Young girl looking out a window in the evening
#58: Mitali Perkins 2014
Race, Culture, and Power, June 16, 2022
In this episode, Mitali Perkins offers five truths about fiction. Listen as she thinks of stories as windows and mirrors that make us learn and want to make things right.
- The Kite Runner
- Rickshaw Girl
- NBC’s Parenthood
Heidi Groenboom: [00:00:05] In this episode of Rewrite Radio, Mitali Perkins offers five truths about fiction. Listen as she thinks of stories as windows and mirrors that teach us to make things right.
Hello listeners. My name is Heidi Groenboom, and I am a Senior Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Mitali Perkins is a well-loved visitor of the Festival, who has written many books for young readers, including Between Us and Abuela, winner of the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature; and Forward Me Back To You, named Kirkus Best YA Books of 2019. All of these narratives explore crossing different kinds of borders like poverty, immigration, child soldiers, microcredit, and human trafficking. Her range of subjects owes much to her living overseas for many years, as well as studying Political Science at Stanford and Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
Here is Mitali Perkins from the 2014 Festival of Faith & Writing.
So we're going to talk about five truths about fiction and stories. I'm going to give you a little case study of what it's like to grow up on the margins, 'cause that’s—our focus is really on people, stories about people on the margins of some kind of power.
And then we're going to talk. I'm going to give you ten tips to see below the waterline of stories. So maybe—my hope is that we'll leave as more informed readers and writers as we think about these issues of race, culture, and power.
So that's what we're going to cover. Hopefully, I don't have Google Glass for you, but I hopefully will try to maybe adjust vision a little bit of all of us, that we might see these stories a little bit differently. So let's start about the truths about fiction and stories.
So, five truths about fiction. The first one is, well, you guys get this. You're here, right? The first is that—stories, there's something mysterious about them. They connect with our own stories, and we love them. Children especially love them, but all of us love them, right? They, we lean into them.
There's someone in your family who tells great jokes. You lean into that person around—you want to sit next to that person at the Thanksgiving table, right? So that's just fundamental. We love it. We need them. They just mysteriously do so much. That's—I’m preaching to the choir on that one. So that's easy.
We have to admit that storytelling is a powerful act. That, that is, um, this idea that stories function as Trojan horses. The audience accepts this story, because it always seems like a gift. But actually, it always is a delivery system.
As I said yesterday on my panel, every story has some kind of—people tend to think, well, there are moral stories and then there are stories without agendas. But every story has some kind of agenda. That’s the nature of the beast.
And so, unfortunately, propaganda specialists have—from time immemorial have known that you can change the way you think about a certain people, a whole people, by a story. And so it just—there's something about that, that it lowers down our defenses.
And so that's good, but it's also dangerous, right? So that's another premise about stories, is it’s a powerful act.
Next thing is, I like to think of stories as windows and mirrors. I talked about this yesterday. We read The Kite Runner. How many of you read The Kite Runner? Okay. So we threw open a window for us to Afghani culture, right? We learned so much about history and about all the culture of the generations. But it was also this incredible mirror for us about remorse, right? About making things right.
And so every story really has both of those facets to it. And really, it's up to the reader to figure that out. It really—that power, the power of which is a window and which is a mirror is really up to the reader, belongs to the reader. That's my third premise about stories.
Okay, fourth is that I really do believe that there's still room. I love movies on the screen. I do. I love the movies, but there is still something more mysteriously powerful about oral or written stories. And there are two reasons for this.
One is that in the movie theater, the director retains a lot of the power. In that dialectic between reader—and between storyteller and receiver of story, the director retains a lot of the power. So the director is in charge of casting the characters, in charge of the timing and the pacing, in charge of where our eyes focus, right?
All of that. We sit back and we receive this brilliant story, but we don't have as much control over it. When you read a story, your imagination almost begins to codirect the story with the writer. So you cast the characters. And I don't know about you, but I've gone to many movies based on books that I love and thought, what did they do? They just messed that up!
Jennie gave examples of that, a movie that you've gone to that you thought, that’s not what the character looked like. Or they just—let's hear a couple of examples. What's yours?
The Book Thief! Yeah. So you didn't feel like that's how you imagined the characters at all. I haven't seen that yet. [Audience member speaks] Some of them. Yes.
Okay, let me tell you about mine, because when I read the book as a teenager, Lord of the Rings? Yeah, Frodo, that little, tiny, white Elijah Wood face was not how I pictured it—but I, I believe strongly in literary crushes. Do you?
I'm sure you all have seen—so one of mine was Aragorn. I mean he was amazing in The Lord of the Rings. I thought he was hot. But when the movie came out, I thought no, no, no, no. That is not my Aragorn. It was not—did not match at all.
I was crushed! So I don't like even seeing that anymore; I'm going to shift to the next slide; it's disturbing. So before I do, I'll talk about the second reason they go deeper. And it relates to all five of our senses.
To this date, moviemakers have not figured out how to engage all five senses at the same time. So when you're in the movie theater, the sight is incredible. The sound is amazing. But you smell popcorn, or the person in the next row who hasn't showered in a while, right?
But when I'm giving you a story, if I'm doing my job well, I am able to engage all five of your senses because your imagination is codirecting with me, and your imagination has your whole history of all five of your senses.
So if I'm doing a scene where I'm describing a very thirsty person receiving a juicy California orange, right? And they're peeling the orange and the smell of the citrus and the juice just entering their mouth, the sweetness of that orange. If I’m a good food writer, you're going to be tasting it.
