Tuesday, November 20, 2018

7 Tips for Writing Across Cultures

By Sylvia Whitman, @SylviaWhitman

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: There's a growing need for diverse books, but writing about cultures not your own is a tricky path to navigate. Please help me welcome Sylvia Whitman to the lecture hall today, to share some tips on writing across cultures.

Sylvia Whitman lives in Sarasota, Florida, and teaches writing as a visiting instructor at Ringling College of Art and Design. She has published hundreds of articles for adults and children, a dozen books for young readers, and a handful of short stories in magazines ranging from Redbook to The Florida Review. Her YA novel The Milk of Birds (Atheneum) was named one of the 2014 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year 2014 and an Amelia Bloomer Project best feminist book for young readers.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

Take it away Sylvia...

I was born into a family as WASP as they come, but my parents shared their love of travel and reading, which put us five kids a little “out there” in our clubby New York suburb. I grew up aware of other cultures—curious, appreciative, concerned about social justice. I married a Tunisian immigrant with epilepsy, and our two-decade-plus journey together gave me new perspectives. Along the way I wrote a slew of articles for kids and adults and books for young readers, including a picture book about Ramadan and a YA novel about the unlikely friendship between an American teen and a young survivor of the genocidal in Darfur.

But lately I’ve been questioning my right to write across cultures.

The White Face of Publishing

Lack of diversity in publishing, a perennial problem, has flared controversy in recent years. Speakers at a Dollars and Diversity panel at the August 2018 New York Rights Fair trotted out the dismal figures: Publishers Weekly estimates that across writing, editing, and sales, 80% of the book business is white. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, which began documenting books by African-American authors in 1985, finds that the number of books about and especially by nonwhite people, remains shockingly low. “Publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture,” CCBC concludes.

Welcome new initiatives are encouraging minority writers, especially in children’s literature.The nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, for instance, has “created programs to celebrate diverse books, to mentor diverse writers and illustrators, to support diverse publishing professionals, and to provide books to classrooms nationwide.” Publishers such as Kitaabworld and imprints such as Penguin’s Kokila aim to give diverse voices new platforms from which to speak. As assistant editor Shoshanna Flax opined in the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, it’s heartening to see this commitment to making sure that all readers and all writers reach full representation.

Inviting or Silencing Voices?

Some activists are pushing for more scrutiny of characters from marginalized backgrounds. In 2015, Amsterdam YA novelist Corinne Duyvis, founder and co-editor of the website Disability in Kid Lit, tweeted a hashtag suggestion: “#ownvoices, to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Although Duyvis makes clear that she is not trying to censor privileged authors, she points out that they have often created marginalized characters “lacking at best and damaging at worst.”

As Duyvis notes, the hashtag has “taken on its own life.” Strictly interpreted, #ownvoices implies that author and character must share an identity. Similar or family experiences don’t cut it. Heated and sometimes nasty discussions about who has the right to make up which stories have ricocheted around social media.
  • Should white/able writers “cede the stage”?
  • Is P.C. extremism strangling artistic freedom?
  • What about the role of imagination?
  • Should critics make the call about which books deserve space on bookstore and library shelves?

For a taste of the back and forth, visit Mia Wenjen’s Pragmatic Mom Blog post on “#OwnVoicesControversy.”

Finding the Right Editorial Fit

My published books predated #ownvoices. When my son’s kindergarten teacher told me she couldn’t find a book about Ramadan, I pulled out a manuscript I had given up on and illustrated it with clip art. Munir, age 5, read it aloud to his class (one of my best memories ever). “You should send this out,” the teacher said.

When Albert Whitman accepted Under the Ramadan Moon, savvy editor Wendy McClure shared it with someone in the local Muslim community—my first experience with a “sensitivity reader.” Although I was married to a Muslim, had celebrated Ramadan in the United States and in Tunisia, and had just earned a master’s degree in Arab studies, a critique made perfect sense. If a book intended to share the warmth of a holiday rubbed someone the wrong way, I needed to know.

The publisher also requested an author’s note. I puzzled over the POV. I had not converted to Islam. I had not taken my husband’s Arabic surname. Yet to say “they” do this and “they” do that suggested an otherness about Muslims. I used “we.” That felt emotionally true.

For my novel, The Milk of Birds, I did years of research, drawing on all my academic and (modest) Arabic skills. My American character struggles with learning disabilities, and although I had experienced the mom side of that, I made sure to comb through available materials from all different perspectives—kids, parents, psychologists.

Building my Sudanese characters posed a greater challenge. I read about everything from female circumcision to the flora and fauna of western Sudan. But how could I capture the grit and the anguish that spoke through rare and spare survivor testimonies? I stumbled upon a Sudanese student’s dissertation on Sudanese proverbs. In college, I had majored in folklore and mythology, so I appreciate that proverbs often distill the collective wisdom of an oral culture. I mined those proverbs and found my protagonist Nawra’s voice.

