Thursday, January 28, 2016

Writing about Other Cultures

I recently completed a middle-grade historical novel about a Japanese American girl who lived in California at the start of World War II. Now that Desert Jewels is circulating to publishers, I am working on my second middle-grade historical. Creating Esther is about a Native American girl who leaves the reservation in 1895 to attend an Indian boarding school.

This year I’m going to depart from the legal theme and write about lessons I’ve learned from writing outside my culture. But I’m going to use this first post to answer the most basic question: Why bother?

It would be easier to stick with what I know, and there are dangers in writing about races and cultures I don’t belong to. These days “political correctness” trumps intent, and many well-meaning authors have been condemned for their perceived insensitivity and bias.

Earlier this month, Scholastic pulled a picture book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington after receiving numerous complaints that it presented a false picture of slavery. The problem wasn’t that the story and the illustrations were incorrect. In fact, the author had done extensive research about George Washington’s slave cook and his relationship with the family, and the illustrator’s work was consistent with the author’s research. The main reason for the complaints was that the illustrations showed smiling slaves. (Although I wasn't able to get a copy of the book, it appears that they were smiling because they took pride in their work, not because they were happy in their lot. In fact, as far as I can tell, the book tries to point out that there is nothing sweet about living in slavery.) To learn more about this controversy and get the author’s side of the story, read her thoughtful blog post at this link:

This isn’t the first time Scholastic has faced a similar controversy. Its Dear America series included a book called My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, which takes place at the Carlisle Indian School in 1880. That book covers the same subject as Creating Esther, although my story takes place at a fictional—but realistic—boarding school. While My Heart is on the Ground did show some of the negatives of boarding school life and the efforts to Europeanize the Native Americans, the complaint was that the book didn’t go far enough and that the protagonist ended up embracing the white lifestyle.

I’ve read My Heart is on the Ground and done extensive research on the Native American boarding schools. I agree that the book paints too humane a picture of the experience, but I’m not willing to assume—as some of the commenters do—that the white author was attempting to cover up the truth. And it is well documented that some of the graduates of the Carlisle Indian School did embrace the white lifestyle.

I am half German, one-quarter English, and one-quarter French-Canadian (therefore French) in ancestry, so I am the quintessential European American. I’ve never been subjected to any real discrimination, not even when I was a woman working in a male-dominated industry. So why would I step outside my own experience and risk the criticism that can come from writing about other races?

It’s because European Americans like me need to understand our role in marginalizing people from cultures that are different than ours. This gap can be as wide as the one between Native Americans and European Americans or as narrow as the 19th Century divide between upper-class English Americans and working-class Irish Americans. But if we want to be part of the solution rather than the problem, we must understand how those events affect the subjects of our prejudice.

While I’m making every effort to avoid the controversy that surrounds A Birthday Cake for George Washington and My Heart is on the Ground, there is no guarantee that I’ll succeed. I have done my best to ensure that Desert Jewels presents a realistic picture of the loss of freedom and the terrible conditions in the incarceration camps. Creating Esther shows the horrors of the boarding school life and the loss of identity resulting from the schools’ mostly unsuccessful attempts to Europeanize the Native American students. But life in the camps wasn’t all misery, and a number of teachers at the Indian boarding schools truly thought they were doing what was best for the students. Those facts are part of the reality, too, and they must be included to paint an accurate picture. But including them may open me up to criticism.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken at the Raphael Weill Public School in San Francisco, California in April 1942, shortly before the Japanese American children in the picture were sent to incarceration camps. Dorothea Lange took the picture as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at


  1. You are entering tricky waters, but God will guide you to help others understand. I think it's rather narrow-minded to assume all slave owners were mean or that all slaves were mistreated or even unhappy or that no Indians ever wanted to be accepted by aligning themselves with white culture. Each situation was different. May God bless your endeavors.