, Know Yourself

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Diana López.

“Write about picking cotton,” my family said when they heard I wanted to be a writer.  “Write about how we used the fabric from flour sacks to make our dresses, and how Grandma hates fish because that’s all she ate during the Depression, since it didn’t cost anything for them to go fishing for food.”

Closely examine my family, or any family, and you’ll discover all the drama of a telenovela.  Naturally, I wanted to write about being chastised for speaking Spanish, about living on a ranch in San Diego, about my grandmother being “Rosita the Riveter” during World War II.  I tried to write those stories.  But my only experience working the land comes from fifteen minutes in a field off Old Robstown Road where my parents showed us how to pick cotton.  It was interesting to feel the texture, so unlike a T-shirt, which is what I had imagined.

My grandmother might have hated fish, but I loved it.  We had a boat that we’d take to Laguna Madre, where we’d compete to see who could catch the most, the biggest, or the strangest.  (Once, my brother caught a seagull when it chomped on the bait as he cast.)  Back home, Dad filleted the fish in the backyard, the cats begging and fighting over scraps. Then, Mom used cornmeal batter to fry the fish, and we ate, delicately picking meat off tiny bones.

All this to say that my family’s experiences and the emotions associated with them are not exactly mine.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be True to Be Truthful

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Alex London.

Authenticity, that vicious guard-dog of truth, bedevils a teller of stories every step of the way. It is not enough to feel the truth of what you write or even to know it. The reader must feel you are right in the telling of it. An inauthentic voice can make even an honest memoir feel like a lie, while an authentic voice can make a whole pack of lies seem true. Just look to James Frey’s first book for proof of that.


In writing my YA debut, Proxy, I struggled with authenticity early on. As a gay man who was once a gay teen, I had no trouble with my protagonist’s sexuality. I well-remembered the unrequited longings, the suppressed desire for a kiss that sometimes broke out as rage, and the feeling, ever-present, that my sexuality did not define me and that I could not let the world tell me it did.

Syd, one of two main characters in Proxy, contains much of the truth of my own experience and the challenge there was the common challenge to all writing: to make sure I rendered him as vividly as I would want to be rendered myself. I had memories to draw on, fragmented conversations with my straight best-friend, felt truths that I could, with effort, put into words.

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It’s Complicated!: Authentic Voices Series Continues

One week down, one more week to go! 
Last week this It’s Complicated! series highlighted authors who wrote brilliantly from outside of their perspectives including Graham Salisbury, Elizabeth Kiem, Walter Dean Myers, A.S. King, and Patricia McCormick. Some great takeaways?
A writer writes, and doesn’t really worry much about complaints, anyway. We’re seeking the dramatic and emotional intricacies of life wherever and however we can find them. Our job is to explore them, enlighten ourselves, and try our best to move our readers. We may all look different, but we are all intimately and infinitely connected. We are one. We are beings with parallel heartbeats. The only race out there is the human one.–Graham Salisbury, Parallel Heartbeats
My central characters all have some aspects of my personality. I don’t intend to write this way but it’s inevitable. I know I can use my personal view to create a character of depth, but I have to vary that character so that I’m not constantly writing the same book over and over again.–Walter Dean Myers, Character Development
My characters are me. I couldn’t write them if they weren’t. None of my characters are autobiographical, but every one of them is human and so am I. In the end, we all have too much in common to go on separating ourselves. We eat and we poop. We are born and we die. We struggle through. While diversity is a celebration of every type of human, I am most interested in that humanness that connects us.–A.S. King, What is Personal Perspective, Really?
It’s Complicated!: Authentic Voices continues this week by looking at insider authors who craft outstanding stories featuring protagonists that in some way relate to a part of their personal identity.
First up? Alex London, author of the new dystopian novel Proxy. Get ready for some truth bombs later today. To get you started, here’s a teaser from his upcoming post It Doesn’t Have to Be True to Be Truthful:
Just because we might have the same romantic inclinations, I couldn’t presume his way of being in the world was anything like mine. To do so would have done the character, and the countless young people in our world whose lives do, to an extent, resemble his, a great disservice.
As always, we look forward to reading your comments and questions that are brought up by any of the posts you read on CBC Diversity. Let’s keep this conversation going, shall we?

