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!


  1. Hi Jill! I love your blog. I think that as an adoptive mother, you certainly contribute a unique voice to cross-cultural literature. You see how your daughter interacts with both cultures, and are keenly aware of struggles she faces. You are in a unique position to be a "voice" for adopted girls who are growing up, learning to write, and finding their own voice.

  2. Thanks for that comment. Here's a quotation I return to by Julius Lester (author of Newbery Honor winning TO BE A SLAVE): "To equate identity with race and culture is to deny the power of the imagination which can be the empathetic bridge between nations, cultures, and individuals. Instead of placing barriers around a culture and denying others permission to eneter, we should be thankful that people outside our group are interested, curious, want to learn, want to feel a sense of belonging with us. Cultures are not private reserves but humble offerings."