Defining Multicultural Fiction

As an author who has tagged a couple of my books with the “multicultural fiction” label, one would think I had a very clear understanding of what multicultural fiction means. I don’t. Well, I know how I define multicultural, but others might have a different view.

In The Claiming Words, my two main female characters share POV. One young woman is white; the other is black. A majority of the secondary characters in the book are also black, so I feel pretty safe in labeling this book “multicultural.” But what about The Seance? After I put a multicultural label on it, I had deep reservations. While one of the important characters is Middle-Eastern, the main character (Abby) is white. The story is told from her POV. So, even though her love interest/best friend is from Saudi Arabia and is a practicing Muslim, I’m still not quite comfortable with using “multicultural” to describe the contents of the book. I’m afraid readers will feel cheated or misled when they discover the main character is not from a diverse background.

Hmmm… Maybe I missed the whole point of what multicultural is supposed to be about.

Let me give you a little insight into my background so you know where I’m coming from. I’m white. My husband is West African. We have interracial children. My brother’s first wife is black, so he also has an interracial child. His new wife is Australian. Seriously, when my family gets together, we look like a United Nations meeting. Given my family background, I should be totally on top of what it means to be multicultural, right? Maybe not.

What exactly is multicultural fiction? Does this mean any fiction written by a person with a multicultural background? Or, does multicultural fiction refer to the content and characters in the book? Surely, the book must have at least one multicultural character. But, how many? And, does this mean the main character must have a multicultural background in order to qualify?

If any book with multicultural characters can earn the label “multicultural,” then we’d have to include a whole lot of books. Harry Potter has a cast of characters from different cultures. Even Twilight has a black character. Are these considered multicultural books?

Hmmm… Defining multicultural fiction isn’t as easy as one would think, is it?

Maybe we should restrict the multicultural label to books that explore different cultures instead of just characters with different colors of skin. Maybe we should restrict the multicultural label to those books that feature a non-white main character. When I say it like that, it sounds sort of exclusionary, doesn’t it?

Exclusion is never a good thing and certainly not in the spirit of what multicultural is supposed to be.

Let’s stop for a moment and talk about a friend of mine…. Ruth de Jauregui is an author who started a website devoted to fantasy and science fiction books for teens and young adults of color. Alien Star Books is meant to help parents find books with characters their kids can relate to–or characters their kids can learn from. Though Alien Star is primarily dedicated to books with protagonists of color, it includes everyone.

On her website, Ruth says she would never exclude a good book just because the main character isn’t a person of color. On her Facebook group page, she says, “While there is room for EVERYONE, because this is all about inclusion and not exclusion, I really want to promote books with main characters and positive images of People of Color.”

“This is all about inclusion and not exclusion.”

As authors, we all have our own cultural backgrounds. We all draw from our own lives when we build our characters. Many authors will tell you they have no control over the characters they write, that the characters are fully evolved when they reveal themselves. Most authors don’t set out to deliberately fall into a category. We just write. We tell the story and label our books later. This is why there’s overlap in genres, age categories, and yes.. sometimes even our labels can’t be clearly defined.

Should we chuck away labels altogether and just let good fiction be good fiction? The idea certainly has appeal. But, with the vast number of books available for purchase, labels certainly help us narrow down our choices. Let’s face it–some categories are always going to have big, huge gray areas. Multicultural fiction is one of those categories. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to clearly define it, and I don’t think we should. Because to strictly define it would be to exclude a whole lot of good books and that’s the LAST thing we want to do.

Like Ruth from Alien Star says, “this is all about inclusion and not exclusion.”

Words we should all live by.

41 thoughts on “Defining Multicultural Fiction

  1. I agree with Ruth de Jauregui. I think it can be complicated to try and precisely define any genre. Even something as basic as a “comedy” assumes that those reading are going to find humor in the book’s content. Yet each person has their own definition of humor, as they should. I wonder if a better labeling system would be to look at individual sections, rather than the whole book itself. So a “comedy” novel could be labeled “Contains Moments of Humor” while a multi-cultural book could be “Contains Characters from Different Backgrounds.” That way, readers wouldn’t feel cheated if the book failed to live up to it’s marketing.
    –JW

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    • That’s a great idea, JW. It’s hard to choose a category on Amazon when your book doesn’t quite fit, or if your book could fall under multiple categories. It would be nice to be able to tag a book with all the different elements (and variations) within.

