Friday, 5 October 2012

Writer's Corner Guest Post: Multiculturalism in YA by Camille Picott




Since I read Camille Picott's children's book Raggedy Chan a while back, I've had questions about multiculturalism in YA books and in books in general rolling around in my head. IMO not only is there not enough multicultural representation happening in books/TV/media in general but when it is done, we tend to Westernise it anyway to make it more palatable. So, when Camille offered to do a guest post on my blog, I jumped at the chance to get her views on the topic!

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I was thrilled when Lan asked me to write about multiculturalism in YA. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to me. My personal speciality is speculative fiction with Asian influence, but I love all multicultural YA.

I’ve seen multiculturalism explored several ways in YA fiction. Here are some examples I’ve found:

Direct: The author reveals the ethnicity of the character and weaves the experiences of that ethnic identity into the story. The Direct method is generally found in stories with a contemporary aspect and portray “real” ethnicities. (As opposed to fictional ethnicities, like elves and orcs.)

A great example is Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. The two main characters, Sadie and her big brother Carter, are half black, half white. Sadie shares the experience of being raised by her white grandparents and never feeling like she fit in.

It’s been a while since I’ve read the first book in the series, The Red Pyramid, but I remember feeling very connected with Sadie’s experience of being mixed. I appreciate the fact that the author tackled a multicultural subject in mainstream fiction.

Indirect: Multiculturalism and ethnic minorities are portrayed in fictional worlds with fictional races.

The example that comes to mind here is Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. Again, it’s been a while since I read this book, but I do recall that the main character, Tally Youngblood, is not white. Ethnicities and races as we know them today do not exist in this world; instead, the world is divided between those who are Ugly, and those who are Pretty.

I did enjoy the Ugly versus Pretty divide that Westerfeld explores. In this fictional world, the fact that Tally isn’t white doesn’t matter to the story at all; the fact that she is Ugly is what matters.

I enjoy the indirect approach when it’s done well. With this story, I think many readers can identify with being Ugly. But if one is looking to connect with a character because she’s non-white, this isn’t the book for you. 

Passing: When a character has a multicultural or minority background but essentially passes for being white.

I first learned about “passing” in college from my roommate. You can read an in-depth article on it here. In a nut shell, “passing” is when a person from a minority or mixed heritage attempts to pass as part of the main “white” majority.

In Marie Lu’s Legend, the main character Day is primarily of Mongol descent. But he has blond hair. This rings true to me—in my own family, I have cousins who are 25% Chinese, yet they have blond hair and blue eyes.

I have to admit, I was personally disappointed that Day doesn’t “look” Mongolian. For me, it strips away the coolness of having a minority main character. Even though the way his looks are portrayed is totally realistic, I would have loved for his ethnicity to have been more apparent in either his looks, tastes, or actions. But that’s just my personal preference. This isn’t meant to be an insult to Lu’s book, which I enjoyed.

What are some multicultural YA books that you have read? Have you encountered any of above-mentioned multicultural examples in other YA books?

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Thanks Camille for the great insights. I haven't read the Uglies series but I want to give it a go to see how Westerfeld handles the issue. On my part I think self published authors do a much better job at cross cultural representation than traditionally published authors. Possibly because they're not hindered by publishers who want to whitewash so that books are more marketable.
      I come from a non English speaking background and even I seek out books where the characters are essentially Caucasian.  It would take a much greater mind than mine to psychoanalyze that but I think part of it has to do with the greater representation of Caucasian characters in books and movies. I've been especially disgusted by Hunger Games Controversy as well as the supposed outcry of the casting of an Asian actor in The Mortal Instruments movie. It's funny because I think most readers would like more diversity in these mediums. It's only the select few who ruin it for everyone (as usual!). Thankfully, with the emerging popularity of ebooks and titles like by Sulan: Episode One: The League Camille and Telesa: The Covenant Keeper and its sequel When Water Burnsby Lani Wendt Young, I think multiculturalism is going to take books by storm very soon!

21 comments:

  1. I enjoy books that feature multicultural characters. It makes the story feel bigger than one normally is and deeper! Although I was never aware of the in "passing" approach until now.

    Great guest post, Lan! Very educational :D

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    1. I hate the passing thing. It's drives me crazy. Like the author is trying to pass the book off as multicultural without actually having added any substantially diverse characters. Hence why I didn't enjoy Legend by Marie Lu.

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  2. I don't read young adult, but the issue of different races and being 'mixed' is an integral part of the third book I'm working on now.

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    1. You're lucky Alex. Sometimes I think I'm getting too old for typical YA as well. Great to hear that you're tacking this prickly topic in your next book!

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  3. Thanks for posting, Lan! I am going to check out the books by Lani Wendt Young that you mentioned! Can't wait.

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    1. Lani does a really great job of pulling the reader into the Samoan culture. I hope you enjoy them. This post has got me thinking I'll put up a list of truly multicultural books on my blog.

