copyright 2016 by Sherry Garland
There has been a lot of talk recently on social media regarding authors who write about a culture or ethnic group into which they were not born or raised. The basic premise is that those authors do not have the knowledge or insight to write stories, mainly fiction, about other cultures. I.E., they are “appropriating” someone else’s culture. It’s the notion that if an author writes about a culture different from his or her own, that person has “taken” something away from authors in that culture.
If this were a “Rule” think of all the beloved characters that would have never been created: Hemingway’s Cuban Old Man and the Sea, Katherine Patterson’s Japanese characters, Pearl S. Buck’s characters in China.
So, as a middle-aged white female author of many books that focus on non-white cultures, the accusations of “cultural appropriation” are directed at me. Naturally I disagree with this premise. I prefer to call it “Cultural Appreciation.”
I have always loved to learn about other cultures. When I was ten I subscribed to a magazine about other countries. I majored in Foreign Languages during college. I have always lived in culturally mixed neighborhoods. In Houston, I was in the minority. My neighbors were Pakistani, Afghan, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, African-American, Cuban, Central American and South American, even one Canadian!! I got along with all of them, even the gangs. I loved learning about their homelands and backgrounds. Being born near the Rio Grande River, I was influenced by the Mexican culture very early.
I write books about people whom I admire, respect or love, no matter what their culture. Seven of my books are about the Vietnamese culture because I had so many Vietnamese friends in Houston. I helped them resettle and came to learn about their experiences. At that time (late 1970s and 1980s) I could find no one else in children’s publishing writing about the Vietnamese experiences, their hardships during the war and resettling in the USA, the cultural shock the teenagers were going through, the pain of the Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam. I felt it was something that needed to be told and no one else was doing it. I admired, respected and loved the people I met and interviewed so much that I even traveled to Vietnam.
I was fortunate that several of my books won national awards and were used in classrooms across the country, especially in California and Texas. One of my books, Shadow of the Dragon, was used in many ESL classes that contained adult Vietnamese refugees. Many adult Vietnamese sent me letters saying that Danny Vo’s story was so real it seemed to be about their own family. Students in Houston told me the grocery store or the music shop described belonged to their uncle or cousin or parents (they were all fictitious stores based on places I had been). In fact, I know about and identify more with the Vietnamese in that book than the white racist skin-heads in the book. It took me three years to research and write Song of the Buffalo Boy (set in Vietnam) and I would not have been able to do it without the help and input of the Vietnamese community.
I wrote Indio, which focuses on a now extinct group of American Indians living along the Rio Grande River in Texas, because I wanted to tell their story; tell how their people were wiped out by Spanish diseases, war, slavery and assimilation. They are gone now — who is left to tell their story? Would a modern Native American author be able to talk about a vanished people from the 1500’s any better than I can? Would they want to?
Which brings me to my first love: American history. From the ancient peoples before Europeans set foot on the continent up through the Vietnam War, this is my favorite subject. I have little interest in writing about modern teens or children, unless it is something very close to my heart or something from personal experience. When I take on a topic, I typically spend about one year doing research, then up to one year writing (if it is a novel). In 1998, Scholastic asked me to write a Dear America book about a Mexican Girl living in California before it became a state. I was worried at first, but after long research and with help from many Spanish-speaking friends, I was able to write Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia de Milagros. Rosalia was a mestizo — half-Indian and half-Spanish, the group that gave rise to the majority of the Spanish-speaking people in the Americas. I try to be as accurate as possible, with both history and cultural details. I’m sure I made mistakes but I received reviews from Hispanic teenagers telling me it was the best book they had read. A text-book publisher liked it well enough to include passages (and illustrations) in a textbook that was adopted by the California schools.
I also wrote In the Shadow of the Alamo, the story of a 16-year-old Mexican boy conscripted into General Santa Anna’s Army. The Mexican side of the Texas Revolution was virtually non-existent in children’s literature. The book won an International Teacher’s Award and was sold at the Alamo. Tejano boys love this book. They are amazed and proud to see a book that makes a Mexican soldier a hero, rather than an enemy. Again, I wrote this book because I wanted students to know the whole story. I wrote it because I appreciate Mexican culture.
In 2002, I began research for a picture book about the African-American soldiers who served in the US Army from 1866 until after WWII. I had first learned about this subject while visiting a restored fort in West Texas that had garrisoned Buffalo Soldiers in the 1800s. That was the first I had ever heard about Buffalo Soldiers (this was in the 1970s). I wondered why I had never heard of this group of soldiers in my many years of schooling, why we never saw them in movies or on TV shows about the West. So after much research and visits to several forts, The Buffalo Soldier was born. It was released in 2004 with gorgeous illustrations by Ronald Himler. The book received wonderful reviews and several honors.
I wrote The Buffalo Soldier because I admire and respect the black soldiers, many of whom were former slaves, who faced so many adversities. I wanted school children to learn about them and see how these black soldiers contributed to American history. And yet, I did encounter resistance from the black community. At a large library conference, one of my friends took my book to a booth being run by a black librarian caucus. A librarian asked if the author was black, then flipped to the blurb to look at my photo. She shook her head “no,” and indicated her doubts that it could be accurate. When I took the F&Gs to a Buffalo Soldier museum, the curator was polite, but I could tell he was skeptical. Luckily, when he saw the finished product, he approved of it and chose to sell it in the museum’s store. That was a true honor for me.
I agree that if the only reason an author puts a diverse character in his story is to meet some kind of quota and he knows nothing about that culture and is not willing to do the research it takes, then it shouldn’t be done. As a Texan I cringe when I see movies or TV shows or read books that are set in Texas and the setting, language, situation, etc. are so totally wrong — mountains on Galveston Island–really? But every now and then someone gets it dead-on right. At that point, I don’t care where the writer or director or whoever came from, if they have it right, then I admire them. It would be unrealistic to have only Texans write stories set in Texas.
There are many cultures or ethnic groups that I would never attempt to write about because I do not feel I could ever get it right. (That includes modern day teens — ha!) That is why I prefer to write historical books, or books set during my childhood or teen years.
I have more to say on this topic, but this blog is already too long. I know it’s been said many times: although there are many differences among diverse groups, we are all brothers and sisters under the skin. Instead of emphasizing differences, I prefer to emphasize the similarities, the things that make all of us human.