Friday, March 2, 2012

Write what you know, or not?

There seems to be a monopoly on most common advice out there for aspiring authors (Write what you know). Not everyone agrees though (Don't write what you know). But could I write about a culture that isn't my own with the authenticity required?

At this point, all of my WiPs have taken place within the American culture. The only other culture I could imagine trying my hand at would be German. Then again, I don't think I could pull off writing about a character who wasn't at least half-American. Not yet anyways. I've lived in Germany for about 2.5 years now, but I still don't understand the way of thinking which leads my neighbors to stare at me in disapproval when I smile and say hello (we don't really know each other after all). Especially not when every patient entering or leaving the doctor's office waiting room is expected to greet the group of complete strangers both on the way in and on the way out. And if I don't understand something as basic as that, I can't imagine I'd be able to write a whole novel from a German character's point of view.

Some authors have done it though. For example:

Holly Thompson is an American living in Japan and her YA novel, ORCHARDS is about a half-Japanese, half-American girl who spends a summer in her mother's ancestral Japan.

Monika Schröder is a German who has lived in India and her YA novel SARASWATI'S WAY follows an Indian boy as he aims for a scholarship to study math.

BORDER CROSSING is a YA novel about a boy who is half-Mexican, half-American boy living in Texas. The author, Jessica Lee Anderson, lives in Texas but did not grow up there and as far as I can tell, does not have Mexican heritage.

I haven't read these books yet, but the reviews I've read seem to agree on the authenticity each author has achieved with their multicultural stories. I wonder who's judging the authenticity though - native English speakers?

What multicultural books have you read recently and what did you think? Would you ever try (or have you tried) to write from the POV of a culture you aren't a part of?


  1. Actually, yes. I wrote 4 chapters for my first novel which was critiqued by my instructor. He was highly impressed that I chose the character I did and that character was a teenage lesbian whose parents took her to see a psychologist in attempts to "fix" her. I'm not a lesbian, but that doesn't mean that I don't have the ability to put myself in her situation and feel slighted and humiliated that my parents wouldn't accept me as I am.

    It's interesting to write what you don't know, so long as you write it from a heart in love with humanity.

    I'm currently writing chapters from the POV of a serial killer. I'm not a serial killer and I couldn't begin to imagine myself a killer, but I can imagine how it might feel to push a knife through someone's throat and how blood might splatter and spurt from their jugular vein. Just because I haven't done it doesn't mean that I can't convincingly write it. If I write it wrong, is some serial killer publisher going to tell me it's wrong? :)

    1. I'm all for writing about characters in situations that I, as a writer, have never been in (that's where all the fun is :) ). But I wonder, would you try writing about a lesbian or a serial killer who was from a completely different culture? There are customs and perspective inherent to every culture and I can imagine that being a lesbian in one culture would be completely different than being a lesbian in another culture. How do you get that perspective right? Of course, you're right though - would an American agent or publisher catch it if the perspective wasn't completely accurate?