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Krishna K. Bista

Dr. M. A. Tighe

ENG 6643

April 22, 2008

Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults: Writing about Life within/out Particular

Culture

ABSTRACT

This research paper is about authors of multicultural literature for children and young

adults and their representation in writing. Should it be written by a member of a particular ethic

group for authentic portrayal of story and message? The response to this question varies in

literary criticism. As stories do matter for young adult readers to understand cultural similarities

and diversities, it is important to know who the author is and how s/he writers the literature. It is

undeniable fact that the literature written by ‘insiders’ give true portrayal of a particular ethnic

group. On contrary, if the authors are able to perceive the world of the story through their own

experience, intuition, and research, they can write the literature. Since children’s books that are

multicultural require to reflect culturally specific experiences and universal themes on the basis

of skin color, action, dialogue, relationship and culture of any particular group, the authors

should ask themselves whether they have acquired the specific sense of reality doing a research

before they try to write about another culture.


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Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults: Writing about Life within/out Particular

Culture

My work, as a novelist, a biographer, and a creator and compiler of stories, has been to portray

the essence of a people who are a parallel culture community in America.

-Virginia Hamilton, Laura Ingalls Wilder Award Acceptance Speech

Multicultural literature is hard to define as it includes literary writing of groups of people

from different races, colors, values and cultures. It is also labeled as literature of minority

cultures. Cai (2002) defines, “Multiculturalism involves diversity and inclusion, but, more

importantly, it also involves power structure and struggle. Its goal is not just to understand,

accept, and appreciate cultural differences, but also to ultimately transform the existing social

order in order to ensure greater voice and authority to the marginalized cultures and to achieve

social equality and justice among all culture….” (p. 7). However, multicultural literature for

young adult readers includes and focuses on the cultures of people from a nonwhite background.

In it’s most authentic form it is an area of literature that focuses on the reality of various cultures

(Lindgren, 1991 & Rochman, 1993). Who can accurately portrait the realistic pictures of

minority cultures in multicultural literature for young adults? Must it be written by a member of

a particular ethnic group? Does it make something different if it is written by outsider of the

group? Regarding the authors of multicultural literature, there is a controversial debate whether

is should be written by a member of ethnic group or by the outsider. Some believe that authors of

the particular ethnic or cultural group depict details of ethnic group, its cultural traditions, and its

people as the most authentic and qualitative literatures for young adults while others oppose the

view. However, if authors come from other social and cultural groups, they must have either

sufficient knowledge or wide range of research to create accurate portrayals of a cultural group.
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Literary creation depends on imagination and experience of authors rather than whether

the author comes from a particular group or not. The realities reflect in multicultural literature

are culturally specific realities experience by ethnic groups (Cai, 2002). Ethnic literature is the

one which has unique cultural experiences of an ethnic group. For instance, Asian American

literature is literature that reflects the experiences of Asian American people; African American

reflects the experience of African American people. Ethnic literature is therefore culturally

specific. To create authenticity in multicultural literature of young adults, culture and cultural

values of ethnic groups becomes the major criteria. “Departing from the reality of ethnic

culture,” as Cai (2002) puts it, “leads to nothing but misinterpretation or distortion of reality in

multicultural literature” (p. 38). For this the writer needs to reflect the cultural perspectives of the

people whom he or she is writing about, and makes readers from the inside group believe that he

or she “knows what’s going on” (Bishop, 1992).

Several books on ethnic literature are banded for many years or they are highly censored

in the media owing to misrepresentation of culture. Lack of imagination not only leads to

misrepresentation of culture but also create worse situations. It develops biasness in society,

violets the integrity of a culture and defeats the purpose of multicultural literature. And this

notion has been leading us into a debate: who can write multicultural literature for children

authentically, the insider or the outsider? Of course none of them can write if they do not have

imagination and experience of producing cultural authenticity. As all kind of literatures have

various ways of evaluation for literary excellence, some critics opine that multicultural literature

should not demands for cultural accuracy and authenticity in writing (Taxel,1986). Cai (2002)

says that those who believe only insiders can write valid literature about ethnic experience hold a

determinist view of the relationship between the author’s ethnicity and creation of authentic
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multicultural literature. According to determinist view, Cai (2002) writes, “the reality of ethnic

culture is inaccessible to any outsiders even if they have plenty of direct and indirect experiences

of that culture” (39). Likewise, Jacqueline Woodson (1998) finds that this question is posed by

whites to authors of color and argues for changing the question to examine “why others would

want to try to tell my story” (p. 3).

Giving an example of The Education of Little Tree, a book by F. Carter as the best book

by an outsider and accepted as culturally authentic by insiders Gates, (1991) mentions “No

human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes the effort to understand, to learn, to inhabit

another world” (p. 26). This novel is about a five-year-old boy with no name who is adopted by

his Cherokee grandparents after the death of his mother. He likes to go to in their cabin in the

Tennessee Mountains. Grandma names him Little Tree; and he is gently taught and nurtured in

the way of the Cherokee. In his formative years, he learns to respect nature and trust his instincts.

