I'm white. Thought I'd just put that right out there. I'm not African American, Latino, Chinese American, or even a Chinese immigrant. But I've written for characters who are.
When speaking about my novel, Delta Legend, I'm often asked about the choice to have many of the primary characters (especially my protagonist) be racially and culturally different from me. Truthfully, it wasn't so much an intentional choice as a natural occurrence that developed along with the story. I can assure you I didn’t wake up one day and decide my main character just had to be a 16-year-old African American guy.
The first character of Delta Legend was the Delta itself. Calvin Pierce came next and was born out the need for dramatic conflict. Let's see ... who might feel like a fish-out-of-water in the heart of a predominately white region known for agriculture and recreational boating? An inner-city teenager, that’s who. Mei Li Cheng was also a natural choice when considering the history of the Chinese and Chinese Americans in the California Delta—the keepers of the “Legend.”
As a writer, if you’re going to create diverse characters who are dramatically different from you, it’s got to be organic, born naturally out of the story. Diversity is not some new fashion trend for white authors to try on, see if we can pull it off. On the flip side, when I find a new author of color only to discover their main character is white (and didn’t have to be) I think it’s an opportunity missed.
I grew up in what was, and sort of still is, a predominately white East Bay suburb of San Francisco. My dad worked for Coca Cola, calling on restaurants, bars, and other venues in and around San Francisco. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I got to skip school and go to work with him. Once I got a taste of the city’s diverse population with its numerous distinct cultural communities, I was hooked. I loved hearing different languages being spoken, not to mention sampling a delectable cornucopia of international foods (the roots of my foodie-ness).
A day in the city with my dad was a cultural and epicurean field trip that was far more educational than any day spent at school. It's easy to understand why when it came time to decide on a college, I chose San Francisco State and continued to live in the city for 12 years.
Regardless of my urban exposure to different cultures and races, prior to writing Delta Legend, I was like a lot of other white writers who simply go on the premise that unless we state otherwise, our characters are white. All that changed for me when writing first the screenplay, and later the novel version of Delta Legend. Suddenly I needed to clarify if someone was white, it was not a given. And that’s a good thing.
Creating the screenplay version of Calvin Pierce wasn't all that difficult for me. You can get away with less character development when writing for screen; you rarely get inside a character's head to say what they're thinking or feeling. But when it came time to write the novel version of Delta Legend, I initially danced around Calvin, unsure if I could properly represent him. Fortunately, as with all my characters, Calvin ultimately took up the reins of his own story, told me to sit at the computer, and take dictation.
One of my all-time favorite films is Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. I love the part where the different characters talk directly to the camera, going off on these tirades of racial slurs. It's so over-the-top, it makes them look completely ridiculous and laughable, which of course, is the point.
While Delta Legend touches on issues of racial and cultural differences, it's not the primary focus of the story. Even though it's fantasy, I hope the characters realistically represent how we all think, act, and relate to people of different races, cultures, sexual orientation, etc.. Sometimes, it’s not so pretty, and no one gets out unscathed in Delta Legend. In creating realistic characters, you can’t PC them up too much or they’re not believable. We all know racism and bigotry exist in the world and in our own societies. To pretend like it doesn’t is not realistic.
It's true you need to do a bit more research when writing for characters of a different race or culture than your own, but like everything else, you find the resources and people to help you. Luckily, I have a niece and nephew who are mixed race, African American and white, so I had some solid assistance with regard to hip hop culture and slang (which evolves at an unbelievably fast pace). As I say in the acknowledgments, I would have had to change the manuscript daily were I to keep up with ever-evolving hip hop slang. At a certain point, however, you have to stop and let your work mark a place in time.
As the United States and other countries become increasingly more diverse, we need our literature to reflect this. I believe it’s gradually happening but we need to keep the momentum going. More than just the extraneous secondary characters—the black classmate, the Asian doctor, the gay neighbor–diverse characters are taking their rightful place as protagonists. But it has to be organic and natural, staying true to the story that’s being told.
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