Can an author write a point of view voice that is not hers? I used to think so, but the more I write and the more think about it, I wonder.
If a point of view cannot be written with the introspection and intonation of a different culture, does that mean the character should not be written at all by someone outside of that culture? Is there nothing to be gained by the thoughts expressed, even if they fall short?
The Red Kimono and its sequel (work in progress), Broken Dreams are both multicultural historical novels. The main characters are Japanese-American and African-American. So I first asked myself these questions when my critique group told me that my Black character did not sound Black. I struggled mightily with Terrence, a Black teenager in 1940’s California. Not only did I need to develop a Black voice, I also needed to sound like a teenage boy. How does one outside of a culture develop a voice that is realistic, yet not offensive to those within the culture? It was a challenge, and only time will tell if I met that challenge.
I pondered the question further after the release of the movie, The Help, when I read that many in the Black community were not satisfied with how a White woman, Kathryn Stockett, wrote the Black maids. When I posted my blog, The Help-A Multicultural Perspective, and read the posts of my Black guests, I saw several different perspectives of that era and of what it is like to be Black–perspectives that had never entered my mind before.
That made me think about how a Caucasian author would write the point of view of a Japanese-American. I thought about philosophies of the Japanese–gaman, shikata ga nai–philosophies that a Caucasian may not know or understand. Still, Arthur Golden, a Caucasian male, was successful with Memoirs of a Geisha.
Writing outside of one’s culture is the best way to learn about other cultures, if done thoughtfully and with research. But does that mean the character can be written effectively? Though a writer in all likelihood cannot perfectly create a character outside of her culture, is that reason enough not to write the story? Personally, I believe it is better to learn and understand even a little, than not to try at all.