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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Is Multicultural Fiction?

I may be stepping onto a minefield or asking a stupid question, but bear with me as I explain why I’m even bringing this up.

A friend just came back from a New York writers’ conference and reported that publishing professionals told her to avoid labeling her fiction as literary because this honorific is something only the publishing gods and goddesses can bestow. Besides, right now, literary fiction is not selling. On the other hand, a label/genre such as multicultural was considered a good thing.

Well, great for me, I thought. My stuff is multicultural, for sure. Then I got to thinking about what that label really meant and quickly determined that I had some ideas but no hard understanding. So I went to Google, Bing, Ask, Wikipedia, the blogosphere et al., and guess what? I still don’t know.

You might say, “Why the confusion? I recognize multicultural writing when I see it.” Yes, and the U. S. Supreme Court once famously asserted that they could recognize pornography when they saw it.

First of all—writing opportunity, folks!—Wikipedia does not even have pages about either Multicultural Fiction or Multicultural Literature. Is that because the term Multicultural Fiction is strictly an American construct? Searches using Google, Bing, and Ask also brought up no definitive description of multicultural writing. So we’re either in the early stages of a new category in literature or no one understands the category any better than I do. Here are some search results:

- “…we use the term to mean books by and about people of color….” This one seemed intuitively correct at first, but what about Latinos who look just like Swedes?

- “…features authentic cultures, ethnic groups and characters that are new or unfamiliar to the reader….” I loved this one, but who defines what is new and unfamiliar? The person in Ghana or someone in Wisconsin? A straight person who has never met a gay man or the lesbian who spends all her time with lesbians? The black kid from a Chicago ghetto or the white dowager in Palm Beach?

- “Multicultural fiction relates the American experience from minority points of view….”
Even if intended for an American audience, this definition runs afoul of current demographic trends. In the U.S., whites are on their way toward losing clear majority status and the proportion of multi-racial individuals is rising, begging the question of who falls into what category. Of course, in the rest of the world, whites are already in the minority. For these reasons, this definition is not particularly useful, except to the extent it represents an attitude of openness.

-The wonderful blog, The Literary Lab, posted the best genre listing I’ve come across. Guess what? Multicultural was not on it. In the Comments section, the author says she probably should have added it to the list. But, this kind of proves my point. It’s a category we all seem to recognize but can’t completely grasp.

-Amazon sidesteps the issue. “…material which also happens to be culturally inclusive. In addition to 'shining a light' on various communities….”

-Scribd is similar. “For stories and novels that include any ethnicity, culture, and race….”

Okay, enough examples. I probably like best Amazon's definition, except it and Scribd's are so watered down that they tread on meaninglessness. To complicate things further, one can have multicultural literary, multicultural young adult, multicultural … well, you get the picture. Is multicultural even a genre then? If it is, will that designation marginalize certain fiction by ghettoizing it? Is this exclusively a U.S. issue?

So does the term Multicultural Fiction mean anything? What do you think?

Read New York Times article written a month after above post.


Ann Victor said...

Judith. ARRRGH! I've just spent 15 minutes writing a long, passionate post about multicultural fiction and my *&^&*((%^^ internet connection bombed as I posted it and the whole thing is lost!!!

I'll try and recapture what I said later; must dash out now!

Judith Mercado said...

Ann, I'm glad to see that you are even aware of this post. First of all, the date was wrong. I didn't post it in 9/30 but on 10/1 and on my dashboard at least it's not showing up as a new post nor have I received my usual email alerting me to a new post on this blog. It's how I keep track that things are going as they should. I was beginning to think I had to repost it. I was hoping to hear from you on this one. In fact, as I was writing it, I was thinking of you the whole time. I can't wait to read what you have to say.

Michelle H. said...

Hmm... you make some good points. I never thought about it either. I agree Amazon and Scribd have watered down terminology in their efforts to be politically correct. One explanation I heard of was this...

Multicultural literature can be described as literature that portrays racial or ethnic groups aside from the "white Anglo-Saxon majority" that currently reside in the United States today. Multicultural literature helps to enhance cross-cultural understanding and respect for individuals. It also accents the contributions that other cultural groups have made to society. The four major ethnic groups about whom a number of books have been written include African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

I wonder how literary agents term it, since many have "Multicutural" in their listings of genres they represent.

Davin Malasarn said...

Judith, I'm not an expert on this by any means, but I'll give you my thoughts since I do occasionally call my writing multicultural. First, I personally view multicultural writing as falling into two camps. In one, the one I would put myself into, it is a subsection of literary writing. I see it as literary writing that might also interest readers in a second way because it also educates readers about a different culture as a side effect. So, when looking for books in a book store (the only time I see categorization as being relevant) these books would be filed under "literary," but it would be clear that it describes a non-American culture, or perhaps a non-continental-American culture. I think it helps to be able to claim this category as your own only because you are likely to interest two groups of readers instead of one.

