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Lyra Jean
11-28-2013, 08:11 AM
Working on a short story that is set in a post-apocalyptic future. It's a husband and wife. I decided I was going to make them PoC. I know how it irks people to compare skin color to food. So I was wondering if this would be acceptable.

In my story the wife comes down with malaria from getting bit by mosquitoes, they live in South Florida. The husband doesn't come down with malaria because he has sickle cell.

Also it being a post-apocalyptic world I was going to mention how she misses chemical relaxers and hair extensions.

The story is about the husband nursing her back to health and how she can't die from this because they have survived so much already. So it has some flash backs in it as he recalls their adventures in surviving.

Is this is a bad idea? Should I leave PoC characters to PoC authors? I wanted to write a story with PoC where it didn't necessarily revolve around race issues.

Thanks for your feedback. I learn a lot in this sub-forum.

Polenth
11-28-2013, 12:54 PM
Going on an adventure in caramel-coffee-cinnamon land and avoiding all references to skin are two sides of the same coin. They're attempts to avoid saying someone has brown skin or that they're a member of a certain race. The avoidance is what comes across oddly. Just say it plain.

The hair issue is more complex, as black women don't straighten their hair and add extensions just for fun. There's a whole layer of social pressure and coding whiteness as beautiful. This is a much harder issue to hit pitch-perfect. It's not actually an easier thing to tackle than describing skin colour.

EMaree
11-28-2013, 02:46 PM
Clearly mention the color of her skin. If you don't spell it out a lot of readers won't pick up on the subtleties.

If the character develops malaria you've got plenty of opportunity to mention her skin color in contrast to its current state. (e.g. "her dark brown skin had a sheen of sweat").

Anninyn
11-28-2013, 03:32 PM
A lot of readers assume 'white' (and male and heterosexual, for that matter) as the default. Even when characters in books are specifically described as not being white, readers fall into that trap.

So don't tiptoe round it. Tell the readers what skin colour they have. If they interact with white people, describe the white people's skin, too. That way it is as clear as you can make it.

This is done quite well in books by N. K. Jemisin. They're good books. You should have a read.

untechioux
11-28-2013, 08:19 PM
If the character is of African-American, why not just say that? "Brown skin" or "chocolate skin" could be someone from South Asia or Australia. Then, not all Black people are the same color: a Black person could have very light skin, a non-African person could have very dark skin.

If the person is Black, white, or whatever, state that. Doesn't mean you don't describe their skin color...if their skin color is important to the story. What's wrong with mentioning a person's race? As long as you mention EVERY character's race.

Also, if she's a Black woman, she might have natural hair, and therefore not need or miss relaxers. Diseases and and relaxers are not the sum total of Blackness. A Black woman would miss working plumbing and electricity in that setting, too.

I don't think white writers need to necessarily stick to only writing white characters, but if you're not familiar with others, then research must be made - and not just here. You need to go ask a bunch of Black people if you're writing about Blacks, go to Asian-made, Asian-populated sites if you're writing about Asians, etc. What I've found here is that white authors ask these questions and get answered by other white authors, primarily or entirely.

Here's what you might try: if your main characters are African-American (which I'm guessing based on what you said), rather than state their race and skin color, you might try only mentioning the race and skin color of the non-Black characters. THAT sets the non-Blacks as OTHER, which is usually how white writers marginalize People of Color. I'm hesitant to say "picture yourself as the Black characters" or "pretend you're a Black writer", because, right, you wouldn't know.

But even as an exercise that might be useful, just to try to keep your POC main characters as the standard, and write the white or non-Black characters as OTHER, consistently throughout the story.

Also, instead of describing their skin color (which, again, can be misleading), you can use other cues to "help" the reader discover the character's race: their names (but be careful!), the food they eat, their favorite authors, what's important to them politically and socially, what holidays they celebrate, favorite actors, whatever. If they are Afro-Caribbean, what would that make them say or do or like, as opposed to what it would make them look like?

