Friday, August 16, 2013

Diversity & naming your characters, by Yahong Chi

There's a reason why I chose a French class student list for that image up there, and you can guess why by taking a peek at the title of this post. Need a hint? It's the first word.

[Edited 17/08/13]

It has been a common practise for non-Western families to name their children common Western names so as not to ostracize their poor children in school, and to allow them to adopt a presentable name to ease their way into Western society. But more and more, I'm seeing students bearing (both with pride and with resignation) names of their own ethnicity, of their own culture—at least here in Canada. As multiculturalism moves away from being a fad and toward being an unquestioned part of society, names that would previously have made their bearer a bullying victim are now being normalized.

I'm not talking about exotic spellings (how many ways can we think of to spell "Caitlin" "Kaitlyn" "Catelyn" anyways?). I'm talking about names like "Churan". Like "Kalika". Like, hmm, I don't know, like "Yahong".

"Churan" and "Kalika" are actual names of POC (people of colour) kids I am acquainted with, and seeing how I am Chinese, I could list you a dozen Chinese acquaintances who have chosen to keep their original names rather than take the "easy" way out and go for a more "socially acceptable". Why are those words in quotation marks? Because—good news!—now other kinds of names are socially acceptable too, not just Molly or Abigail or Heather or other "white-sounding" names.

But wait! you say. What's wrong with POC kids having commonplace names? And I say: nothing. I am certainly not condemning any parent who chooses to name their kid "Jacob" or "Edward" or "Bella". Rather, what I'm saying is: if you're going to include a POC character at all, make sure you get them right. This includes making decisions on what kind of name to give them, just like you decide on any character's name. (Pro-tip: Do not use "Wang" as a Chinese boy's first name, when it is predominantly—as in, approximately 99% of the time—a last name.)

Writing diversity might be harder than normal, since we all tend to default to white male characters (check out Megan Crewe's great post on defaulting to white male characters). But is that an excuse for avoiding diversity? Well, in the words of Ellen Oh: "Being called a racist is nowhere near as painful as dealing with actual racism." We all can stand to be a little more thoughtful when it comes to diversity. So why not start with the names?



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  2. Typos...

    I once wrote a story that I tried to explore diversity in a real way. But it never came together. Partly due to my lack of skill at the time.

    But also because I didn't know how to organically get the cultural aspects in without sounding like some naive outsider.

    Now I chose to give my japanese-american protagonist and his siblings non-asian first names.

    Partly because I didn't want non-asian readers to trip of the pronunciations, but since the father is italian (Mother is Japanese) who , I chose to use italian names for ease of reading, but balance that with the family living a mix of italian and japanese culture at the protagonist's home.

    I also thought it would be a great way to give my protagonist a vibrant way to grow up with two different sets of traditions that seem opposite but have common ground.

    Italians are known for being lively and loud-spoken, contrasts with the more quiet, and humble mannerisms and principles of japanese culture would be an interesting way to look at cultural difference, but also cultural duality.

    But both have time honored traditions, stories, and both cultures put great pride in family life and doing good work, so even cultures that look outwardly night and day have a sunrise and sunset that mirrors each other.

    Having said that, it's the kind of thing you need to be careful about, issues of race aside, it's not easy to do well.

    Overall, I never could get the story right, but I keep revisiting it year after year, and I will get it right, I know the characters work, otherwise I wouldn't still have this genuine DRAW/NEED to write about this world again.

    I honestly believe part of the problem is there can be a not so fine line between diversity and racism, strictly in terms of the writing.

    So, I have to disagree slightly with the Ellen Oh quote mentioned above.

    I'm certain there are authors who sincerely want to have diversity be a natural part of the story, but for various reasons, their attempts, whether published or not, get perceived by readers both in and outside the culture(s) involved as unmeaningly racist, and that's not a fun feeling for writers, period.

  3. An aside: I'm not of asian descent, and while I don't (YET...) write about characters of my own racial identity, I don't think the default for me or writers of varying racial or cultural identity, is necessarily "White Male" either. Unless that's what you are, and even then, that's not always the point or intent.

  4. A funny aside: I took my new verse novel about the Lost Colony of Roanoke to my critique group on Monday. Several people were curious about my Roanoke character's name, Kimi, because they felt is sounded Japanese. Nope, it's a girl's name meaning "secret" in the Algonquian language.

  5. Great post. I love the part about getting it right. I see manuscripts often that have a character who is Russian or German and the author has simply added a "sky" to the end of them name. Names have meaning. When authors take a few minutes to research the reason that names sound or look or are spelled the way they are in other cultures, their manuscript becomes that much richer.

  6. The teenage Asian characters in my YA book have generally generic "white" names like Grace because that, in my real-world experience, is what they have.

    The parents, on the other hand, are named "Mr", "Mrs", and "Dr". ;-)

    But I have been trying to make sure names are appropriate and not the literary equivalent of Wonder Bread - which I never liked to begin with.

  7. I think about diversity of character in my writing a lot. I'm a basically white European writer, but I write about all different kinds of characters (because those are the kinds of people I know in my life). I do worry though, that someone out there at some point may get offended.

    "How could he possibly write about this (POC Character) when he could never know what's it's like to live as a (POC)?"

    I certainly hope that doesn't happen, but I suppose every book is going to have some people who don't like it.

    1. Matt, I can almost guarantee you that will happen, but I can also almost guarantee you that that will happen even if you are a POC yourself--I've gotten questions about the inclusion of Chinese culture in my own manuscripts, and Ellen Oh describes in her post how she has faced censure for her own book's worldbuilding. But as you said, every book is going to have some people who don't like it. It's more about trying to get it right than giving up entirely, so I'm really glad to hear that you write all different kinds of characters.

  8. I'm like Matt. I strive for diversity, but want to make sure that when I include diversity, it's done in an authentic way so that it doesn't look like pandering.

  9. I actually remember that review, and the author's comment. I believe he was pointing out, in a carefree and witty way, that the names don't make his characters. I agree with him. I feel sometimes authors strive too much to come up with names that are unique because they feel that's a way to make the character unique, like a shortcut. It's not. It's just a name. Can't tell you how many times I read a book and EVERY person has a name I've never heard before.

    One of my best buddies in HS was named Yang, a name I'd never heard before I met him. And then he introduced me to his brother who was named...Yang. See he told me the middle name was the differentiating feature in Korea, which I didn't know. Thing was: didn't matter their names were, first or middle, they were unique because of who they were and not their names. I think the key is to stay away from stressing about names and focus on making the actual character unique, whether the name fits the character's ethnicity or not.

    1. Mike, of course I'm not suggesting that names are a shortcut to make characters unique; after all, I did mention that giving POC characters white names is perfectly fine. Rather, my point is: names are something to think about because they are (or can be, at least) intertwined with culture and ethnicity, and thus the naming should be one more thing to think about when creating a character. Not as a way to "identify" them, but acknowledging that it is an intrinsic part of them as a person, just as a person's culture or ethnicity is important. With culture comes history and background that can't (or shouldn't) be denied. On a smaller scale, that's why names are important when it comes to diverse characters; it's a choice on how to acknowledge that history & background.

    2. I gotcha. Names are important, I agree, but *everything* about a character is "an intrinsic part of them as a person" I would say.

    3. That's how I saw it as well, Yahong. I agree that names aren't everything, but they can hint at things depending on the story, and they still have to fit the character, even if they aren't directly tied to their ethnic background.

      Since the protagonist of that story I mentioned before has parents of differing cultures, I felt it would be more natural way to come at it, since lots of italian names are more common and easier to read/pronounce, but most of the mother's relatives still live in Japan and have traditional names.

  10. For my writing, diversity is essential. Thought provoking post!

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  12. I have Chinese students named Melissa, Tiffany, and Kevin. I've had African-American students name Johnny and Maya and Danielle, but I've also had students named Miye and Toni (which was short for a very very long Nigerian name).

    I've also researched popular Brazilian girl names for a character in a story, because she had just moved to the States from Brazil. I wanted to give her a name that would be popular back in her home country of Brazil. Make sense?

    As far as character names go, I think it depends on what country the character lives in, and/or when (or if) they moved to the States. Both of my examples speak to your post, I believe.

    This issue is not so clear-cut. As you stated in your post, many parents from other countries who move to the States name their children a "western" name because they want their children to fit in. If that's the case, then those same situations should be reflected accurately in books. Basically, the name has to fit the person and the situation accurately or the writer loses all credibility.

    As a reader, I cannot stand it when authors get fancy with names for no reason. If there is a convincing reason for the name, then convince me.

  13. Hi Yahong! Hopefully you will enjoy my characters Nareem Ramdal and Zoe Alvarez, who pop up in CJJ2. And hopefully, the rest of the series will help you invest more in the other, more mundanely-named characters as well! Best, Tommy G

  14. Lots of great comments here. This post came at an interesting time. Just last night I met two young men (brothers) who have recently moved here from China. One, who is 15, has decided he doesn't want to use his actual name, and wants to be called Kenny. The other, who is 18, can't imagine using any name but his own. I was thinking if I was writing these characters, there were be personality differences that led them to these choices.

    I also think name seletion is a function of setting. In Wolf Storm, a contemporary setting where the mc grew up in Massachusetts, I chose to name the main character Stefan, based on a family I know in real life. Their family is a blend of Greek, Italian, Indian and one quarter generic (they don't know, somewhat like half of my heritage)

    I'm also writing a story set in 1968 in a small town in the midwest, much like where I grew up. In my town, there were a grand total of two PoC families, which was pretty much the norm throughout the rural midwest at the time. To choose the names for that story, I've gone back to see what names were common at the time from the social security index (a great resourse for names set in earlier time periods)

    If I were writing a contemporary set in a city, I would use a variety of names, much like the names of my childrens' fellow students as the school they attend.

    This is also an interesting discussion for me because our daughter is adopted from China, and we didn't keep her Chinese name. We knew it had been randomly assigned by the orphanage director based on what hadn't been used recently. We also wanted to name her "Hope" because we had hoped for a little girl for so many years. So in her case, her name has a history very specific to our family. If she ever wanted to change it back to her original Chinese name, that would be fine with us, because I know that would be something that would be her decision, based on how she feels about her birth heritage.

    1. Dee, yes, I read your response at my son's scrimmage this morning, and it all really resonated with me. The name a character uses depends on their world and circumstance. My family volunteers with international students at the local university, and every year we see a variety of Americanized names...or not. There could be a rich study in exploring characters by digging into their familial/cultural history this way.

      Also, as a white woman who has just sold a book with dual POVs (one English, one Native), I know first hand of the fears of getting it right. There are some who feel strongly the only person who can write about a certain culture must come from that culture. I know I'm asking for extra scrutiny in taking this on. But at the same time, this is the story I feel compelled to write. Before anything else, it is a story of friendship, and I know what it feels like to be a young girl with a close friend. I have to trust this is enough of a starting place (and have to do my homework and double check again and again that I get everything else right).

      Compelling post.

  15. This is an interesting discussion. We as authors have to take the time to research names and make sure they are authentic when creating characters with ethnic diversity.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!