Michaeline: Writing Multicultural Stories When Your Background is Monocultural

Colored crayons or beads, lined up.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

All of us Eight Ladies are white ladies.

I think as white writers, it’s difficult for us to understand what it’s like when a largely mono-cultural writer tries to jam in a character from a different culture in order to spice up a book, or attempt to be inclusive.

We can get a tiny taste of it in the Bollywood movie, Bride and Prejudice (2004). I love this movie and have seen it more than once, so I’m not complaining. I’d rec this movie to almost anyone because the writing is fabulous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and if you were moving in society in the 90s and early 2000s, there are universal themes that will resonate with you. (Heck, let’s not be so limited. Being based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, means many of the themes cross cultures and time. Time-tested and highly adaptable.)

However, among the deep characterization and fun interactions, there’s a white guy who reads like he’s a piece of cardboard. He’s a bit whiny and a bit shallow . . . and maybe he’s the white guy a lot of people from India see. He’s somewhat believable, but he’s the only white person in the whole production, and he’s not exactly the hero type.

And when you think about it, that’s really unfortunate because he’s Will Darcy . . . you know, Fitzwilliam-fucking-Darcy. The hero.

But only when you stop and think about it, because the rest of the show is heartwarming, and magical and full of subplots that (like Austen’s original book) portray characters in depth – good and bad.

One problem is that in romance, we often treat the hero as the Prize. Not always, but in quickly written novels, he can be just the cocky, heart-of-gold hot prize that the heroine gets for becoming her true self. Romance is written mostly by women, mostly for women, and sometimes I don’t mind the objectification of men as long as I get a satisfying story of triumph for the heroine.

If you are trying to pump out four books a year so you can pay the rent and feed your children, it might be understandable (from the Doylistic viewpoint, or as an author) that one might skimp on hero characterization and a few other things. Especially if this is only the author’s first (or third or fifth) book. But . . . that’s a discussion for another day.

I bring it up though, because a writer just embarking on their career might not have the time or money or networking to hire all the people necessary for making a great book. Or the time to educate themselves quickly AND write a great book (or even a mediocre book, for that matter).

And what if a story with a problematic character makes it through an established, mainstream process? For example, Pathe and Miramax film distributors. Or Berkley Romance? THEY have multicultural staff that have been professionally trained to advise writers. If even they can face scathing criticism, how can a shoestring organization (a self-published author and her posse of beta readers) avoid being humiliated if they make a mistake?

I’m sitting here on the sympathy fence. On the one hand, I feel for writers who want to do the right thing, but become famous for being really clumsy and awkward instead.

On the other hand, being a minority and being exposed almost constantly to monocultural materials that can only relate to my culture in very narrow stereotypes is frustrating. I am a white woman in Japan, and I don’t watch or read much in Japanese. I need at least two trusted recommendations before I’ll spend time on it. I know I’m missing some really great things, but on the other hand, I’m also missing some really crappy things as well.

I see on Twitter that this is also a strategy for some authors of color living in a predominately white country. In one Goodreads review, a reader said that they couldn’t finish the sample of a certain book. “Unless I see a tidal wave of Black reviewers endorsing this book, I’m not going any further.” (For what it’s worth, the book has a 4.1 star rating on Goodreads at this writing.)

And, it’s not a bad strategy. Writers have to write for themselves. Readers have to read for themselves, too. And in this age of self-publishing, we need influential self-published reviewers who can guide us to the best of the best, so critics have to critique for their own tastes, too.

9 thoughts on “Michaeline: Writing Multicultural Stories When Your Background is Monocultural

  1. Good points here. In my current work in progress I only have one black person – possibly one other – and it’s like I’m kinda wanting to show a good representation of society. They aren’t main characters by any means, but I’m anxious to give them important functions in the story. I’m doing my best to portray them well and fairly. A thought provoking article, especially for Indie authors.

    • Yeah, I’ve been worrying about things. I’ve only lived in rather monocultural places, but with the internet, my life of mind is very multi-cultural. My work always has characters who don’t share my background — different culture, different gender, different sexual preferences, differently abled. I don’t have that many friends to check my work . . . and it’s a lot of emotional work to ask a friend to do, anyway.

      • Yes, I can understand. But as writers I feel we are bound to write about people who are different to ourselves as well as some characters we can more fully identify with. Different culture is a particularity hard one, I agree. However I once read that our characters all have a little bit of ourselves in them, (no matter how small or bizarre that may appear) for us to be able to write about them, and maybe that’s as much as we can practically hope for.

  2. Caucasian writers are far from monocultural, nor are our characters. Unless your character grew up in a pod and was created by the blending of plastic polymers, he/she has a cultural background, just as those of us who are white do. One just has to dig deep.

    • I agree with tinthia. Having lived in several areas with majority immigrant populations, I’ve experienced predudice against white people. Not much, but it gives insight. And in the UK, most of us have black friends and colleagues.

      And then there’s the whole experience of being a woman!!!

      • I’m a bit jealous. I fondly imagine it must be much easier to represent a multicultural world when you are from it.

        (-: And there is the whole experience of being a woman! We’re 51 percent of the population, but somehow have managed to wind up in such a position! I often mull on that one.

    • Oh, I don’t think you can generalize that way. Some Caucasian writers are amazing and inspire across the board. I grew up in a place that was 99 percent Caucasian, and wound up in a place that’s 99 percent East Asian. So . . . depending on how you look on it, that’s serial monocultural or someone could argue that it’s bicultural now (with me providing most of the bi- in the situation).

      Terms are so hard when talking about this. What would you use? I want a term that not only refers to white monoculturalism, but also, say, South Asian monoculturalism or African diaspora monoculturalism. I don’t think monoculturalism is bad, per se. But I think a lot of us who are trying for multiculturalism are doing a very awkward job of it and are tempted to give up and revert to monoculturalism. (Some people handle multicultural stories very well, though. Is it innate? Or were they raised with it?)

  3. Several decades ago, I came to the bitter realization that I would never be able to read All The Books. Consequently, like all of us, I’ve had to make judgments about what those books will be. While I make the best judgment I can, sometimes—or even often—I pick books (or movies or television shows) that I’m not crazy about. I can see how this judgment could apply to the representations of cultural values, if those are done in what would seem to be an inaccurate or insensitive way.

    But it would be a shame if writers decided against representing people of cultures or nationalities other than their own for fear of getting it wrong. I’d like to think that most writers would want to get things right and would be willing to do some research to make it so, or at least plausible. But there will always be failures of insight or execution, and there will be always be stories that some readers are not interested in. As long as a writer does his or her best, that’s all I ask for.

    • This is true — the writer gives her honest best try at things . . . and if a critic criticizes, well, that’s just the nature of the game. A fair critique will help her work find its natural audience, and also prevent it from hurting others who might find portrayals to be insensitive.

      I don’t want to write a wall-banger book, but that might be an unreasonable expectation. I mean, even if I wrote “kittiez in paradise”, someone is going to come after me. All the dog-people. And all the Chicago Manual of Style people . . . . If I’m found slumped over my laptop with a dozen sharp red fountain pens in my back . . . please tell my story (-:. Embroider as desired.

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