Friday, November 22, 2013

Defining Multicultural Fiction

As an author who has tagged a couple of my books with the “multicultural fiction” label, one would think I had a very clear understanding of what multicultural fiction means. I don’t. Well, I know how I define multicultural, but others might have a different view.

In The Claiming Words, my two main female characters share POV. One young woman is white; the other is black. A majority of the secondary characters in the book are also black, so I feel pretty safe in labeling this book “multicultural.” But what about The Seance? After I put a multicultural label on it, I had deep reservations. While one of the important characters is Middle-Eastern, the main character (Abby) is white. The story is told from her POV. So, even though her love interest/best friend is from Saudi Arabia and is a practicing Muslim, I’m still not quite comfortable with using “multicultural” to describe the contents of the book. I’m afraid readers will feel cheated or misled when they discover the main character is not from a diverse background.

Hmmm… Maybe I missed the whole point of what multicultural is supposed to be about.

Let me give you a little insight into my background so you know where I’m coming from. I’m white. My husband is West African. We have interracial children. My brother’s first wife is black, so he also has an interracial child. His new wife is Australian. Seriously, when my family gets together, we look like a United Nations meeting. Given my family background, I should be totally on top of what it means to be multicultural, right? Maybe not.

What exactly is multicultural fiction? Does this mean any fiction written by a person with a multicultural background? Or, does multicultural fiction refer to the content and characters in the book? Surely, the book must have at least one multicultural character. But, how many? And, does this mean the main character must have a multicultural background in order to qualify?

If any book with multicultural characters can earn the label “multicultural,” then we’d have to include a whole lot of books. Harry Potter has a cast of characters from different cultures. Even Twilight has a black character. Are these considered multicultural books?

Hmmm… Defining multicultural fiction isn’t as easy as one would think, is it?

Maybe we should restrict the multicultural label to books that explore different cultures instead of just characters with different colors of skin. Maybe we should restrict the multicultural label to those books that feature a non-white main character. When I say it like that, it sounds sort of exclusionary, doesn’t it?

Exclusion is never a good thing and certainly not in the spirit of what multicultural is supposed to be.

Let’s stop for a moment and talk about a friend of mine…. Ruth de Jauregui is an author who started a website devoted to fantasy and science fiction books for teens and young adults of color. Alien Star Books is meant to help parents find books with characters their kids can relate to–or characters their kids can learn from. Though Alien Star is primarily dedicated to books with protagonists of color, it includes everyone.

On her website, Ruth says she would never exclude a good book just because the main character isn’t a person of color. On her Facebook group page, she says, “While there is room for EVERYONE, because this is all about inclusion and not exclusion, I really want to promote books with main characters and positive images of People of Color.”

“This is all about inclusion and not exclusion.”

As authors, we all have our own cultural backgrounds. We all draw from our own lives when we build our characters. Many authors will tell you they have no control over the characters they write, that the characters are fully evolved when they reveal themselves. Most authors don’t set out to deliberately fall into a category. We just write. We tell the story and label our books later. This is why there’s overlap in genres, age categories, and yes.. sometimes even our labels can’t be clearly defined.

Should we chuck away labels altogether and just let good fiction be good fiction? The idea certainly has appeal. But, with the vast number of books available for purchase, labels certainly help us narrow down our choices. Let’s face it–some categories are always going to have big, huge gray areas. Multicultural fiction is one of those categories. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to clearly define it, and I don’t think we should. Because to strictly define it would be to exclude a whole lot of good books and that’s the LAST thing we want to do.

Like Ruth from Alien Star says, “this is all about inclusion and not exclusion.”

Words we should all live by.

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