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July 14, 2016

Writing Multicultural Stories: The Pros and Cons — Guest: Devika Fernando

Figures holding hands in front of international map with text: Exploring Different Cultures

Sometimes we can burn out on a certain genre or type of story as either a writer or a reader. Maybe in a series, we struggle to come up with new concepts that we haven’t already explored in other books of the series.

Or as a reader, maybe we’ve read so many of one type of story that the plots and characters all start to blend together. Whole parodies (and Twitter accounts) have grown up around the many dystopian young adult books. I tend to binge-read series, which exacerbates this problem as well.

Either way, unique stories, situations, characters, and premises are valuable. Yes, some say only a handful of stories exist in the world, but they don’t have to feel that way.

In addition to finding unique stories in different types of characters, situations, etc., we can also explore different cultures. As a special treat while I’m in San Diego at the RWA National Conference, Devika Fernando, my guest today, shares her advice on writing about different cultures.

I love the unique premises for Devika’s multicultural stories, and she’s here today to share her tips. Although she writes romance, her insights apply to any genre. Please welcome Devika Fernando! *smile*

*****

Want to Write a Multicultural Story?

First of all, a huge, smiling thank you to Jami Gold for having me on her amazing blog. I’ve been following it for years, and it’s a real treasure trove for writers, maybe even worth more than gold.

I feel strongly about diversity in writing, in more than one sense… which might be because I’m half German, half Sri Lankan and have always lived with half of my brain and half of my heart in each country.

I also find it sad that while we are so readily accepting ‘foreign’ aspects in all other areas of our life (food, fashion, music, movies), writing still lags behind. Especially interracial and multicultural books are few and far between.

Personally, I love reading and writing this kind of romance because it’s so full of possibilities. That’s not to say that I haven’t run up against a few walls.

Here’s an overview about the pros and cons, the fun and challenges of writing multicultural romance:

The Pros: Two Cultures – Twice the Fun!

  • Unique Settings:

I love picking an exotic setting for a book. And with my multicultural romance novels, I make sure that the country is where one of the protagonists is from. It opens up a whole world of plot ideas and a way to make them meet. If one of them is new to the experience, it can highlight the conflict on the one hand and give them an opportunity to get closer on the other hand.

In my first interracial romance novel, Saved in Sri Lanka, the heroine is a tour guide from Sri Lanka, and the hero is a tourist from Ireland. It seemed like the perfect set-up for them to share all kinds of adventures and fall for each other along the way.

  • Extra Sources of Conflict:

Romance novels live on the premise of a good conflict, a valid reason why the relationship won’t work (at first glance) or why the characters think they’re not suited for each other. And what better conflict than to have two cultures clashing?

The hero and heroine could have totally different opinions on something important, simply because they grew up in different surroundings. I love writing about little misunderstandings that can sometimes add either humor or drama.

Even if both people are from the same country and just different ethnicities, you’ll never be short of ideas for clashes. And it’ll make their connection seem deeper and more genuine if they have things in common and fall in love despite the differences.

  • Play with Language and Context:

I’m a bit of a language nerd and closet linguist (I know 8 languages, though with half of them, the knowledge is only very basic). An international romance novel gives me the chance to include snippets of another language to give the characters more authenticity. That in itself can be a challenge, though.

Firstly, you need to make sure you don’t just rely on Google Translate and end up using totally wrong words. If possible, check with a native speaker.

Secondly, you shouldn’t overdo it. If you write whole sentences in a foreign language, you’ll need to provide the translation, which reads awkwardly. It’s better to stick to commonly known words and self-explanatory phrases or embed the words in a context that makes the reader guess what’s being said.

  • Learn New Things:

As a reader, I love learning new things—and as an author, I love sharing new things. Multicultural romance novels are perfect for that, even more so than contemporary romance that is set in a certain country. It adds an exotic appeal to the whole thing that makes the story linger in the reader’s mind.

The Cons: Two Cultures – Twice the Work!

  • Over-Researching for Dead-End Details:

I’ve had readers tell me that they love to read about different countries, especially if they get to see them through the eyes of the character(s). My only problem is that I tend to fall in love with the setting so much that it takes up a life of its own.