As I searched for an agent, some readers advised me to drop my obnoxious American character and simply channel exotic Nawra. But that felt phony to me. The novel wasn’t about a Sudanese girl; it was about the power of friendship to transcend borders, distance, and culture.

My amazing editor at Atheneum, self-described “global mutt” Namrata Tripathi, helped me search for outside readers. Given the Darfur crisis, it was hard to find Sudanese experts, or even development workers, who could spare time to vet a YA novel. But whatever feedback I got, I digested in revision.

The Milk of Birds received recognition I valued, including a place on the International Reading Association’s 2014 list of Notable Books for a Global Society. Imperfect as the story may be by #ownvoices standards, I take comfort that the book spoke into a silence that I don’t believe anyone else was ready to fill at that moment. I look forward to Sudanese novels, translated into English, about girls in Darfur, and I will read with interest how writers portray Americans.

I have white privilege, but I also have a lot of other experiences. What exactly is my culture now? What do I—or you—have the right to write?

Some Tips on Writing Other Cultures

1. Be transparent. 

Don’t hide who you are. Editing Best American Poetry 2015, Sherman Alexie, a Native American 2007 National Book Award winner, picked a poem submitted by Yi-Fen Chou, who then confessed that he was really Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man from Indiana. Despite slings and arrows from every side, Alexie kept the poem in the anthology. His blog post about his decision highlights the complexities of identity issues.

2. Figure out why you need to tell this story. 

The marketplace values diverse characters and settings. We’re writers; we want to publish. But could someone else write this book with more insight? What’s burning in you about this project? What’s your skin in the game?

3. Research, research, research. Did I mention research?

4. Patrol for stereotypes.

5. Seek out critique partners, readers, agents, and editors attuned to multicultural concerns.

6. Pursue feedback from many angles. 

Although people sometimes disparage “sensitivity readers” as thought police, we all need test audiences. Plural. A single “sensitivity read” can’t serve as a blanket stamp of approval.

7. Don’t assume that being or collaborating with a person of X race or Y ethnicity or Z sexuality inoculates you. 

We can all learn from A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a picture book from a diverse creative team that Scholastic stopped distributing in the face of crippling criticism about its depiction of slavery.

Soaring picture book writer Rob Sanders says good practice boils down to three words: accuracy (research), authenticity (intimate familiarity), and authority. “When good writing is combined with accuracy and authenticity, then one is able to begin writing about a subject with authority, which leads to powerful books that can be life changing, world impacting, and have longevity,” he wrote in an email.

I once gave a talk titled “The Joys and Perils of Writing about Other Cultures.” It’s safer to write within the perimeters of my upbringing, but that limits my ability to be the change I want to see in the world. For the privilege of writing multicultural narratives, I’m willing to face scrutiny.

Writers should question themselves. I’m always going to ask, How have I earned the right to tell this story?

About The Milk of Birds

This timely, heartrending novel tells the moving story of a friendship between two girls: one an American teen, one a victim of the crisis in Darfur.

Know that there are many words behind the few on this paper…

Fifteen-year-old Nawra lives in Darfur, Sudan, in a camp for refugees displaced by the Janjaweed’s trail of murder and destruction. Nawra cannot read or write, but when a nonprofit organization called Save the Girls pairs her with an American donor, Nawra dictates her thank-you letters. Putting her experiences into words begins to free her from her devastating past—and to brighten the path to her future.

K.C. is an American teenager from Richmond, Virginia, who hates reading and writing—or anything that smacks of school. But as Nawra pours grief and joy into her letters, she inspires K.C. to see beyond her own struggles. And as K.C. opens her heart in her responses to Nawra, she becomes both a dedicated friend and a passionate activist for Darfur.

In this poetic tale of unlikely sisterhood, debut author Sylvia Whitman captures the friendship between two girls who teach each other compassion and share a remarkable bond that bridges two continents.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |


  1. Even though I'm mostly WASP, my family is multicultural. Writing a story from outside the culture the story is set in can be almost impossible. The stereotypes filter in all too easily. But as you said, it can be done if the right checks are put into place.

  2. I suspect that at least some of the people crying about "thought police" are among the people who keep asserting that we don't really need any kind of editorial feedback. A little proofreading and thar she blows! Sensitivity readers are just beta readers with knowledge of a particular domain. If you get a retired MI-5 officer to read your thriller and revise according to her trenchant critique, have you subjected your work to the thought police?

  3. thnaks for this article. i always find them verry helpful.

  4. Good post. I write Native American characters and I am not Native American. But I feel they have been treated unjustly. I write to show how, in the case of the some of the western tribes, they are slowly gaining ground outside their reservations. I also love their take on life and nature. I use sensitivity readers and wouldn't write what I write without them.