He also discovers more about the unpredictable and worrisome ways of white men, especially

politicians and businessmen. His distrust of whites becomes all the more extreme when he is

forced to go to boarding school to be ‘assimilated’ through cruelty and rigor. Grandpa and their

friend, Willow Tree, the men he looks up to most in life, rescue him from the boarding school to

continue his Cherokee upbringing. Such example shows that even the outsider writes culturally

authentic multicultural literature.

On the contrary, it is argued that the outsiders sometimes overestimate the power of

imagination to cross cultural gaps. Sims argued (cited in Fox & Short, 2003) that white authors

fail to truthfully reflect black experience in their books because they have not been socialized

into the ways of living, believing, and valuing that are unique to acquire the perspective of an

ethnic culture. A difficult for the authors of outside group is to reflect the realty of an ethnic
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culture and to grasp the perspective. Consider The Happy Funeral (Bunting, 1982), for example.

The story reflects a Chinese belief that a person who lives a happy and long life is considered to

have a good luck when dying. But the Chinese concept of seeking consolation from the longevity

of the deceased can not be translated into “happy funeral” and this misnomer shows that the

author has not yet completely taken on the Chinese perspective.

To create most appealing and convincing stories of indigenous cultural knowledge for

young adult readers, it is expected the authors to come from particular social groups so that

native voice, culture and community if they intrinsically bind human differences as a complex

reality in the fiction. Woodson (2003) asserts that those who are members of a particular

community should speak for themselves. She contends that “subject position really is

everything” (37). From these voices, it is important to recognize diversity among Native

American writing by showing in which tribe a writer belongs to. Marlinda White-Kaulaity writes

“they [insiders] speak eloquently, creatively, intelligently and honestly. Who is their audience?

The many young people in the language art classroom can be their audience” (p. 9). This

suggests that accuracy is another factor in multicultural literature of young adults to have writer

from within the group. It is also agreed that authors within the group want to be depicted in

convincing and authentic ways. One young adult literature book, Parrot on the Oven, the first

novel by Victor Martinez, that I read had the most appealing description of the Chicano culture,

lifestyle and minority complex in the life of a coming age adolescent, a 14-year Manny

Hernandez. Had the author, Victor Martinez come from other group, he probably could not

create such a believable character like a real human being, full of emotions and actions.

White-Kaulaity (2006) focuses on authorship for selecting and evaluating multicultural

literature for children and suggests asking questions like: who is the author? What is the author’s
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native background and affiliation? From which Native community is the author speaking? She

believes that native writers will present a much richer and more accurate story than any other

writer could, and they are less likely to use stereotypes. She adds “the more rooted people are in

their own community, the more likely their work will lead there” (p. 14). When an author goes to

write beyond his own community, cultural dignity and nativeness will simply be translated in

various forms. As an example, Sherman Alexie mentions the author of The Blood Runs like a

River through My Dream. Alexie says the story of the novel “was not only borderline plagiarism,

but allow failed to mention specific tribal members, clans, ceremonies and locations, all of which

are vital concepts of cultural identity” (p. 72) in the formation of multicultural literature. This

hints that the author should have reliable background information and professional and ethical

decisions of other’s cultures in multicultural writing if s/he comes out of the community.

If a member of an ethnic group has to make great effort to develop the group’s special

sense of reality, a nonmember who is unfamiliar with the ethnic culture has to make double

efforts to get the sense. There is no denying that imagination is a creative power, but imagination

is not the master of reality. Moreover, it can be limited by reality. In multicultural literature, the

author’s imagination and cultural differences put constrains on his/her literary choices. For an

author to write about the birth and death rituals in Nepalese ethnic tribes, which are totally

different from any other tribes in Asia, for instance, must work within the restraints of cultural

conventions and represent the facts of the birth and death authentically. “Even insider artists

sometimes misrepresent cultural facts,” Chi (2002) writes, “perhaps because they are negligent

or have not done the necessary research” (p. 43). In How My parents Learned to Eat, the award

winning artist Allen Say depicts a Japanese girl in school uniform dating an American sailor,

also in uniform, publicly. This is taken as a sensational scandal during that time. Similarly Amy
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Tan, a well-known Chinese-American author has also presented inaccurate cultural information

in her novels: The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Joy Luck Club, stories about Chinese history

from an insider’s perspective. Nevertheless, it does not contain minor accuracies. Some Chinese

words in the texts are misinterpreted.

Some authors, being away from the insider/outsider dichotomy, however, believe that

they only common human experiences to help them write about other cultures. Salisbury (1998)

focuses on humanities to access the culture of others:

Does one have to be Hawaiian to know and love an island, an ocean, the jungles

and valley, the hearts and minds of dogs, the sun, the surf, the sands? Does one

have to be Hawaiian to write about how rich all the natural life feels? No.

Does on have to be Japanese to know and write about how it feels to lose

someone you love? To be mistrusted and mistreated? To be removed? No.

Well then what does one have to be?