You're going to—have you ever gotten hungry after reading a good...? Yeah. So that's because I—so those are the two reasons I think oral and written stories, they demand a little more of us, but because of that they go a little bit deeper. Okay, so that's my fourth point.
Last but not least, this is a really important point. Remember that I write for young readers. If your life is a story—think of your life—middle school is when it gets interesting, right? It's like the, the narrative arc sort of takes a—you find all your obstacles. So, uh, I want to tell you a little bit about what happened to me in middle school, to set the scene for why I really care about this issue a lot.
So those are my five premises of why stories are important and why it's really important to look at these issues in fiction. Because of these five things, okay?
So moving on to my case study of me. Let’s see. Once again I'm stuck. I think this is blocking my signal.
Okay, so we're going to look at a case study, which is me. Hopefully this will work now. Yeah, okay.
So if you think about your life as a hero's journey, it started before you were born. And mine starts on a jute farm in Bangladesh where my grandparents both own big farming properties. Anyone know what you do with jute? Anyone heard of jute? You don't eat it. You don't—there’s not a lot of jute in Michigan, right?
Yeah, you make bags out of it and carpets out of it, so it's a tough fiber. But I didn't see that jute farm because the partition, the war of partition happened. And there's a house on that jute farm, I visited it much later, that has a record of seven generations of my family living there. So that's a lot of people, right?
But I never saw it except as an adult, I went back and saw it. But the war of independence in India when Pakistan and India were created—1947, Mahatma Gandhi—it was partitioning the two countries, and under the Purple Line was East Pakistan. It's now the country of Bangladesh, and that's where my parents owned that jute farm.
My parents were Hindus, and they employed a lot of Muslims, and the Muslims basically wanted the land, and the same was happening on the other side. So there was a lot of tension and my parents basically got caught up in it and lost the land, lost the house, lost everything. So they had to start a whole new life on the other side, on the Indian side. People were jumping on trains and buses. So really, we started out—my parents really started out as refugees.
And that's kind of a little bit of a defining part of my, of my concern for this. They had us. So I usually give kids a little pop quiz. You have to decide which one is me. So let's see, how many of you think that I look like I'm the oldest in the family, kind of strong-willed? Anyone vote for this girl over here? Do I look like that?
How about the middle? Do I look like the middle one? Yeah, yeah. And the one on this side? Anyone think I'm the middle child peacemaker kind? Okay. So this is my sister on this side. My sister Sonali, she's the oldest. On that side is my sister Rupali, and she's the middle. And I'm the little one, Mitali, right?
I think it's the best to be the youngest. How many of you the youngest in the family? Okay, so I'm going to reveal a secret about why it's best to be the youngest in the family.
First is...your parents get broken down by the time they get to you. It's awesome. And the second is it's really entertaining to watch your older brothers and sisters getting in trouble, right? So, sorry for the rest of you.
So Sonali, Rupali, Mitali, we all speak Bengali. That'll help you remember. Sonali means gold, Rupali means silver, and Mitali means friendly. So I think I got the best deal.
So after we were born, my dad was trying to find a job. But he couldn't because so many refugees had poured into Kolkata. So we heard they were hiring engineers in New York City. So when I was seven, we moved to Flushing, Queens, discovered the public library, lived in a small apartment, and Dad was trying to pass his professional engineering degree in America.
That's when I discovered that you could get books for free from the Public Library. I don't know if any—do any of you remember your first experience walking into that library? It's amazing to think that you could take books, stories home.
All these windows and mirrors home with you in your little bag, and then you could stop by the store, and you could buy a roll of Sweet Tart candies. And then you could go out, I used to go out on the fire escape in our New York apartment, and—you know, all you need is a book and Sweet Tart candies, and you just don't need much more.
And a little quiet, a little peace and quiet. That's when I read and read and read and read. Now, I read widely. And I was reading books that—I was finding all kinds of windows and mirrors in these books: She had sisters. I had sisters.
She loved writing, and she had a big imagination. That was my connection, that was my mirror in that book. And then, you know, she cared about the poor in that story, and she was getting a heart for the poor. And that's what was happening to me.
I wasn't noticing that there was no brown girls in these books. I was just reading these books and connecting with these characters, as most of us do when we read fiction. It wasn't until seventh grade that I began to notice.
That's when we moved out to California. My dad got a job out in California. There I am. And I was 11 years old, and in New York I was in Flushing. Have any of you been to Flushing? Okay, so it's the welcome mat of America. In fact, let me ask you guys. How many of you were born in another country? Let's see if there's any—all right, keep your hands up.
How many of you have a parent born in another country? How about a grandparent? All right. So that—you know, that's the American story. So eventually you'll all, unless you're 100%.... What's—who are the native people in Grand...? Before them. The Grand Rapids Native Americans. Okay, so unless you’re that, represent that, then you're going to raise your hand at some point.
Um, so I was moved to California. It was a suburb. It was assembly day, the first day I arrive, and the principal thought that he would introduce me to the whole school at once, right? Good idea.
So he brought me up. And he said, “Students, we have a new student from Asia. Make her feel welcome.” And I looked out, and it was every face—it was the first time I realized, I think that every face was white. That's the first time I think I've ever been in a context like that where everybody was white. Everybody was born in the U.S.A. except me.
