EVENT REPORT Other Lives, Other Voices

SCBWI Southeast Scotland does a great job of matching experts with attendees who are keen for their insights. Patrice Lawrence's Other Lives, Other Voices masterclass was another sold-out event in Edinburgh, reports Sheila Averbuch.

Patrice's Orange Boy and her latest, Indigo Donut, were both nominated for the Carnegie — and Orange Boy won both the Waterstone's Prize for Older Fiction and the Bookseller YA Prize, so we were in the excellent hands of a writer who knows what it takes to create unforgettable characters readers will love.

Patrice admitted up front that the workshop's topic — how and whether authors should write about characters of races, religions, abilities and backgrounds different to their own — can be controversial. And what about cultural appropriation? What about readers from the background you're describing, who'll spot what you've done "wrong"?

I've had all these anxieties myself, but Patrice eased the tension with a series of questions, exercises and resource pointers to help inform our efforts to write inclusive stories for children.

Here are my key takeaways from the day:

1 — Figure out why you want to write about characters unlike yourself.

For me, it's because I want to connect with readers by helping them see themselves in my stories, and as a white middle-class American living in Scotland, my own background matches only a sliver of the young readers I'm so keen to connect with. We all jotted down our reasons and Patrice recommends we keep this as a compass during times of our own low confidence, or when agents or editors challenge us about why we've gone outside our own experience to write a certain character.

2 — What's the origin of your character's name?

This was fascinating because Patrice got us thinking about what culture is and how a name is a slice of culture: it's a mixture of law, tradition, fashion and family. Thinking about where my character got her name sparked new thoughts about her relationship with her mother, her wider family, her parents' expectations for her and more — a great prompt from Patrice.

Attendees discuss character development with Patrice.
3 — Do in-depth empathy exercises that let you take your character's perspective and see the world on their terms.

Patrice's exercise about dominant group/subordinate group got us thinking about our own experiences of feeling like an insider or outsider, and helped us tap into characters' mindsets across different situations. If your character is part of a subordinate group, have you considered the ways in which society tells your character their values and beliefs are inferior, or wrong? Have you thought about the level of power your character has in their environment, or the ways in which they need to adapt to the majority's rules (rules they had little role in creating), or face the consequences?

4 — Know the stereotypes.

Your characters will know the tired stereotypes connected to their own cultural or societal group. Make it your business to know them too, so you can avoid them, subvert them or even allow your characters to consciously play with them. This also extends to cultural appropriation, which is multiply defined but is most pernicious where a creator carelessly co-opts a part of a culture without due consideration or reverence, or chiefly for the purposes of making a buck. Be aware, too, of offensive tropes, including the white saviour or the magical Negro, the unthinking inclusion of which is all too easy for privileged creators who are unaware of their own privilege.

Patrice Lawrence speaks of the dangers of cultural appropriation.
5 — Ask for help.

Remember number 1? You've decided to write characters outside your experience, so speak up loudly and proudly and ask your network for the information you need to write your characters well. People are unlikely to be offended and may give you the vivid details that complement your other research. What's in your character's bathroom cabinet, for example? What grooming or beauty products do they use? Your extended network may also contain experts you can interview — after the death of one of her characters, Patrice found to her delight that a friend of a friend was a coroner, which helped her get the details right of what happens after death. There are also ample YouTube videos, frank blogs and tumblrs like Writing with Color with huge archives of FAQs and Q&As that will help you write accurately and sensitively about everything from physical appearance to family relationships, and help you avoid problems (like mixing Muslim characters with magic) at an early stage of your writing.

6 — Writing characters who aren't like you is like any character work you do … just a little more so. 

Research well, reading widely and deeply, with an openhearted commitment to finding the truth of how your character experiences the world. Work hard to understand the influences on your character, especially if they don't share your race, religion, physical ability and so on. But Patrice also offers this comfort: you're not writing a nonfiction treatise on an entire community of people. You are, to the best of your ability, helping your readers and yourself experience the world by inhabiting a vividly imagined fictional character. And there is no one "right" way to write that character. As Patrice said, "be humble, but not debilitated, when you get it 'wrong'".

And while our books are fiction, the real world isn't, so don't forget to boost the voices of people from the communities you're writing about. If you loved a book by a writer who comes from a different background to your own, have you told everyone about it? Did you review it on Amazon, blog or tweet about it? Your commitment to creators who aren't like yourself should be no less than your commitment to your characters.

*Workshop photos credit: Sarah Broadley

Sheila M. Averbuch writes middle grade and has an obsessive passion for garden photography. She's represented by Jennifer Laughran and lives in Southeast Scotland, where she co-founded the local SCBWI network. Find her on twitter and Instagram and @sheilamaverbuch.


Fran Price is part of the editorial team at Words and Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI, and is Events Editor. Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fabulous workshop, wish I could have been there. Unfortunately writing the ms with a different culture to your own isn’t the only hurdle, finding someone to publish it is the next. It’s a very sensitive market.


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