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Stereotypical Perspectives

kristinaToday we’re thrilled to have Kristina McMorris [1] join us as our guest. Kristina is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and the recipient of more than twenty national literary awards, as well as a nomination for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, RWA’s RITA® Award, and a Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction. Inspired by true personal and historical accounts, her works of fiction have been published by Kensington Books, Penguin Random House, and HarperCollins.

The Edge of Lost [2] is Kristina’s fourth novel, following the widely praised Letters from Home [3], Bridge of Scarlet Leaves [4], and The Pieces We Keep [5], in addition to her novellas in the anthologies A Winter Wonderland [6] and Grand Central [7]. Prior to her writing career, she hosted weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, and has been named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40” by The Business Journal.

So often, novelists are warned not to incorporate stereotypes into our characters, and yet stereotypes exist for a reason: because they’re usually based in truth. There are so many literary rules—not to mention PC guidelines—we’re afraid of breaking. I hope my post will help liberate some writers who might feel hindered in this respect.

Connect with Kristina on Facebook [8] and Twitter [9].

Stereotypical Perspectives

The theme was “Asian Invasion.”

For years I had been tasked with planning an annual appreciation party thrown by my family’s company. Invitations would reveal the surprise theme each year, spurring the vast majority of our five hundred guests—from vendors and customers to politicians and journalists—to find or create suitable costumes to compete for the highly coveted first-place title. Up until then, we’d covered the Roaring 1920s, mobster-era ’40s, ’50s diner days, and disco glam of the ’70s. Sprinkled between those had been a Wild West saloon, sports pub, Vegas casino, and a French Renaissance-style masquerade ball. In various ways, culture played such a key role in those events that ultimately it didn’t feel a far stretch to move on to an Asian theme.

“Throw PC out the window! Just have fun!” we told our guests at a time when the fear of offending others had seemed at an all-time high (a miniscule level compared to now). It didn’t require explanation that the reason my family could host a party encouraging creative Asian costumes was simply this: We’re Asians. (Or half, in my case.) I suppose you could say we had an ethnic “hall pass.” And that allowed us, for a single evening, to extend that pass to others.

On event day, it was a delight to watch people pour out of their cars dressed as Chinese take-out boxes, sumo wrestlers, sushi rolls, and the stars of The King and I. the edge of lost_final [2]My sister and I went as the Siamese twins from the film Big Fish, our dresses connected at the hip by Velcro. We laughed at ourselves, and others, entertained by the silliness of it all, despite—or perhaps due to the fact—that bits of truth had inspired those costumes.

With a father from Kyoto, I was raised in a house where shoes were removed in the entry, the camcorder was viewed as another member of the family, and we used chopsticks to eat rice that was perpetually being warmed in the rice cooker. There was a hierarchy established by birth order, a priority placed on bloodline, and a demand that loyalty and respect trumped all. And, naturally, bowing and karaoke were a normal part of life.

This firsthand knowledge obviously boosted my confidence while crafting characters in my second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which largely centered on the Japanese American internment experience, as well as their classified service in the U.S. Army during WWII. I admit, I did worry on occasion that aspects of my Japanese characters might be criticized as being “stereotypical.” But when I voiced the concern to my husband, whose work entails global relations on a daily basis, he was quick to remind me that stereotypes often arise from general nuggets of truth, and I have to agree.

In no way does this mean I believe in portraying stock, cardboard cutouts who more closely resemble cartoon characters than real humans. It just means we shouldn’t be afraid of including behaviors and traditions that are commonly inherent in a character’s heritage, simply from fear of causing offense or garnering a review spatting a “cliché” label.

Of course, I’ve come to realize that this is a far easier stance to take when writing about an ethnicity for which one holds genetic claim. I imagine, by many readers of my second book, I was viewed as an expert at… well, being Japanese. Who was going to challenge me on those related details?

But then, while writing The Edge of Lost, I found myself with a cast of Irish and Italian immigrants. Yes, my family has Irish roots (whose in America doesn’t?); and granted, I was fortunate enough to study in Florence during my college years. But neither qualified me as an expert. And so, inevitably fear seeped in.

Common sense told me not to make my Irish characters speak like leprechauns with a penchant for spouting, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” And my Italian characters wouldn’t spend their days singing “O Sole Mio” while hand-tossing pizza dough. Yet based on every pertinent memoir I read, more often than not, the Irish lads dreaded their strict nuns in school and had fathers with a habit of spending wages at a local pub. Similarly, the Italians related stories of the family dinner table, where wine was treated like water, mothers constantly insisted the children weren’t eating enough, fathers could be quick with tempers, and speaking over one another qualified as conversation.

I’d personally observed most of those Italian dynamics decades ago; nonetheless, when funneling them into a novel, was I overgeneralizing? Was I setting myself up for ranting emails and nasty reviews? (Oh, to mentally quiet those prospective one-star reviews.)

In the end, I decided it would be ridiculous to veer away from any and all stereotypical attributes, since many of them were indeed built upon truth. So long as I kept my characters grounded in reality and added depth to their personalities, including backstories that had shaped their lives, I could feel confident in my choices. And on occasion, I would point out to the reader the ways in which they weren’t like typical Irish or Italian families. Because, as we all know, there are always exceptions—just as every Texas rancher doesn’t wear a cowboy hat. (Then again… maybe he does!)

Once the manuscript was finished, I did share copies with an Irish reader and an Italian-American friend for last-minute feedback. That’s when the payoff felt worth the risk, for both returned with comments echoing similar sentiments: that they felt as if they’d spent time with friends and family they knew.

As a writer, could there be a greater compliment?

Have you struggled with applying stereotypical traits in your stories? Did you steer away or include them? Have you found your own way of tackling this challenge?