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  2. Very great post! It’s like you read my mind with this post! Me and my twin run a book blog solely dedicated to reviewing “multicultural” books and we tend to define it based on a wide spectrum. I think multicultural has to at least include more than one marginalized group, like for instance your book, The Claiming Words( I reviewed it XD) had two point of views: a white teenage girl and a black one. But you did manage to work in 2 black love interests(which I loved) and mixed in that Rachel’s paternal side was African. I think that pretty much counts.

    Also in terms of multicultural, I think that some people forget that “culture” isn’t just race. Being gay is part of a culture, being disabled is part of a culture, hell even wearing glasses can count as a “sub-culture”.

    Everyone has their own definition on it but I suppose I define it as including a lot of characters that don’t fall under the “default”(e.g white, straight, cisgendered, able bodied, thin and so on).

    With our first release , there are two main characters, a white male and a black female and all the other important characters are non white except for one not including the main character. So I think even with one white main character who falls under the default but is surrounded by others not like them could be considered multi cultural 🙂

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    • Thank you for making that point! Multicultural includes the LGBT community as well as those who are differently-abled. Lots of people identify with multiple cultures, not just one. (And thanks for reviewing TCW :))

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  3. From Guin XD Libby wrote one, and I just had to as well!

    Culture to me doesn’t just stop at race. A definition of culture:
    -the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

    How one identifies can be their culture, and one is not limited to just one. If someone is a mixed race Asian woman and gay, she’s not any less one or the other. Add that she’s a practicing Buddhist, and there are a whole number of cultures she can identify with. Being American born? Already she’s Asian, American, Queer,a Woman, Buddhist, and Mixed-Race.

    I think a book can be multicultural, but it makes much more sense when major characters differ from our “default” or male, white, cis gender, straight, and abled bodied. This is only my definition, but I find that a love interest is often as important as the central character. If not more. I dont think that just because a main character is white, that a book is not multicultural. But I also think a book can very well have marginalized groups, but just as background music. I absolutely love Harry Potter. I dont think there is a book series involving wizards I love more. Even now, I have to rip out the cord to my tv if a Harry Potter movie marathon is on, because if 5 min goes by and Im watching, I might as well give up my entire day, because Im hypnotized. But I find that people of color in Harry Potter are mainly background noise. Cho Chang could’ve opened the door for changing that every major character worth mentioning is white. The villains, the mentors, the heroes? All white. Marginalized groups were a bit of a quota for me, and I feel as though Im betraying Harry Potter’s memory just for saying such blasphemy. But yea, “multicultural” may be different for the individual, but great post =D had to write a reply.

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    • I loved Harry Potter too. Probably my favorite YA series ever! But, you’re right. Though there was a bit of diversity, there could have been more. Our country is a very diverse place–I’d like to see diverse literature to match.

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      • I feel bad even saying that :/ I mean I swear on everything I own right now, that series completely changed my life. But it failed in other ways I suppose. There’s strong female presences, and that’s a plus. But why should it stop at just that? I remember seeing on a discussion board on Diversify_YA, about sexuality in books, especially within the queer community. An author stated everything is so “categorized.” It’s “gay” or “Asian” or “kid in a wheelchair.” Why can’t a character he a gay kid in a wheelchair!?! I laughed to myself but I agreed. Why does it have to stop at one thing?

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        • I’m happy to live in a day and age where we have some diversity. Sure, there could be more, but when I was a kid, I can’t remember readying any books with black main characters or even a gay character. The literary world has made great progress, but we can do more.

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    • I finally read almost all the Harry Potter books. I finally got book six, so now I can finish the series. But I always pictured Hermione as being Black, because of the description of her hair as “bushy brown.” Honestly, I was a little disappointed when she wasn’t Black or mixed in the movies, although the actor did a fine job with the character. (I haven’t seen all of the movies either — I prefer to read a book first, then see the movie later).

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      • I didn’t really have the privilege of imagining her anything but white. I’d seen most the movies before I’d started book one. This’ll sound cliche, but I thought Emma Watson did the best job regardless of race. But I’d always pictured her white because I’d seen the movies first. I’m such a big fantasy lover, and I don’t think even lord of the rings comes close to the magic of Harry potter. But id never heard anyone picturing hermoine as mixed race or black. Thought that was an interesting comment. And it makes sense, seeing how the uk is very keen to interracial marriage and the like. I don’t think it’s any easier than here, but it’s definitely more common I think. So hermoine could’ve been mixed race. Jk Rowling herself claimed hermoine was based on her 20 year old self, so maybe that’s why I never thought about it.

