Monday, June 15, 2020

Talking About Multicultural Literature

NOTE: I did a post similar to this earlier. I decided to take much of what I said there and bring it into this conversation.

It seems like there is a lot of confusion out there about multi-cultural romances. I do think a lot of this is stemming from the constant talk in politics and society about issues of racism, diversity and so forth. It is unfortunate as these two issues are potentially blurring the lines and making this issue murkier than it needs to be.

Let me first of all say, I am someone who is certainly supportive of diversity issues. What I will be talking about here is the GENRE of MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE.

It seems that many people today are missing the point about the definition. It seems that people seem to be thinking that putting ethnic characters into a story makes it multicultural or even racially sensitive. Yes, we all want to see more projects depicting diversity in our literature, and even more voices from authors who live this daily, but again, just putting someone of color, or someone from a particular culture into your story does nothing. Yes, multicultural literature will have characters of different races and ethnicities, but this is not what defines the genre.

I like to think of this genre the same way I think of women's fiction. In the case of women's fiction, it is not about the character, but the perspective and the point of view of the story. The women's fiction genre looks at the world through the female lens. We see how the world is processed through the female psyche. In other words, the "feminine perspective" or "feminine point of view" becomes, at some level, a character in the story.

The same holds true for multicultural literature. Along with the characters in the story, it is the world that the characters are living in that comes to life as a character. If we want to talk about an African American Multicultural piece of literature, the African American experience and point of view will come forth in the story. We are immersed in the ethnic experience. In other words, it is much more than simply putting in characters who happen to be African American. The GMC (goals, motivation and conflict) of every character and action in the story needs to be shaped by that cultural experience.

There is a fine line, however, when taking this approach. Although we want to immerse the reader in the multicultural experience and world, at what point can an author tip into suddenly stereotyping. This is important. Creating a stereotypical image takes the story in an opposite direction from what we are looking for in a story.

I like to use BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER by Amy Chua as a perfect example. For 

some, when they read this, they feel like she is bringing out all of the stereotypes of the Chinese American experience. It is pretty harsh reading. And yet, if a reader looks at what the theme of the story is about, the approach she takes is much more realistic. 

Here is another story. Jean Love Cush's ENDAGERED. OK, I am a bit biased about this one since she is one of my authors, but her portrayal of the Black American Experience and even more specifically, the experiences of so many in the juvenile criminal system is both in your face and certainly very real. Would some say it is stereotypical? Maybe, but like Chua's story, it is really an "in-your-face" reality.

I want to also bring up the historical aspect of this genre. This is really a tough one. While writing contemporary projects with a multicultural or ethnic feel is easier, finding time periods where bringing this forth is difficult. There will simply be some time periods where that ,multicultural experience will not likely emerge. Regency romance in London will not likely bring forth an African American experience. Yes, you can bring in characters from other countries, but it has to be done carefully so as to not look like it is an intentional move to "insert an ethnic experience" into the story. This is just one example, but I think you can understand what I am talking about.

If you are someone who wants to write, or thinks you are writing a multicultural novel, you need to ask yourself what is the focus of the story. Is the focus to tell of the experience of this cultural to show how this culture shapes the thoughts, actions and believes of the characters in the story? Or, are you telling a story simply to include people from a different culture? If you are doing the second, you are NOT telling a multicultural story. If you are doing the first, make sure that entire experience is woven in throughout the entire story, not just as a plot element, but as a theme and setting element. We need to be immersed in that culture.

And one final note...

The writing still has to be good. As an agent, I am always looking at the quality of the writing because, in the end, it is the story that sells. I see a lot of projects labeled multicultural that I have passed on, not because it was labeled as such, or because the author was from that culture - I passed on the project because of the writing or the premise. 

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