Human. That’s all. Just human. (p.8)

Creating a multicultural world is very difficult and time consuming task for an author. For him or

her it is not easy to access the experience of other cultures. Even common human experience, as

Salisbury said, is not enough. “To write well, to write responsibly, the author must always be

sensitive, walking as it were in the shoes of others, seeing the world through different eyes” (Cai,

2002, p. 45). In her article “Who can tell my story?” the African American author Jacqueline

Woodson (1998) also emphasizes the importance of experience, including common human

experiences as well as culturally specific experiences. She starts with the difficulty for an

outsider to understand Black English. To understand her grandmother’s language, she says, one

does not need to be part of her family, but one does need to have been part of her family’s
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experience of that culture. In other words, to understand another culture, one needs at least

indirect experience of that culture. For Woodson, being “insider the house” of a culture is

crucial. She hopes that “those who write about the tears and the laughter and the language in my

grandmother’s house have first sat down at the table with us and dipped the bread of their own

experience into our stew” (p.38). A good example of an author who makes earnest efforts to get

inside a culture, Cia (2002) writes, is Suzanne F. Stalpes, the author of Shabanu (1989), a

powerful book about desert people in Pakistan. She studied their language, did research on their

culture, mingle with them as much as she could and was able to identify with them. She had

lived in Asia for about twelve years and was familiar with much of the culture. As she puts it, to

write about another culture, a writer should not only be a better observer and listener, but also be

more empathetic to ‘be under somebody else’s skin’ (Denise, 1997). In short, the outsiders make

similar painstaking efforts to take on another culture’s perspective before they write about that

culture. If they still believe that they can fly across cultural gags on the wings of imagination,

what Silvery (cited in Fox & Short, 2003) predicts may be inevitable despite the fact that some

people do not agree with the prediction: “The great writers and illustrators for children of parallel

cultures will, on the whole, come from members of those cultures” (p.30).

Summing up, authors of multicultural literature for children are acting as cultural

messengers, but they may unconsciously impose their cultural beliefs and values on the culture

they try to recreate, exhibit and locate in any fictional texts. To introduce and transform one

culture from one to another is a very challenging task and for this task it is good to be the author

from within a particular group to have accurate and authentic multicultural literature, and if the

author is outsider, s/he should have enough study and research of another culture before

developing a fictional text. In order to give authentic representation to an ethnic culture, an


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author must make the effort to enter the world of that culture, which cannot be entered simply on

the wings of imagination, no matter how imaginative the author is. Insiders who want to write

about their own ethnic cultures have great advantages over outsiders, but they also need to

observe and learn. An ethnic group’s perspective is not inherited through genes but acquired

through direct and indirect experiences. For any writer within or without the group requires

having sufficient knowledge of subject matter or genuine research of other’s culture, besides his

or her imagination and artistic skills of writing, is essential to write multicultural literature in

appealing fashion openly and accurately.


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References

Alexie, S. (2006, Feb). When the story stolen is your own? Time, 3, 72-74.

Bishop, R. S. (1992). Multicultural literature for children: Making informed choices. In V. J.

Harris (Ed.), Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 (pp. 37-53). Norwood,

MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Bunting, E. (1982). The Happy Funeral. New York: Harper and Row.

Carter, F. (1976). The Education of Little Tree. New York: Delacorte.

Cai, M. (2002). Multicultural literature for children and young adults: Reflections on

critical issues. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Finazzo, D. A., (1997). All for the children: Multicultural essentials of literature. NY: Delmar

Publishers.

Fox, D. L., & Short, K. G. (2003). Stories Matter: The complexity of cultural authenticity in

children’s literature. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Gates, H. L. (1991, Nov 24). Authenticity in the lesson of little tree [Review of the book The

Lesson of Little Tree]. New York Times, pp. 26-30.

Hamilton, V. (1995). Laura Ingalls Wilder Award Acceptance Speech. The Horn Book, 71 (4),

436-41. Retrieved April 2, 2008, from

http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/1995/nov95_hamilton.asp

Lindgren, M.V., (Ed.). (1991). The multicolored mirror: Cultural substance in literature for

children and young adults. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press.

Rochman, H. (1993). Against borders: Promoting books for a multicultural world. Chicago, IL:

American Library Association.


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Salisbury, A. (1998). Varied carols. The Horn Book Magazine, 69 (2): 8-13.

Taxel, J. (1992). The black experience in children’s fiction: Making informed choices. In V. J.

Harris (Ed.), Teaching multicultural literature in grades K-8 (pp. 1-36). MA:

Christopher-Gordon.

White-Kaulaity, M. (2006). The voices of power and the power of voices: teaching with native

American literature. ALAN Review, 26(1), 8-16. Retrieved April 4, 2008, from http://

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/alan-review.html

Woodson, J. (1998). Who can tell my story? The Horn Book Magazine, 74 (1), 34-38.

About the author:

Krishna is a graduate student at Troy University. He can be reached at kris.bista@gmail.com. He

wrote this paper for his MS English 6643 course in spring 2008. He is from the Himalayan

Kingdom of Nepal.

www.krishna.com