So now, when you're a kid and you cross cultures as a child—which some of you have, I know—you have this amazing superpower ability when you're a kid with cultures. You learn them fast. You learn languages fast. You can just learn all the nonverbals and nuances that make you successful in that other culture much faster than an adult.
Unfortunately, our adult brains are thick and dumb in that area. But a kid is really quick at it. So I was a kid, and I was learning fast. Problem was that at home, it might look like a California house, but under the roof it was...Bangladesh. Village. Not the cities in India. The cities of India are growing fast, and there are, you know, Jaguars and Starbucks and Ducati motorcycles and all kinds of stuff there.
But the villages are the villages, and that's where my parents were raised. So under the house, Dad comes home from work, you get up on your feet, and you greet him with respect. And none of this—I mean, an eye roll. We didn't even know what an eye roll was. It would not happen in our house.
Very strict, very loving home, and everything was different: clothes, food, dance, sports. Everything inside the house was different than what was outside the house. My parents had an arranged marriage. So they dated after they got married. You do not date before you are married. Everybody clear on that? Calvin students, if any of you are in the crowd. That's probably true at Calvin though, right?
Anyway, it was such a confusing time because, you know, again, at school, nobody knew what to do with me. They—you know, I was the one whose mom had a dot on her forehead and whose, you know, dad wore big pajamas, and they didn't understand any of my culture. They didn't know—you know, Bengali is the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world?
Did you guys know that? So nobody in my school had ever heard of it. And so I was just trying to fit in. Nobody talked to me. Finally, though, finally a group of five seventh-grade guys walked up to me at lunch. Okay? And even I could tell they weren't the coolest kids on the block. They said, “We”—and I could tell they were nervous—“We want you to eat lunch with us today. We want you to eat lunch with us tomorrow. We want you to eat lunch with us every day for the rest of middle school.”
And I thought, “Okayyyy?” So then it turned out that these were the school Trekkies, right? And every day they would watch the show, or the next day they would reenact the episode from the day before. So when they saw me, they said, “Oo-hoo! She has been beamed down.” Isn’t that so dear, though? When I see those little, when I meet little science-fiction-y geeky guys, I think, aww, they…they were the first ones.
So, that's how weird it was. And it was weird, and I was between cultures, as I call it. And I was struggling, and I was trying to find ways to figure out that part of my identity, right, and there was nothing in stories that was reflecting that part of my identity at all. So when I found this on this little postcard—there's a website, I don't know if it's still popular, but it's called Postsecret?
All right, so people post their, like, deepest secrets that they don't tell other people. And I read this, and I pretty much could have said this as an eighth, ninth grader, maybe. “I tell people I'm proud to be Indian, and I am, but every day I look in the mirror and I wish I was white because I think it would be easier.”
Right? So we're tapping into the idea of privilege here. A little bit of privilege. And I was picking up on that. It would be easier not to come into a room like this and have to do a little demographic survey that just happens naturally for me and says, okay, there's an African-American face. There's another one. Like, I just do that, because that's the way—so if you want to think more about white privilege, there's a great article online. But I don't want to just talk about white privilege.
I want to talk about privilege. About what would make it easier for us to...like, for example, listen to my accent. My parents have heavy Indian accents? Not a powerful accent. I don't know who the accent police are in America. But the next time you watch an animated movie, or you're watching a kid play a video game, please pay attention to the accents. Even voiceovers in commercials.
Pay attention to the power dynamics going on with the accents. Lazy storytellers will use accents to try to get us to feel something about a character. So if there's an action-adventure movie and people are being killed off systematically one by one, you know that kind of genre, Anaconda 7 or whatever it is. They usually have a team of people, and they'll try for a little diversity. But the one with the uncool foreign accent will die first. And then, you know, I don't know who dies second, but usually that.
So my parents had this really uncool accent. By the time I was eleven, I was realizing my American accent gave me some privilege. I had some privilege. I would wield my voice. When 9/11 happened—I realized I was using my voice a lot during 9/11. When I traveled and I went through security, I wanted people to hear me quickly. So that they would know that I wasn't a foreigner.
When that xenophobic time kind of swept over the whole country—so I would discipline myself and not use my voice. Just not speak. And it was very interesting to see the different dynamics inside myself as I was using that privilege and not using that privilege.
So we all have different kinds of privilege. We have our education. There's a list of things in our power pack, our power backpack that we all have. And in some places, it could be class. Sometimes those privileges are visible, and sometimes they're invisible, right? Sometimes we have places we feel marginalized, where we're—it's invisible to people, but when it comes to race and culture, especially for children, it's visible from the get-go.
So if any of you have seen that, um. It's a little short video called “A Girl Like Me.” No. Yeah. It was a young teenager, an African-American teenager. “A Girl Like Me,” a seven-minute video where she reenacted the doll experiment that desegregated America’s schools, Brown versus Board of Education, where they get different kids of different races, and they offer them a brown doll or a white doll, or Black doll and a white doll. And they say which doll do you like? And then they say which doll looks like you? And then which doll is the bad doll?
So in this recently done reenactment of the test, still, four, five six year olds are choosing the Black doll as the bad doll and are choosing—and these are, most of them are Black kids or brown kids. And they're saying the Black doll is a good doll. Now when they're asked, which doll looks like you, they're again picking the Black and the brown doll.
And then which doll is the bad doll? They're picking the Black and the brown doll. Those three things are all picking, including that question of which one is like you. This is at age four, five, six, right? So we're talking about under the waterline. And when it comes to issues of race and culture, somehow, it's very visible very early on for kids, right? They're dealing with that identity issue. And all of us, as we grow up, we have to figure out this issue of how do you survive when you're on the margins like that?