Sorry to go on and on. Sensitive topic to me.

kevinwaynewilliams
11-28-2013, 08:39 PM
My current novel is populated with black and Hispanic children. I wasn't purposely coy, it just didn't occur to me that when Letitia, Jahayra, Tyrone, Tiara, Jada, Malik, Jose, Rosarita, Lucia, Maria, Kiara, Jorge, and Ricardo were struggling to survive the zombie apocalypse in the South Bronx that I ever needed to come out and say that many of the characters were black.

I had a scene about a hundred pages in where the oldest girl was dealing with post-apocalyptic hair care for the kindergarten set. It confused my first set of readers because many of them hadn't realized that the girls involved were black. I fiddled around with a few variations, and finally wound up specifically identifying most of the black children as such.

I realised during editing the other day that I may be the only one that knows that Lucia and Maria are black and Hispanic simultaneously. I identify them solely as "Dominican". It's not important to the plot, so I probably won't change anything.

My take-home lesson: don't be coy. There's no reason to be, and you will confuse a certain percentage of your readership.

Lyra Jean
11-28-2013, 09:45 PM
One: I should not be posting these types of inquiries in the middle of the night :)

They are Haitian-American so maybe the sickle cell is out. I don't know this is just a general inquiry to see if the story is worth pursuing for me.

I am of course going to mention skin color but I didn't want that to be the only thing that I mention to define their race. I don't believe that disease and hair are the end all be all of a PoC so my apologies if I stepped on any toes.

I named them Jean Pierre and Marie Joseph. They eat Caribbean style food if they can. So plantains, rice, beans, fish.

Also a couple of flashbacks have them working on a farm in exchange for room and board. They leave when they realize that the guy running the farm is trying to resurrect his own version of the plantation system.

When my story starts Jean Pierre is trying to attach some solar cells to a tractor to make it solar powered so him and his wife can work their plot of land with it instead of by hand which is what they have been doing.

I started with what I knew which as you can see isn't a whole lot. I am of course going to do more research but as a white person I'm always afraid I'm going to totally piss someone off and then they won't speak to me anymore or worse. I feel relatively safe here asking questions like these so thank you for your patience. If I can't write the story well then I'd rather not write it or just make the characters white.

This story is mostly just these two people not a whole lot of others of any race.

Maybe they can miss their church and family since it was a plague that caused this post-apocalyptic world or is this another trope with black people being spiritual?

kevinwaynewilliams
11-28-2013, 09:57 PM
Sickle-cell affects Haitians as well. I think you may be over-thinking this. If I encountered Jean-Pierre and Marie Joseph eating plantains in a story, I would certainly presume I was dealing with people from the French Caribbean.

aruna
11-28-2013, 10:29 PM
Sickle-cell affects Haitians as well. I think you may be over-thinking this. If I encountered Jean-Pierre and Marie Joseph eating plantains in a story, I would certainly presume I was dealing with people from the French Caribbean.

Why French Caribbean? We eat plantains all over the Caribbean and South America!
Lyra Jean, there's a book set in Haiti with PoC characters (kids MC) that might interest you, called Because We Are. It's pretty good and feels authentic though written by a white man, even though in the end I found it disappointing. Gives a lot of local colour!

speakinghands
11-28-2013, 10:38 PM
I agree with the general thread consensus. Story and character backgrounds sound fine. I'm not from the Caribbean but family members are - they are from former colonies of England, not France, but the names clear up that distinction.

The only thing I'd change are the names not being quite so obvious. Genevieve and Antoine/Alain/Christophe/Etienne/etc., perhaps?

kevinwaynewilliams
11-28-2013, 10:52 PM
Why French Caribbean? We eat plantains all over the Caribbean and South America!