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        • Perhaps I envisioned her as Black or mixed because my own daughter is mixed, with that fine, frizzy hair that expands when you try to blow dry and brush it… I only made that mistake once. LOL! And then I conditioned the heck out of her hair and got it smoothed down and into a poof. Poor kid.

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  4. I love Liberated’s comment about all the sub-cultures. I’m currently working on a f/f book and I’ve been sitting down with lesbians to learn the lingo. My friend at first thought I was crazy or just interested in sexual things until I pointed out a phrase she kept using. She didn’t think anything of it because it’s normal conversation. Much like in my interracial household we have a different language then either of our parent’s homes. Although I’m labelled IR I could be MC or thousand other things. The good thing about labeling my book IR is it helps people that are interested in BM/WW books narrow down all the fiction to see a relationship they can relate to and isn’t that the best way to fall into a book? When you can see yourself as the main character.

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    • I think that’s one of the great things about Alien Star. Kids can find characters they can relate to, but they can also read about characters who are from other cultures and backgrounds. It’s an amazing reading opportunity.

      In regards to interracial romance, let’s be honest–women like to be able to identify with the heroine. They also like to fall in love with the hero. We all have our preferences, so it’s nice to have books that feature heroes (and heroines) of all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, and nationalities. It’s also essential that people in the LGBT community can find books they can enjoy. Hey, everyone likes a little romance, right?

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  5. Great post, Tricia, as always and food for thought.

    Multi-cultural as I always understood it, relates to different ethnicities and cultures, I’ve never seen it as a skin colour thing they way some people view it, as skin colour doesn’t reflect if someone is from a different culture or country. I’ve always hated labels to be honest anyway, as I’ve always viewed them as a negative and derisory tool used to seperate us rather than unite us. If the world stopped thinking in ridiculous absolutes, it would be a far happier and more peaceful place. Like skin colour for instance, it’s utterly ridiculous that people get so hung up and divided about it. Think about it, people talk in terms of black and white, two diametrically opposing terms, it’s confrontational and not accurate. There is no black and white. I’ve never seen a black or a white person in my life, we’re all the same, just different shades of pink and brown and that’s a beautiful thing. 😀

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    • One day, I hope we’ll get to the point where people aren’t hung up on skin color. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, there is still racial division. Your comment reminds me of a cute story… When my daughter was five or six, she came home from school angry because an older boy told her she was black. She pointed at her arm and said, “I’m not black, I’m brown. See? Brown.” She couldn’t understand why the boy kept insisting she was black when clearly she was a lovely coffee-with-cream brown. So, you’re right, Sophie. People come in varying shades of beauty, but we insist on sticking with a few narrow labels.

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      • Ah, bless her! I bet she’s the cutest thing imaginable. xx

        But actually she’s totally right. All my friends are various shades of brown and pink, and when you start thinking in terms of browns and pinks, suddenly it’s like, ‘what the hell is all the fuss about?’. Browns and pinks are not diametrically opposing terms, as black and white are. ‘Black and white’ immediately conjures up opposite sides, as any antonym does, night/day, open/closed, dry/wet, up/down etc. It’s designed to divide, not unite. When you take out the confrontational and inaccurate term, it totally diffuses any racial stereotype. We are all glorious and beautiful browns and pinks! 😀 xx

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  6. Piggy backing on Sophie’s comment I never really saw skin color as a part of a culture either. Partly because my family(paternal and maternal side) is from Cuba. I’ve been told I don’t look Cuban because I’m black.(sorry Sophie, can’t break the habit) And I’ve had to ask people if they’ve ever been to Latin America because there are probably more blacks in South America and the Caribbean than the USA. Growing up, in school I was “black” and at home I was “Cuban”. So already that makes me able to identify with two cultures. I’m a woman, I’m a twin, I’m geek, now that makes me able to identify with more people through sub culture! Multiculturalism is broader than just race.

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    • Absolutely, multi-culturalism is about the richness and diversity of a culture and country and it’s people. When I’ve been teaching my kids about Diwali for instance, we’ve looked at the wonderful geography of India, the animals that live there, it’s rich heritage, it’s stories, it’s history, it’s people, it’s food, it’s clothing, the Hindu religion and customs and what each god and goddess represents, etc. We don’t look at what skin colour Indian Hindu’s are, skin colour is totally irrelevant and has nothing to do with multi-culturalism.