So I started writing books, and I tried to put lots of brown girls on the cover and lots of brown people, and there was 12 years between my first and second book. The first one was published almost immediately, and the second one was rejected 22 times. So hang in there if you're writing, 'cause I had to.
Mostly people were rejecting it 'cause that second book was fully set in India, and they felt the kids wouldn't want to read a book that was fully set in India. They felt kids didn't want to travel that far. Well, it's turned out to be quite a good best-selling book of mine, so they were wrong about that. I don't know what was going on there.
Wrote lots of books, put lots of brown girls on the cover. These did not sell at all. They absolutely didn’t sell. Some people said it was the cover. That gatekeepers said, “We really don't have a community like that in our neighborhood, so we just didn't get that book for our bookstores.”
I heard a little bit of that, and I wondered—I think she's gorgeous. In fact, the model who posed for the pictures found me on Facebook, and now we're good Facebook friends, so it's kind of cool. But she's so pretty. But the books really did not do that well.
Then I wrote Rickshaw Girl. I kind of moved to global books, fully set overseas, dealing, well, with themes of poverty, and about something—this is a book about gender issues, that's a book about micro credit, so it's kind of exploring more justice issues. Refugees and child soldiers and—I get to meet kids who see themselves mirrored, their ethnic identities mirrored in the books. And it's always a thrill, right? 'Cause you knew what that was like not seeing it.
But as I said yesterday, I get letters from all over the place. From kids who are finding windows in my book and mirrors, unexpected mirrors. Kids from dairy farms in Minnesota that have never been outside their community, that are saying, oh my gosh, I loved Bamboo People because you know, I'm kind of scared—struggle with fear. It's hard for me, and I loved how Chiko overcame that.
They're finding their mirrors in the story. So it's kind of exciting to see both kids who see themselves reflected culturally as well as kids who don't, which I don't think is a very well understood assumption in the community. That kids, too, are reading for windows and mirrors and not just read—you know, you don't want to hand a book and say, Hey, this is a book about an Indian girl!
If someone had done that to me when I was in seventh grade. I would have been like, oh, man. I would have secretly liked it but publicly been mortified. Because it's just one part of your identity, right? It's one part. It’s an important part. And in American culture, it's a very important part because it underlines all the power issues in America. Uh, but it's one part. So that's my case study.
So I want to give you some tips to see below the waterline of stories, and then we'll do questions. So here's my first tip. And this is—hopefully all of us will be better readers and better writers. If you write, I would encourage you to do these tips for your own work, right? If you read, let's just pay attention to the messages that are kind of coming at us, like the accent thing, under the waterline of the story, that we may not even be—like, inside the Trojan Horse of the story—that we may not be even aware of.
So I want to kind of bring those above the waterline into the light and see if we can read stories maybe a little differently when it comes to these issues. As I said, stories are powerful. That was one of our first premises. So we want to be a little bit clearer as we see these stories. So anyone know what a “magical Negro” is? Have you heard of this trope before? Very common trope in American storytelling.
If you want a clue, well, that we’ll talk about a minute. Look for Morgan Freeman. He is…not a lot of backstory. It's usually an older character who appears in the story and solves the issue for the—it's mystical. It's this magical appearance of an older Black, usually Black or brown or whatever character, could be an old Asian person, that just appears magically. You can think of countless examples of this if you really look back, especially in film, but it's also in stories as well.
Then the “noble savage,” right? The idea that somebody who is from a culture that's not mainstream North America is going to be more flawless, more noble. Usually they're clothed a little less. I run into this all the time at yoga classes. Where, you know, my yoga teacher will come to me and say, “Now how do you pronounce Namaste?” You know, they think I'm, like, this yoga genius. And meanwhile all the white women in there are like pretzels, and I'm like so stiff I can't even touch my—it's very embarrassing, 'cause I am not good at yoga.
But they kind of assume that I am, and that I know, you know, all the mystical East—I know all the answers to everything 'cause I'm from the mystical East and so please enlighten me or something like that. I don’t know. It's crazy. So watch for this trope. See if that appears, see if a character like that appears. Usually in this case, they're older, usually using age as well as race to underline the otherness in the narrative arc.
Look for that in your own story. Have you included a character like this? Maybe there's a good reason why they're there, but please think about why they're there. Right? We have this whole Mammy kind of figure, have you guys noticed that one? There's something about an older African-American woman that is very comforting. I don't know if it relates to that, you know, “You is good. You is smart” thing, “You is important” thing that this part of American fabric of what that stereotype is like. But it's very often a comfort-giving, no-backstory-allowed character that comes in the story.
So pay attention to that. You don't want to make that mistake in your writing. And you don't want—yeah, she had a backstory in that one. She had a backstory. And I'm just saying—it's just that idea, that theme. Yeah. So when you're reading, pay attention to that too. Not that—none of these are wrong in and of themselves, they just are better above the waterline than under the waterline. They're better when you see them. Usually they appear as a person on the margins, a person that lacks power, whether it's racially, culturally, class, I don't know. Usually just a foil for the flawed hero.