I think it’s a trap a lot of authors fall into: We do so much research and we feel like we’re living somewhere, so we end up including all the little details and waxing lyrical, with long descriptions or funny anecdotes which aren’t essential to the story.

It’s something authors need to be extra-careful about if they write interracial romance set in a different country. If you want to show off a landmark, have the protagonists travel there and interact with it. If you want to write about local cuisine or customs, weave it into the story and let it tie in with or even advance the plot.

  • Need to Fill in the Blanks of Our Experience:

Again and again, I hear the age-old advice “write what you know.” When it comes to multicultural romance, that’s a bit difficult.

You probably only know the background and backstory of one character (the one who shares your ‘race’ or citizenship), and you’ll be left in the dark with the other one. Then again, if we all only stuck to what we actually ‘know,’ a million books would never be written.

It’s like approaching fantasy or paranormal romance: Just allow yourself to be the character. Sink into his or her skin, and above all, do your research.

You’ll get a feel for things and be able to identify enough to tell the story, even if a lot of things might seem unfamiliar at first. The good thing about it: Readers will most likely have the same experience.

  • Extra Work to Get Things Right:

It can be scary to write about a place and ethnicity you don’t know, and even with the most intensive research, you’re bound to get some little detail wrong or have people from said country point something out to you.

Don’t let it get you down. Even writing about your own home town doesn’t mean you’ll get everything right. Give it your best, and dare to be different.

  • Watch Out for Stereotypes:

Stereotypes will jump all over you when you embark on writing interracial romance. Avoid them like the plague (sorry, pun intended).

A small amount of them will crawl in automatically, and that’s unavoidable precisely because you want to highlight what’s typical about a certain group of people or setting, and because you rely on research rather than hands-on experience.

Used the right way, a stereotype can pull readers in who are looking for something specific or enjoy a certain trope. A hot Spanish Latin lover hasn’t hurt anyone yet…

Just don’t overdo it and don’t paint a picture of what you see or think people want to see, but stick to the facts. For my second multicultural romance novel, Seduced in Spain, I asked a friend from Spain to be my beta reader, and she pointed out things that were a bit too clichéd and also gave me some wonderful tips about what is and isn’t typically Spanish.

  • Prepare for Book Cover Issues:

I do my own book covers, and that has led me to a sad discovery: It’s nearly impossible to find a cover that will have an interracial couple that looks just right.

While there are always some token “black and white” couples (no offense intended at all), finding a mix with one of the partners being Asian or a different kind of European than the standard Caucasian look is like searching a hay stack for a needle.

If somebody asked me whether it was more fun or more challenging to write an interracial romance novel, I’d answer with “definitely more fun, but not a walk in the park.”

I’m planning a third novel for my ‘Romance Round the World’ series, because when it boils down to it, any kind of writing involves research, a lot of thought and a couple of hurdles thrown into the author’s path. And like my readers, I just love the thrill of the ‘exotic.’

*****

Devika FernandoAlmost as soon as Devika Fernando could write, she imagined stories and poems. After finishing her education in Germany and returning to her roots in Sri Lanka, she got a chance to turn her passion into her profession.

Having lived in Germany and in Sri Lanka with her husband has made her experience the best (and the worst) of two totally different worlds – something that influences her writing. Her trademark is writing sweet and sensual, deeply emotional romance stories where the characters actually fall in love instead of merely falling in lust.

What she loves most about being an author is the chance to create new worlds and send her protagonists on a journey full of ups and downs that will leave them changed. She draws inspiration from everyone and everything in life.

Besides being a romance novel author, Devika is a faithful servant to all the cats and dogs she has adopted. When she’s not writing, she’s reading or thinking about writing.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Pinterest | Google+ | Goodreads | Wattpad

*****

About Saved in Sri Lanka:

Some people are destined to meet.

It sure feels that way when Sri Lankan tour guide Sepalika meets Daniel. The mysterious tourist from Ireland steals his way into her heart and makes her question everything her life is built upon. Instant attraction turns to love – but does he feel the same? And what about the secret she’s hiding from him?

Follow the two on their quest for a happy ending amid the beauty and wonders of the tropical island paradise of Sri Lanka.

