Writing about PoC's
So, first of all, I'm hispanic, with immigrant parents. I actually never had a character that was a defined race, but I always put them as mixed, because I liked the complexities associated as being neither this or that, so I wanted to implement that in my writing. For my nano novel, my protagonist is white, but skin color never comes into play, instead, I prefer talking about nationality. I don't have any issues with her character, but with my other FMC, who is half-american and half-mexican. I'm afraid of giving her background away or mentioning her too much because she is paler, and maybe according to some people, does not look mexican. I don't know how to really address this possible issue because her problems aren't because of her race but trying to learn a culture she does not practice often, which is a problem I had and sadly, my parents would make fun of me for. Would this create a problem? I've seen mexican characters, but they've always been, in my opinion, over done when it comes to the hispanic background. I guess it was the areas I lived in, but my biggest issue in school was being "too white". Instead, being mexican was something...strange. I'm a bit afraid of writing her, but she really is crucial to the hopefully, sequels to my novel.
I think you've got an important issue on your hands and you should touch upon it as it is something I don't think is touched upon enough in books. Keep in mind NaNoWriMo is a rough draft and you can fine tune things later on and you can use what you see in books as examples of what not to do and to do.
My main character is African American, so I know a little about what you're talking about. The things about writing POC characters is about just writing them as true to life as possible. I think I understand what you're saying. It's better to stay away from cliches and stereotypes.
If your story is about focusing on your character's struggle with learning her Mexican heritage, focus on that part. Don't be afraid to write what's important to you or to the character's development. Although, your story doesn't have to focus primarily on her Mexican heritage. You can always add other story lines, like the normal things teenagers have to go through in high school. Make her a three dimensional character. That way she won't be a flat character or a stereotype.
Hope this helps. :)
First of all, if anyone's worried about writing a character who's a different race (or gender, or sexuality, or age, or anything else) I suggest listening to this:
The best two pieces of advice I've gotten on the subject*:
1) Think of them as a character first, and by their race second.
2) If you know somebody of that race, get them to look over your work when you're through.
* I was specifically given this advice for writing female characters, as despite being a guy, my MC's are almost always women. But it really applies to other situations just as well.
I completely agree with those two suggestions, especially the first! As a Filipina who attended an affluent White prep school, I never saw (and still don't see) myself as being an Asian-American first and a person second. My family's heritage and background is just as rich and diverse as my classmates', some who have ties that reach back to the American Revolution.
Race is just another descriptor. I don't have a primary character who is Black, but I'm dying to write this one scene so I can describe the Junior class Homecoming princess who has violet eyes that contrast so starkly against her milk chocolate complexion. (Again; only writing what I know.)
Since the novel takes place in NYC where there is a mix of culture, I'm not so afraid for the other two but I fear people might think I'm white-washing her, although her struggles with understanding her heritage is what I went through and still go through. Since she isn't the main lead, but becomes friends with her, I wanted to show hints of how she's struggling to be two different things at the same time, and both clash with each other a lot.
Yeah, I hate the stupid cliches that a lot of people have for PoC chars, especially for latinos, since I feel that there's only one type of latino, which isn't true.
Btw Beacon80, that is a really helpful website, the people have great links! :3
I don't see how that is whitewashing. Although, I can understand why you would fear other people reading her that way. You're simply telling a story about this character's life and how she feels like an outsider because of her Mexican heritage. People tend to think of POCs as some monolith, when that's not the case. For African Americans (or in your case Mexican Americans), we share a similar culture, but our experiences and backgrounds are extremely diverse. There is nothing wrong with writing about it. In fact, sometimes I think it's needed. The public needs to understand, POC aren't all the same.
This makes me much more confident about writing my character :)
Glad you liked it. I love Writing Excuses. I think anybody who wants to write (especially genre fiction, but contemporary stuff, too) should listen to it.
Incidentally, my story ended up taking place in Montana, so my cast will be mostly white as a result. There is a Native American character (who's also 1/8th Jewish), but he doesn't get a real role until a later book (although I'm hoping to cameo him at some point in this one)
Those who would claim that this was white washing are the same people who would like to pretend that racial issues don't exist and don't want them discussed at all in books. If you have a time era where the African American culture is straightening their hair to look white, then you should expect some of the characters to do it because they're honestly having to deal with being on the border, a person who identifies as being American, but also with their race and trying to fit in and deeling with peer pressure.
In the course of my novel, my protagonist Sally befriends a pair of teenage biracial siblings -- Charles, who's in her grade at school, and (eventually) his older sister Josie. The story takes place in New England during the late 1980s, and to some extent deals with the racism that's part of New England history. (Sally's mentor, Tess, attended Boston Public Schools during the busing riots, and a school bully starts a fight with Sally by calling her a "[bleep] lover".)