I'm a fan of this show. NBC’s Parenthood, anyone else watch that? Yeah. Don't tell me what happened; I haven't seen the last episode. But this showed up in one of my favorite shows. This idea of—this young African-American man who’s in Oakland. The Braverman family is a very kind of a well-off white family, and this kid appeared. He'd started dating their daughter. It was clear to us—it was made clear to us by the storytellers: the Braverman family were not racist.
That was very clear. And this kid got in trouble with the law, and the Braverman family had this big choice. Do they save him or not save him? They saved him, and they got him off the hook, and then he disappeared out of the story. Now I know—I live near Oakland. I used to work in Oakland. If this boy were truly growing up in Oakland, he would have a community around him of people that he could—that would be there for him. He would not have to go and rely on some suburban Braverman family.
So in the best of stories, in the best of stories, this shows up. The idea of a foil. Pay attention to that in your own work. You don't want this flawless Black friend who's getting straight As and is great at everything who pops in and says something cool and then pops out. Make sure you, at least, as the writer, understand their backstory. Make sure that you at least have fleshed that character out in your mind. And as a reader, if that happens, just pay attention to it. 'Cause that's something that's pretty common.
We have lots of problems with cover art. So either it's over-exoticized—this was a book that won a Newbery Honor, and it was Weedflower, lovely story about Japanese internment, beautifully written. She's never in a kimono in the whole book. She wears jeans and a t-shirt in the whole book. She's never in a kimono, so.... Pay attention to that. Does the story match the cover? If it doesn't, why not? What is going on there with the marketing department? What are they doing with that? Why do they want to make it more exotic? Is it Asian-American History Month that they're trying to sell to? And is it, oh, I read a book about Japan, you know, I don't know.
I think jeans and a t-shirt behind that barbed wire would have been very interesting, but they made a different choice. But I want us to pay attention to it. Why? What's on the cover, and who are they trying to attract? Sometimes they go the other direction, and they whitewash. We've had a lot of problems with this in the children’s Young Adult world.
Ursula Le Guin has earned the right to be a cover diva. We call people who complain about their covers—we don't have much control over our covers. Unless you're like Ursula Le Guin who has, you know, 80-something and well respected, and...she hated this cover. This was the advanced review copy of her book Powers, and she threw a fit.
She said, this is not—my character's northern Himalayan. This is not what my character looked like. So when the book came out, it came out like this. So it was more true to the story. Now the marketing department seemed to be operating on the assumption that book A will sell better than book B. Okay? That's another of these unexplored assumptions that people throw out there.
“Boys won't read girl books.” Along comes The Hunger Games and shatters that theory, when you know fifty-something men were devouring those books. So we're not sure about this myth, and yet it's still prevailing. That idea that brown, Black faces, you know, should be in the African-American section of the book stores, or the exotic sections of the book stores, and not so much for mainstream readers.
So that's an assumption going on here, in Magic Under Glass, the original version. It's about the Roma community. And so there was a big social media outcry about this cover. People who read the book said this is not what the main character looked like, and so it was reissued. Bloomsbury had the courage to call back all the books. This was not an advanced review copy. This was the final version. They called back every cut book, and they reissued the book like this.
The question lingers. Would it have sold better if it was this cover than that cover? I personally don't think so, but you know, I mean, I could be wrong. This is a for-profit business. This is not some kind of a NGO here we're talking about. We're talking about people—and so they're making these decisions on the assumption that this cover would sell better than that cover.
This was kind of a interesting repackaging. They're trying to make this book more accessible to a wider audience. That's what the justification was. So they—you see how they're hiding her eyes? To take away the ethnicity, it's just an action-adventure story about a strong female heroine. S0, I mean, this is a debatable thing. Like for Cindy Pon, maybe more people would read her book if it looked like that. So she's getting access to a wider audience. But on the other hand, you're kind of hiding the ethnic identity—which children whose ethnic identity is one of the ways they feel marginalized are seeing that marginalization happen on a book cover. So you have that kind of catch-22, which I understand.
This was not a good one. This was a bad one. This was an interracial relationship. They changed the cover very subtly for the final book, and I want you to see what they did to the face. I'm not going to comment on it, but hopefully you can see the changes that they made, right? There's something going on there. It really is that assumption that people are not going to like that cover as is.
My cover was whitewashed. So remember the book that didn't sell in America? It's selling like crazy in India. Look at the cover. It's about a very dark-skinned Pakistani adopted girl whose dad is running for office. Okay, so I had no control over the cover, and in a country where shadeism is a huge issue, this cover was—shadeism being that you're more beautiful when you're light, you know, fair, and I'll talk about that later—but this is troubling to me. I thought...and yet it's selling like crazy.
So again, we're running into the realities of the markets, the myths about the market that need to be tested, that need to be shattered. Nobody really says anymore, “Boys won't read girl books.” You know, we kind of need a breakthrough story to take the American cultural imagination that features a character of color that everybody’s reading, and maybe finally people will say, oh, we were wrong! White people do want to read books that feature, you know, white kids do want to read books that feature kids of color.
So I'm really holding my breath for the next generation of storytellers. Pay attention to when and how race is defined, if at all. A problematic issue you run into all the time. This is the Harry Potter guy who played Dean Thomas in Harry Potter. This is a problem in the Harry Potter books. If you read the Harry Potter books, there is a diversity of characters in her stories. You have the Patil sisters, you have several Black characters. The problem we run into is that it's only the Black characters that are defined as Black. So he's defined as black, tall and thin. Nobody else gets a race descriptor except him.
