From the outside

I don’t know of a single good fiction writer who doesn’t write outside their own experience. Period.

But here’s the thing: Not all ‘outsides’ are created equal.

(For purposes of this piece, I’m going to use race/skin color. Swap out the terms and it applies to many other minority cultures.)

Minorities live in the dominant culture—by definition, right? I am a member of a minority culture (Asian-American) who lives in the dominant culture (white American). I exist in more than one culture. The dominant culture IS my culture; I’m part of it, I’ve lived in it my whole life. When I create middle-class American characters, I’m writing from inside the culture, not outside. I even know the largely white experience of not having to think about my skin color (rare, but it does happen), which means I can and do write white characters.

The reverse is seldom true.

If you are white, when you write a character who is a person of color, you are almost always writing from outside that culture—by definition.

Ergo: It is easier / more authentic / more natural (pick one) for me to create white middle-class characters than it is for you (theoretical white dominant-culture person) to create a character of color. Sorry, that’s the way it breaks. Because once again, I’m not writing from ‘outside my culture’. You are.

So the plain truth of it is that you have a lot more work to do. Hard work. And here’s the next thing: Research is necessary, but not enough.

It’s not enough to do the google/wiki thing. Or to watch lots of videos and documentaries and listen to lots of podcasts. It’s not enough to go to the library and read dozens of books and articles. Research is vital. It is no substitute for experience.

Here are a couple of examples of writers finding their way into another culture via experience. Debby Dahl Edwardson is a white American who writes Inupiat characters. She has lived in an Inupiat community for most of her adult life. She’s married to an Inupiat man. She has half-Inupiat children. Like me, she exists in more than one culture, and that’s where she’s coming from when she writes her amazing and memorable characters.

Okay, you say, but I can’t move to Alaska and marry an Inupiat. Fair enough. Look to James Rumford, then. White American, from Hawaii, author, illustrator, linguist, storyteller. He has written (or written and illustrated) picture books set in at least a dozen international cultures.

Before James writes a story set in another culture, he studies the language. As in, for years. He is now fluent in several languages (including Chinese and Arabic!), and conversant in several more. He wrote a book in Brazilian Portuguese that won awards in Brazil.

Both Edwardson and Rumsford have respect and passion for the cultures their characters come from, and they’ve put in the time to prove it. That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about. It ain’t no wiki. And all of the above applies in essence if not in degree to secondary characters as well as protagonists: The token, flat secondary character is nothing but a superficial nod at inclusion.

Respect. Passion. And most of all, time. If you, theoretical white dominant-culture person, want to write believable and valuable characters of color, start by investing in those three things.

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