Writing cross-culturally

I am currently (July 2016) teaching a class of authors about writing diverse characters, my Spice of Diversity class. I received a student question that I’ve chosen to answer here, because I think it deserves a wide, thoughtful, answer.

I was asked,

…when I wanted to write a Spanish hero, another writer with a Hispanic last name answered one of my questions on the list, saying that if I have to ask, I shouldn’t bother or risk getting it wrong because I can’t relate.  I have to say this was kind of discouraging


I don’t want to jump on this student or anyone else who genuinely wants to write more broadly. Instead I ask her, and others in her position, to try to understand why this person might say something like this.

The easy answer: because “they” don’t like white authors. Easy, and mostly incorrect. Comments like these often come from a place of pain.

Since these are authors, I’ll use a writing example to try to illustrate. Pretend you are writing a story about a character who was abused in her past. Father, brother, husband…all said they loved her while abusing her either physically or sexually or both. Readers accept that she is justifiably afraid that men lie and are cruel, maybe not all, but certainly the ones who surround her. We have total empathy with her difficulty in trusting yet another men who claims he loves her.

The hero has to decide to either go through the considerable effort involved in proving that he is trustworthy, or being discouraged and giving up on her. He has to go above and beyond to demonstrate that he really intends to be different from every man in her past experience. He can’t just tell her once or twice that he’s different and expect her to then embrace him and believe him unconditionally. Readers would find her sudden belief in him unrealistic in light of her backstory if she did.

Because of her past pain, people excuse her for needing extra assurances and questioning his true intentions. Because he is a real hero, and sincere, he is willing to go slow and careful, understanding her concern. Not even the story’s black moment discourages him from continuing to prove he really cares.

Replace this imaginary heroine with real-life members of marginalized groups. People who have been battered since earliest childhood. Many have seen themselves portrayed poorly, in the guise of thinly disguised stereotypes and caricatures, all their lives. Worse still, we have seen these portrayals lauded by editors, agents and reviewers, while authentic portrayals are ignored. As a result, many of us truly fear seeing yet another painful portrayal.  Because asking a few questions does not enable an author to effectively write cross-culturally.

The way to handle comments like the one this student received is not to feel discouraged, not if you really are different. Like the hero, it means you will need to work longer and harder to show that you really do intend to do a good job. It means listening to criticism, respecting the points of view of marginalized readers, and responding with continued care and concern.

Like other members of marginalized communities, I have seen some truly great portrayals bypassed by editors, agents, and reviewers who claimed they could not relate to the stories. At the same time I have seen poor portrayals by mainstream authors praised because they met the expectations of mainstream readers.

Reality, feeling, and cultural truths, have to matter. Writing about other cultures is not like writing about other jobs. Writing about a serial killer will not hurt other serial killers if you get something wrong. But real cultures, real marginalized groups, have real people who are, or have been, hurt by portrayals from white writers on TV, movies and books who think all they need is the answer to a few questions. Marginalized people have an entirely reasonable fear they will be hurt again.

To me, that’s what the “writer with a Hispanic last name” was concerned with. It’s certainly what concerns me. I ask my students to care about all their readers, and be willing to go the distance to prove their intentions.

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