I know there's some racial tension within Sally's friendship with Josie and Charles, especially with Josie. On some level, Charles is so lonely that eventually he befriends her because she's the only kid at school who's as weird as him. Josie is a lot more guarded. She's internalized much of the ostracization and othering she gets from the kids at school -- and to some extent from her own mother -- that she feels a little wary of Sally's identification with her. While Sally wants to befriend Josie because of their mutual interests in the arts and Josie's status as an outsider, Josie suspects that Sally doesn't understand the larger reasons why Josie is seen as an outsider. Additionally, on a subconscious level Sally wants to befriend Josie as a symbol of how open-minded and welcoming she is, which Josie recognizes. One of the turning points of the story comes when Sally realizes this and sees the effect it has on her friend.
With all this in mind, one of my biggest concerns with writing this novel is that it might get boiled down to "Well Meaning White People Talk About Racism", and not about putting the readers in the perspective of being a PoC. I am Caucasian, and I'm writing from that perspective, FWIW. Josie definitely has some interests in her heritage as a biracial person, and specifically in her background as a person of Caribbean descent. Charles, meanwhile, hasn't gotten to a point where he wants to explore his heritage. He's a bit of a prankster on a small scale -- he likes monster movies and Dr. Demento, but he also loves some of the more lighthearted rap groups, like De La Soul. (He and Sally have a bonding moment when they go out for Halloween as characters from movies they see on the Late Show...Charles goes out as Walter Paisley from 'Bucket of Blood'.)
My apologies for this long rambly thing.
It's fine, your novel sounds really interesting, and I can see where you're coming from. It's kind of sad that we can't discuss these things normally in a book, because we should be able to. I feel like I can't even discuss this, and I have experience with being an outsider in many different places, not just with ethnicity but where I lived and culturally.
You should go on, since you did say this takes place from a Caucasian's POV and because of the time period and the situation that occurred in NE. It might make people feel uncomfortable but it's showing what really happened and I believe that's what really matters.
Here's the thing with New England...and specifically with Massachusetts, where I live:
We think of ourselves as very enlightened, culturally and with regards to race issues. Historically the New England states were part of the Underground Railroad and were among the states where African-Americans could vote and otherwise live freely. The few slaves who DID live up here (thinking specifically about Phillis Wheatley) were educated and allowed to read and led much richer lives than their southern counterparts. Boston at the turn of the century was a hotbed of the abolition movement.
For all of our back-patting, here are some things that have happened in the past 100 or so years: the Red Sox were one of the last teams to racially integrate their players. We kept voting unrepenetant racists like Dapper O'Neill and Louisa Day Hicks to elected office. There were the busing riots, and there was the Charles Stuart case (where a wealthy white man killed his pregnant wife and then blamed it on a fictional black man who allegedly carjacked them on the way back from a lamaze class). More recently, there was racial tension amidst Occupy Boston, and the city-funded Pax Centurion newsletter for the police force came under fire. So this, historically, is where we're at. More in a bit, after I get to work.
The town in which this story takes place is about 45 minutes north of Boston. The population is predominantly white and class-polarized -- the characters are either upper-middle-class or working class. (This is pretty true of New England coastal towns, especially those that are not on Cape Cod.) The novel takes place in 1989, which was when I was in middle school, and the town is loosely based on the town where I grew up. In my middle school I remember two Asian students, one Latina student, an African-American student, and a biracial (African-American/Caucasian) student. I don't remember any altercations between the white and non-white students on the basis of race, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. My teachers tolerated one of the Asian students, who had just moved from Japan and spoke little English. I DO remember that the Latina and biracial girls were tough, and that the biracial student in particular was a bit of a bully towards me. There wasn't a specific racial subtext to my interactions with these girls, but I wouldn't be surprised if the tension of being the only student from their background caused them to be a little angrier and more abrasive, and to take it out on students who were more vulnerable.
With regards to this particular story, I know that Charles and Josie were the offspring of a marriage that ended in acrimony, and that to some extent their mother (who is Caucasian) feels some ambivalence towards them, and may or may not have expressed this ambivalence openly. (I've outlined a scene in which Sally plays a record by the X-Ray Spex for Josie and Charles, and Charles jokes that the Somali/British lead singer for X-Ray Spex "could pass for Greek". Josie doesn't find this funny.) Josie gets hassled some at school, but instead of acting out or bullying other students, she just wants to get through the day and does her best to stay above the rabble at school. I know that when Sally goes out with them, she sees how these kids -- who are by all account decent, upstanding kids -- are hassled and followed at stores, or how Josie has to deal with her classmates touching her hair or looking at her when her English class reads books about racism. Within Sally's friendship with Josie and Charles, she does have to deal with white privilege, and she doesn't know how to deal with that.
My main fear in writing a story about a friendship between a white girl and a biracial girl is that I'm going to get the characters wrong, because there are so many ways I could screw this up.
Hmm...I see. I guess even when writing PoC's, you'll get criticized no matter what but in the case of this story, I think being historically accurate is what matters more. Like others said in regards to my concerns, talk to people who lived through that time or who have experience in it. Being biracial is a whole different ballpark, to be honest, because of differences from two sides.
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