Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 10, 2012

Writing Cross Culturally

Writing cross-culturally can prove a challenge for any writer. Whether you’re writing about someone who can play with magic, someone who is living life backward, or someone from a culture not your own—be it real, or imagined you still have to do your best to write well-researched, complex characters who are more than the sum of their stats. Even if you are writing fantasy books and creating fantasy cultures you still have to do your homework.

Susan J. Morris interviewed editorial director Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, a multicultural fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint for children and young adults, now owned by Lee & Low Books. Since so many of us are trying to add other ethnic characters into our books, fantasy or not, I thought you might find this subject and interview interesting.

Here is just a taste:

What are the risks of writing cross-culturally?

Stacey: I know some writers fear making a mistake, “getting it wrong.” And that’s a justified fear–you do take a risk in writing what you don’t know. But even when you’re writing about something you’re familiar with, someone might say that it doesn’t match their own experience. For example, no one person can represent what “the African American experience” is in totality on an individual level. You can only reflect individual characters with individual strengths and flaws, individual experiences. And that will vary from person to person even within the same community. So to avoid making that mistake, you have to be aware of the danger of getting it wrong, but not let that stop you from doing your research and getting it as right as you can. I love this saying I recently heard from a writer: “Don’t worry about writing what you know. Just know what you write.” He was talking about writing rape, but I think this goes for anything you want to write about.

Another risk is Othering your characters of color. By Othering, capital O, I mean making the person out to be something entirely foreign and almost inhuman to whatever is considered “normal.” If “normal” is non-magical, the person of color is the Magical Negro (see “Writing Diversity: Avoiding the Magical Negro” for more links on that common trope).

What can you do to prepare to write a character of a different culture?

Research, research, research. I highly recommend reading Nisi Shawl’s “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” in which she discusses several ways to help writers get it right, including actually talking to people from that culture, reading a lot, and most importantly, the difference between Invaders, Tourists, and Guests. I think when we want to populate our worlds with diversity through minor and secondary characters, we need to become at least Tourists, knowledgeable enough to respect the culture and try to get it right, knowing we might make mistakes.

Recognize that people of any color will have different experiences depending on socioeconomic status, religion, family influences, friends, and the region they grew up in just as much as race/ethnicity, and do your research accordingly. Not all black people grow up in the inner city, not all people who live in the inner city are black and Latino, and most definitely not all people who live in the inner city live in the projects and join a gang. For that matter, not all people who live in the projects join a gang or live in fear of their lives. If you do want to write about people living in the projects in the inner city, take a look at the LARGE number of books already out there with that setting. How can you contribute something unique? Or would it be more interesting to write about Vietnamese farmers and fishing industry workers in the Mississippi and Louisiana bayous?

In other words, we need to look beyond stereotypes for inspiration. I can’t tell you how many African American parents have told me how tired they are that their kids only get to see themselves in books about inner city poverty and crime, slavery, or the Civil Rights movement. While certainly these are important points in our history, goodness, let’s get some more butt-kicking PoC out there in fantasy!

What are some of the Do’s and Don’ts of writing cross-culturally?

Stacey highly recommends Nisi Shawl’s “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” in which she covers specific examples of writers who get it right, and a checklist that every writer writing cross-culturally (whether in real or imagined cultures) should ponder: 

Here are a few Quotes from Nisi Shawl’s “Transracial Writing for the Sincere“:

  • First, get to know your subjects. Primary sources are best.
  • When telling your story from any character’s viewpoint, be true to their take on the situation. Don’t give them your own anachronistic beliefs, or inauthentic, “p.c.” motivations.
  • Allow minority characters to speak with their own voices, even if only in a brief comment. Contrasts between multiple viewpoints produce both diversity and depth.
  • Show how race and prejudice figure in your setting, and what, if any, their connections.
  • Remember that difference is in the eye of the beholder. Black people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics. Use these self-categorizations to add points of audience identification to your characters.
  • Finally, offer your work to members of other ethnic groups for critique. You don’t have to follow their suggestions, but it won’t hurt to hear them.

Click here to read the rest of the Interview with Stacey Whitman on this subject.

Stacey Whitman will be attending the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC at the end of the month.  I am looking forward to meeting her. 

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy, these books sound like they are a good reference to have on the subject. Obviously, this particular interview (though I haven’t read the whole thing; just what’s here) is focusing on the “white” writer writing outside their cultural zone, regardless of what that is.

    I think that any writer, regardless of race/ethnic background, needs to avoid generalization. And also, the road goes both ways. It would be foolish to write characters, of whatever color, making their skin color or cultural background THE thing that defines their character, unless the characters themselves focus on that aspect of themselves. To me, it needs to be treated like any other character-building attribute which helps shape them.

    As she said: “Recognize that people of any color will have different experiences depending on socioeconomic status, religion, family influences, friends, and the region they grew up in just as much as race/ethnicity, and do your research accordingly.”

    Great stuff! 🙂


  2. Kathy,
    THis is a timely post. Joyce and I are getting ready to publish the next issue of Talking Story on Multi-CUltural resources. I linked this blog to it. THanks so much for sharing it!


  3. Wonderful points! Thanks for tackling such a tough topic.


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