Here's a recent quote found on Big A Little a
One scholar (on a great panel on Multicultural Children's Books) argued that the "most effective [multicultural] books are ones that 'other' the white middle class reader."
My first thought was, what does this scholar mean by "most effective"? Trying to depict the feeling of "otherness" that a multicultural person might feel living among a mostly white middle class community? How would one even do this? In college, I studied multicultural literature written by Derek Walcott, who used a significantly large amount of untranslated non-English phrases and unexplained acronyms and references that would confuse the readers who are not of that multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Carribean culture. While I admired his lyricism, I felt alienated when reading Walcott's work, and not a in a good way. So, if we steep our writing too much in the specifics of "the other" culture without explanations, wouldn't that in a way alienate the white readers if we give a world in which nothing is familiar? Wouldn't it sort of defeat the purpose of bringing diverse peoples closer through story, which is my personal definition of effective literature, with or without the multiculturalism?
Or are we as creators of multicultural stories trying to educate the white middle class reader with gentle translations and explanations? But then every multicultural person has a unique experience, and where would the line be drawn to distinguish what is universal and what is specific only to the story? Would we be accused of "misrepresenting" or "selling out" from the multicultural communities that most look like us?
As a writer of YA multicultural fiction, I try not to think about what people will think when I write. I approach the creation of story first and foremost with the intension of being true to the core of the character.
Yet, ultimately one cannot escape issues surrounding multicultural settings when writing multicultural stories. At a recent conference, I heard a speech given by Newbery-winning, Korean-American author Linda Sue Park, and one of her assertions was that it is impossible to separate character from setting, which contains not only place, time, but also the culture, including socially acceptable behavior. Thus, to take examples from my own works-in-progress, a Chinese-American teenager living in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1940 would have much more restrictions to her lifestyle (most didn't venture outside of San Francisco) than a modern-day San Francisco South Bay-based Chinese-American teenager who is free to go where she pleases and not worry too much about discrimination or feeling like "the other."
Perhaps the issue really lies in the knowledge of the reader. Like with one's protagonist, a reader will only know whatever she/he has been exposed to via her/his specific setting and culture, and of course that range is extremely wide and diverse. After I finish drafting my multicultural stories, I solicit feedback from non-Asian writers, and often I've been surprised by some comments and confusion over what I consider to be really basic issues.
Here's an example of a conversation I've had more than once when receiving feedback on the beginning of my contemporary Asian-American YA:
She: "How do I know your main character is Chinese?"
Me: "She's not Chinese. She's Chinese-American born in America. So really she's American."
She: "Well, I need to know somewhere that she's Chinese because she sounds just like a modern American teenager."
Me: "She IS a modern American teenager."
If I was in the mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homogenized Texan community of my childhood, I would not have been quite so surprised to have such a conversation. In such a community, I was very used to being "the other" with the constant need to educate and explain my background. In such a community where American Born Asians were not common, I was very used to answering questions like, "Where are you from?" and receiving perceived compliments like "Your English is really good." But recently two separate instances of this conversation occurred in the culturally diverse, politically correct San Francisco Bay Area, where Asian-Americans and many international and ethnic-American communities co-mingle. Thus, I am reminded that what I am writing is important. I am reminded there is still a need to broaden the experiences of mainstream American readers and show them that Asian-Americans are just as American as anyone else.