Thanks to the invitation of a friend, I recently attended a meeting of the Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was a great meeting, the topic of one presentation was Cultural Authenticity in Fiction. The other presentation was by children’s author and illustrator, Erik Brooks, who talked about his experiences in “the biz” over the last ten years. As someone who struggles with stick figures, I was in awe of the slides he showed of his illustrations for children’s books. I have a new appreciation for the stories that I’m reading to my sons each night.
I was also very interested in what Margaret Nevinski had to say about cultural authenticity in fiction. Her talk made me realize that authors who are writing outside of their culture, and actually all authors, have a responsibility to authentically portray a culture. Nevinski was approached to write an educational book for young readers about internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII. At first she felt like a fraud, attempting to write about a history so different from her own. However, she came to realize that even people within a culture have very different perceptions, realities and understandings of their own culture. One Japanese American might write a different story than another and that person might write a different story than Nevinski. She did extensive research, meeting with families who were interned and also visiting the site of a former camp called Minidoka which is located in Idaho. This effort on her part led to an authentic piece of writing.
She eloquently shared her experience and those of other YA authors who have written outside of their own culture. I believe her tips provide insight for all writers:
- Portray the genuine article
- Seek to write the emotional truth
- Ask yourself WHY you’ve chosen to write this tale
- Maintain respect for the culture about which you are writing
Yes, these points are particularly important for the question of culture. However, in any writing that we do, we’re creating something outside of ourselves — in writing about real-life “characters” or in characters that we create from our minds. We owe it to our subjects to get it right. Any writer of fiction or non-fiction who doesn’t seek the emotional truth, or doesn’t understand why she’s writing a story, or who loses respect for her characters will have trouble. Those are key elements to powerful writing which will not only engage us as writers but will also engage our readers.