Thursday, October 27, 2016

Understanding Multicultural Fiction

I would honestly have to say that multicultural fiction ranks up there as some of the toughest writing to do successfully. And yet, when it is done well, a reader can truly be sucked into a world that might be different from anything they personally experience in their own life. What I find, however, is that far too many authors really miss the mark when trying to write this genre.

It is important to understand the purpose behind multicultural fiction. In many ways, this genre is similar to women's fiction. As you know I have defined here on this blog (and also on my website) that women's fiction is not just a story with a female protagonist, but a story that gives us a glimpse of the world through the female lens. It gives the reader a chance to understand the world from a female perspective. When it comes to multicultural fiction, we are immersing ourselves as readers in a world and seeing how things look from within that culture. 

To understand this genre, we need to really understand what we mean by culture. According to some information from Texas A & M, we can see some basic definitions to work with for the term "culture":

  • Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
  • Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
  • Culture is communication, communication is culture.
  • Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
  • A culture is a way of life of a group of people--the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
  • Culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group's skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions.
  • Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning influences upon further action.
  • Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.
When we look at these definitions, we can see what needs to show up in multicultural fiction to really bring this genre alive. It is not simply about putting multicultural characters in a book, or inserting different foreign words in a text. it is about bringing forth all of the elements of that culture.

Look at some of the concepts in these definitions:
  • Culture is communication, communication is culture.
  • the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept
  • Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit
  • learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition
In other words, we are seeing how a group of people might act and behave that goes beyond simply the external things we are used to. For example, if we are talking about a Latino family, we want to go beyond the food that they eat or the words they use for their family members. We want to see how they work with each other. We want to see the values and the relationships that they have come to grow up with over time. 

This becomes difficult on two levels. The first is finding that natural balance so that you can still tell a great story but not get overwhelmed by the language and the culture. The story itself still needs to be accessible to the readers.

The second level, and this is one that is especially hard in the present day, is to tell the story and yet not have the reader thinking it is "stereotypical." One of my authors, writes Asian American women's fiction. She has immersed the reader into a Chinese American home with parents who are immigrants to the US. Language is not something that is natural to the parents, so when we read the dialogue, it comes across as things people would scream are "politically incorrect." And yet, it is real.

For an author, we have to think of the culture as being another character in the book. The culture is a living and breathing species that needs to be authentic if we want to have the readers see the world through that lens. Again, it is not just about changing a few names. It is presenting reality.

1 comment:

  1. Really wonderful post. I've read some great examples, and I've read some that made me shake my head. I think it's really quite a challenge to take on writing through the lens of another culture. I admire those who can do it well.