Taking the Risk and Taking the Heat

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Patricia McCormick.

When authors try to write about experiences far outside our own, we run a number of risks. We’ll be accused of getting it wrong, of slumming in someone else’s pain or,  worst of all, of being insensitive or patronizing. But for me, it’s only through trying on the experience of another human being that I’m able to recognize the limits of my imagination – and, more importantly, my unconscious biases.


For instance, in Sold, a novel based on my interviews with young Indian and Nepali women who were sold into prostitution, I chose to include a white American character. He is a photographer, based on the real-life activist who introduced me to the issue of human trafficking. It was a thank-you to that young man. But the inclusion of an American character was also a way to give my primary audience a character with whom they could identify.

Some readers criticized the book for repeating the myth of the noble white American rescuer in the land of savages.  And upon reflection, I have to plead guilty.  If I were to write the book over again, I’d probably base the ‘rescuer’ on the women in India and Nepal who are fighting trafficking. Or on the male police officers now doing that work.

Lesson learned.

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What Is Personal Perspective, Really?

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, A.S. King.

Writing outside of my “personal perspective” is easy because I am fascinated by human beings, and not particularly fascinated by myself.

And what is personal perspective? Is it the body I am in? This physical, sometimes smelly, sometimes sunburnt, sometimes arthritic shell? Is it the color of my skin? The house I grew up in? The amount in my parents’ bank account in 1984? Is it my family’s traditions during holidays? How often we went to church—or the fact that it wasn’t often? This question of personal perspective concerns me because it seems to be the thing a writer is supposed to transcend when he or she writes a novel. It’s also the thing a writer is supposed to plug into. It’s tricky like that.

When thinking about my characters and how they relate to me and more importantly, how they don’t relate to me, I find the dissimilar parts the least important. For example: I am not a young man. I never have been a young man. I am also not a child from a poor home, I’ve never lived in a trailer park, neither have I lived in a gated community of mini-mansions. So how do I write authentically from the point of view of a young man? How do I write authentically from the point of view of a poor girl who lives in a trailer park? A boy who lives in a mini-mansion?

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Character Development

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by 2012-2013 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Walter Dean Myers.

What I knew about the character I wanted to create was that he was based on the Moroccan hero Tarik ibn Zayad. In late April, 711, Tarik led his soldiers across what is now known as the strait of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula. My problem was to keep the book as time specific as possible while making it interesting to today’s young reader.

Knowing the subsequent influence of Islamic and Moorish culture in Spain, I decided to take the trip to the areas I would be writing about. I took my usual research assistants – my wife Constance and our son Christopher. We flew from Newark Airport to Malaga where we spent a few days checking out the food and staring at the people. Christopher noted that many seemed to be of mixed race. We then rented a car and drove to Granada.   

Granada is flat out beautiful, and I knew I wanted to include the lush scenery in my book. So throughout the book I made references to the vegetation and thus gave Tarik a careful and interesting appreciation of the wonders of nature.  

Tarik, in my story, is on a mission of vengeance. His family has been killed by Visigoth raiders and he is angry. But, needing to control that anger I gave him martial arts training from two people, one who teaches him to fight and the other who teaches him self control.  His character is coming along nicely, thank you. 

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Write What You Know

An It’s Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Elizabeth Kiem.

Last month, as the release date of my Cold War thriller Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy drew near, these were the things I worried about:
Would Russian readers question why I nicknamed Marina, my heroine, ‘Marya’ rather than the more usual ‘Marinka?’

Would American readers check Google earth and find that the building where Marya lives is not as close to the riverbank as I implied?

Would anybody notice that Marya flies out of Moscow on a Tupelov 134, which is actually an unmanned drone?

In other words I worried that readers might question the authenticity of my story, my setting, or my props. But it never occurred to me that I might be challenged on the authenticity of my character – a Russian ballerina with a psychic streak and a lot of family baggage.

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