Saturday, 22 August 2009

Whitewash and Blackground - Elen Caldecott

I’m sure you’ve all read about the Liar cover and its fallout. I don’t intend to revisit a topic that has been covered by Laura Atkins and Rhiannon Lassiter among many others. But it did get me thinking again about racial representation in my own work.

I am from a white, northern background. In my heart I’m a closet Scouser, though I was raised on the Welsh side of the border. I write about urban children in contemporary Britain. In my first book, there were no non-white children. Which, even as I wrote it, felt wrong. One in five children in the UK belong to an ethnic minority. I feel that it is the duty of children’s writers to reflect children’s own experiences back at them – to show them a world they recognise. With my first novel, I hadn’t done that.

With the book I’m currently editing, the hero is mixed-race. His ethnicity has no bearing on the story. It is not a book about prejudice, or acceptance or any of the other themes that might traditionally stem from being mixed-race. His ethnic identity is just a small part of who he is and the story romps on regardless.

But – and, it’s a whopping great ‘but’ for me – I felt I couldn’t write about someone whose cultural experience was too different to my own. Which is why he is mixed race, rather than Somali or Iraqi, or any of the other immigrant cultures that are part of modern Britain.

I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see more diverse characters in children’s literature, but, as a white writer, I don’t know if I’m qualified to invent them. I’ve no problem making up a Viking child, or a Roman or anything else so far removed from all of us so that you pretty much have a licence to write whatever you want. But it doesn’t feel OK for me to invent the thoughts and feelings of a child from another, contemporary, culture. Nor does it feel OK for me to use a white main character with ethnic minority friends as blackground.

I guess the answer is that we need more children’s writers from more diverse cultures. We need more non-white and mixed-race writers to tell us stories from their own point of view. I don’t know how we go about getting that, but I imagine that buying their work when you see it would go some way towards helping.

And if we’re ever run short of stories about Scousers, and Frank Cottrell Boyce is busy, then I’ll just have to stand up and be counted.
Elen's Facebook Page


Juliet Boyd said...

Don't know whether or not you're on Twitter, but there was a big discussion on there on #litchat last night about how you represent different cultures.

A lot of people seemed to have the same view as you have expressed here, that they felt uncomfortable trying to represent something that they knew little about.

So you're not alone.

Katherine Roberts said...

Interesting post! I am white, but (quite unintentionally) my Seven Fabulous Wonders series seems to appeal to readers of different cultural backgrounds. I feel it is more the subject matter than the characters in these books, but I still don't really know. Perhaps the fact these books have historical settings, avoiding any discussion of contemporary religion or race, helps? Also it might be interesting to note that this particular series has never been published in America, but has been translated into 10 languages worldwide and is more popular on Malta than in the UK.

My feeling is that, for understandable financial reasons, UK publishers choose to publish books that appeal to white American publishers at the expense of more diverse cultural texts. Until there are more mixed race and multi-cultural editors working in publishing, I think such writers and their books will remain marginalized.

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't have kids of different colour in my books, though I do have a Jewish boy in Saving Rafael, just because I'm writing about young people in the '40s, a different world, largely, in Europe. But I do agree, totally. I believe, because of the way in which I saw Germans represented in my childhood (I blogged about it earlier) that there's an issue of 'legitimation' here, if kids read books where society is predominantly white it fails to legitimate the society we actually have. I took Max to the playground in Stoke Newington on Thursday which was full of Asians, Turks, Hasidic Jews, Chinese and black children as well as white so it was like a Unicef Christmas card. And when I go to talk to kids in school, there are black, and brown and mixed-race faces, so let's have it in the writing. I guess writing about Germany in the '40s is another way of showing difference, though, ie non-British kids.. let's hear it for difference!!! Thanks, Elen, for raising it.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree entirely, Elen - but there is the problem that any one writer can only be black, or white, or mixed race, or whatever - we can only have one ethnicity! And that means that if books are to represent the diversity of the society surrounding children we all have to write other ethnicities than our own. In Rising Tide, which comes out on 5 September, I have two main characters, one white and one black. It's set in a dystopic future which, like setting a story in the past, let me feel slightly more comfortable with writing my black boy, but I shall still be very interested to see if I have got it right - or even remotely close! We have to try, though. After all, we write boys when we are female (and vice versa).

