What Is "Ethnic" Writing?

By Dolores Johnson


I am writing about inter-racialism: mixed marriages in my parent’s generation and my own biracial life in a memoir, Say I’m Dead. I am black with a dear white branch on my tree and in my soul. An African-American bi-racial, I like to say. People ask if that isn’t that a redundant identity?  No, because I have lived most of my life as African-American, but had an awakening to my biracial self later in life.

My (or should I say one of my) writing problems is having almost no fellow writers to discuss this with who are not white. The dearth of a writing community that knows this kind of life keeps me on a constant hunt for like-minded authors. I’m looking for the black, minority and biracial writers who can inform my work, those who straddle ethnic life and mainstream life.

Today everybody seems to have someone from a different tribe in their extended family. Do we as a people understand how to integrate these cultures? Isn’t that where America is going? The Biracial-in-Chief is in the White House. Junot Diaz, (Dominican-American) has a Pulitzer, and says America is listening for new ethnic voices.

So kudos to Grub Street, which held a seminar on Ethnic Writing on October 23 where  my people convened. Where have they been? Writers - Chinese, Korean, Jewish, Latino, African American, white, and mixed race exposed some of the relevant issues, led by a distinguished panel, who are mentioned in the following seminar summary. I hope to find out where other such groups or conferences are in the Boston area.


What is "Ethnic" Writing?

Pablo Medina (author of 13 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction) answered the question by positing that whites invented the term and imposed it on minority writers. But aren’t whites an ethnicity too, asked panelist Adam Stumacher (author of The Neon Desert, a short story collection). The panel did not seem to have much use for the term.  I’m not sure I do either.

What’s it like to live outside your skin? Panelists agreed that many minorities who get ahead are bi-cultural – high functioning in the culture they came from and in the U.S. mainstream one they had to learn, to “fit in” with white America. An ethnic writer of any stripe should consider: How does that impact what we write and how we write it? Do we ethnics write our truth or write outside our skin? Will general audiences care? Will they get it?


Who is writing what?

Regie Gibson, former National Poetry Slam Champion, talked about the cultural collision of the "ethnic writer" and the mainstream reader. What level of authentic "ethnic material" can the general audience figure out? Should foreign language terms be used? Must they be italicized so the reader sees they are foreign? What about "ethnic" traditions and attitudes? Some writers go deep into their culture and express their ideas in that vernacular, as Mr. Gibson demonstrated with his rap poem. He gave us the courage to be who we are when we write.  The panel concluded that the reader should be given credit and trust that they will figure out the meaning, or at least the essence.

On the other hand, someone asked, who can authentically write about a minority’s life? Only that minority? Controversy has arisen as “outsiders” write the inside stories of ethnics, such as a white American man writing about a North Korean (The Orphan Master’s Son), or a white woman writing about black maids in the 1950s (The Help). While these stories have been popular, there are mixed opinions on whether others can truly understand and accurately depict "ethnic" lives and issues without living them. As one black friend fumed about The Help, “If I wrote about the holocaust, the Jews would have my head.” She thought the white author only touched the surface of the black maid’s experience. I thought the portrayals of the maids was enough for the story being told (was it more a story about a budding white woman writer?).


Marketing, Editing and Publishing Ethnic Writing

Celeste Ng (her 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You) cautioned us about book covers that publishers want to create, often replete with ethnic stereotypes like the exotic Asian woman or mangoes and magenta for a Latina author, as Jennifer de Leon (the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize) has experienced. Those visuals had absolutely nothing to do with the book content, and therefore misrepresent the book at first glance. Authors should specify what kinds of images they want on their covers as well as any irrelevant ethnic stereotypes not wanted, and monitor the samples created.

Authors beware that cover art and marketing pitches can land your book in the wrong category on-line or on a store shelf. Some "ethnic writers" who have written universal stories have found their book featured with African-American topics because they are black, not because the focus of the book is about African-American anything. Also consider that some "ethnics" are not writing "ethnic" material. They want to portray something universal. Any "ethnic" details are irrelevant to the story, the blurb, the marketing or the cover. It seems publishers, bookstores and readers don’t always get that, and writers must overcome the tendency to pigeonhole them.

Finally, panelists recommended finding an editor who thinks about your writing the way you do. Otherwise, they may miss nuances you intend, suggest changes that would derail your meaning or otherwise dilute the ethnic picture.

The seminar inspired me and, here’s my call to action. Com’on out of the woodwork, all of you who have ethnic stories, content or concerns. Let’s create a community to work together, to bounce ideas off of, to workshop our pieces, and to provide contacts and advice about agents, editors and publishers. Writing groups, anyone? How about some Grub Street ethnic readings and classes? Let’s get busy.

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About the Author

E. Dolores Johnson is working on her first book, a memoir about inter-racialism. After extensive research including personal interviews and pre-internet document searches, a journey to find her secret family, and a review of anti-miscegenation history and law in the 1900s, she changed her manuscript from fiction to nonfiction. She has taken writing classes at GrubStreet and at Harvard with Neiman Fellows. A former high tech executive, Dolores lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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