Monday, February 22, 2010

Calling on the Universe: A Few Answers to the Questions of Ethnic Writing

The universe has been talking to me! For a long time, it was an absolute no-no to write about your own childhood and encapsulate it in the period in which you grew up. My childhood was set in some pretty turbulent times, and much like the kids of today...if we ever thought about it, we'd never have left home. But we did. In fact, we left home for the scope of an entire day and no one panicked or even noticed at all.

We had a lot of freedom, but we also had some pretty serious rules and social mores to live by. Consequences were swift and final. We were, after all the first generation of immigrant parents, the sons and daughters of WWII Vets. We were brought up on some pretty fear-based ideology. My tribe was Irish. We were typecast...strongly encouraged to stay with our own kind. People had their places, afterall.

The backdrop to all this was the Cold War, the Apollo flights, the Beatles, and the Vietnam War, with actual shots of the day's combat showing up on tv each night. The hippie generation was already sporting their rag-tag, ripped jeans...burning bras and all sorts of other unimaginable things. Rebellion!

It was right about then that people of color made their way into my life and onto my block. I had a new friend named Roland. I'd watched his house being built all summer long, and couldn't wait to meet him. I finally had someone to walk to the bus stop with, and I didn't care about the color of his skin, but I knew the adults around me did.

Fear ruled the adult world, and stereotyping was the order of the day. It would, in their minds, keep us all close and locked up within our own tribe. But the battles outside were raging. The cork was already out of the proverbial bottle. My sister was riding a motorbike...she'd bought a German car, and was dating boys that were...NOT Irish!! And she had friends that were people of color and different ethnicities too. We knew people were talking. But...too bad. Hello freedom!

So now? Characters of color are turning up in my writing. But I would never go there without doing the legwork, checking in with the real representative principles of this type of story. I, myself, love books with people of varied backgrounds. I cherish the wide array of friendships I've had in my own life. But I know that doesn't qualify me as an expert on this topic. I have no right to take liberties in the ways of another cultural/ethnic group's story unless the characters themselves are honest and authentic. No cheesy, gratuitous writing of any kind should ever make it out into a public arena. For that, we all know, is just plain putrid!

I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful responses on FB this week! Please feel free to join my blog and stay close to the conversation. I welcome your thoughts and ideas. My friend Barb left me with a wonderful link I'd like to pass on here. Also, Mitali Perkins fills her blog with many wonderful entries related to life and people in a globally diverse world. There's a list of selected reads and a pretty terrific interview with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Eight Grade Superzero. Years ago, I went to Whispering Pines Writing Retreat and met Sharon Flake, the author of a favorite of mine, The Skin I'm In. Sharon says she "writes about hope in hard places." She inspired me then, and made me think hard about my roots growing up. I think she planted a seed for me about hope...not so much in hard places, but in hard times.
Right now, that is the seed that I'm exploring. It's a little seed, so we'll see where it goes from here.

I also came across a great blog entry by JA Konrath. What a classic! He talks about knowing the industry and knowing the facts, experimenting, listening, asking questions, taking chances and staying alert. Sage advice! I'm grateful for all the ideas that surround me. But I'm most grateful for the compass that points north every morning at 5:30, and the characters that appear on the page.

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