But, there's another multi-culti group. Some books stores have a specific shelf for multicultural, and this is a SMALL shelf. I think this is reserved for books that are mainly about the culture, and not necessarily about a story or characters. This would lean more heavily towards readers that just want to educate themselves about a different place and people.

Sheila Deeth said...

I think I'd naively thought the multi part meant it was fiction that included characters with cultural differences from each other.

Anonymous said...

When I was in graduate school I was an English major and as an undergraduate I was a Spanish major. My English studies were more like multicultural studies to me because of my Hispanic upbringing. Therefore, I believe multicultural literature is completely subjective. I don't consider the magical realism of Garcia Marquez as "multicultural" because he tells the tales of the melodramatic Latin American landscape the way they are mystically and mythically told. When I read him, I hear my grandmother's voice speaking to me, not one of a "distinct culture." However, when I read Milton's "Paradise Lost" and his arguments on Puritanism, now that's ethnic! So like everything, I think it depends on the reader and I as much as I am gulity of labeling things, I really try to avoid doing it. ;) I am a "Latina" Blogger though. hmmmmm ;0

Ann Victor said...

As a South African, I hadn’t heard the term “multicultural fiction” until I started researching US agents, but the categorisation struck an immediate chord with me. Like Davin, I’m no expert on it, but on some deep, soul level this term resonates with me.

This is going to become a major genre in the future because, to me, the world is finally beginning to evolve to the stage where we can look beyond our external differences and see that beneath the colours (black, white, yellow), the genders (male, female, intersexed), the cultures (American, British, South African) and the religions (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist), we are all one and the same. The same emotions, the same fears, the same dreams and hopes, because we are all human beings.

One vital tool to encourage this progression of humanity’s spirit towards a more harmonious co-existence (a return to Eden, perhaps?) will be multicultural fiction. Fiction explores issues in an acceptable way: if a reader is made uncomfortable by anything he reads, he can exclaim, ‘Oh, it’s just make-believe.’ But the seed has been planted for him to start looking at the issue in a new way. Thus, multi-cultural fiction has the potential to take readers of different cultural groups and bring to them an understanding that if we strip away the external differences we are but one and the same.

I believe that life follows art and that we, as artists, have the power to change attitudes. Look at how South African authors Nadine Gordimer and J M Coetzee (both winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1991 and 2003 respectively) forced a change in consciousness of many white readers during the apartheid years in South Africa, by inducing them to search beyond the obvious differences.

Labels don’t have any real value. Call our writing literary or call it multi-cultural, what really matters is that we craft stories showing our characters in both their unique cultural context and in their common humanity thus, in some small way, help to heal the differences that fracture our world.

And I'm sure that's far, far more than you ever wanted to hear!! :)

Judith Mercado said...

Michelle H.: Thanks for that definition. You’re right. It’s how the agents view it that’s important if what you’re trying to do is get an agent.

Davin: I really appreciate the “two camps” treatment. I view myself primarily as a literary writer who, by the way, has a strong multicultural component to her writing.

Sheila: If you’re naïve I think we’re all equally so. My post was in a way trying to say that none of us really knows.

Patty: Yes, the fact that it’s so subjective is what makes the meaning of the term elusive. I’d ignore it except for the fact that I’m trying to land an agent and get my novels published and genres seem to matter to agents and pulblishers

Ann: If life follows art, then the fact that we’re trying to define what is multicultural is ironically a good thing. That literary multiculturalism exists encourages me to believe that meaningful cultural diversity is possible in real life.

JennyMac said...

When I first peddled my manuscript, I was torn about which genre of fiction my book would truly fall under. Thanks for sharing the information about "literary" fiction being something chosen for you...

Multicultural fiction is something I have not thought about before, but I agree that diverse appeal to readers is a great thing. I see the same challenges for writers do you "qualify" to label your material as MC?

Kathryn Magendie said...

one of the frustrating things about being a writer is to have to label my work - it's easier, I suppose, if you write genre fiction such as romance or horror or thriller ...

I was told not to call my book "literary" but I didn't call it that anyway - I called it "southern fiction" - but some people have called it literary fiction - my publishers called it "general fiction" or southern women's fiction or ....etc etc etc - *sigh* --

I've not heard of "multicultural fiction" ....I suppose TG could slip under that title too *smiling* although not many people have questioned me on when my character talks about her "dark hair and eyes " and how she sees other people as "so white" and she is "see through" - what is she? She doesn't know.

Judith Mercado said...

JennyMac: "how do you 'qualify' to label your material as MC?" The good news is that this label is so fluid right now that anything anyone says would probably fit the definition.

Kathryn: If you hadn't already interested me in reading TG (I'm awaiting my copy), you've really done so now. I can't wait to read more about your character who: "talks about her 'dark hair and eyes' and how she sees other people as "so white' and she is 'see through' - what is she? She doesn't know."

A Cuban In London said...

