Monday, July 20, 2009

Ethnicity in your writing

First, I should say that I hate almost all discussions of ethnicity, because they always seem to end up going in circles, trying to break out of treating people as groups and always consider them as unique individuals, but not wanting to deny the importance of culture, ethnicity, or appearance in real life and hence some group identification, but, a focus on group identification can easily devolve into stereotypes at best, and yet completely ignoring differences can become an attempt to wipe out other cultures or backgrounds where everyone is assumed/forced to be the same as the majority group, and, well, you see the circle.

That said, I am going to talk about ethnicity in your writing. I also should say that this post sort of wanders around this topic with no real point.

Moving forward...

How do you handle ethnic identification and backgrounds in your writing?

There are easy mistakes to avoid such as making everyone good be of some identifiable real ethnicity and everyone bad be of another. I love C.S. Lewis, as people know, but several of his Narnia books revolve around basically Turks as bad guys with the English as good guys.

Apart from such things, how do you decide what ethnicity to make your characters? Naturally, it will depend upon the type of novel you are writing. Let's start with real world settings:

As everyone knows, I haven't actually written fiction in a couple years now, but when I did, I did end up with one story involving a white American character and a Vietnamese-American character. This was sort of accidental. I've never been good at plot, so I like to borrow them as much as I can. I happened to read a brief romance between an "Asian" woman and a white man, and I liked the general idea of what the person had done, but I wanted to do such a story in my own way. In the end, I dropped virtually every detail of the original, except their very approximate ethnicities. Next I wanted to make her character more precise and developed, since, in the original story, the heroine was just vaguely Asian and it didn't seem the author had any real idea what specifically. As I was brainstorming, I thought about setting the story in a suburb of Minnesota, and I knew from my college time there, that there's a sizable ethnically Vietnamese population there, so, bam, she was suddenly Vietnamese by ancestry.

And so now I have a story about a Vietnamese character without ever setting out to write about a Vietnamese person in particular.

However, sometimes I will just randomly change the ethnicity of a person (if it's a main character, of course I have to genuinely develop it) solely for the point of having people of different ethnicities. There's no particular reason a never-met ex-girlfriend or an old P.E. coach or whoever must be, say, Indian (as in India), but why not? There's no reason they have to be white, black, or anything else unless the world demands it. (This last bit is sort of the crux of things I think.)

But is that right? I don't know. There's a famous saying from Checkov that if there's a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, it needs to be fired by Act III. Of course, this idea is based on the notion that something like a gun is going to catch people's attention, and so it needs to be part of the story. But there's no comparable saying that if there's a poker by the fireplace, someone must be hit with it. Pokers are assumed to be naturally next to fire places and don't need to be a part of the story. If I make an ex-girlfriend Indian, is that ethnicity choice a poker or a gun? I often want it to be a poker, because the idea is that America (and most places in fact) are multi-ethnic and people need to get used to that being represented in fiction. Am I writing a story about the Indian-American experience? No, course not. But I am writing one deliberately set in a world where ex-girlfriends are periodically Indian (or whatever). In the end, it really comes down to the reader. Some readers expect the presence of any non-standard (I deliberately chose that term) ethnicity to require an Important Reason.

Of course, all of this has been written as if I must justify the ethnicity of anyone who is not white, but I don't need to justify a white ethnicity. Well aware of that, but, well, this post has to end some time, so I won't go into that issue.

Then there's so-termed speculative fiction, such as fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi, etc. How do you handle ethnicity there? It's interesting because in theory the world is entirely created by the author. How is this handled?

As always, it will depend upon the sort of world being created. Ello's shopping her novel set in a mythic ancient Korea, so I assume most of her characters will naturally be Korean-ish. Classic fantasy worlds a la Tolkien are really a mythical, never existed sort of medieval Europe. Rohan is basically Vikings on horses for example. And in such a fantasy Europe, I assume it actually does make sense for most people to be European-looking, even though in theory the world is not the real one, and so could be anything. Would it be wacky to make everyone in Rohan look Tahitian? Culturally Vikings, but Tahitian in appearance? I think this would knock most readers off, even though since Rohan is fictional, it could be just so.

But what if you want to create a world that isn't a modified / mythicized version of some part of the real one?

