Monday, December 12, 2011

Writing Cross-Culturally

            In my last post I mentioned my material always circles back around to themes of adoption.  They say having kids will teach you a lot about yourself.  Adopting our daughter from China, definitely brought my interest in adoption into focus.  As a result, many adoptees show up in my writing. 
As an adoptive mother, I am eternally thankful to the scores of talented authors and illustrators who have explored adoption issues in pictures books.  These treasures have been a meaningful way for my daughter and I to open discussion and make sense of her own story.  Naturally curious, I have explored ahead and found not nearly as many middle grade or young adult novels deal with adoption at the forefront of the story.  There are a number of excellent titles which feature an adoptee as a minor character, but far fewer which host a protagonist struggling with the identity and cultural issues I foresee in my daughter’s future.  Perhaps this is why my own short stories and novels feature protagonists whose central conflicts involve grappling with missing pasts, blending cultural identities, and facing issues of race.
That brings me to the writing question of this post.  Here I am, a thirty-something adoptive mom writing, often in the first person, from the perspective of Asian American teenagers who at some point in their pasts were adopted from China.  These girls’ lives are a far cry from my own past –a white girl who grew up on Long Island and spent the better part of her life in the well-off suburbs of the Midwest.  This is writing cross-culturally. 
Do I even have the right to attempt to tell these girls’ stories?  Perhaps these stories are better told by Asian American authors.  We certainly have many gifted young adult authors who are also Asian American.  I have even had colleagues warn –your writing may not be publishable, and editor may not find you credible to write these stories.  Maybe we should we wait for this generation of Asian American adoptees to write their own stories? 
But, I wonder, what will they read in the meantime?  Does ethnicity alone qualify an Asian American author, born in the US and raised by Asian parents, to understand the special issues associated with adoption and multi-cultural families?  Perhaps, being an adoptive mother, literally functioning as the bridge between my daughter’s two worlds, do I have a special insight into an international adoptee’s struggles?  Does that earn me a pass to write contemporary Asian American protagonists?
What do you think about writing cross-culturally?  I’d love to hear you weigh in on this issue!
Additionally, if you’ve read any young adult literature featuring protagonists dealing with adoption issues as the central conflict, please, by all means, pass on the titles!

Monday, December 5, 2011

What is Your Material?

In her book, Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See dedicates an entire chapter to the question What is Your Material?  She asks us to “Notice the stuff that interests you!”  I think the concept of our writing material has a worthy place in a blog on writing craft.  It’s important that we become familiar with our personal material, that we explore why it’s important to us, and that we learn how to compost it.   This concept of composting is Natalie Goldberg’s:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil.  Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.  But this does not come all at once.  It takes time.  Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall though the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

Once when I was just taking up writing seriously, my architect brother asked me, “What are you going to contribute to the field?”  The question stymied me, but years later, after becoming more familiar with my material, the question seems much more appealing. 
            I’ve found my material returns again and again to the theme of adoption.  Without a doubt, I’ve been forever altered by the experience of being an adoptive mother.  But beyond that, raising my daughter has awoken me to the ways in which adoption themes run through my own life, despite the fact that my husband and I are the first to ever adopt in our family.  This quotation from Karin Evans’ The Lost Daughters of China embodies how my material is so precious to me:

“As a writer I have immersed myself in other subjects, but have always returned to the adoption theme.  Whether in fantasy or reality, it haunts us all, adopted and non-adopted alike.  It is a metaphor for the human condition, sending us forth on that mythic quest that will prove we are bonded to each other and to all creatures of this world –and in the process, reveal to us who we are.”
--Betty Jean Lifton Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1988)

Indeed, I have found that whether or not actual adoption finds its way into my characters live, they often end up, in some sense, adopting each other.
            And sometimes our writing material, by virtue of its nature, makes special demands of us.  In my post next Monday, I want to look into the special challenges my material has raised for me –in particular, writing cross-culturally.  In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’ve discovered about your material.  How do you stay in touch with it?  How do you fuel your compost pile?