Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Have We Really Come a Long Way, Baby?: Ethnic Diversity & Christian Fiction

I enjoy targeting the trends for Library Journal's annual Christian fiction preview each fall. Closures of fiction publishers, house mergers, and debut authors are all on my radar.

We've come a long way from the covered wagon driven fiction. Even Amish fiction is beginning to broaden in its scope to include more unusual settings and contemporary issues.

Domestic violence, the vaccine debate, sex trafficking, misconduct in the pastorate. All of these issues have been tackled in Christian fiction in recent years.

And while I think Christian fiction needs to deal with these issues in a different way than the world does, showing a biblical lens, I'm excited to see each of these dealt with in literature.

Though Christian fiction has grown in many ways, as I began to look at minorities and their representation in the market I see that there is much growth still to come.

I live in a very diverse city where our church pastorate is a mixed ethnic population. Authors such as Jennifer Erin Valent have written books about segregation and there are a few well-known African American authors. Lori Benton and Laura Frantz include memorable Native American heroes.

Yet as I was asked to explore this issue my eyes were opened to the lack being larger than I perceived.

I love reading books about different regions of the world, such as South America or Eastern Asia. Because it is not a part of my worldview I am even more excited to know more about what they are like. I would love to read a book set in 1980s China or 1950s Communist Russia for instance, but I can't seem to find these books.

Mike Duran has an interesting post from a few years ago about this very lack of diversity in CF (among other things) entitled What the Christian Fiction Industry Can Learn from the 2012 Election.

To be honest I live in the American South, but my church is very ethnically mixed and solidly biblical. Why does Christian fiction not reflect this?

I'm not talking about some magical formula where so much percent of the market needs to be saturated with forced books about minority groups. But I do think we need to broaden our horizon and worldview.

Kaye Dacus' blog contains an interesting article by Patricia Woodside about writing the multi-ethnic romance.

There is such rich depth for historical novels that is not being tapped into. As Christians we are called to go out into all the world, and I think our fiction doesn't reflect this. It would be great to see more fiction with vocational missionaries as main characters, or some of our heroic medical teams traveling into places with HIV and Ebola running rampant.

To see these stories we must write them.

Further, we must believe they are important. 

We must stop worrying so much about how our book fits into the market in some cases and write a book that will transcend barriers. 

When we do write about other cultures, we need to write true. Not stereotyped portraits. It might call us to move out of our safe Christian circles. 

We are called to go out into all the world and preach the gospel. To all peoples, in all nations.

Our fiction could be a powerful way to do this, if we can harness it and be willing to diversify our writing.


Angie Dicken said...

I couldn't agree more, Julia! I have a couple manuscripts collecting dust that are mixed ethnicity romance. Would love to see them in print some day!!

Jennifer Major said...

AH! Yes!! Culture! Write true!!

Each of my MS's so far has had Native American main characters, and I have had to do an unreal amount of research to get the stories exactly true to the time and the culture.
I read a book a while back that had a Native American tribe central to the storyline. But the tribe itself was made up. Every custom, every belief, every nuanced expression, was made up. I cannot begin to express the insult and disrespect that conveyed. There are nearly 600 different tribes in the US alone, yet this author made up one for her own story telling purposes?

That is not "writing true".

Now, imagine yourself a Native American believer, picking up a book. You see that the characters are Native, but then...a slap across the face. They're fake. As fake as a Target Halloween costume with zigzags on brown fabric and a pink feather in a polyester headband.
What was so wrong with the 600 tribes in the US that the author needed to make up another one?
That is tantamount to an American writer making up a country that is north of your border and calling it Coldlandia. Oh, and everyone there loves lawn bowling, and high fructose corn syrup and speaks Portuguese.

It was what Native people loathe, something known as cultural appropriation. Think of a person wearing a pink war bonnet to a rock concert. It may look interesting, but it's another wall up between people who want readers, and readers who don't want to be caught dead reading a book that makes a mockery of their culture.

I had to read close to 25 books, study Navajo culture for 2 1/2 years, and speak to several people in order to get enough of a grasp on the culture that I could write true to them and their history. I got called on the carpet on a few things and HAD to be willing to change those issues in the book that were not culturally correct.
If writers are going to expand the minds of the readership, it has to be done properly and without any kind of "I think this is right...ahhhh...who will notice?" mentality.

kaybee said...

Julia, this is well-written and well-timed. Like Angie, I have a multi-ethnic story. Mine isn't gathering dust, it isn't written yet. I wanted to do an historical with a mixed couple during the Harlem Renaissance. Fortunately it's the third book of a trilogy, so by the time the other two sell the climate/culture may have changed. If not, I'll do it as an indie. I agree, publishers are cautious. Our literature should be like our lives, real but reflected through the prism of Christianity.
Kathy Bailey

Angie Dicken said...

Jennifer, As I was putting your one sheet file together, I thought of you and this post. It drives me crazy when culture is stereotyped. I read one book set in Texas and one of the characters was every stereotype you can think of for that state. How much more insulting to do that with someone's ethnicity? UGH!

Iola said...

Jennifer says: "That is tantamount to an American writer making up a country that is north of your border and calling it Coldlandia."

There's a popular Christian romance series out at the moment that does this, only the made-up location has an English culture and the tiny island monarchy is somewhere in the North Sea. It has many rave reviews, but I disliked it for exactly the reasons you've given.

I've had similar issues with books set outside the US, but with a very US-centric approach to the point where they don't accurately reflect the time or culture they are supposed to represent. Many readers won't know the difference, so bad research and writing breeds more bad research and writing.

There's no easy solution, but I would encourage all those of you who are writing something outside the norm to keep writing. There are readers out there, and we are waiting for something new, something different.