Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Few Commandments of MultiCultural Writing

Over the past weekend, I tried begging off from reading YA novel first drafts for a friend of mine, a garden variety English teacher, who decided to teach a YA writing class over the summer.
"But you don't write YA," I reminded her, "in fact, you don't write."

I think when you write for teens, people get the idea that it's somehow easier than writing for adults. She seemed really lost, so sap that I am, I agreed to make comments in a separate notebook so the students could see them only if they chose.

Now, somewhere along the line, some editor must have mentioned that multicultural YA is the next hot thing. Maybe it is, but I really think folks should write what they know about. There were 14 multicultural first chapters out of 19. I learned one thing for sure: I could never be an editor. Ever. I'm horrible at it, and bad writing makes me angry which is most likely an abnormal response. I never, ever felt this way when grading students' papers, but these are adults, and they should know better. Here is my small rant:

Do not have characters named Doug and Kyle and Heather use words like "...in the hood" or borrow any gangstaspeak. I grew up in NYC, and if they went into the barrio and started throwing these words around, they would last about 14 seconds. Maybe not that long. In fact, if Doug and Kyle and Heather went into certain neighborhoods at all, and didn't speak, they would only last 15 seconds tops.

Also, do not have Doug and Kyle and Heather suddenly call their grandma "abuela" -- it's jarring and just plain weird. And it doesn't make your story multicultural.

Hispanic people do not refer to their children as "mi quesadilla." Ever. Trust me. I teach Spanish and ESL, I know lots of Spanish people, and they do not refer to their children with endearments taken from the Taco Bell menu. It's the same as if Heather's mom crooned, "Ah, there she is, my little pot roast." Stop.

Speaking of Latin people, please, please, please, do not use the adjective fiery. It's like something out of a TV Guide listing, and it was bad then. Save it to describe the food. On second thought, don't. Just don't use that word. And don't disguise fiery as "spicy" or "caliente" or even hot.

For some reason, the word "piquant" kept showing up. Horrible word, and teens would feel like they were using an SAT vocabulary builder. Stop that, too.

Native American teens do not speak like Tonto. They speak like teens in California, or New Jersey, or Florida. They do not give directions to their friend's house by saying, "...west, over the creek where the wolves water." (cringe) And while I'm at it, I might add that I once spent a year researching Native American culture to write an MG book, and I concluded that without visiting and speaking to Native American people, the book wouldn't be convincing. I think that advice is still valid.

Now, this class is in a tony suburb of Philadelphia, with lots of ambitious writers. I know how crabby I sound, so I want to say that writing a novel is always a hopeful,
wonderful event, but you really have to write about what you know. You really do; it's not one of the many writing cliches: this one is spot on.

Doug and Kyle and Heather have their problems, too. They might leave their clarinet at the mall, or develop a crush on their mom's life coach, or they might cut themselves out of grief over the divorce. These could all be made into YA books. Not books I would want to read, but with talent and revision, they could work.

And I am thankful that I read these. A few times, I have thought of applying for editing jobs. It seemed so easy. Now I know.


Anonymous said...

You should write comedy. I couldn't stop laughing.

Mary Witzl said...

This is a fine post, and I personally think you'd make a good editor: you are so right about these cliches. You have a right to slap anyone's hand for those offenses and should not apologize for ranting. I'd be frothing at the mouth.

The whole spicy Latin thing is a huge embarrassment, and did someone really write dialogue for ANYone with watering wolves in it? Honestly? I once had a few Navajo/Pueblo pals and they would have laughed themselves silly at that.

Anne Spollen said...

Thanks, Mary. It's good to know I'm not the only one who actually gets emotional about writing.
I should say these were first time writers. I actually thought the "mi quesadilla" line was the worst; I had to read it three times before it stopped seeming surreal.
Yup, the watering of the wolves was another stunner. I must say, that writer only submitted three pages as his first chapter, proving once again, there is a God and she's merciful.

TerriRainer said...

Being from Oklahoma, The American Indians here would have given directions this way, "Just past the Indian Casino, take a right at the Indian Smoke Shop, and then head West into the setting sun. But don't forget to stop at the Trading Post on your way by, we sell really cool shades!"

Dude, they practically own their own counties here! I have actually had people ask me if Indians still live in teepees...UH NO! That's reserved for the wackos out in LA.

:) Terri

PS I am so not intending any racial slurs with this comment!

Anne Spollen said...

Right, Terri :) -- What you are saying is pretty much my whole point. So much writing, at least beginning writing, seems taken from television imagery and not from life. When you want your main character(s) to be of a certain ethnic background, you better be very, very familiar with the cultural patterns of that ethnicity. Otherwise, it comes across kind of campy (or worse, insulting)

Jacqui said...

I missed this while I was on vacation. The taco bell line is hilarious.

I've taught several picture book writing seminars and I love teaching them, but I could never ever be an editor either.