So what does that mean, when you use a race descriptor for a certain character but you don't use race descriptors for other characters, what does that imply about the other characters? It's the norm, right? It's the default. It's that white default that we're operating against that's so—yet, how do you define it?
The words change so fast. So you're writing your first scene as a young adult novel in the cafeteria. Then you say, oh, my Korean American friend bounded in. But then do you want to say, oh, and then my Scandinavian American friend joined me, and my Slavic friend pulled out her lunchbox. I mean, it gets annoying if you're defining everybody by race. So how do you do it?
Well, I'm always encouraging writers to—creative people, put a little bit of creativity into this. Put a little bit of thought about this. Don't take the easy way out that those lazy storytellers use with accents in movies. Take a little time and thought about...are you defining race? And in the stories you're reading, is race defined? If not, are they assuming you think everybody’s white? If they're assuming you think everybody’s white, there could be a good reason for that.
It could be set in, you know, some rural part of Michigan where everybody is white. Maybe you don't need to define it at all, right? Because that's the setting. That's the story. That's the plot. But you have to be able to answer that question. As a reader and a writer. You know, how is it defined, and should it have been?
I've always thought, “Ah, no, I didn't read with white default, so kids don't read with white default! Most North Americans do not read with white default.” That was kind of operational. So I was encouraging writers to kind of leave race out of it because of what we talked about earlier. Let the kid cast his own character, right? Let my Aragorn be brown and swarthy. Let that happen.
Until this Hunger Games movie came out. And then I was stunned and a little bit depressed. Because when The Hunger Games movie came out, Suzanne Collins had not left it up to the imagination of the reader. She had clearly defined two of her characters as Black. They had satiny brown skin; they were obviously Black. She had physically described them as Black, very thoughtfully.
The movie came out. They were cast with Black actors. And the fan outcry just blew my socks off. People were outraged that they had cast Rue and Thresh as Black. They weren't Black, how could—they're not Black, and these people had read the book! And they were doing white default.
So at that point I was back to square one. Maybe we do have a white default issue. I've always said no, you know, be light-handed with descriptions so everybody can figure it out for themselves. So this is not—I haven't resolved this issue yet. I still do believe that there are many readers, maybe good readers like I was, who do want to cast freely. And so if you're writing a fantasy novel, for example, or you're reading a fantasy novel, pay attention to when race plays a little appearance. Maybe someone has pale skin. Maybe someone has long silky hair.
What does that mean you're not, if you're in a fantasy book, that you have long silky hair? Yeah. So a girl who's going to get her hair straightened every—you know, at the salon is not going to relate to that. So notice that. If you have large wide eyes for your—who’s that gonna, who're you not gonna be? Right, so you have to pay attention to how that's being done, because even with nonverbals, if you blush or you pale, I don't blush. My cheeks get hot, but nothing changes. You cannot see me blush or pale. So if someone’s blushing or paling, they are white, right? So you want to pay attention to that.
Just—again, it's not right or wrong. It's just—let's pay attention to it. Let's just see it. So, I don't know. If anyone has an opinion on this white default thing, or if anyone’s done any sociological study or something, please send it my way. 'Cause I really do want to be convinced that it's not operational, but this was a little big. It was kind of hard for me, and for a lot of us, to see that outcry.
The story must rule. There's two errors for writers and readers. One I call the Forks error, and the other I call the Friends error. Okay?
So Forks, Washington was the setting of the Twilight books. The famous Twilight books? And if you visit that town, it's a small town in Washington. Everybody’s white. There's no reason for people to be—so when the movie came out and in the background of the movie in the first scene when they're there, there're people like Vietnamese people and Laotian people. And I'm thinking to myself, why are they all in Forks, Washington? What are they doing there? Do you know their backstory? How did they get there?
But the storytellers who made the movie decided no, no, no, our agenda is—you know, we want to be diverse. We want to show that we’re…. That is not good enough. Just your best political intentions to have a diversity of characters. Oh yeah, it'll be good to put, you know, little whatever, Abi Rupa in rural Minnesota. What the heck is she doing there? Why is she milking cows? Give me her backstory, you know. Don't tell me she's there without knowing, at least. That's one error. You know, your good political intentions kind of taking over the story.
The other error is the Friends error. I don't know how long the show ran. The famous show, you know, Friends. I'm not recommending it. I've only seen about two or three episodes. But it could also be known as the Girls—okay, it's the same kind of issue that was brought up with Girls. It's set in New York City, in Manhattan, one of the most culturally diverse places in the country. Maybe two people of color on the whole 10 seasons of the show showed up. Right? One Chinese, and...so that's the error that's completely the wrong—if the setting, plot, and character require it, include it.
Think about it. If the setting, plot, and character don't require it, then you're okay, right? It's—the story should rule. Okay, I'm going to go faster. This is another key. I told you about shadeism? The best-selling product all throughout Asia is these whitening products. This was a Facebook app that Vaseline in India was selling for 99 cents or the rupee equivalent. You could take your profile pic, and it would be lightened so you couldn’t tell you had done it. And then you would have a lighter profile pic, so you would look more attractive.
Just watch a half an hour of Indian TV if you can. If you ever can, just go over to my parents’ house and watch my mom’s soap operas with her. And notice that the commercials are all about Fair & Lovely skin cream and about light skin. Most of them—I'd say about half of them are about lightening your skin. It's true in East Asia, Thailand, it's true all over Latin America, it's true all over the African subcontinent. Shadeism is a big issue.
