Writing Our Cultural Mosaic

I continue my research on writing across culture.  I’m approaching this work with the soul mates – hope, responsibility.  Writer Daniel J. Older posted that our task is to recognize “the societal context our work takes place in.”  As a white writer, I see my work taking place in the world of:


Our world is one in which white writers can no longer not see this boy. We  can’t not know that this boy’s  in greater danger walking than a white boy walking. Because we’ve seen




I’m about to present a workshop for children’s and young adult book writers on the subject of placing our stories within the cultural mosaic in which we live, writing characters who are face to face with the societal issues in which we live.  I love to read books like that.  I’ve always wondered how someone could write a story set in 1962 and not talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis. David Almond’s novel The Fire-Eaters turns on the impact of that event on a boy’s life.  Read anything by the short story writer, Lucy Honig, and you’ll read a protagonist always face to to face with the events of her world.  The issue for me has nearly always been new Americans coming to the U.S. and a hunger to understand their experience of war and later their experience of America.

Back to Older’s challenge to write with an awareness of our “societal context” – our context is that the children above with placards tell the truth of  treatment of Americans based on race by police and by the institutions the country stands on.  Whites are being challenged to talk about race and their historical privilege.  Whites are being challenged to stop talking and listen.

#ownvoices is a twitter tag of authors of color writing their own books for children.  The hashtag gathers messages about books and authors who are telling the story of their own culture as a  corrective to the  children’s publishing industry that is vastly white, white writers, white agents white editors.  Writer Elizabeth Wein describes the hashtag as saying to whites,  “Let others speak.” For those of all colors who’ve been fighting for racial justice, some since the civil rights marches in Montgomery and Selma, these are the times we’ve been fighting for.  We are seeing a white industry that had put white characters on the jackets of books about people of color because, they argued, white people buy books, we have to appeal to the white reader. Today agents and editors are eager to see manuscripts of people of color!  They seek #ownvoices submissions.   Cheers to the heavens for all people who’ve been set aside for generations to tell us truths.

My workshop’s topic, Writing Our Cultural Mosaic,  is about writing characters who cross cultural borders in their lives, about a time when two cultures or multiple cultures live side by side (America).  Is this possible in our “societal context” to write multiple cultures, one not being one’s own, and therefore writing not our #ownvoice at all, but writing the one we seek to understand.  Is it our responsibility to continue to deeply imagine, as writing fiction requires of us, in order to build bridges of understanding within our cultural mosaic?  Is it a failure if we stop?

I’ve thought of fiction writing first as journalism.  We go where we see the important stories to be; we seek to be a witness to the stories of our times; we bring the stories home.

In the name of that kind of truth telling, I’ve been compiling exercises and resources for writers who still want to cross borders in their writing.  The bar is high.

Some new links:

Fundamentals of Writing the Other by Daniel J. Older


Reclaiming Identity:  Dismantling Arab Stereotypes


“Voice Appropriation” by Canadian writer, Rukhsana Khan


“Mind the Gaps:  Books for All Young Readers” by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson


“Certainly an author writing about his or her own culture can bring personal experiences and sensibilities that offer insightful authenticity to the work. But as long 
as a writer of any color does the research, the homework, and has the talent and sensitivity necessary to create believable/credible characters and worlds, why not? Andrea Davis Pinkney noted in School Library Journal’s May 2014 Diversity Issue: “Authenticity comes from the author’s pen.”

Restricting creativity in this way undermines the sense that there is universality among human beings. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read — to find that connection? If we constantly draw lines, will we ever come together; will we ever find unity?”

Authoring Stories About Cultures Not Our Own by Katie Quirk, author of A Girl Called Problem set in Tanzania

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