Excellent post that merits more than a handful of words. First, by the very nature of the world in which we live, we lead multicultural lives. Unless your home is in more enclosed societies, the West, as we know it, has benefited from a myriad cultures. So your literary work (and yes, it's bloody literary, dear!) is multicultural by default.

Secondly, this multicultural cornucopia of characters and situations might not work. But that might be because at the point of cooking the melting pot the ingredients don't gell. As an author, it is your duty to address the imbalance.

Thirdly, if they do gell, the result looks effortless to the outsider. Your eyes glide through your narration and you believe the tale you're being told. Examples abound but I just finished a novel written by a young Nigerian writer where she mixed her Igbo origins, threw a couple of British characters in and had a Yoruba woman in a supporting role. 'Half a Yellow Sun' has been one of my highlights this year so far.

Your column was so articulate and passionate that I tip my hat to the author. Many thanks. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Greetings from London.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I don't have a clear definition. I'm not a big fan of labels. But I do like stories that put me in a different culture and allow me to see how it interacts while telling me an entertaining story. I've always loved learning and coming into other cultures. I love the similiarities and differences.

Judith Mercado said...

A Cuban in London: thank you for your wise perspective on this topic. And also thank you for introducing me to a writer previously unknown to me.

Sia McKye: I think more and more people feel as you do, thank goodness.

Anonymous said...

Strange, I've just published a juvenile fantasy book and just because the characters happen to be Puerto Rican, does it mean my book will be labeled as multicultural? I guess it all depends who looks at it and from what angle. People I know who have read my book are fine with it being a fantasy/adventure story. This new multicultural thing now brings it into a new perspective that I hadn't taken into consideration while writing. Like you say, it would be awful to ghettoize books into this new category. said...

All the comments on this blog are interesting and informative. Most of them reveal the spirit of uncertainty and doubtful knowledge, in a very positive sense. The best thing about the contemporary world is that it revels in doubtful joy. It may sound despairing but it tries to voice the importance of being not certain.
Multicultural Fiction need not always have to remain vaguely defined or inclusive of the American experience. We know that when Rushdie called himself multicultural (now he finds this degenerating into cultural relativism) he did not think of America. There is a British version of multicultural fiction, the chief representative of this group of writers is Gautam Mulkani of LONDONSTANI fame.
When I wrote The Tailor's Needle I did not think of this category of fiction but I know that there is multiculturalism at the base of this novel's experience. So let us take the term at its face value. If Wikipedia and other sites have not spoken clearly of Multicultural Fiction, let this blog become the reason for the more lucid understanding of this term.

Judith Mercado said...

Lakshmi, I just today, March 9, became aware of this comment. Your points convey what I wanted to express with this post, written some years ago. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Judith Mercado said...

Lakshmi, I just today, March 9, became aware of this comment. Your points convey what I wanted to express with this post, written some years ago. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering how to answer this question as well... This is the explanation/section from my english course (maybe it will help you understand a bit better, although I still couldn't seem to narrow it down to a short-answer):

Our view of how the world works is a set of invisible rules, behaviours, and experiences that helps us make sense of what is going on around us; this is called world view. A world view, in the largest sense, is a culture's understanding of the universe, and the relationships between all of its inhabitants. Often art, which includes literature, is a vehicle whereby a culture expresses its world view.

In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau introduced Canada's Multiculturalism Policy. This policy was the basis for the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, established in 1988. The Act aims to celebrate cultural and racial diversity in Canadian society, and encourages tolerance and equal treatment between Canadian citizens, regardless of their cultural origins. Among the stated objectives of the Act are to "promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins." Books such as Joy Kogawa's Obasan may be perceived as "multicultural fiction," a genre sometimes characterized as distinctly Canadian.

Culture includes the stories that we tell ourselves and others, which help define our values, beliefs, social organization, the symbols and forms of creative expression that we use, and our methods of education. Where do the boundaries between one culture begin and another end? Obasan and the short stories featured in this module, "Prairie Widow" by Paul Yee and "The Other Family" by Himani Bannerji, are an exploration of the experiences of individuals and communities who are living between worlds - worlds of varying traditions, languages, and values.

Multicultural fiction includes books translated from other languages into English, and it also includes books originally written in English, but which may feature more than one cultural reality. Canadian authors, including Rohinton Mistry who is originally from India, and M.G. Vassanji who was born in Kenya, write in English about their cultures of origin in various geographical settings including India, Africa and Britain. Author Wayson Choy was born in Vancouver and writes about the Chinese immigrant experience in British Columbia.

The novel Obasan is written in English by Joy Kogawa, also a Canadian citizen by birth. In this novel, we learn about Japanese culture through Naomi's grandparents. We learn about Canadian culture, politics and history and the Japanese-Canadian immigrant experience - but most importantly we learn about the injustices committed against Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

As diverse in style as the cultural perspectives represented, multicultural fiction encompasses a variety of genres.

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, "Anonymous," for such a thoughtful and informative response to my post. Your analysis of multiculturalism in literature is probably the most comprehensive and satisfying one I have read.