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Windows and Mirrors: Stories That Cross Borders

by Ryan Pouncy, via Unsplash
I'm a white girl. 

Ridiculously so. Like "SPF1000" white. I live in middle America, grew up in an English-speaking family, went to a mostly white public school, and graduated from a slightly more diverse liberal arts college. I do have a Spanish degree, and I have been to Costa Rica, but that hardly qualifies me as an expert on Central American culture. 

So what if one of my characters is Latina? Am I qualified to write her as such? Should I even try? 

Authors Jennifer Cervantes, Christina Diaz Gonzalez and Guadalupe Garcia McCall addressed that issue in their SCBWI break out session, Stories that Cross Borders/Boundaries.

There are many who argue that "outsiders" shouldn't try to write from an "insider" perspective. But these three authors feel it can be done, IF the author does enough research. Step one is deciding which category you fall into: the window or the mirror.

"Mirror Mirror On The Wall"
by Stella Yodo

Your book gives the reader insight into the "other."

Up until lately, the window has essentially been the definition of "multi-cultural." Designed to educate others, at best, the window places universal themes in a specific culture. At worst, it reinforces stereotypes by claiming that "all" of a certain culture acts a certain way, or bores the reader to death with didactic moralizing.

PhotobucketTHE MIRROR

Your book includes characters of varying races, ethnicities or cultures without making that a focus of the book. At best, the mirror allows kids of every color and creed to see themselves reflected in a story. 

Presenter Jennifer Cervantes' heritage includes Mexican, Spanish, French, German, English and Irish. She pointed out that her daughter doesn't identify with immigration struggles or learning English. All she wants is to see herself in contemporary novels-- a viable love interest, a tough leading lady. But instead, she's more likely to find the mirror at its worst: White main characters with a United Colors of Beneton-style supporting cast.

(I'm looking at you, Twilight movie.)


No matter your category, research is KEY. No one person's experience can encapsulate an entire culture. Even as "insiders," the presenting authors have been criticized for "misrepresenting" things. As an "outsider," you need to be doubly prepared.

A few of their research pointers:
  • Determine your purpose. Does the cultural setting add to the work, or does it seem superfluous? Could the work succeed equally well if it used a different cultural setting?
  • Don't distort or omit history. 
  • Avoid stereotypes. 
    • Don't use loaded words like "savage," "primitive," "lazy," etc.
    • Characters and their lifestyles should be genuine and complex, not oversimplified.
    • Dialogue should accurately represent oral tradition. (Anyone who has heard me rant about badly written Southern dialects knows how insane this makes me.)
    • Standards of success: Characters should ultimately succeed on their own, not through the divine intervention of a protector character, and especially not a protector from a dominant group.
  • Talk to people. Don't know anyone from the culture? Contact your local university's exchange student program. Participate in online forums. Read, read and read some more. Make new friends. Ask them to beta.*


Take that research and use it to create your character's world-- without beating us over the head with it. Let us smell an open jar of kimchi but don't tell us eighteen times that Mom is cooking rice in her kimono. Give us sand between our toes but don't say "Aloha" every other word. Introduce us to your Guatemalan or Korean or Choctaw character, but realize she doesn't speak for all Latinas or Asians or Native Americans. 

Whether your character is a mirror or a window, she first needs to be an individual. It's up to you to make sure everything in that image rings true.


*When I say "make new friends," I'm not suggesting you seek out people and like them for their skin color. Just so we're clear.
**These notes are paraphrased and should be not considered verbatim quotes from the presenters. Especially the Twilight thing.

    Kate Hart

    Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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    1. Excellent post. I totally agree with the window/ mirror metaphor.

      Awesome stuff.

    2. Great post. I'm white, working on a YA novel set in Asia with Asian characters, and I've asked myself more than once if I'm the right person to be writing this story. Lots to consider.

    3. For the most part, we write our experiences, so I have to admit, I'm wary of someone writing so far out of his or her element. However, you're right, one experience does not speak for an entire culture, so really, a black author can only show his or her VIEW on the culture. He or she can't speak for the entire culture. In fact, who's to say what culture is nowadays, anyway. My wife is mixed, so my kids are mixed. There's so much mixing and matching, are we at the point where there is just one American experience? (Probably not.) However, if you are trying the window, highlighting racism or something like that, you're right, you better get it pitch perfect, or the firing squad is going to come or you. You could justify it by saying, "well, I've been discriminated against for XYZ, so I know how it feels." But then people are going to say, "why didn't you write about XYZ, then?" Tough, tough issue.

    4. Damn, Kate - your regular posts are as epic as your FTF posts.

      I think the biggest problem writers have with this is overthinking. Wait, what color is this character? Should he say that? Should I describe him that way? Is that too stereotypical? Etc. I think (or hope, anyway) that just writing true characters and not forcing anything, whether to "show" readers something cultural or to avoid it, is the way to approach it.

      Also, do you have a jar of kimchi? That sounds pretty good right now.

    5. Excellent post, Kate. And great additional comments, William. It's a tough topic to handle and, even within the POC community, different viewpoints on what is "acceptable" for an outsider to write.

    6. Great post! My MC is of a different ethnicity than me, so I've struggled with making her story sound authentic. Thanks for the wonderful information--it really helps!

    7. Freaking awesome essential post.


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    Item Reviewed: Windows and Mirrors: Stories That Cross Borders Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart