My upcoming guest on the Crime Cafe podcast is mystery author Elka Ray. In her guest post, Elka delves into the topic of how to handle cultural diversity in storytelling.

Along with her guest post, she’s doing a book giveaway. Enter now to qualify for a copy of her short story collection WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. The contest is open to readers in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.

Just email Elka with “Crime Cafe Giveaway” in the subject line to take advantage of this giveaway. Elka’s email address is elka[dot]k[dot]ray[at]gmail[dot]com.

Be sure to enter before Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, when the giveaway entrance period expires.

And, on that note, let’s hear from the author! 🙂

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As a novelist, two intertwined topics have been on my mind for years: diversity in storytelling and cultural appropriation.

This morning, my social media was full of posts about the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”. Many Americans and Canadians of Asian descent wrote that, as the first Hollywood blockbuster with all-Asian leads since 1993’s “Joy Luck Club”, the film made them feel “represented”. Others dismissed the flick for promoting fresh stereotypes – ie all Asians are rich, pale-skinned Chinese. While I think it’s unrealistic to expect a story about high society Chinese Singaporeans to represent everyone in or genetically linked to the world’s most populous continent, I’m thrilled to see Asian characters reach a wider western audience.

Looking at my photo, you might wonder why I care. I’m as white as it gets, with pale blonde hair and blue eyes. Yet many of my fictional characters are Asian. My noir thriller, Saigon Dark, follows an American-Vietnamese surgeon who “rescues” (ie steals) an abused Vietnamese street kid. My next mystery, Divorce is Murder, features a Canadian-Chinese divorce lawyer eager to prove her old teenage crush isn’t a killer. Why do I want to tell these characters’ stories? And am I entitled to do so?

Fiction, like the universe, is a closed system. Writers absorb energy and pour it into their stories. Nothing comes from nothing. Having spent 24 years living in Southeast Asia, I’ve been influenced by this region. Asian landscapes. Asian friends, bosses and colleagues. An Asian husband. This feeds my fiction, as does my experience of living in a place where I’m always identified as other – the only fair head in a sea of dark ones.

When I had kids, my simmering interest in racial identity grew. My kids are mixed race, with pale skin, brown hair and eyes. In Vietnam, where we live, many people say they look “Western”. Most white people think they look “Asian”. I often hear one looks “more Asian” than the other.

When my daughter turned three she started begging for “golden hair”. I was horrified. Was she simply trying to emulate me, her mom? Or had I messed up by giving her Barbie dolls and letting her watch “Cinderella”?

Aged eight, she announced her desire to be an actor. My first thought was dammit, what kind of roles would she get in Hollywood? Not the leading lady. Not even the mainstream love-interest. More like triad boss ladies, kung fu fighters or hookers. Around this time I started writing the story of Toby Wong, the angsty and wrlyly funny Chinese-Canadian divorce lawyer heroine of Divorce is Murder (out with Seventh Street, Prometheus in June 2019).

Diversity in storytelling – I think we can all agree on this, right? Fiction broadens our understanding of the human condition. How could we not want more points of view?

Cultural appropriation is trickier. The privileged have been stealing from the less-privileged forever. Half the museums in Europe are full of stuff looted from elsewhere. Nicking the temple gate is wrong. How about stories?

As in many parts of the world, in Vietnam, where I live, the media is censored. Journalists and bloggers who run afoul of the authorities go to jail. Every writer and artist unwilling to face the slammer self-censors.

Do you – the consumers or art and culture – want more censorship? More topics an artist shouldn’t touch lest they attract punishment, hostility or ridicule? What if important stories aren’t being told because writers don’t want to risk it?

Putting limits on creativity scares me. How do we decide who’s entitled to imagine what? Can I invent male characters? Norwegians? Gay ones? People with disabilities? Gingers? Or should we all ditch fiction and stick to autobiographies? Should artists cage their imaginations?

Using race as a means of labeling and censoring people scares me most of all. The more mixed race people you know, the slipperier racial definitions become. Is my Chinese friend’s blonde, green-eyed Eurasian daughter less entitled to produce Asian-themed art than her dark-haired son? There can be a huge gap between how people self-identify and how others perceive them. From 2010 to 2016, 24 percent of Americans identified themselves as belonging to two or more races. With growing global mobility and interracial marriage, these numbers will grow. It’s a mixed up world and always has been.

What about the folks who identify as white, or black, or whatever, only to realize their racial profile is more complicated? The surging popularity of DNA ancestry testing has messed with many people’s family “histories”. What if you spent your whole life convinced you’re of Indian descent only to realize you’re not? If you’re an artist, and your work explores your Indian “roots”, is it now invalid?

For me, this debate goes to the core of what fiction writers do – or try to do, which is make up characters and stories that evoke real, human feelings. If we’re doing our job well, our characters are not just representations of their race, nationality or gender but individuals as complex, contradictory and human as real people.

An even broader question emerges: should our appreciation of an artistic work be linked to its creator at all? By all accounts, Charles Dickens was a a dick, trying to get his wife of 22 years (the mother of his 10 kids!) committed so he could take up with a younger woman. William Golding admitted to trying to rape a girl as a teenager. Patricia Highsmith was a rabid antisemite. I’d never befriend these people, but remain grateful for their stories, which have expanded my understanding of human nature.

Ultimately, putting writers in boxes does the opposite of what fiction should do: take us out of our skin, put us into someone else’s, and remind us we’re all human.

Below are some links I found interesting:

The mixed-race experience.

How free should novelists be to imagine radically different lives?

Lionel Shriver’s Full Speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’

They considered themselves white, but DNA tests told a more complex story

Does DNA home testing really understand race?


Elka Ray is a Canadian author, editor and illustrator who lives in Vietnam, where she writes for adults and children. Elka’s books include a light romantic mystery – Hanoi Jane; a noir thriller – Saigon Dark; and a collection of short crime stories – What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia. Her next romantic mystery – Divorce is Murder – will be out with Seventh Street Press in June 2019.

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