About authenticity and writing ethnic characters

Fantasy and science fiction writer Kate Elliott has an interesting discussion of authentic portrayals of ethnic minorities in fiction. Worth reading.

The heroes of my current novel-in-progress are a Mexican-American woman and an Indian-American man. The storyline itself is very traditional; it could be lifted from a pulp magazine from the Truman administration. I gave the characters those ethnicities for a number of reasons, among them that I wanted to add a more contemporary flavor to the story.

I don’t have any close friends or family who are Mexican-American or Indian-American, so I’m relying on a lot of reading and Googling.

I’m writing a scene right now where the Mexican-American woman has a conversation with her mother, father and sister. The way I wrote it, the heroine and her sister are college-educated, the mother is strong, loud, opinionated, and not very well-educated (so she’s a good person for the main characters to explain things to, and in so doing explain them to the reader), and the father is largely silent. Like I said, I don’t know much about Mexican-Americans, but I do know families with that dynamic.

I also know a lot about immigrant families, having grown up in one and around others. Growing up, it seemed like everyone I knew had grandparents who were born in Europe.

My little experiment could prove to be a spectacular failure. But you know, I think a lot of Mexican-Americans and Indian-Americans would be willing to cut me some slack. Maybe they’ll even help out as first readers when the time comes, and tell me what I’m doing that no person of that culture would ever do.

Although first readers can be tricky. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian who’s lived in America and London, wrote a novel For the Win set largely in the slums of China and India. He described how he gave sections of the manuscript to people of both cultures to read, and one reader would come back to him and say,”This part here? Very authentic!” while another reader would say the same part was inauthentic. These would be people who grew up within a few miles of each other. Even within a single culture, customs vary.

Similarly, growing up in my family, we never celebrated Christmas in the house, but we certainly enjoyed the TV specials and the shopping seasons. Other Jewish-American families celebrated Christmas. Still others celebrated Hanukkah using Christmas rituals. And we all lived within a few miles of each other.

(These days we celebrate Christmas. It means a lot to Julie. And I like it so what the heck.)

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