Saturday, July 28, 2007


René Colato Laínez

Writing Outside the Culture

There are many opinions and controversies about writing multicultural literature:

*Authentic books include only those written by a member of an ethnic group about that ethnic group, its cultural traditions, and its people.

*The most accurate portrayal of a culture will come from authors who have lived within the culture they are writing about all or most of their lives regardless of their race.

*Authors can write authentic books if their writing is based on experience and a growing awareness in our society of other cultures and provided an accurate representation of the culture being portrayed.

If you are writing outside your culture, you must never write off the top of your head. If you have never lived in Mexico, China or Morocco and want to write a story about these cultures, you will have to do extensive research in libraries, archives, and museums. But the best way to research is to meet the people you want to write about. Talk to them, participate in their games, visit the country, eat their food, become one of them while you are writing your story. Remember, it is better to overdo your research, later you can pick what is important for your story. When you finished your manuscript show it to organizations and people it is written for and ask them to look for stereotypes and misconceptions.

The people most passionate and involved in a culture are typically the best ones to write about a multicultural story. With the passion comes the desire to spend hours and hours in a library or most important with the people you are writing for. If there is no passion, there will be no desire to write an authentic story.

I need this passion to research and spend hours with people I am writing for. Being Hispanic does not make me the right person to write about the Mayans or the Aztecs, or to write about the people in El Salvador that made rubber from the trees, or to write about the artisans who create and paint great ceramic in Oaxaca, Mexico. My knowledge about these topics is very limited. I did some research to write my picture book PLAYING LOTERIA/ EL JUEGO DE LA LOTERÍA. Lotería was my favorite game when I was growing up in El Salvador. I did not know that this game arrived all the way from Europe to Mexico more than two hundreds years ago. It was Don Clemente, a man from France, who created the images of the games using Mexican colors, flavors and traditions. I did not use all this research in my picture book but by knowing the history of la lotería, I feel more secure that I was writing an authentic story.

Most important, keep in mind that the same criterion for authenticity in multicultural literature is the same in any good book: strong characters, good plot, great climax, convincing ending plus no stereotypes and misconceptions.
The following is a criteria developed by teachers to choose authentic literature for the classroom. I believe that the same criteria can be use as a checklist for writers of multicultural books.

*No distortions or omissions of history. Look for various perspectives to be represented.

*Authenticity. Look for books with accurate representations of the cultural attitudes, feelings, and perspectives, both visually and literally.

*Stereotyping. There are no negative or inaccurate stereotypes of the ethnic group being portrayed.

*Loaded words. There are no derogatory overtones to the words used to describe the characters and culture, such as savage," primitive," "lazy," and "backward."

*Historical Representation. Look for books that dispel misconceptions by reflecting truths.

*Lifestyles. The lifestyles of the characters are genuine and complex, not oversimplified or generalized.

*Dialogue. The characters use speech that accurately represents their oral tradition.

*Standards of success. The characters are strong and independent, not helpless or in need of the assistance of a white authority figure. Characters do not have to exhibit extraordinary qualities, or do more than a white character to gain acceptance and approval.

*The role of females, elders, and family. Women and the elderly are portrayed accurately within their culture. The significance of family is portrayed accurately for the culture.

*Possible effects on a child's self-image. There is nothing in the story that would embarrass or offend a child whose culture is being portrayed. A good rule of thumb: would you be willing to share this book with a mixed-race group of children?

* Author's and/or illustrator's background. The author and/or illustrator have the qualifications needed to deal with the cultural group accurately and respectfully.

*Illustrations. The illustrations do not generalize about or include stereotypes of a cultural group and it's people. The characters are depicted as genuine individuals. Characters of the same ethnic group do not all look alike, but show a variety of physical attributes.

*Relationships between characters from different cultures. Minority characters are leaders within their community and solve their own problems. Whites do not possess the power while cultural minorities play a supporting or subservient role.

*Heroines and Heroes. Heroines and heroes are accurately defined according to the concepts of and struggles for justice appropriate to their cultural group. They are not those who avoid conflict with and thus benefit the white majority.

*Become Proactive. Read and recommend quality multicultural literature to students, teachers, librarians, curriculum committees, administrators, and student’s parents.

In conclusion, the writer who wants to write about any specific group, must research, read, visit, meet and have personal connections with members of that group. By doing this, the writer will be less likely to have stereotypes in the story. When the author finishes the story, it would be a great idea to show it to members of the specific group. In this way, the author will have an authentic story. A story that depicts the variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural groups within U.S. society and allows young children opportunities to develop their understanding of others, while affirming children of diverse backgrounds. Good luck and have fun writing a multicultural story or any story that you have the passion for.


