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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Question of Culture

I read a rather thought-provoking article today. Observe:
I'm not sure how many authors are aware of this problem. I'll be the first to admit I wasn't even aware of this problem until about a year ago, when I started writing SHUTTER, SHUDDER (Ghost Book. Yes, I'm using Ghost Book's real name. SERIOUS STUFF, PEOPLE). In SHUTTER, SHUDDER, the MC, Sophie McKay, is a fiesty, rather loud teenager between her senior year of high school and her freshman year of college. She's a photographer, obsessed with color and pictures. And she's Jewish.
Sophie's Judaism was never a question -- she sprang into my head colorful and loud and declaring quite passionately that she was who she was, and this was her story, and I'd better start writing because she wasn't going to repeat herself. I thought "Hey, cool! I don't know anything about Judaism beyond the Star of David and Hanukkah, so this will be some interesting research." I bought (I kid you not) Judaism for Dummies, did a lot of Google searches, and let Sophie tell me all about her culture.
It didn't really cross my mind that Sophie's Judaism might be something unique until I started seeing articles like the one linked above, and paying more attention to culture in YA, and I realized -- there is very little culture in YA.
Now, I'm still developing this in my head (SHUTTER, SHUDDER is my first book to ever have an MC with a culture different from my own), but it's brought up some interesting questions, and I'd like to hear your thoughts:
1) Have you written a YA book with a multicultural MC? How was it received (if it was published, if it was read by your close family, if it was read by betas, etc etc, in whatever circles it swam)?
2) What multicultural YA books have you read in which the culture of the MC was not the main plot of the story, yet more of a background detail (in other words, where the book was about X and the MC just WAS a certain culture, not a book that is wholly about a different culture)?
3) Do you think (purely opinion, guys) that if Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen were, say, Japanese or Middle Eastern or Muslim or Hindu, and that fact was woven into the story as background detail (ie, it's a story about a Japanese girl who falls in love with a vampire, not a story about a girl who is Japanese and falls in love with a vampire, if that makes sense), that their books would have sold just as well?
(I hope I'm explaining the background thing well -- when I say "background detail" I mean that the MC is Asian or African American or whatever, and it isn't the focal point of the story. Nothing in the plot changes because they are of a different culture, only bits and pieces of their culture are subtly woven in alongside the major plot, whatever it may be.)
(I realize that bringing issues of race and culture up can be a call for Slimy Internet Trolls -- I mean this as a serious discussion, and want to reaffirm how TOTALLY and COMPLETELY pro-culture, pro-uniqueness that I am. This is something I'm starting to feel really motivated by, and am curious how the rest of the YA community feels, especially those who are in the same "boat" as me -- white, middle class family, etc etc.) 


Dara said...

I don't normally write YA but what I do write tends to have multicultural characters. For my fantasy book, it's mostly about how the two are brought together despite the fact their countries are enemies to help save the world from darkness, etc, etc. I don't dwell on the specifics of their culture much since that isn't the main part of the story.

I actually can't remember the last story I worked on that didn't have multicultural characters. I think it stems from my love of culture and history in general.

Rachel said...

Sara for books with Jewish characters (where their religion isn't the entire focus) - check out PRETTY AMY by Lisa Burstein, INCONVENIENT by Margie Gelbwasser and PIECES OF US by Margie Gelbwasser.

As someone who is Jewish, I love reading about Jewish characters. Makes me feel fuzzy inside. Best of luck with SHUTTER, SHUDDER*

*Love the title. Love play on words :)

Anonymous said...

I'm all about adding in the culture. I love reading books about people of all varieties. It's the best way to get into someone else's skin. And when you understand a person, it's easier to love a person, right?

I just read a fantasy book that was set in medieval Baghdad. It was AWESOME! Naturally, the characters were Arabic but they even varied that with different subcultures. I loved it!

Wyman Stewart said...

For a Jewish main character, you would weave things into scenes and background. Jewish food and eating, food restrictions (thinking kosher foods), the traditional Jewish Mother, and other things. Even a relative telling a traditional Jewish joke or saying a few words of Yiddish might work their way into your story.

If you have heard of Billy Crystal, the Marx Brothers, Jackie Mason, Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Woody Allen, and Wikipedia lists many many more; you get the idea of how important humor is to Jewish culture.

Yet, in the end, all people are alike in so many more ways than they are different. Maybe the differences is what makes knowing each other joyful. And yes, there are barriers of ignorance that spoils the truth at times. Your Jewish main character has a very rich culture to call upon, which I hope will make it easier for you to express her and her personality.

I, myself, being a white male, out of a Christian tradition, and other similar points, would find a Jewish character a challenge, find Black characters a challenge, find Asian characters a challenge, and I am still learning to write. Publication remains a distant dream for me. But hey, the road to beauty requires you fall flat on your face a few times. Take a mirror my ego telss me. When I begin to look handsome, then I am close to being published. Now, I need to research a white character who is a lot like me. Bye-bye and best of luck to you. (Any typos are just your imagination. I'm perfect. :-) )

Sara B. Larson said...

I think Katniss actually was described as being darker skinned/haired/etc. and Rue was african-american, and for me I thought that was awesome. It wasn't a focal point, it was just who they were. (Which has caused all sorts of interesting discussions about people "reading white" because they didn't even notice the real descriptions of her in the books and were mad at the movie for casting Rue the way they did. Seriously!) I love to read about all characters, and all settings, as long as it is done well, like you said--if it's a story about a Japanese girl not a story about a girl who is Japanese. Seemless and interesting and just part of the story. Good luck with your book, it sounds great! (hopefully this comment made sense, I'm going on two nights of practically no sleep heh.)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Really fantastic post, Sara, and great questions. I think it's important that a story stays true to itself, no matter, what, and it sounds like you are doing that. To me, that's all that matters :)