Each month our writing group has Craft Chats, where we read a few articles and discuss the craft of fiction. Aquafortis last night came up with a great discussion starter on dialogue, and we debated the merits of dialogue as an indicator of cultural, ethnic and racial identification.
I disagreed strongly with one article's premise that dialectal English is a positive way to convey ethnicity. While I'm not a fan of the foodie descriptors -- the mocha-caramel-chocolate-cinnamon skin/eye combination -- I'm also not a fan of the "Fraulein, vee haf vays of makingt you talk!" school of dialogue, either. People may feel comfortable with exaggerating the characteristic accents of their own culture, but it seems like a cheap shortcut most of the time, and is a slippery slope to caricature and stereotyping.
Of course, if all of one's characters are written to reflect the dominant culture, this perhaps need never be an issue... Or, maybe, as is being discussed at the Fire Escape authors maybe shouldn't describe race at all.
Most writers describe race if a person is nonwhite. Rarely do writers spend time discussing or describing a character of the dominant culture unless it's a romance/relationship/"chick lit" kind of thing, and it's deemed important for the reader in order to engage their imagination and allow them to insert themselves into the story. (Of course, a writer always wants this, but somehow, in romance there's just more description. Appealing to the physical, etc.) In young adult literature, class seems to be more closely described, and race is often left in the foodie stages. (Sure, sure, she's got mocha skin and long licorice lashes, but does she have an iPod and 7 Jeans?) Race, for some, is dismissed as an outmoded thing, a social construct that doesn't really have any meaning. After all, didn't Stephen Colbert already say that he doesn't see race? (Therefore no one does, right?)
When a character's ethnicity isn't explicitly defined, can't a reader still identify with things about them, like their fashion sense, strength, or love of algebra? Is hoping that readers will identify with a character simply because they are described as being of a particular ethnicity, racist? Or are you offering your reader a representation with which to identify?
From the writer's point of view, it's been strange to write -- to be honest, the character of Lainey was meant to be biracial, but I was discouraged from this. Another manuscript featured a Caucasian male, which was shocking to a few people, and eventually I was asked to rework that novel entirely. I may, someday. (Or not.) My recent WIP has a character with AFOs -- ankle/foot orthosis -- and crutches. A member of my writing group suggested that I add more description because it wasn't apparent what the character looked like. At the time, the comment didn't strike me as strangely as it did later on. Once again, I'm afraid that I am not, as a fellow MFA'er once told me, "representing" properly.
A commenter at Mitali's blog sagely remarked that "show, don't tell" is always the most important rule, but how, really, do we show race? Or can we? Saying that race doesn't matter doesn't equate with treating people equally, nor does it erase the desire of many readers to know who they're dealing with.
But...why is that?
Why does it matter?
Are we trying to identify? Or differentiate?