Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Escape from the "Ethnic" Story

In class, it came up that one of my classmates doesn't feel that her stories are necessarily ethnic, but she doesn't like the fact that readers assume her characters are white simply because they aren't explicitly Asian.  And for many American writers who do write about their ancestors, there's an assumption that every story they write is meant to convey the perspectives of an entire people (see "Foreign Correspondence" in Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes).
I've begun to think of every story as an ethnic story - even the stories about "typical" white people.  I think, to a certain degree, every character should reveal a certain amount of ethnic heritage.  Now, I happen to be white in a nation that has called itself a melting pot but still considered itself white.  And the things are becoming more equal, but real cultural differences still remain.

Caucausian, for me, means that my great grandfather came over from Saxony with such timing that none of the males in my family were draft age for WWI, WWII, or the Korean War - a pretty unusual feat for an American family.  It also means that my mom and dad married in 1972 based on cultural norms of the 1950s (passed down by their parents), and that they divorced in 1981 during a time when divorce and the single working mother were becoming acceptable social norms.

If a story is to be completely divorced from culture or ethnicity, then it would have to be written in such a way that whites would see the characters as white, blacks would see the characters as black, and so on, and I don't think that's a reasonable expectation.  Divorce for my mother - a white ER nurse - would have meant completely different to a black ER nurse.  My mother could work as a divorced ER supervisor with two kids at home with the babysitter - I don't know that the same story would have been possible for an African American at that time, or a Mexican American.  And it's partly a matter of culture.  Could a Catholic Mexican female get a divorce then, or would her family have disowned her?  Honestly, I don't know.

I think that although differences in race and ethnicity have shrunk significantly over the years (at least among American families who have lived here for two or more generations), they're still there.  And I think part of the problem is that in writing stories, we assume that there is such a thing as a "neutral" culture, just as there is a "neutral" American accent.

For my classmate, I believe she's running into the fact that her characters - to white audiences, at least - act and sound like regular Caucasian Americans.  I'm guessing that her family has been American for just as long as my own family, if not longer - her family, like mine, assimilated.  (my family comes from a town in Iowa that had a very large German population before WWI.  By the end of WWII, no one in that town was German.  Not even the people who grew up speaking German as children, or the ones who had been born in Germany.  They all assimilated as fast as they could - at that time, it was the only way to overcome suspicion).

So for the writer, the trick is to reveal the subtle differences between the lives of our characters.  When I say that I see every story as an ethnic story, I mean that a character should be so carefully developed that a reader could figure out the characters race and background.  If I wanted, I could find characteristics of myself which are only true because my great-grandfather immigrated to Iowa from Saxony.  (imagine spending a childhood hearing "I sent and oxen and a camel came back," or "tis an empty head that rattles."  Are these phrases German?  Probably.  My great grandmother probably used them on my grandmother, who used them on mother, who in turn...)  Then we could go into the economic effects of my mother growing up on an Iowa farm in the 1960s.  My grandparents didn't have much money then, so my mother has certain habits which are natural for someone who had to watch pennies as a child.  And I've inherited variations of those traits - but that's culture.  If I was born black, then my father's memories of Civil Rights would have changed the way he raised me, and that in turn would have affected who I am today.  Likewise, if I'd been born to descendants of a white Appalachian family who had fought for the Union in the Civil War, that would be a different experience to having a German family that missed the Civil War entirely.  Or, if we wanted to be more precise, if my parents had not divorced, then my dad's side would have influenced my upbringing more - then I'd be talking more about an Irish-German family with a number of Navy veterans.

So in writing, try to keep in mind just which culture your character comes from.  Not just the "white" culture or the "black" culture or the "Hispanic" culture, but the family itself.  Don't fall into the trap of cultural determinism, but keep in mind that every person is, to some degree, a product of culture.  We react to it either by embracing it, rebelling against it, or taking it for granted.  And if you take it for granted as you write, your characters will lose one of the major components of the human experience.

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