The Writer as Tour Guide
6 Tips for Writing Outside Your Own Culture
Let’s say that you run a tour company where you serve as bus driver and tour guide for people who want to have an intense, immersive experience of a fascinating city. Ideally, you should know that city intimately. But what if you’ve never been there?
You could hire a local bus driver and tour guide—someone who’s familiar with the history, the streets, and the restaurants, as well as the back alleys, the whispered secrets, and the unwritten rules.
Or…you could lead the tour yourself! You are an observant, entertaining speaker. And a kickass bus driver. What could go wrong?
Writing outside your own culture is a lot like leading a tour in an unfamiliar city. You may be an empathic, imaginative, highly skilled writer—a great speaker and bus driver—and you may be passionate about this place, its history, and its people. But the fact remains: It’s not your city. It’s not your bus.
This is not to say that you don’t have the right—or even the obligation—to try. We live in a diverse world, and our stories—particularly contemporary, science fiction, and fantasy—should reflect that diversity. But just as you would prepare rigorously to lead a tour in a city you don’t know, you need to do the same to write outside your culture. Here are six tips to help you.1
Tour Guide Tip #1: Think twice.
Then think again. Are you sure you’re the best one to lead this tour?
If you’re doing it because
- agents and publishers are clamoring for “diverse” characters;
- You have a wonderful white character who helps less fortunate POC characters—or is transformed by the ancient wisdom of a POC culture; or
- Asian (sub: African, Middle Eastern) culture fascinates you,
please reconsider. These reasons frame people of color as vampires, props for white stories, and exotic souvenirs. If you continue, you risk promoting these attitudes.
Opinions differ, but I see nothing inherently wrong—and many things right—about writing a main character or plot from a different culture simply because you want to see more POC in literature. Just be aware that your good intentions don’t give you a free pass. They don’t excuse poor representation.
Tour Guide Tip #2: Do your research. Develop empathy.
To write nuanced, layered characters, writers need deep knowledge and deep empathy. But our empathy is shockingly limited when it comes to people with cultural histories vastly different from our own. The fabric of their lives is knotted with a myriad tiny details that we cannot see.
Start online. Read literature of and about the people or places in your story. Ask people what it’s like to live in their skin. Listen. Remember that one person does not represent a multitude. Make friends, the kind who have you over for dinner so that you can see what life is like behind closed doors—it’s often quite different from what think you know.
Tour guide tip #3: Learn the language.
Writers obsess over dialogue and narrative voice, making endless tweaks to get it just right. But many still make black characters speak a fake version of Black Vernacular English, a language with its own grammar, rules and exceptions. Throwing in a few aints and dropping a few gs doesn’t make it authentic; it just makes it insulting. Similarly, dropping articles and plurals from an Asian immigrant’s speech does nothing to make her sound like an Asian immigrant. It does a lot to humiliate a kid with immigrant parents.
Before you take on the voice of a character whose culture you don’t know, study up. Listen. Ask for help. Strive for perfection.
Tour Guide Tip #4: Go beyond the tourist traps.
An Indian girl who loves curry and Bollywood movies, a Latino man who carries a knife and addresses people as “hombre”—these are not characters. They are caricatures.
Of course you can’t pack an entire culture into a minor character—or even a major one. This is where all the research you’ve done will help you. Tapping into multiple sources and multiple perspectives will hopefully give you a deep well to draw from to create a unique individual instead of a stereotype.
A caveat: many powerful stereotypes flow (muddied and poisoned) from a tiny wellspring of truth. Even if you dig down and try to separate them out…well, stereotypes and prejudices are sneaky. We often don’t realize we have them, or how deeply they’ve seeped into our consciousness. Hence, the next tip.
Tour Guide Tip #5: Hire a local to take you on a few practice runs.
Brandon Taylor recently noted rather wryly that the demand for cultural checks has spawned a cottage industry of sensitivity readers. I’m fine with that. Cultural beta readers are crucial to respectful representation.
My beta reader kindly pointed out places in my manuscript that, despite all my efforts, revealed my cultural biases and unconscious racism. I got to correct my mistakes, avoid spreading misconceptions and prejudices, and grow as a person. Bonus tip: pay your beta readers.
Tour Guide Tip #6: Accept criticism with humility.
I can guarantee you one thing about writing outside your culture: you will miss something. You will hurt someone. And that someone will let you know. Maybe in an angry voice.
It’s easy to take criticism of our writing personally, because writing is personal. When that criticism is about our portrayal of a culture that isn’t ours, it can feel like a critique of our character as well as our craft. It can hurt.
Resist the impulse to defend yourself against accusations of racism. Instead, open yourself up. Try to see things from the critic’s point of view. Go back to Tip #2. If you reach a point where you can say, “I get where you’re coming from, but…” stop right there. Say instead, “I get where you’re coming from, and I’m sorry.” This is not weakness on your part, or tyranny on theirs. It is respectful, responsible human interaction.
Nervous? Stressed out? You should be. And that’s…okay.
The fact is, writing is scary. Writing well means going into yourself, mining your vulnerability, and putting it on display. Add to this the possibility that you could spread misinformation or harmful stereotypes, and you shoulder an even bigger risk. And that’s okay.
Writers risk ridicule, failure, and judgment, but we write anyway. If you believe in your story and your characters, you’ll accept the risk that comes with writing them. If you respect your subject and your audience, you’ll put in the work and be ready to respond graciously to your readers.
- Resources for Writing Marginalized Perspectives compiled by Dahlia Adler
- Who Gets to Write What? by Kaitlyn Greenridge
- There Is No Secret To Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You by Brandon Taylor
- Who Can Tell My Story by Jacqueline Woodson
MISA SUGIURA’s ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. Her debut novel, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret (HarperTeen), will be released in summer of 2017. She lives under a giant oak tree at an undisclosed location in California, but you can visit her online at www.misasugiura.com, or find her on Twitter or Instagram.
- For the sake of simplicity, I have limited the scope of “culture” to refer to people of color, but it also applies to people on the marginalized end of the spectrums of gender, sexual preference, ableism, and mental health. ↩