Certainly, and if I encountered characters named Dientje and Erik eating plantains, I would probably assume some part of the Dutch Caribbean. If Jean-Pierre and Marie Joseph were sitting down to a nice dinner of halibut I would presume they were Quebecois. The combination of names and preferred foodstuff does a lot to localise a character without having to explicitly say anything.

Lyra Jean
11-28-2013, 11:06 PM
I agree with the general thread consensus. Story and character backgrounds sound fine. I'm not from the Caribbean but family members are - they are from former colonies of England, not France, but the names clear up that distinction.

The only thing I'd change are the names not being quite so obvious. Genevieve and Antoine/Alain/Christophe/Etienne/etc., perhaps?

I work in a pharmacy. I would say at least half of my customers were Haitian. Most are named Marie and Jean which is why I initially chose them. Also I could remember off hand how to pronounce and spell them.

Thanks for all your feedback and understanding. I think I will try and write this story. Also I have the sickle cell in there because I didn't want both of my characters to become sick. If there's another way to make this happen I'm all ears.

speakinghands
11-28-2013, 11:12 PM
I work in a pharmacy. I would say at least half of my customers were Haitian. Most are named Marie and Jean which is why I initially chose them. Also I could remember off hand how to pronounce and spell them.

There's nothing wrong with your character names. It's just, if it were me, it would feel like picking the most obvious choices. Personally, I would go for names that were clearly Frenchy but not quite as common.

But I'm a name nerd, so take that for what it's worth.

Kevin Nelson
11-30-2013, 08:39 AM
The husband doesn't come down with malaria because he has sickle cell.

One small comment: It's worth being careful about the distinction between sickle-cell disease and sickle-cell trait. I know that may seem like a picky point, but unfortunate consequences have been known to occur from people mixing up the two.

Lyra Jean
11-30-2013, 08:59 AM
One small comment: It's worth being careful about the distinction between sickle-cell disease and sickle-cell trait. I know that may seem like a picky point, but unfortunate consequences have been known to occur from people mixing up the two.

This is something I'm going to do more research in. My husband is half Puerto Rican (Dad) and half Cuban (Mom). When I was pregnant they wanted to test for sickle cell but in the end did not.

J.S.F.
11-30-2013, 03:25 PM
Lyra, I'd have to agree with Anninyn and the others when they say you shouldn't pussyfoot around with ten different descriptions of a person's skin color when one will do. (I'm not saying that you did, just that sometimes, writers who are not PoC will try to find a fancy phrase to describe a person who is black, for example, when they could simply say "The person in question is a black female, mid-thirties, approximately five feet seven inches in height..." )

Like you, I'm white, male, straight, and a couple of novels I've written (which will come out next year) feature women who happen to be gay as the main characters, and yes, I'm afraid that I'm gonna piss someone off.

However, my intentions are good and I'm working with my editor to make damn sure I DON'T make any mistakes that way. (Even so, I'll probably piss a few people off. You can't please everyone). As someone said before, make sure you describe the other people in your novel as white or Asian or mixed and try to avoid stereotypical descriptions. (I'm very sure you won't make that mistake. I did once, and regretted it).

Roxxsmom
12-02-2013, 03:35 AM
If a story takes place in the real world, you have the advantage of being able to use descriptions for race and ethnicity that exist in our world without breaking pov. Aka, she was black, or Asian or whatever. The only issue is it possibly becoming dated later, when/if accepted terminology changes. When I read older books and a character is described as "oriental," or something I cringe, even though I know these terms weren't intended as pejoratives back then.

I have the issue, though, of writing in a made-up world where there are different ways people look depending on where in that world their ancestors came from. But they are not described, obviously, with the same words we use in our world, and the continents that exist do not correspond linearly to the ones in our world either. So how do I let the reader know that people from northern Sunabera have dark brown skin, double eyelids and tightly curled hair as a rule, while the people from further south on that same land mass have lighter brown skin, single eyelids and hair that is more loosely curled? I feel like I should describe how they look initially at least, which can be tough when you're in the pov of someone who takes these features for granted.

