Sometimes I get tired of writing white girls as my main characters. Now and again, I write men or people of color as protagonists, but my default setting for characters (as I think it is for many authors) is the same as who I am: an unremarkable, queer, areligious white woman.
It gets boring, sometimes, though. So when I started a short story about an invisible girl named Ingrid Mendelson, something just didn’t ring true to me. I decided that I wanted to write a character from a culture far different from my own. She needed to know things that I didn’t know and do things in ways that weren’t like mine. I chose to make her Indian from a 1st generation immigrant family – but I know almost nothing about Indian culture. I’ve eaten my fair share of palak paneer and naan but that hardly makes me some sort of cultural expert.
I needed help.
Enter M, a fellow writing group member of Indian heritage. In her own beautiful writing, she would often use words from her own language (which I could not identify) and include bits of Indian immigrant family life that were so different from what I was used to in my own life.
In a moment of late night bravery, I wrote her an e-mail asking if she could help me with finding some words, some foods, and some bits of culture that would make my character rounded and real rather than a series of slapped-together, googled stereotypes. Luckily, she agreed to give me a Skype call a few days later and tell me about her own culture in case some of that information could help me.
In a little under an hour, M gave me so many wonderful tidbits of information about food, family life, immigrant culture, and so so much more. She even helped me rename my character to something that makes more sense (my chosen name, she said, wouldn’t work for the background of the character which I had described). And, nosy foodie that I am, I asked a lot of questions about food and the kitchen, which has now come to the forefront in my story – pretty unexpectedly.
All in all, my little experiment in cultural exchange worked out really well for me. I’m proud of myself for not thinking I could just google some stuff and magically learn all about a people who live and eat in a way very different from myself. I needed help to understand the values and the lifestyle of another kind of family from my own. Many thanks to M for all of her time and energy spent helping me out.
Now I just have to, you know, write 2/3 of the story!