Collage of Devika's covers with text: Just You & Me -- We'll prove to the world that true love knows no boundaries, no colours, no limits.

About Seduced in Spain:

Sometimes all that two people need to make things right is a second chance…

Nine years ago, Alejandro broke Emily’s heart, but a business trip to Spain forces her to be in his company again. Old wounds are reopened and new temptations complicate things even more. When life leaves her no choice, she realizes that sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to the brain.

Will Emily win the battle against her forbidden desire and Alejandro’s charm, or will history repeat itself?

*****

Thank you, Devika! As you know, I’ve run into many of these same issues with my books (like the problem of finding stock book cover images), but I’ve also enjoyed many of those pros as well, so your run-down of the pros and cons is spot on. *smile*

While we don’t want to latch onto multicultural, interracial, or diverse stories just because we think it’s a “trend” (since when has reality been trendy?), we don’t want to ignore the possibilities of exploring cross-cultural stories either. With this list of pros and cons and a high amount of empathy for the differences we might encounter, we’ll hopefully be able to fairly portray an unfamiliar culture and be true to our characters at the same time.

Like Devika, I think the benefits of working on a unique story and situation make up for any extra work. I love coming up with stories that aren’t just a retread of something we’ve all seen before, and we might appeal to readers who feel the same way. *smile*

Do you have any questions for Devika? Have you ever written or read interracial / multicultural romance? What made it special to you? Do you think it’s important to stretch ourselves to come up with unique stories? Can you think of other pros or cons for writing multicultural stories?

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What do you think?

23 Comments on "Writing Multicultural Stories: The Pros and Cons — Guest: Devika Fernando"

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A.C. Nixon

Great post.

As a writer of multicultural romance I lament the dearth of good stock photos. It’s bad enough with black and white, 🙂 but my next heroine is Chinese-yikes.

Recently I had to step off my soapbox, wondering how people didn’t have friends that didn’t look like them. then I thought about my own life, and I don’t know anyone that’s differently-abled. That’s not necessarily by choice, but surroundings.

I’m not Chinese, but I will definitely reach out to my friends that are for feedback. Good luck with the new release, and I hope everyone in romancelandia adds a bit of diversity to their books.

Devika Fernando

Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Chinese sounds fascinating, but yes, I bet cover search will prove to be a challenge. Keep writing, keep daring to be different! 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Though I’m Chinese myself, I’m not actually that familiar with Chinese culture (especially not modern Chinese culture; at least I know a bit about ancient China from some TV shows and novels…) So I had to do some research for my Chinese characters too, lol. Which shows that being the same ethnicity as your character doesn’t mean you’re automatically exempt from research, unfortunately!

Kassandra Lamb

Yet another post I’ve bookmarked for future reference. Thanks, Devika and Jami.

Devika Fernando

Glad to hear that. Thanks, Kassandra.

JC
JC

Wonderful post. Makes me want to write a multicultural romance. Doing the research would be such a joy.

Many years ago my parents “sponsored” a couple from Sri Lanka at the Air War College in my hometown. Getting to know them and their unique (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories was a blessing I will never forget. I didn’t know about your book, but can’t wait to read it.

I love multicultural stories, especially romance. There is no better way to learn about the hearts of people we only know on the surface from the news, social contact, etc. Even good movies can’t give that experience as books can.

Your article is one of the most valuable I have ever read. I hope anyone who considers writing a story about a culture other than their own will find it. I literally cried recently reading a book (first 2 chapters only!) where the author clearly knew nothing about his characters. I was not familiar with the culture, but even I could see the shallowness. I can only assume he thought he could expand readership. It reinforced stereotypes, and I felt manipulated and cheated out of what should have been an enriching experience.

Kudos Devika and Jami!

Devika Fernando

That’s a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. I’m glad you found my guest post useful. I do so love writing and reading about different countries and cultures.

Rhoda Baxter

Great post Devika!
I’m British but Sri Lankan by descent. I lived there for several years. I wrote a multicultural romance (my first book) and sent it off to agents. I got some feedback, including one that said ‘I just don’t know where this would fit’.
I switched over to writing ‘mainstream’ romances with straight white characters instead and found a publisher.I think the idea is that people have to identify with the heroine and publishers assume that means that the readers want white heroines.
I’ve always included at least one Sri Lankan character in each book. In the last one (Please Release Me), the main character was mixed race. The readers barely noticed!
I don’t think the readers care. Certainly, as an Asian woman reading mainstream books, I never found the fact that I had a different racial/cultural background stopped me identifying with white heroines… so why should it be a problem the other way around?