I've heard that using food items to describe skin tones is offensive to many people, and I see the point, though I suspect most writers who do so are merely grasping at a color that conjures up an image that is salient to the reader and pov character both. And oh wow, now I'm thinking of that song about yummy black and white boys from the musical Hair.

Some of the food items that are commonly used aren't available in my world anyway (chocolate is rare on the northern continent), so a pov character from this place wouldn't think of someone with brown skin as being the color of chocolate, any more than someone who lives in an equatorial area where dairy isn't consumed would think a pale individual from a more temperate latitude has skin like milk.

I do kind of want to describe someone as having pinkish skin that resembles a ham, though.

I tend to go with simple descriptions of the hair and skin when it's something the pov character would notice about a person, and it can be used to sneak in some details about the pov character's own appearance too. Something like: His skin was light brown, a shade or two lighter than mine, but his hair was tightly curled, like my sister's. Kess had always teased me for having hair like a southern barbarian, even though it was black, not light brown or yellow.

Lyra Jean
12-02-2013, 08:29 AM
This will be a short story and while the husband is trying to keep the wife alert until help arrives. He recalls everything they went through so far and how they survived so they will survive this too.

For one of my scenes where they leave the plantation owner wanna-be the husband refers to him as dumb-ass cracker.

There is also another scene where the people of their church gather together at the church to help one another through the ordeal at the beginning of the outbreak and I was going to make it at an A.M.E. church.

I have a possible third one but not sure what it will be yet. I'm planning on the story to be around 5,000 to 7,000 words. It's post-apocalyptic so it's real world.

Chris P
12-02-2013, 08:50 AM
I was going to make it at an A.M.E. church.

Growing up in the American north, I had no idea what an AME church was, and when I moved to Mississippi most of the black churches were Missionary Baptist. I think AMEs are more common in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.

But, I think the issue has been covered enough here. It sounds like you have the explicit statement of their skin color and enough other evidence to keep it consistent. Nothing left to do but write the story and see how it comes out. :)

Oh, and plantains? Come to Uganda and you'll eat matooke until it's coming out your ears! But people have English names like David and Gladys here.

Kim Fierce
12-03-2013, 02:57 AM
In my futuristic book every character is multi-racial and the MC describes people mostly as either having pale, tan, brown, or dark skin (I did describe one girl with chocolate skin and have vowed to never do so again). But in book two I get more detailed and specify the exact (or at least the most prevalent) races of the MC and her closest friends (black/white, black/Mexican/Puerto Rican, Japanese/Chinese, etc.). I would say if your world is still similar enough to ours that the word "cracker" could be used then you could mention other character's race or skin tone in terms we use as well.

Roxxsmom
12-03-2013, 05:18 AM
Urgh, the pov thing again. What if the character doing the observing is the kind of person who would think a person who is not white has skin like cinnamon or chocolate? The only thing I can think is to sneak something in to show how ludicrous this person is (make it clear the person is an unreliable observer) or how bothersome this is to the person so objectified.

Kim Fierce
12-04-2013, 06:56 AM
Urgh, the pov thing again. What if the character doing the observing is the kind of person who would think a person who is not white has skin like cinnamon or chocolate? The only thing I can think is to sneak something in to show how ludicrous this person is (make it clear the person is an unreliable observer) or how bothersome this is to the person so objectified.

I agree. In book one, my MC has never been taught some things. In book two, there is another POV added, and this person knows information the other MC does not, so the different POV's reflect this.

I ran into distress over a short story I wrote that was available as a free download called "Smoke Break." I told the story from the POV of a 19-year old white racist who believed everything his grandpa told him and believed we are on the verge of a race war. There were others with him debating him (co-workers of his same age--on a smoke break) and it was supposed to show how ludicrous he was, but my publisher told me a lot of people who read it thought that I was trying to be racist or really trying to say we might have a race war or something so I hysterically pulled the story!