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  4. Thanks so much for taking part in the Sulan tour!

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    1. Thanks for having me. I had a great time!

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  5. Awesome post, Camille! I need to read the books you've mentioned, although I'm all for reading multicultural YA books already. I usually seek out the Asian influenced. Another new one that just came out is Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff about all Japanese characters. I still need to read my ARC, but nobody is whitewashed that I know of.

    @Lan: Why would people be upset by an Asian being cast to play Magnus Bane? He is half Filipino, after all. Are they going to freak out if a Chinese guy is cast as Jem, even though he's half Chinese?

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    1. Have you read Across the Nightingale Floor by Leanne Hearne? She's Australian and the book is incredible. Set in Japanese Feudal times but told so well.

      I have no idea why people are getting upset at the casting of Magnus. Stupidity maybe? I don't know what they have to complain about. It's like someone complaining that they cast an African American in a movie about Martin Luther King.

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  6. Interesting post. I don't think I've come across many ya reads that the main character with a minority background. I wish authors would be more daring and write characters with different ethnicities. Nice post. Made me think more about characters and their backgrounds.

    Thanks for stopping by
    @ Livin' Life Through Books

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    1. I wish authors would be braver as well. It's not like they have to fulfill a stereotype intheir writing. Why can't the characters be just characters but just happen to be of a minority background? That's the strength of Sulan. Most of the time you forget she's Chinese. She's just an average teenager.

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  7. Thank you for another insightful post. And for the enouraging mention of my Telesa Trilogy books.
    This is a discussion/topic that really interests and concerns me. I have teenagers that are avid readers and I'm always looking for books that have a multi-racial cast of characters in them because we're Samoan and I want them to learn about many other cultures and ethnicities via their fiction. I would also love for them to 'see themselves' represented honestly in their reading material as well. This is why we read a lot of books by Asian and African-American authors. I hope that many more Pacific writers will take on the YA genre so that we can get more stories about 'us' out there into the world as well.

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  8. What a great guest post. I hope that we start to see a bunch more diversity in YA! I love it when authors include it as a natural part of their story, and I like it even more when I get to know a bit about that culture through a novel. Best way to learn, IMO. :)

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  9. The future is multiculturalism. If self-published authors have to lead the charge, so be it:)

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  10. I love this topic. It's interesting because so many books may have a few other cultures but it's always the friend's friend or whatever, not the main character, and they're always acting stereotypical. If she's black she always has coarse hair and speaks really ghetto and talks as if she's kind of ignorant about really unimportant things. The one series I remember that did this a lot was the House of Night series (which you know I loved dearly, but still the representation of blacks bothered me) Yes, the main character was part cherokee indian and her heritage was definately prominent, but all the black friends were named Shaunee and Kramisha and they all were mouthy and rude and generally just steretypical. Even the audiobook annoyed me because the reader was probably told to "sound black" and what came across was the feeling that all the black characters couldnt form proper sentences or something. That was seriously annoying.

    My to-be book is much like the uglies series, where race isnt a big deal, everyone is pretty much the same (so far) they're all about my complexion (a light caramel/dark honey color) with features from many other races mixed in. I mean I figure that over time, and after they've dealt with the things that have happened, the constant exposure to the sun wouldnt allow their skin to be pale and it only makes sense that by this time the races have mixed so much that it would be impossible to have distinct differences like skin color. (there'll always be differences when dealing with humans though)

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  11. Very interesting. I never thought of someone as a different race passing as white. In my mind, I try to write the character whatever cultural background they come from. I've been writing about an Indian tribe lately. Where I live, there are many Indian Reservations, and where I grew up in Canada, the Natives are still a huge part of society. To me, it seemed natural to write about these people. It's funny though, I don't think of them as a "race" but rather people with specific customs that I find fascinating. Great post!

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  12. What a nice post, you have shared for us..I read this post & get a lot of important information from this post..I will wait for your next post..:-)

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  13. Love the topic, ladies! <3 I do recall that Alice Sekemoto in The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa is an Asian (or at least she's an Asian descent). She certainly has Asian name. However, the model in the cover is not an Asian. That bugs me since I think, why not having the model cover an Asian?

    I'd love to have more multiculturalism in YA! Seems like everyone in YA are Caucasians, and although I have no problem with that, it certainly is much more fun to have all ethnics together. :) Thank you for the awesome, thought-provoking post! <3

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  14. This is a fascinating blog post. It's too bad more people don't tackle important issues like this. (I think gays are very underrepresented in traditional publishing, too.) It was great to get Camille's view on the subject of multiculturalism in novels. Although I was born in the US, I live in Egypt and use Arabic (Muslim) characters in my books. I thought the multiculturalism would be a big selling point, but it definitely hasn't been. I guess if I want to interest a traditional publisher, I'm going to have to "whitewash" my own books. :(

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  15. Your post plays an important role in the field of our business.I just want to say keep it up.Thanks for sharing this type of post..:-)

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