I’ll stop wittering on about this now. Thanks for a thought provoking and very useful post!

Devika Fernando

That’s amazing to hear, Rhoda. I’d love to connect with you and talk about this – and I’ll definitely have to check out your books. 🙂
I agree that it can be about reader identification and that mainstream romance shies away from diversity – then again, if the heroine is a fairy or the hero a shifter, and if the reader can care about her / him, why not about someone from a different culture?

Amanda
Amanda

I think it does take some guts to write about what you don’t know first-hand. I tip my hat to you for being brave. I am as white as they come but married a Chinese-Vietnamese man and I will tell you there are tensions and conflict over things you wouldn’t even have thought there would be. It’s definitely a challenging and rewarding experience.

Devika Fernando

Exactly. Such huge potential, but it does all frighten me a bit. Thanks for sharing, Amanda.

Ruchi Singh

Great post Devika, as usual! Insightful and a tremendous help for all the writers.
Thanks Jamie Gold for the wonderful articles. Incidentally, I came to know about your blog through Devika. Have bookmarked it and have visited from time to time whenever I need any guidance on writing. Thanks again.

Devika Fernando

Thanks, Ruchi, glad you dropped by and even gladder that you’ve ‘found’ Jami, too. She and her blog are amazing. 🙂

Devika Fernando

Thank you for this opportunity, Jami. I’ve been a huge fan of your blog for ages, and visiting it is an honour. 🙂

Clare O'Beara

Thanks. I enjoy reading culture contrast, in any genre.
I take my own photos so that tends to solve the stock photo problem.

Devika Fernando

Definitely a good idea, Clare. Thanks for commenting.

Evolet Yvaine

I don’t read enough of them, but I love reading them. And as a writer switching to the adult romance genre (I was writing YA), my focus will be mainly interracial couples. I’m African American and married to a white man, so I definitely want to explore this topic in the books I plan to write. My current site is being revamped into an author site because I plan to write serial fiction (just on the site, not publishing in print or eBook) and my characters in Book 1 of the first series I plan to write are Chinese-African American (heroine) and Native American and white (hero).

Devika Fernando

That sounds intriguing, Evolet (lovely name, by the way). All the best!

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[…] exhausted but happy. I want to thank Devika Fernando for filling in for me while I was gone with her post about writing multicultural stories. Be sure to check it […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Lovely post! Recently I read a number of great interracial romances. One was between a black man and a white man; one between a Korean boy and a white boy; and the last one was between a Chinese boy and a white boy. (Yes, I adore gay romances, haha.) I thoroughly enjoyed all of these! And I will admit that seeing an Asian hero in the book descriptions interested me even more in the stories, since Asian romance protagonists are rather rare (for LGBT romances too). For the story between the white boy and the Korean boy, I was actually attracted to the cover first because there was an Asian guy on it, lol.

Er, just to clarify, I’m not trying to be racist in the reverse way, haha. Just that Asian leads are relatively rare (even more so than black leads) and maybe I feel I can relate to them more because I’m Asian too? I don’t have problems relating to characters of any race or species, though. It’s their personality that matters most in how much I can connect with them emotionally! (I do have a high preference for non-human characters, however, haha. So maybe I’m species-ist. ^_^”)

Devika Fernando

Thanks for stopping by, Serena. I totally agree, Asians in romance novels are rare (if you disregard the Indian niche). And yes, personality matters. 🙂

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[…] Adding to the growing diversity in literature is great, but it is not always easy. Devika Fernando explores the pros and cons of writing multicultural stories. […]

Bella ardila
Bella ardila

Like you, I also wrote multicultural stories. One is about the story of a greek man and another story is about a white women living in a fictional city inspired by Manhattan. Like you, I also facing obstacle when I wrote a story about a white girl. I want to put the elements of culture and tradition of americans. And I need your advice on to make the characters fitted with the social life of white americans.

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