How do we write minority characters? And how can we write them well?

The Craft of Race: Introduction

How do we write minority characters? And how can we write them well?

Welcome to my new series, The Craft of Race, where I will be constantly grappling with these two questions. I may be a person of color, but even I feel the need to learn just how. So if I am already going on this journey, why not take everyone with?

If you’re wondering why this is necessary, let’s start off by diving into a situation I just encountered. Here I am, writing the first draft of a novel centering on a South Asian girl and a Latino grad student. I hit my first stumbling block right away:

Question 1: How do I introduce a person of color without being awkward about describing skin color?

And while I’m at it, the girl is talking to her immigrant father in my starting scene. As she speaks to him in English, he responds in the language of Bangladesh most of the time.

Question 2: How do I interlace dialogue spoken in multiple languages?

To get a better idea of what this looks like on the page, let’s say she asks her father a difficult question, a question that he sidesteps. We have at least three options:

  1. “Cha khao,” he said. Drink the tea.
     
     
    What I love most about this option is that the readers hear the Bangla in the conversation. However, this comes at the cost of having to read on for the meaning, which delays us in reaching its emotional significance.
  2. “Drink the tea,” he said. Cha khao.
     
     Here, the meaning is immediately accessible, but the Bangla comes in feeling like an afterthought.
  3. “Drink the tea,” he said in Bangla. 
     
     In this one, the reader doesn’t even hear the Bangla. This is generally not my preference. However, if this is the climax of a tense situation, it enables the fastest read.

Now that might seem like a lot to think about for a single line of dialogue, but I didn’t even notice that while I was figuring it out. Why? Because I had my eyes set on something higher.

Power dynamics. That’s what’s fascinating. You see, the girl is more comfortable speaking in English, but her father is more comfortable speaking in Bangla. So when he forces her to shift to using Bangla, there is a shift in power. How do I express this in scene?

Question 3: How do I express cultural power dynamics in a multi-lingual dialogue?

I want to develop a mastery that can showcase these power dynamics. That means identifying what skills I need to learn as well as how to level up. But if we begin to talk about this in terms of skills, well — well, that would be discussing it as a craft!

Isn’t that amazing?

Calling writing race a craft then implies that I can learn it. Just like learning how to depict a scene, establish a setting, or navigate a plot, writing minority characters is a skill any writer should be able to learn.

Writing minority characters is a skill any writer should be able to learn.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am here. This is a discourse on how to write race — through the analysis of how to write minority characters. I offer you my ideas and hypotheses, reactions and analyses. I document my learnings on how I think I should do it, in the pursuit of how to do it best.

Like most people, looking at race as a craft in the literary domain is a concept I myself am pretty new to. I was introduced to it last July by poet Truong Tran. This is part of why I choose to call this a discourse: I mean to start a conversation. I want to hear from you!

What techniques have you seen used with success? Have you spotted an unforeseen limit to one of my ideas? Perhaps you have encountered a way to extend these ideas in a way that would help me develop better techniques, or to arrive to more accurate conclusions. Or maybe you have questions you’ve been dying to ask, and you just haven’t yet found the right medium to do so. Feel free to leave those in the comments right here! We can tackle them together.

So before I sign off, here’s the latest question turning my brain into butter:

Question 4: The West is saturated with sci-fi / fantasy based on Greek and Norse mythology. How can I bring Hindu lore into pop culture in the same way?

Here’s a sneak peek of what might come next:

  • Morrison Munch: Why Do Black People Talk Funny in Antebellum Lit?
  • Three Novels that Made the Burqa Look Cool
  • Why I Sent My Advisor a 3-Page Rage Quit Trying to Weave Hinduism into a Fantasy Novel

The Series:

Bye is bidai in Bangla, so —

Bidai!

Snigdha Roy