      As for me, other than being a human and a woman, if I had to label myself as anything, I’d just say nerd! 😀

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  7. I recently changed most of my book tags at KDP. I despise labels, but we have to label our books to aid the reader in finding what they are looking for. I grew up learning culture as a term used to describe 2 things, arts/music etc.., and way of life (as in different American Indian tribes had different cultures, different countries had different cultures, different races had different cultures). My book is a 20th century fictionalized true story set in the Deep South USA during the period just prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Different races, at least in this country today, don’t seem to have a vastly different way of life the way that I saw it in my youth. Middle class America is now much more culturally diverse. Because the book has an interracial relationship in it and dealt with racial tension (even though it is not a romance novel), I labeled it interracial. That change alone did not seem to improve sells. But the book was more about the cultural differences (ways of life) than the romance so I labeled it multicultural. The book had slow sells with the tags I once had regarding the era and the book content features, and now it is selling (or I will say, it has had a surge, who knows if this will last?), so I feel the changes are working to help people find it. Excellent post Tricia. I feel your pain/confusion.

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  8. When you have a book as complex as yours, it’s kind of hard when you’re limited to seven Amazon tags. Amazon’s system of categorizing books is very restrictive and doesn’t get to the essence of some books. I wish you luck with your book. It sounds fascinating. I’ll have to check it out.

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    • Complex is a good word…ha! Being a fictionalized true story set me off on another dilemma, but that would need a new post. There is actually a definition to describe it on wikipedia called “faction”, so I adopted that word for the paperback that is coming out soon. Readers will probably see that and think…”This author can’t even spell fiction, I’m not reading this!” We shall see.

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  9. What would non-multicultural be? Monocultural? Unless you are writing a book set in a fairly isolated area, would you ever have a cast of characters all from the same culture?

    Leaving aside that many of my characters aren’t entirely human, I have characters from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, my protagonist is an orphan from LA, my romantic lead is from a wealthy Jewish background in the Midwest, I have a former Marine from a rural community, a man from the urban Gay leather scene, a middle-aged Lesbian psychologist, and a Cherokee lawyer as supporting characters.

    Even characters who grew up in the same country are not necessarily from the same culture.

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    • Definitely. That’s the beauty of multi-culturalism. Every country is made up of a wonderfully diverse spectrum of cultures. In fact, I’m not aware of any country that only contains one mono-culture. We are all diverse, that’s why things like racism are so totally insane. Besides, the thing I always love to remind ignorant racists of, is the fact that every human on this planet originated from the same small genus group in Africa! Ha! 😀

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        • Thanks honey. I know I’m an idealist and probably naive too, but I simply don’t understand racist morons. What does it matter how light or dark your skin is? Totally insane troll logic. Humanity comes in a myriad of browns and pinks, that’s the beauty of it! 😀 xx

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  10. I’m with you, SKNicholls, I despise labels, especially “minority” as it relates to blacks, latinos, etc. Multi-cultural is a difficult label to define but I’m glad that more and more authors are embracing any definition of it. It’s refreshing, compared to how it used to be.

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  11. “This is all about inclusion and not exclusion.”…

    I absolutely agree with your statements here Tricia.

    As ever, a writer must be also an anthropologist, always open to new contexts, shapes and features..

    To avoid segregation & to let the mind be open.

    To rest happily tolerant towards all sort of differences…
    Moreover in a context of globalization, particularities break the homogeneity brands and the average patterns .
    So, they should be welcome…

    Cheers, Aquileana 😉

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  12. I thinks it’s great that so many are commemting on how they never considered multicultural fictions to be a skin color issue, but I think these opionions are lacking a little reality. I would love nothing more than to do away with lables myself, but this is the world we live in. I perfectly understand the the differences between culture, race, nationality and more, but lets be honest- color isn’t an issue that people just don’t see. I waist my breath trying to explain to people of my own race about experiencing different cultures, but unless someone is into the idea, you’re just talking. I’m married to a person of another race so when someone says multicultual to me, I don’t make any assumptions. I investigate for myself, but most people don’t take time to this. When most people here the term minotity, they authomatically think “black people” and sometimes “women”, but that leaves out so many others. I don’t think trying to define multicultural fiction is wise; leaving it open to the investigation of the reader should at least get people thinking about different issues in different ways, whether it be issues of race, color, culture, langauge, religion, etc…

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  13. Pingback: Blogdom Nov. 20-Dec. 18 ’13 | Welcome to the ToiBox

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