What My Students Need: My Cross-Cultural Writing Journey Part 1

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel about race.

And so, I spend a lot of time thinking about diversity, and about the implications of writing a book with diverse characters when I am, in fact, so white that I was literally raised eating Hamburger Helper in trailer parks. Nurses love my skin; it’s so clear ever vein stands out like the Amazon River Delta in satellite images.

My childhood was the cliché you all have in your minds, so go ahead. Indulge yourselves: Deadbeat dad? Check. Waitress mom? Check. Shoes with holes the size of quarters in the soles? Check. Cereal with water instead of milk? Check.

I don’t mind you imagining all this about me, because that was me. But what about writing cross-culturally? What do I want you to imagine about my characters? What are the dangers inherent in writing about characters different than me, and why would I even want to?

I have so much to process, so this will be the first in a series of blogs. For today, let’s talk about where this all started: with me teaching in a highly-diverse high school, noticing a few things about my classes:

  1. White kids made up less than 20% of my students.
  2. Immigrants from every continent except Antarctica made up 40-50% of my classes; of these, over half were still learning English. Children of immigrants were another 20-30%.
  3. Students of color whose families had been in the US for generations made up another 10-20%.
  4. That’s just the racial diversity, which is only one of many lenses.

And I loved them all like they were my own.

I also noticed that teens talk about race and diversity. A lot. Even when they don’t know it. Sometimes this was negative. Students would tell me about name-calling in the halls, and it wasn’t until I learned Spanish that I realized my darker Latino students were being called negrito—a racial slur.

Sometimes the talk was positive. Teens of today are gifted at recognizing difference without needing to assign value. For instance, they can refer to the dietary needs of an Arabic Muslim friend without a bunch of racial baggage.

And, other times, the talk felt negative to me as an adult but not to them (like so much else in the adult/teen dynamic). One tight friend group (which remains close today) included African-Americans, African immigrants, Arabs, Asians, Latinos, and whites; atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They loved each other fiercely, and laughingly referred to each other with horrid slurs.

So, I had diverse students, who weren’t afraid to talk about race, in fact needed to talk about race, but clearly required guidance. I had the hardest time finding books for my classes. I mean, I could cycle through books, wonderful titles like Monster by Walter Dean Myers and House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. But my students also wanted a book with greater diversity. (This point was driven home to me when I tried to find a photo for this post: Wikimedia has countless categories for single ethnicities, but not ONE for multiple.)

I found a few: Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, Seedfolks by Paul Flieschman. Students read them hungrily, ate them up like candy.

We wanted more.

The sublime Francisco X. Stork says, “The greatest gift you can give a young person is to write the kind of book that you would find fun and meaningful to read. Just that.”[1]

That’s the book I am laboring, anguishing, to write.

We need books by diverse authors (more on that in a later post). We need books with diverse characters (yep, that’s coming too). We also need more books with multiple types of diversities represented, and in order for that to happen, some authors are just going to have to write books with multiple diverse characters represented, characters who are by definition different from the author.

Again, to quote Francisco Stork, that’s the book I have inside me: “There are many stories you can choose to write but only one that chooses you. You recognize it by how alone you feel in the telling. Yet you must strive to tell it in a way that is for you and for others.”[2]

So that’s the background—how a white girl from a “white-trash” background came to have a burning story to tell about diversity.

But, as I’ve been learning, it’s far from simple. It takes more than imagination and good intentions. It takes time, and research, and effort to be respectful. I’m working out this novel with a combination of fear, trembling, and great faith.

Stick around for the rest of the series, as I explain what I’ve learned and where I’m at in the process.

 

Love to you all.

[1] Stork, Francisco X. (@StorkFrancisco). 21 Apr 2017, 5:37 AM. Tweet.

[2] Stork, Francisco X. (@StorkFrancisco). 1 Feb 2018, 4:20 AM. Tweet.

Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by evsmitty

 

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