However, we rarely truly do this in fantasy at least, do we? Characters are almost always human, or a modified human. It's a conceit that they speak Modern English (really the reader's language) as the Common Tongue. If they didn't, the reader couldn't read the story. The technology is modified real world technology of some real culture. So we are back with modified humans as characters, which means you have to make the choice of ethnicity again. Is that what's wrong with Tahitian Vikings? Ripping the technology and culture from one place, but the physical appearance from another? (OK, Tahitian Vikings might be a bad example, since there's an actual biological association between climate and skin color, but we can just change the example to Tahitian Mayans or whatever.)

I'm done wandering aimlessly through this minefield. What choices do you make?


fairyhedgehog said...

One problem I have is that I have so little background to enable me to write about different ethnicities. I know what it's like to be in a different culture, because I lived in France for two years, but that was still white European ethnicity.

I love your image of the poker by the fireplace. I shall bear that in mind when writing details: is it a gun or a poker?

pacatrue said...

Yeah, I have that knowledge issue as well, fhh. I know my limits well enough that, while I feel somewhat comfortable writing about a Vietnamese-American woman falling in love where I can focus on somewhat universal raw emotions, I would not attempt to write a novel dealing with cultural conflicts or some such. At least not without a LOT of research. I'd try to treat it like anything else. If I'm writing a novel set in the British navy, can I learn enough about that to be plausible? If not, I'd have to let that idea go.

Robin S. said...

I'm coming back later to take my time and really read this one.

Precie said...

How interesting that I've been thinking about the paradox of diversity and unity a lot lately. know, in life. It's quite a difficult balancing act.

In fiction, I have to admit that I'm wary of writing about different ethnicities...precisely because of that knowledge base issue. I don't want to risk creating caricatures, especially potentially offensive ones.

But at the same time, I don't think ethnicity in fiction is a gun (great analogy, btw)...I think it almost inherently must be a poker, something that enhances the character and perhaps deepens the development of the story without being dramatic or essential to plot movement.

Definitely a tough issue.

sylvia said...

This actually came up in my faerie story, where I am dealing with mythological races (Seelie, Slaugh, Brownies, Sprites) without a lot to go on. I ended up rereading descriptions with a very careful eye to try to avoid using "generic ethnic assumptions" and actively threw spanners in the works where I could to keep myself from falling into unexpected potholes (the plotholes are bad enough!)

moonrat said...

"minefield"--so true.

thanks for your thoughtful take. i gotta admit, i bumble around here a lot myself--it's hard to acquire a book by a white man that is about a lower-income African American boy and his experiences with prejudice as he works hard to rise above his circumstance, no matter how well written it is. the race of the author alone determine whether the book is "stunning," "provocative," "exploitative," or "condescending." and then there are all the commercial factors that come into play--does anyone WANT a book about a black boy by a white man? however sensitive/well-rendered? but if the answer is no, is that not another kind of racism? does that mean white people can only write about white people? and is THAT not another kind of racism?!


but you already know i think about this lots.


Robin S. said...

but not wanting to deny the importance of culture, ethnicity, or appearance in real life and hence some group identification, but, a focus on group identification can easily devolve into stereotypes at best, and yet completely ignoring differences can become an attempt to wipe out other cultures or backgrounds where everyone is assumed/forced to be the same as the majority group, and, well, you see the circle....

Good description of the circle. The ethnic group I describe are Irish American - so I'm self-informed, but I do know what you mean. A living conundrum.

writtenwyrdd said...

Great thoughts, paca.

I find the "white default" issue in my own writing and try to consider ethnicity and possible ramifications for characters in the story based on ethicity and culture. But it's something that's tricky to deliver so that a) ethnicity on one hand doesn't really matter; and b) when ethnicity does matter, it's worded so that it makes sense to anyone from any background who reads it.

This is tricky to pull off! and I live in fear that I'll be considered either patronizing or pushing stereotypes.

A current project involves a far future in which Asia is the surviving area after a big disaster, and these cultures are the main ones, making my main character a minority where the story takes place. That isn't a big issue in the story, but it's something that adds a bit of noticeability to a character that's trying to stay below the radar.

I have to agree that fantasy generally has some version of humanity. but where you can find more experiments with alien cultures is in sf, where you can sometimes have aliens that are really alien. I haven't found anything like that in years, but I read a number of stories like that in the 80s and 90s. One that comes to mind is Blood Hype, about nanotech that forms group intelligence when it gets loose. Another involved an alien creature/space ship that absorbed a human foundling into its ecology. (Wish I could recall the name of that last one; I'd love to reread it.)