Yesterday, I stumbled upon a blog with this headline:
Fighting to bring Multiculturalism to YA, Fantasy and Science Fiction novels.
Since my own writing deals excessively with multicultural settings, I read on. In the Q&A section, one of the blog authors writes: "Well I think that it's important for young women and men, as well as older women and men to see and read about people they can identify with. Some minorities have this advantage because we in the USA are living in a country where it's predominantly Caucasian. Therefore many of us grew up watching The Wonder Years, Full house and other predominantly white casted TV programs so we already have a picture of what it's like to grow up in their shoes and a glimpse into their lives. However Caucasians will bypass a program or book with non Caucasian characters in fear that they will not be able to relate to it. I'm not saying this is everyone but I have white friends who are very candid with me and will tell me their views on ethnic books or programming. It's not an intentional thing, I know it's because some whites are raised not to see color, and because of this they won't rush out to go see let's say A Madea movie. So I think it's important to try to influence not just minorities view of media but non minorities as well."
This statement, while partially true (yes, currently Caucasians make up the majority of population in the USA) forgets to address the cultural diversity within this portion of the population. Without getting political, one must recognize that there is a difference between race and ethnicity, race and cultural background.
"The traditional definition of race and ethnicity is related to biological and sociological factors respectively. Race refers to a person's physical appearance, such as skin color, eye color, hair color, bone/jaw structure etc. Ethnicity, on the other hand, relates to cultural factors such as nationality, culture, ancestry, language and beliefs." source Diffen.com
Once this definition is applied, the cultural spectrum in fictional settings can be then explored on a broader scale. In my own writing, for example, the protagonist interacts with people from very diverse backgrounds, and the fact that most of them could be considered Caucasian does not imply that the setting is not multicultural. This is especially true in Europe where centuries of wars clearly defined diverse cultures, which then became to form a part of national heritage. A character from Spain would have a completely different cultural background than, say, a character from Italy. A German character will have completely different cultural traits from a Czech character, although they are only separated by a thin, imaginary line drawn on a map by men of the past.
Even within the same language group, for example Belgium French character and a French character will have little in common in terms of upbringing, social and historical values, et cetera.
Having lived in Europe and applying this knowledge to my own writing, I am then able to create and access a vast multicultural setting without the need to specify race. A specific race should then be considered unnecessary for multicultural settings. In reality, I rarely mention characters' race in my own writing. I believe the reader's opinion should be derived from the character himself/herself, and be based strictly on the character's actions and reactions.
In the Mad Days of Me trilogy, for example, I purposefully failed to mention the protagonist's background. While the story takes place in Barcelona, the protagonist has a few flashbacks to Rome, and later reminisces about Austria. As the story unfolds and he visits France, Italy, and Austria, he recalls certain experiences in all of the places, yet he also shows that neither of these is his home country.
I did this with the idea of allowing the reader to judge the character strictly on what the reader knows of the character. By doing so, I eliminated any preconceived notions one might have by learning that a character is from X (because all the people from X do Y). For the same reason, I never specified the protagonist's race. Amazingly, rather than being an obstacle for the reader, this have opened-up a world of possibilities. One reviewer refers to the protagonist as a young American, other sees him as a young man from Rome, yet another assumes he is a German. As a writer, I find this fascinating. This type of setting then not only allows the reader to judge the protagonist by what he/she learns about him, but it also allows the reader to form a certain association with the character based on the knowledge the reader gains throughout the story.
As a writer, I'm naturally observant. I see cultural diversity everywhere, even in the neighborhoods dominated by one race. People, by their own nature are diverse beings. Our cultural makeup evolves throughout life, with social and family settings being only one part of it. The choices we make later in life, the places we move to, the people we interact with, the people we marry...all of these contribute to our cultural makeup. It is up to the writer to find, create, and embrace the cultural differences regardless of race. By doing so, the writer can then create a compelling story regardless where it is set.
Certainly, there will be greater cultural diversity in large cities. At the same time, many cities are too divided to be truly multicultural as some residents chose to live in segregated communities and do not incorporate themselves to the established culture (in my opinion, and as seen in riots that erupt with regularity in France, for example, this is especially true in immigrants, regardless of their origin, as they often seek the comfort of their own culture). One of the most culturally diverse cities I encountered recently was Montreal, where languages, races, and cultures seem to mingle on every street.
For my own writing, I chose Barcelona because of its location and its culture. It is a place where East meets the West; a place full of immigrants, tourist, languages, and customs. There, the protagonist can interact with characters from Spain, Germany, Colombia, Romania, UK, US...and all this on one square in the old town.
Multicultural setting is important to me not only because it makes for an interesting storyline, but, more importantly, because it teaches us something about different cultures. It opens our minds while reminding us that we are all human - imperfect, vulnerable, emotional - regardless of the color of our skin or the place we were born.
About Henry Martin:
Mad Days of Me:Escaping Barcelona
Trapped in the streets of Barcelona after falling victim to a heinous crime, without a passport or money, patience is Rudy’s only hope to make it out alive. Plunged into a world of street-dwelling derelicts in a city whose language he does not speak, struggling to maintain his decency and humanity while fighting off the ravages of slow starvation, patience proves to be an exhausting path. This is a story of human spirit in the face of the odds of survival stacked against him. This is a story of humanity’s worst nemesis – itself. It is the side of Barcelona you will not find in any tourist guide.
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