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Harrie
07-31-2014, 01:51 AM
I'm seeking some advice on a couple of issues regarding my WIP.

It's YA dystopian / speculative fiction, set in a slightly alternative 1920s America.

As it's 1920s America, there is a Chinese community in the city where my MC lives. When a city is hit by an infectious disease (somewhat like the Spanish flu epidemic), some people blame the Chinese immigrants.

My MC, a white teenage girl, shares the racist attitudes of those around her and suspects that Chinese immigrants may be responsible for the disease outbreak.

When she's imprisoned in a cell with a young Chinese-American woman who appears to have the disease, the MC panics, assumes that she is going to contract the disease
from her, is disgusted by the woman's physical appearance as a result of the disease, and finally gets into a verbal and physical fight with the woman.

They eventually come to terms with each other. The MC is able to escape, but the woman is left behind.

(In case you're wondering why I made this character Chinese-American, it was just one of those things - my MC was pushed into a cell, and I realised that her fellow inmate was Chinese.)


I'm concerned about a couple of points.

Firstly, portraying the racist attitudes that seem appropriate to the period sensitively.

I think that there's no way that my MC wouldn't have shared the racist attitudes of those around her, and I think I ought to represent those. The novel is written in the close 3rd person, so it's describing the Chinese woman in terms of how the MC first sees her - which is as strange, terrifying and ugly. I've been reading historical documents about Chinese immigrants from the period, and have used those (considerably toned down) to inform the racism displayed. But I don't want to take it to a point where the reader thinks that because the MC is initially swayed by the racist arguments, that this is the viewpoint of the novel.

Secondly, I'm concerned about not making the Chinese-American woman a stereotype. (She's only in 6 chapters, but plays a pivotal role in the plot.)

Although I have a mental backstory for her, what we see in the novel is fairly limited (because they're locked in a cell all that time). She lives in the Chinese district and works in her family's laundry business. In the cell, she refers to herself by her English name, Lily. She knows a bit of Wing Chun, enough to take the MC on in a fight despite being physically smaller. She's pragmatic, argumentative, determined and quick-witted.

What do people think? Are there actions I could or should take before asking for Beta readers with appropriate expertise?

Thanks!

Iron Thunder
09-19-2014, 12:45 AM
Tricky subject - it seems these days some people want to read accounts of the past without any of the prejudice that existed back then. Even what would have at the time in the 1920s been a "progressive" opinion on race would nowadays very likely be "racist".

For example, here's a story about my grandfather - in the 1940s, my great granddad died. My grandfather at the time, working in Prince George (northern BC) couldn't afford to have him buried and have a headstone. He was wiring a Chinese man's restaurant, who loaned him the money to get my great grandfather buried. ($500 or so back then, around $5000 in today's dollars.)

That experience sincerely moved my grandfather and after that he always treated Chinese people well. He still called them "chinks" until the day he died, because to him, that was simply who they were. The more you study the past the more it becomes a totally foreign country.

I think showing your MCs belief change is of critical importance. These days in books I've read, bigoted views are usually reserved for someone other than the MC.

Tazlima
09-19-2014, 02:10 AM
Historically, depending on just how "alternate" this universe is, you could run into problems simply with the fact of their sharing a cell. Heck, even today there are issues with segregation in prisons.

From a story perspective: I'd say write the MC's thoughts as frankly and brutally as possible. You can always go back and gloss things over if your beta readers recoil and you decide a lighter touch is better. Sometimes people are racist jerkwads. If a story can't show that fact honestly, where would we be?

Corinne Duyvis
09-29-2014, 03:56 PM
I tend to fall on the side of honestly portraying historical attitudes, but doing what I can to critique them. For example, showing people's racism for what it is, calling out characters, including major character(s) from the group being discriminated against, etc. I tend to feel uncomfortable when racism is there purely because the setting requires it, and it's not further examined. It may be realistic, but if the main characters aren't part of that group, it doesn't feel right to reproduce blatant, hurtful oppression as "background flavor." Especially as I'm a white author.

As far as MCs go, they may well hold certain attitudes, but a) there were plenty of people in the past who realized racism was screwed up and fought against it, so it's not the only option, and b) while it may be likely that they hold racist attitude, that doesn't necessarily excuse them and there will likely be readers who dislike the MC/put down the book based on that. A historically accurate racist is still a racist, and that will be a turn-off for some readers, particularly when it's not critiqued by the narrative.

It's a difficult topic sometimes, and I'm not saying my approach is the One Right Way, but they're things to consider perhaps?

Fruitbat
09-29-2014, 04:11 PM
If your interest isn't the Chinese immigrant experience in particular, why not use a made up group instead since it's speculative fiction. Then you can portray whatever you want about prejudice and such, without the pitfalls of singling out a real life group.

patskywriter
09-30-2014, 12:35 AM
I think it depends on the MC's personality and how you hope to portray her. People don't always automatically accept the racist attitudes of their families and friends. I have a friend who's Polish and Yugoslavian. Her dad has horrible racist, homophobic, and sexist thoughts and in his old age isn't afraid to express them. In fact, because my friend tells me of all the ways he's been a great dad, much like mine, I have come to learn that ordinary, otherwise good people can indeed be prejudiced. People like him prove that life experience is more nuanced than many of us tend to forget.

JohnnyGottaKeyboard
10-01-2014, 03:17 PM
But I don't want to take it to a point where the reader thinks that because the MC is initially swayed by the racist arguments, that this is the viewpoint of the novel.
Or simply have the action (and the actions of your characters) belie the stated prejudices. I mean the best stories (to me) involve learning and growing and having MCs who find their initial beliefs altered by what happens in the plot.

I'm currently at work on a late 40s story about a former American GI (who's half-black btw and hiding the fact) who begins with an utter contempt for the Japanese. He feels this prejudice is not just rational but well-founded.

It's actually told in 1st person POV so his vitriol is uncensored in many instances. But the actions of the other characters, mainly, in this case, a young Japanese American girl he needs to transport, continually show up his beliefs as false.

I do think you need to be sure that your MC's prejudice is part of her psychological makeup and not simply window dressing to fit the period. And, most importantly, (and you kind of hinted at this yourself) you need to be sure that if prejudice rears its horrible head you address it and not simply shrug it off as being part of the setting.  



Secondly, I'm concerned about not making the Chinese-American woman a stereotype.
...
She lives in the Chinese district and works in her family's laundry business. In the cell, she refers to herself by her English name, Lily. She knows a bit of Wing Chun, enough to take the MC on in a fight despite being physically smaller. She's pragmatic, argumentative, determined and quick-witted. She sounds like a giant stereotype from this brief description, but it's all in the details.