This aimless journal draws no conclusions. It provides no solution. I'm not sure one exists unless I gain magical psychic powers. It acts more of a sounding board of concerns about how story-tellers challenge themselves when coming at perspectives other than their own. You're told to "write what you know" growing up, but how better to know than to write?
Here's one of those sticky situations that I hope to address as a story-teller, and one I agonize over since the LAST thing I want to do is perpetuate ideas about other cultures that are simply not true.
What do you do when you're writing for a character not of your own "ethnicity" (if I can claim a particular ethnicity, being a mutt myself), but also with a distinctly different cultural experience than your own? Is it possible to write a person as an individual first and ignore the challenges they face as a minority? Can research ever possibly fill that gap in knowledge?
These kinds of questions pop up in my mind every time I consider any one of my not-strictly-Caucasian characters. For me, they all exist as individuals first. They are people with personalities that are uniquely them. They are not meant to be representative of their respective cultures, at least no more than any one person can claim to speak for all of their people. But do they still reflect their culture accurately? Is there such as thing as "accurately"? Can any one person be a pure lens to see into their ethnic background? Especially when you're writing characters who are from minority cultures and experience pressures unlike what you've experienced?
I am someone who identifies as Caucasian. I didn't acknowledge the subtle or overt pressures of majority culture, either on a daily basis or a narrative experience while growing up (at least not in a way I was conscious about for a long while). What's more is I grew up in what was, judging by the dynamics described in other regions of the US, a very tolerant city. Bullying I experienced was primarily due to my being mentally different from other people. It wasn't because I was half-Jewish or a girl. Or if it ever was, it wasn't pervasive enough to have much impact on my psyche.
But in wanting to tell stories with a varied cast of characters, one that reflects the cultural mixing of the locations I write about, I need to come at issues from other sides. I need to read tales told by people who have different orientations, different racial background, different religious pressures. I need to climb into the minds of human beings other than myself and try best I can to see the world as they see it.
That's challenging enough to do even for someone of the very same background as myself, let alone those of a different creed. It gets even stickier when you're not talking about minorities who have relatively high amounts of representation compared to others. There's lots of material on black American experience or tales of Chinese immigrants and Italian families. Those who've have considerably less voice and still continue to be misrepresented by mainstream media require treading water more carefully.
I have a character that's part Native American (ostensibly Abenaki), the "Corpse-Eater". I've asked myself ever since her conception "is it right for me to make a character with such a potentially loaded ancestry? Can she realistically identify that way if she wasn't raised within the culture?" Her biracial heritage is partly symbolic, in tying her to New Hampshire more strongly than any other character in the story, and partly commentary on assumptions about female characters in general.
There's this conceit in action stories where in the exotic-looking badass heroine acts angry at the world, but she really only needs that ONE TRUE LOVE to warm her ice queen heart. And then the real hero, the guy, gets to take home this hot native-looking princess or whatever as proof he's conquered all. Standard formula, but weird if you applied it to real life.
I conceived of the Corpse-Eater as somewhat a response to that trope. She is not beautiful, she'd be average at best if not for her broken face. She is not angry because she's a badass. She's angry because it's her armor. It's a self-destructive armor (the ravens being further reflection of her internal attitude). Fury was her way of dealing with emotional conflict. She's isolationist, misandrist, and sometimes reactionary. She's usually not prone to panic, but her PTSD gets triggered in certain situations relating to her sexually abusive past. Most those she's trusted have let her down. They promised her safety but abused their power. She bears literal and mental scars from all those years, hiding the evidnece for fear of accusations and questions.
She is a human being to me first and foremost, but still I ask myself (rigorous doubt being a constant in my work) "Where does being native fit in here?" She was adopted by relatives very early in her life, but those relatives are Caucasian. If she's grown up among Caucasians, is any part of her native still? If she doesn't reflect the cultural influence of the Abenaki in a direct manner, is it right of me to claim she's part native at all?
Am I violating some unseen tenant by having this be the case? Is this some subconsciously me being lazy by making the character "special" just by virtue of her ethnic background?
Lazy design was not my aim. In fact, if you made "Indian princess" assertions around her, she'd probably snort and wap you upside the head and say,
"The crown is invisible, same as the feathers." Stereotypes initiate eye-rolling on her behalf.
(humor is vital to CE, dry wit and deadpan being her forte).
Or is making her part native my way of enabling me the ability to tackle deeper, darker issues in our culture? Is her experience in some ways a microcosm of a larger problem? Persistent abuse, misunderstandings throughout her life, occasional snide remarks about her background peppered here and there as she grew up. Her growing up with her grandmother, learning survival skills associated with trappers from centuries past, is also a way of tying things back to New Hampshire history.
Is this character balanced? Does her life story change any if she was Caucasian instead? Certainly the themes present would alter considerably. I'd lack an avenue of discussion had I simply stated "well I don't FEEL like she's 100% white, but it's easier to write that so I will."
And the same questions come up when I consider Jack, who is half-black and half-English. What makes his situation unique? What of Raphael, who was originally conceived as a dog (long story, old character)? Why did I choose to make him black when I made him human? How come I couldn't conceive of him as white? Does this tie into my experiences with other ethnicities, the reason why I made these choices?
If they were all white, would it change anything?
I feel it would.
Every character I create aims to be a three dimensional human being with a unique, realistic personality. Their history informs their personality, and their cultural background informs their history. None were created with stereotypes in mind; they are who they are because of their personalities, experiences, and the people around them.
So why do I agonize about being "correct"? I'm not sure. Insecurity as a writer perhaps? Or the desire to not be the source of more malicious or ignorant misinformation? Is it ever possible for me to fully understand the experiences of those who are not me?
No, but I aim to try.