Anonymous said...

René, I’ve enjoyed reading your wise words. It all sounds so common sense, yet you’d be surprised how many times I find myself having to go through these long explanations when someone in a class wants to distinguish their work by “going ethnic.” Part of the issue is that most children’s books published in this country are written by white women. The other is that children’s book “read” like they are easy to write. No, they are simply easy to read. Because they are meant to be read by children. So the text comes across as a free for all—anyone can write them, therefore anyone can write what they want, and then hope to publish it. Another issue is the lack of distribution by titles whose presses specialize in ethnic literature for children like LEE & LOW BOOKS, CINCO PUNTOS PRESS, and CHILDREN’S BOOK PRESS. I’ll go to a B & N children’s book section and leave mortified that some of my favorite authors, like Pat Mora, are nowhere to be found.

When I wrote & published my first children’s book, SOLEDAD SIGH-SIGHS, I struggled with the fact that my characters were Puerto Rican. I am Chicano. But I wrote this book in response to the Bush Administration’s slashing of the after-school program budgets in this country. I was working as a literacy specialist in Brooklyn, working mainly with Puerto Rican and Dominican children. So I felt compelled to write this narrative, to advocate for after-school programming, to honor those children whose well-being was being threatened by political short-sightedness: cuts in education, increase in military spending. Wow.

As a side note, I was invited to speak on behalf of after-school programming at the Kennedy Center in D.C. back in 2003 (when the book was released) by invitation of Mrs. Bush. I was highly criticized for not refusing to attend and not boycotting the way the poets boycotted the White House event that created the Poets Against the War movement. I attended, lost some friends, but I had my say. The cuts still happened, but I made my appeal, and for that I’ll never regret making that decision to go. I do mourn the loss of those friendships, though. Pero, ni modo.

I wrote my second children’s book, ANTONIO’S CARD, in response to the Bush Administration’s anti-gay agenda during Bush’s re-election campaign. As a gay man, I felt compelled to show a positive side of same-sex parenting. Needless to say, I received a number of hate emails, death threats and the book was banned from many libraries, mostly in Texas. I still get a crazy email once a month by someone who discovers the book for the first time even though it’s been out and thriving since 2005.

And my third project is about THE WALL. (I don’t think I have to elaborate about what wall I’m talking about and whose Administration this book is critiquing.) It has not been published in stand-alone book form, but it was distributed for free in an anthology put out by Teaching Tolerance. It will now be translated into Hebrew and Arabic, to be distributed at the unveiling of the Tolerance Monument in Jerusalem.

I say all this because I encourage potential children’s book authors to think about relevance and meaning as part of their considerations when writing for children. Therefore, the subject matter (whether it’s cultural, political, social) has to be treated with respect and sensitivity. There is a great responsibility children’s book authors have because we are engaging and shaping young, impressionable minds. It shouldn’t just be anything. It has to be something.

Take it easy and thanks,

Rigoberto González

P.S. I really enjoyed the lotería book.

La Tejana - ~^^~LC said...

The Loteria book looks very enjoying; I'm a Reading teacher, and I may find myself using it. I live in a dominately Hispanic area, and we do need more literature that the students can learn about our culture. I did like those tips that you posted; I would like to use them in the classroom.

I'm a writer, and I write what I know about the Mexican-American culture here in Tejas. I do share it from time to time, and the readers do relate well or recognize parts of their own identities. I do agree with the idea of sharing with the culture we are writing about.

Thank you for posting such wonderful advice.

Juan Trasmonte said...

Los felicito desde Buenos Aires, Argentina por el trabajo que hacen. Los he linkeado en mi blog escrito en portugués, de a ratos en español, sobre vida extranjera y otras artes.
¡Sigan adelante!

Rene Colato Lainez said...

Hola Rigoberto, Tejana y Juan.

Thanks for you kind words. Rigoberto I have your books in the classroom and at home.

Juan ¿Cual es la direccion de tu blog?


Emily Jiang said...

Hi Rene! This is a great post, and as a multicultural person writing multicultural lit, I definitely agree with a lot of it. I know this is perhaps too far in the future, but I will be writing about many of these issues at Shen's Blog starting 8/13, and I will be sure to link to this post.

Juan Trasmonte said...

Disculpame, Rene, pero recién ahora veo tu respuesta a mi mensaje. La dirección de mi blog es:
Un abrazo desde Buenos Aires

Anonymous said...

Great words of a teacher I strongly agree with the tips you've included and find these words reassuring as I pursue the possibility of writing a children's book.

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