People are bleaching their children, they're—you know, we love our kids. We want them to have an advantage. So if your kid has got really, really dark skin, you know, you hear things like, "Hope they marry a lighter person” or “They're not going to get that job.” Well, when the statistics show that you're right, you know, as a parent...you buy the bleaching cream, I guess. That's what people are doing. It's not like these people are evil, 'cause they just genuinely want to give their kid a leg up, which we all do. Shadeism is so much a part of that. So you know, I always hear, “Oh, that's so weird. Here in America we pay money to tan.”
And yet, that's an issue of privilege and power too, right? So think about that. It's really—dark skin taps into colonialism, taps into all kinds of old pain and old history that we need to be aware of. So again, the long hair, the fair skin, and all that stuff. Just pay attention to it.
This is the number one plastic surgery in the world, fastest-growing. Anyone know what it is? Yeah, fold surgery to add a crease to your eyelids. All over China. And so girls about fifth grade who'll go to summer camp for a week, then they’ll go get the eye surgery, then they'll go back. Because, you know, it'll help you get a better husband, it'll help you get a better job. So that's what the parents are saying, right? So you get the surgery to get that crease, because—I don't know, the accent police and the beauty police, let's put them all together and systematically eradicate them. Because who's to say that dark skin is prettier or not?
Who's to say that—who makes up these rules? And why do kids understand them at such an early age, to the point where they're saying the Black doll is not as pretty as the white doll? You know, who are these people? They have a lot of power. And I just don’t like them. So let's eradicate them.
Anyway, the bridge character and generic—moving more into global books, this is that the idea that Americans need bridge characters to go travel across borders in fiction. Notice if that's true or not. Notice if you’re being introduced to the culture through the eyes of an American, or if there are no American characters, and it's a deliberate decision for the writer. And you as a writer have that decision. If you're going to talk about another culture, are you going to bring that white schoolteacher into the inner city and then take us with her? Or are you going to just take us into the inner city?
Which—maybe you're more qualified to write the white schoolteacher story. That is a valid reason. Just pay attention to if there's a bridge character or not, and through whose eyes we’re being introduced to the culture. Generic cultures are like, Africa, like there's somebody “from Africa.” I have an African friend. Well, that's fine, but in a story, if you—just pay attention to that. You know, I want to know that they're Igbo from Nigeria. I don't want to know that they're, you know, just from Africa. So do your research, and give some specificity to the cultures.
Okay. I really recommend Chimamanda Adichie’s “The danger of a single story” Ted Talk. Please, if you haven't seen it—I'm sure you've seen it. But the idea of a single story of a culture. She talks about how, “Oh, I know Afghani culture. I've read The Kite Runner. Right?” Storytelling is too powerful for that. I don't want to be the only person that's informing you about Bengali American culture. I don't want to have that power. Read as many, many stories as you can.
Americans have the luxury, she says, of having many stories told about us. 'Cause our films are exported. Our books are exported. We dominate the storytelling world—although there's Bollywood, too. But we dominate the storytelling world. And so we get many stories of being an American, but most of the time Americans only read one single story. There's a danger there, when you get a single story of a culture or people or a community.
The idea that Africa—you hear “Africa” and you think about all these words, right? There are rich cultures, both economically rich and culturally rich, in those places that are being overlooked by, you know, wild animals and famine. All those things that we think of when it comes to the single story of being African. So please take the time to go home and watch that “Danger of a single story” Ted Talk. So, “Check for a single story of a culture” would be eight.
Nine, it's all about the power to effect change and the power to be changed. Right? So The Blind Side, I know, was a really popular movie. And again, a lot of these stories, I like them. They're good stories. The problem that I found with this story came in the scene where the Michael Orr character ran into his birth brother at the, um. Do you remember that scene in the movie where he runs into his birth brother?
And we see it through the outside of the window. When the two boys meet, we're not in that scene. It's this incredible meeting. Two birth brothers are meeting, for the first time in a long time. And then we're never told what happens after that. We don't see the birth brother, we don't see any connection. And in this story I wanted the power to be changed, to be more equally shared.
We knew she changed his life. But we're not quite sure how he changed her life. She says it: Oh no, we're the ones that were blessed. I mean, I'm the parent of adopted children. So people always tell me, oh, they're so lucky to have you guys. And I can tell people, wait a minute. You know, the power to be changed was a two-way street here. But it takes—you know. So it's not just her saying it. I wanted to see it in the story.
I want to see how she was changed by him. And if that had happened, it would've been a more fair story for me. So who has the power to make change? You know, look for that outside savior, that Messiah that comes in from the outside of the community and saves the day. It's a valid story, but it's a very common one.
One of my favorite books is by Patricia McCormick. It's called SOLD; it's about trafficking. It's in Kolkata, the land of my birth. So I—my heart sank as I came to the end of that book, because a guy comes in to this young child, who's now being trafficked, and he's only given the name of “the American.” And eventually he does rescue her. And my cousin—like, she works with trafficking. She's Indian, she's in Kolkata. There are many organizations who work to rescue kids from trafficking who are Indian.
But Patricia McCormick does the thing that I love that I wish more authors would do. Several of us kind of pointed that out. I don't like to kind of shame people publicly, so maybe I mentioned it in a talk or something. And she got wind of this and she wrote this beautiful blog post admitting that she wished she hadn‘t done that. She wished she’d changed it. And now she's think—so, in a way it brought that above the waterline for all of us. Some things that we put in our writing, we don't even know we're doing.
