Further thoughts on the discussion about the ways authors should – and should not – describe their character’s race.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussion started by Mitali, and her 10 points summary. I want to report some of the comments I found on Mitali’s blog

Cynthia Leitich Smith said : “Thank you, Mitali, for yet another thoughtful post. It reinforces your global point, I think, that I’d urge writers to use specific tribal affiliations rather than Native American or American Indian generally–so long as that information is available/applicable to the narrator POV. It also discourages defaulting to Hollywood stereotypes or “fungible” Indians, who make little to no sense to insider readers.” 

And Mitali responded: “When it comes to describing cultures, specific is always better than general. And more interesting, too. A story set “somewhere in Africa” won’t match the authenticity of a book set in a particular village in Mali, for example.”

Absolutely. Amadi’s ethnicity, for instance, is a crucial element of the story in “Amadi’s Snowman”. He’s an Igbo boy, and it is because of this particular heritage, with its traditional emphasis on trading, that he mistakenly assumes he’s fine knowing his numbers and doesn’t need to read letters. Which doesn’t minimize the universal quality of the story: resistance to change, reluctance to learn something new and unfamiliar, in this case, reading. But the character and his particular story could only happen within the Igbo context.

I’ve also been thinking about the last point of the summary: “Unleash your creativity when it comes to descriptions of appearance. It’s unanimous: stay away from food metaphors when it comes to describing skin color. Scrupulously avoid cliché when talking about a character’s appearance. Let’s invent fresh ways of describing the human diversity on our planet, and set our young readers free to enjoy fresh ways of seeing it.”

When I read this, my first reaction was: What’s wrong with food metaphors, as long as they convey a positive message? Now, I totally understand and agree that writers need to stretch their imagination, and always try to come up with new ways of describing things. That’s what writing is all about. Still…

One book that I read often to my biracial daughters is Karen Katz’ “The Colors of Us.” A 7-year-old discovers the many shades of browns that humans come in by taking a walk around her neighborhood. Cinnamon, French toast, creamy peanut butter, chocolate brown, peachy, honey, “reddish brown, like leaves in the fall” (that’s one that departs from the comparison with food), cocoa brown, butterscotch, bronze and amber (another departure from food), ginger and chili powder, coconuts and coffee toffee. And when the child sets out to paint everyone, she says ” their names aloud. Cinnamon, chocolate, and honey. Coffee, toffee, and butterscotch. They sound so delicious.” And they do. 

And don’t all parents tell their small children that they could eat them up. I certainly have, often, and still do from time to time. And ever since my daughters were born, I have told them that their skin was cinnamon for the first one, and more like toffee for the second one. 

The Danish mother of one of my youngest daughters’ friends was telling me, one day, about their Indian nanny’s reaction, the first time she gave a bath to the 3-year-old girl: she kept laughing and saying that her bottom looked like “two little white buns.” Obviously, the food metaphor works throughout the whole color spectrum. I personally see it as a natural and rather loving way of describing the color of someone’s skin. 

But then, I went back to the discussion, and was struck, the second time around, by a point I had kind of overlooked before. The whole conversation is about the description of characters from an omniscient 3d person narrator’s POV, in novels.

In other words, the omniscient narrator of a novel should not be caught describing one of the story’s characters as having a skin the color of cinnamon, or peach, or anything else. Now, that makes more sense to me. 



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