The Color of a Voice

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.

Available on Amazon.

Available on Amazon.

This entry was posted in African-American, Broken Dolls, Broken Dreams, culture, Japanese-American, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Help, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Color of a Voice

  1. kbnelson says:

    Good thoughts, Jan. Personally, I think those who advocate that writers can only write from their own ethnic background are not far from "separate but equal" arguments. We understand one another best when we walk in another's shoes (or inside their head).I also don't approve of terms like "Black literature" or "Hispanic books". It feels elitist and discriminatory at the same time.Keep doing good work, presenting your characters as the unique PEOPLE they are!


  2. Jan Morrill says:

    Thank you, @kbnelson! You said it better than I – "We understand one another best when we walk in another's shoes." And isn't there also something to be learned by seeing how someone else perceives a life?


  3. I think people can and do successfully write with "voices" from cultural/backgrounds other than their own – accomplishing it successfully shows skill and respect, both of which I think you seem to have and be mindful of. 😀


  4. I think a writer can write from any point-of-view no matter the cultural/backgrounds, gender, or species for that matter. I can write from a cat's POV, No problem.If you are in the "grove" the voice just comes. All we have to do is listen.


  5. GPhillipD says:

    Interesting post Jan. I would pose the question differently..Does an author want to capture the "voice" or capture a "perspective" of a community in a character. By striving to capture a "voice" perhaps the author formulates a myopic narrative as it is difficult for one character to capture the voice of an entire community. Perspectives are broad since they are derived from both internal and external community experiences where as a voice is generally formulated internally within a community. I look forward to reading your book. I'm sure it will be very thoughtful.


  6. GPhillipD says:

    A few books to capture perspective Man Child in a promised Land,Autobiography of MalcomXBlack Boy,Native Son,Dick Gregory AutobiographyTo name a few.


  7. mgmillerbooks says:

    I write about people, plain and simple. Yet, I spent literally years honing the vernacular and different speech patterns of individual characters, black and white, in my novel about racism in the Deep South. Then my editor told me to tone it down. Once I did (begrudgingly), my publisher then told me that in doing so she felt I’d lost a lot of the flavor. For me it was a lose/lose situation.


  8. mgmillerbooks says:

    On a side note, my first agent told me that if I were black instead of white, she could "sell it next week."


  9. Jan Morrill says:

    @Marie Borthwick – thank you for commenting! I've read several books where I thought the author did a portrayed the character well, but now I find myself wondering if those in that culture also thought so.


  10. Jan Morrill says: – that's a good point! Lots of authors have captured the POV of animals, though that's completely imaginary. (I still want to try a dog POV.) 🙂 But, definitely one of the keys is to "get into the groove." Unfortunately, that sometimes takes me hours.


  11. Jan Morrill says:

    @GPhillipD – you always write thought-provoking comments, and thank you for that. Also, thanks again for the reading list. I think it will help to check out a few of those.


  12. Jan Morrill says:

    @mgmillerbooks – you are an excellent example of writing outside "your" POV. I am completely absorbed in the character of your latest book. Also, I agree that you can't please everyone. Some will like the way you have portrayed a character, and some will not. It can drive an author crazy trying to please everyone, and will leave our writing awkward and clumsy. I've seen it with my own writing.


  13. Joyce Zeller says:

    You have to give up yourself. There are similarities between acting and writing. It's the same with beginning actors. The theme running in the back of your mind is, "If my character thinks that, or talks that way, will "they" (the ones you are writing for) think that's me? This takes more courage than you can imagine if your friends are reading what you wrote, or seeing you onstage, as a truly unlikeable character.


  14. Jan, your blogs are insightful and I especially liked this one. An award winning writer whom I know personally claims a woman must only write from a woman's viewpoint, that she cannot write in a males. This is just an example of what you're saying about culture, but I don't agree with her. We are much more likely to become better writers when we stretch ourselves to the point of taking on viewpoints of other cultures as well as the other gender(s). The best example I can think of that we have first hand knowledge of is MGMiller. (and you of course, that's a given)


  15. Jan Morrill says:

    @Joyce Zeller, I agree, that it takes courage. If we're fearful, we can't expand ourselves.@Velda Brotherton, you have helped me to stretch myself, and I'll always be grateful. And I agree about MGMiller. How I've enjoyed his return!


  16. Luna Zega says:

    I think if the author approaches the character with respect and a willingness to listen and learn, she can write from any POV that strikes her fancy. Literature would be incredibly boring if authors only wrote from their own limited POV. Good grief. Shakespeare wasn't Roman and where would the world be today without "Beware of the ides of March" and "Et tu, Brute?"


  17. Jan Morrill says:

    @Luna Zega – excellent point about Shakespeare. And as I said, there is so much to learn if we leave our "comfort zones" and write outside of who we are. Doing so makes literature more interesting for those of us writing it, certainly. Hopefully, that is also true for those reading it. Thanks for commenting!


  18. Madison Woods says:

    Jan, you might not be able to do it perfectly. Thing is, though, when a writer (or an artist) says or portrays something that arouses so much emotion and commentary, even if the artistic rendition was not quite the same as the original model, much good was done. No one liked Monet's work at first because it didn't look anything like the real thing…but I think your character portrayals are as close to perfect as any writer could get.


  19. Jan Morrill says:

    @Madison Woods – you're right about Monet! It also brings to mind what I heard in a speech at my daughter's graduation a few years ago: "Perfection is boring." It sounded so simple, but, it's also true. It's our imperfections that make us interesting. Thanks for your comment!


  20. I'm a little late to this discussion but I'll add my nickels worth any way. I've always argued that a writer can write anything, from any point of view. They can set their work anywhere, even if they've never been there, and can certainly pick any time period they want. That's why they call it fiction. I had a disagreement years ago with a fellow critiquer that said I couldn't write a black character because I'm as white as cotton. We made a bet. He lost ten dollars when I wrote a character that I fashioned from a neighbor of my grandparents', Grace Wonder. He heard my story and pushed the ten dollar bill across the table with a smile. So it can be done. You just have to close your eyes and imagine.


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