Picture books are another area entirely. I've sometimes had to specify that I want a character to be of a particular ethnicity. But often the ethnicity of a child in a picture book is entirely unimportant to the story, so the illustrator has free rein to make the group as diverse as possible.

catdownunder said...

But surely, especially if you are a published author, you are inventing the thoughts and feelings of someone else anyway? Their experience of life will be very different from yours. Writing about yourself is surely very different from writing?

Elen Caldecott said...

Thanks for the great comments!

I have been thinking about joining Twitter, but haven't yet - Juliet, your comment makes me think I should!

Katherine - I agreed about editors etc.for sure.

Leslie - I love thinking about the Stoke Newington playground! It sounds exactly what I'm talking about. But, if you used it in a book would people think it sounds forced? I fear they would!

Mary - Your point about picture books is interesting. They do seem more diverse, perhaps because they're sold internationally?

Catdownunder - You'd think so wouldn't you? But actually, as I write contemporary fiction, I know details about y characters, for example, what foods are in their cupboards, what TV shows are on their telly, what pictures are on their walls etc. Some writers can transpose this knowledge across cultures, it just makes me nervous, that's all!

Catherine Johnson said...

More different writers from different backgrounds? Absolutely! (And I think it's about class as well as race...)But I also agree that just because we are one thing or another shouldn't mean we can ONLY write from that p-o-v, otherwise I would be stuck writing welsh/jamaican londoners forever...

Catherine Johnson said...

P.S. I do think the immigrant experience is remarkably similar - of course colour changes things - one can never totally assimilate if your skin shouts 'other' but what our job is as authors is to pretend really well, to get our facts straight, so we research vikings or Turkish Londoners or whatever it is and so long as we get our facts straight and a great story that's ok.

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree with Catherine - as writers we have to be able to range where we please in search of a character, BUT - and it's a big but - the only way to do it is to be as truthful/faithful as possible to the likely realities of that character's life. Which often means research. And that's fine by me. 'Kwimu' in 'Troll Blood' is a 10th century Native American boy, and I have about 6 thick files full of background information collected over about six months, which I needed to know in order to feel confident writing about him. And to do him justice.

By the way, Elen, I just joined Twitter! Come on in, the water's lovely!

Nick Green said...

I feel I must disagree with this argument, that one can't write a character from a different cultural background from one's own. what, we can write about robots, talking animals, aliens, murderers, heroes, wizards, but not black people (if we're white) or white people (if we're black)? To me, that's just another form of apartheid - albeit one with noble intentions.

People are people. The world over, we are basically the same. I believe this most strongly. A tribesman from the most remote, untouched tribe will smile when greeted with a smile. Everything else is just details.

And what makes 'cultural' experience so special? No-one else in the world has had the *life* experience of anyone else. But we can imagine other lives. To treat culture with tweezers, to separate it in this way, is dangerous, I think.

Elen Caldecott said...

Hi Nick,
I don't think I would ever say 'can't' about any aspect of writing. It's more that, for me, it is important that any world I create is realistic, which means include diversity of cultures. And, that's an area that needs more work in my own writing.

Nick Green said...

Hi Elen,

Apologies, I think I did rather hastily misinterpret what you were saying. It's a very different thing to talk about what one personally needs to work on!

It's just a personal bugbear of mine; I see a lot of people tiptoeing around cultural issues where they wouldn't hesitate to rush in were it anything else. I think there is a 'fear of offending' going on sometimes. Culture is seen as a sacred cow (no joke intended) when it's just like any other aspect of a person's life. And often not the most important by any means.
And I think it can be overstated. I don't wake up in the morning and think 'I'm English', and I don't think people from minorities wake up thinking, 'I'm [Indian/Chinese/Afro-Carribean]' etc. Also the immigrant thing: most ethnic minorities are not immigrants but indiginous. In response to the question 'Where are you from?' they are more likely to say, 'I'm from London' (or wherever).

So I would say: read around the culture by all means, but don't let it dominate. That risks turning the character into a cultural token. Often culture might be scarcely noticeable in day to day life. I visited a blog once, written by a girl who was into cats, pop music, teenage chick lit, all the usual Western girl culture. It was some minutes before I noticed, with a thud of realisation, that she was Iraqi and blogging from war-torn Baghdad, where she had lived all her life. It was a salutory lesson in so many ways.