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The Tankborn Trilogy

   

Innate Identity vs. Imagining the “Other”

AUGUST 26, 2014

Rebellion Final Cover medWith all three books of the Tankborn trilogy completed and released into the wild, I’m doing as a writer does and working on my next project. Not to give too much away, but it’s a dark fantasy YA with a multi-cultural cast. No elves/orcs/wizards, but my own invented world. I’m on solid ground with my world-building, because it’s not based on anything except my own fertile imagination.

But what about creating that multi-cultural cast, or more importantly, my main character? She’s Alejandra, a 16-year-old, 2nd generation Mexican-American girl who’s Catholic and lives in Reno, Nevada. She and her mom aren’t below the poverty line by any means, but they struggle a bit financially. She’s not a super-genius, but smart enough to get a scholarship if she works hard.

Some of the cultural/identity elements of the character:

  • Mexican American
  • Catholic
  • Speaks a little Spanish (but not enough to carry on a conversation with her abuelita)
  • Lives in/grew up in Reno
  • Her family is little lower on the socio-economic scale
  • Very close to her mom
  • Hard worker
  • Not one of the popular kids

Some of my personal cultural/identity elements

  • Russian-Austrian-Italian-German-American
  • Catholic raised, Jewish heritage
  • Speak quite a bit of Spanish (I could carry on quite a credible conversation with Alejandra’s abuelita)
  • Grew up in Southern California/live in NorCal
  • Have relatives in Reno & have visited there often
  • My family was middle-class, but we went through some rough financial difficulties
  • I was very close to my mom
  • I was a very hard worker in school
  • Most definitely not one of the popular kids

Based on who I am, how well can I get into this character’s head? How authentically can I write her identity, her culture?

It might seem like I’ve got it covered since there’s quite a lot of overlap in our life experience. But there’s a very key area missing–she grew up Mexican-American, and I grew up as a white American.

People are people, you might say. We have more in common than we have differences. Absolutely. But if I want to write an authentic character, one with a different core identity than mine, who grew up immersed in a world different than mine, I can only imagine so much. And it’s possible that what I “imagine” about the character will come from my own ingrained stereotypes that will worm their way into my writing.

Rosary-sSo what do I not have to imagine? What have I lived? I’ve lived the Catholic upbringing. Catholicism is so rooted inside me that to this day I can’t walk inside the church without reaching for the holy water to dip and make the sign of the cross. Even though I haven’t attended Mass in years, I immediately feel comfortable inside a Catholic church, like I’m home.

By the same token, I often feel out of place during services at other Christian churches. And although I am Jewish by heritage from both sides of my family and am married to a Jewish man, I’m a complete fish out of water in a synagogue. I don’t know the prayers, in either Hebrew or English. I don’t know the songs. Judaism wasn’t part of my upbringing, so it didn’t get into my DNA like Catholicism did.

I know what it’s like to be the unpopular outsider as a teenager. After all these years, that pain still lingers. I know what it’s like to work hard in school. I lived through difficult financial times when I was a kid, where my parents’ worries filled me with anxiety. I know what it’s like to be female, to sometimes be slighted because of my gender, and to sometimes fear men.

But despite all that Spanish I learned over the years, despite living with many Hispanic neighbors in L.A., do I know what it means to grow up Mexican-American? No. Not in any gut way. I’m white, and I lived the white experience, with all its privilege and dominance, during a time when racism was far more accepted. I’ve experienced subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bigotry and trivialization because of my gender. But it’s a white face I present to the world, and the world has treated me accordingly because of it.

So how do I authentically write Alejandra? To some extent, I use my imagination, but in the end, I need some expert input. A friend has been giving me advice about the Spanish that is sprinkled throughout the book. And before the book ever sees the light of day, I intend to find a Mexican-American beta reader to vet my cultural references and make sure I haven’t let stereotypes creep in.

Could I just decide to write only white characters in my books? I could. But I choose not to. And with that commitment to write diverse, comes the responsibility to make my absolute best effort to do it right.


Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: #weneeddiversebooks, awakening, rebellion, TANKBORN, tankborn trilogy, we need diverse books, white privilege, wndb, writing diverse
 

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