And she really didn't say, oh but, but—bluster and say, Well I had a good reason, blah blah blah blah. She said, I blew it. And that—that took courage. I so respect that. I've blown it. There's times when I've looked at my stories and thought—I've probably made at least eight, if not ten, of these mistakes in my own writing. So if we have the courage to say, blew that one, it really brings the whole community of storytelling forward. So I was so proud of her, that she did that. So pay attention to who has the power to effect change and who has the power to be changed.
And then last but not least, we come to the question of authenticity. Who has the right to write for whom? Who can tell whose story? Um, how marginalized must I be to tell the story of a marginalized person? Right? Very tricky. We’re talking about fiction here. We don't want to set up an apartheid, saying your ethnic credentials must match your protagonist’s ethnic credentials to write that story. Because you could have a lot of privilege—of class, of education—that your character does not have. Whereas the person who doesn't have—I'll give you a more practical example.
If I'm a suburban, African American, educated at Brown, whose parents were doctors and lawyers, and I'm writing an inner-city Black story...do I have a right to tell that story because I'm Black? Somebody who grew up in that community—I have a friend who's Jewish, Richard Nicholson. He grew up in an African American community. His dad owned a shop in that community. His dad was shot and killed in that shop in that community. His family stayed on in that community. He writes books about African American kids.
Does he have a right to tell—he doesn't have a right to tell that story because he's Jewish? And then this other person would have—it gets really tricky about how you earn the credentials. And what kind of credentials do you earn? Does it have to be that you yourself were marginalized? Could it be that you were marginalized in any way and tap into that to write the story? So we don't want to set up an apartheid because then we end up with no fiction, all memoir. Everybody has to write memoir.
We always cross borders to tell stories. The problem is that storytellers have not often asked this question of themselves. So we're running into people who are just saying, “I think that’d be a cool story to write.” And then they're just writing the story without asking the question about their own issues of privilege, power, marginalization, whatever it is that’s going on in that. And so, especially when you have a history of oppression between communities, like—in the Indian diaspora now. You know, colonial fiction set in colonial times of India. It used to be that British people wrote that. Now there's little bit of tension about that. You know, like, this was the country that oppressed that country. Should all the single stories about India be told by Brits, that people are reading?
Native American people really feel strongly about this issue. They call it appropriation. They have been systematically oppressed almost to the point of genocide. They have not had the power to tell their own stories. So if I want to tell this story about a Native American protagonist, and I'm not Native American—all right, no apartheid, I have the right to tell that story. But I'd better ask this question. And I’d better check in with the Tribal Council, I'd better check in.
I gotta just do so much research and so much—as I said, cross the border, hold a lot of babies over there, and shut up for a while before you even think about telling the story. And then maybe you think, you know there's a native person here that could tell that story. I'm crowding shelf space. I'm not, but let's say I'm a best-selling author and I want to write this story, and so I'm using my power of being a good storyteller to tell that story. And there's limited budgets. So they'll buy my book and they won’t buy that person's book, right? So sometimes—and especially, I think, as a follower of Jesus—sometimes you have to say, I'm not gonna tell that story.
I want to tell it, but I’m not gonna tell it. I'm just going to shut up for a while. Maybe down the road it'll come up again, but I'm just not going to tell. There's too much power here going on. It's too much power. So you lay your power down, right? You lay it down for the sake of the community. Let the community tell their own stories for a while. And again, it's a history of oppression.
I think the same thing is true with African American.... You know, the Oscars came, and we saw, oh, you know, Lupita won the Academy Award. But you think, okay, pirates and slaves. That's how they were depicted in the stories that won the awards. That's still how they're coming into the national—it wasn't a Tyler Perry movie that won. I love Tyler Perry, go to every single Tyler Perry movie.
And you want to see movies of faith, you can go to a Tyler Perry movie, and he talks about faith. I know I'm going to get my Jesus in the Tyler Perry movie. But so, why not a Tyler Perry movie? Why is that not being nominated? That's storytelling that's capturing a big chunk of change, you know? And yet, we have pirates and slaves.
So maybe step back and say, okay, do I have, are you wanting me to tell this story? Let me look at my privilege. Let me unpack my power backpack. What’s in there? What am I taking for granted that I have, that I need to lay down and say, all right. Because there is a call to use your power and privilege on behalf of people who have less. But maybe it's to come alongside those who have less power and say, go for it! Tell that story. You can do this, I'm gonna help you—or whatever.
Maybe that's the call. So again, there's no hard and fast rule, there's no apartheid. Let the stories come freely, but please ask this question. And as readers, hold the storyteller accountable, even if it's the, you know, hugely bestselling popular celebrity author who's telling a story. What kind of research did you do? How many babies did you hold over there? You know, what's going on with that? What did you put into this story?
Because you can’t—you try, we think we can separate the storyteller from the story. Another argument: Can you? Can a story stand by itself? I don't think so. As I said, every story has a moral agenda in it. Something in the storyteller is going to come in that Trojan horse and be handed to us. And so it does matter.
I think who tells the story does matter. So, um, not to interrogate us, as storytellers, but at least wonder. Wonder about that question. Memoirs of a Geisha, right, you know? He wrote that story. Arthur Golden. If you enjoyed that story, hopefully you took the time to find out why. Why? What was the work that he did, going into writing about a Japanese geisha that was his main character?
So that's what I recommend and encourage you guys to do.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.