Writing Race with Mitali Perkins

SCBWI Notes III:

Mitali Perkins, a Bengali-born author whose family came to the United States when she was seven years old, presented a session entitled “Straight Talk on Writing Race.”

I attended this session with particular interest since the middle grade novel, Breathe to Both Sides, which I completed last August for my MFA thesis at the Whidbey Writing Workshop, is the story of a twelve-year old black girl who discovers a whites-only swimming pool that residents of her small Mississippi town buried in the 70s rather than face the prospect of integrated swimming.

As I was writing this story, it raised many questions amongst my colleagues and friends. I came to this story through my association with USA Swimming (two-thirds of black and Hispanic children in the US cannot swim) but as a white woman, was I justified in telling it? I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ll need to address further as I try to sell the manuscript.

Mitali’s session heartened me. “All fiction crosses borders,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re writing memoir.” Be bold, she said. Take risks. Bring it “above the waterline.” And yes, some people won’t like it.  She then showed a short video entitled “A Girl Like Me” by Kiri Davis, a teen filmaker that demonstrated how attitudes about race and racism is something that is picked up very early in children—as early as they can perceive “differences.”

Before fourth grade, kids hearts are wide open and middle grade stories are a rich time to write race.

But, Mitali, told us, today, “race is the new sex.” It’s something that today’s kids and teens are much more comfortable talking about and mixing up than their parents. This makes it an exciting time to be writing about race. Teens and tweens are thinking about this. Demographics and attitudes are changing rapidly and young people need and want to know who they are.

Because who are you writing for, after all? If you’re too scared to take the risk, then who’s going to do it?

Mitali’s Checklist for Writing Race:

  • Why did I define race? Why didn’t I? White is no longer the default.
  • How did I define race? Your audience is noticing. Don’t be lazy (labels). Try instead, using hints, foods, humor, voice and non-verbal clues.
  • Are my non-verbals race-specific? Am I in charge or is my subconscious taking the lead?
  • Who are the change agents in my story? Is it always the white hero and the minority “magical Negro?”
  • Are the characters of other races more than just a foil for a white protagonist? Create 3-D characters. Make them real.
  • Is the narrative voice too generic in describing foreign places or people? Do you say you’re character is “from Africa?” Be specific…Africa is a big and very diverse place.
  • Did I characterize my characters with jargon, diction, or accent?
  • Does the cover art and illustration match my story? After fifth grade, it’s really hard for a kid to walk around with a book that has cover art of somebody who looks different than they do. If you have any input, consider requesting no face son your cover. Australian and UK books almost never do.
  • How did I define beauty in my story?
  • Could my characters be imagined as different ethnicities? We have power as storytellers. Can you release your story and put that power in the hands of your reader so that each can cast the story fully for themselves?

Two examples that Mitali gave us that show creative and subtle ways of writing race were Lauri Halse Anderson’s Chains and Rebecca Stead’s depiction of Julia in When You Reach Me.

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