What Does Multicultural Literature Mean to You?

When Nathalie invited me to be an occasional guest blogger on MC Rocks, I asked myself this question and realized I didn’t have a concrete answer. So I set out to find out how other people involved in multicultural literature defined it.

My first stop was with Nathalie who knows more about multicultural children’s literature than anyone I personally know. Her background in Sociocultural Anthropolgy helps. J This is what she told me:

“If you only consider the etymology, the term refers to all types of cultures, including European, American (though be careful here, my theory is that THE American culture doesn’t exist per se, but is made of a vast arrays of, not sub-cultures, but other cultures such as Russian, German, Italian, Cuban, Mexican etc…)

”The context plays an important role, and generally, when the term is used in a particular country, it means all the other cultures except the hegemonic one. So in the USA, when most people, publishers refer to it, they mean “underrepresented” cultures, more specifically, they make it about people of color (which sparks another debate, with some saying that that term does not apply to Caucasians)…

”Initially the text on the blog included European children’s books. After a while I decided to strongly focus on books about ethnicity considered minorities, but I am not excluding European, and actually not excluding Caucasian/American either. I simply mention it less, because culturally speaking, books with that content already have a plethora of bloggers and websites dedicated to their promotion. I confess that I however have a strong interest in books that tackle controversial topics such as homosexuality, disability or else (regardless of the cultural background), because they also happen to be under-represented and because I personally believe teens also want to read about such topics, in order to discuss them…”

Okay, that’s all super interesting and stirs up even more thoughts on the subject. Should we include “white” cultures under the umbrella of multicultural literature? What about lesbian, bi-sexual, gay and transgender persons? They’re certainly under-represented in children’s literature.

Dr. Robert F. Smith of Towson University in Maryland, on his website Celebrating Cultural Diversity

Through Children’s Literature, quotes J. Yokota’s definition of MC literature as “literature that represents any distinct cultural group through accurate portrayal and rich detail.” Dr. Smith lists Jewish Americans as one of his book categories.

In a paper posted on the New Horizons for Learning website, Jennifer Johnson Higgins states MC lit “is variably used to describe groups of people from a nonwhite background, people of color, or people of all cultures regardless of race.” So…not a concrete definition, either.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) says there’s no single definition for MC children’s lit, but for their use it means “books by and about people of color.”

On Cynthia Leitich Smith’s fabulous website, she has lists for “multicultural” books and “multiracial” books. Is this a better way to look at books that deal with diversity?

And on the Tu Books website, Stacy Whitman writes (referring to comments on a Through the Tollbooth blog thread) that she finds “interesting the idea of the word “multicultural” being taken off the table.” Hopefully some day we can just have novels for kids—realistic, fantasy, mystery, etc.—that have characters who are of other cultures or races without that being the main focus of the book.

There are probably lots more definitions out there, but I’ll stop here. Me? I’m still looking for a definitive answer, although one may not exist.

On a side—but related—note, while I was, um, listening to graduation speeches recently, I was thinking about this blog post and diversity in general. I went to two graduations that weekend (yikes) and as a white person, I can say I was not in the majority. Almost every culture and race was about equally represented. This made me feel really…proud and happy and excited that I lived in a (at least local) society where this is the norm. And it made me hopeful about the future—that we will not only accept diversity but take joy in it as well.

So…what does multicultural literature mean to you?

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13 Responses to What Does Multicultural Literature Mean to You?

  1. Karen Strong says:

    I think we most people think “multi-cultural” at least in my part of the country (Southeast – Atlanta), the first thing that comes to mind is “people of color” — mostly African-American. But there are some many more cultures than that. Maybe because there is still the thought of the two big cultures: black and white.

    But now even here in the region of the country, I think this is changing — with the Hispanic and Asian, and Indian population growing.

    But I like would like to get to the point where “multicultural” doesn’t necessarily mean “non-white” or it just comes down to shades of color — it would be nice to get to the “cultural” part — the specific traditions and lifestyle that make a person’s ethnicity and/or origin unique.

    Great post! Thanks for the links.

    • lindacovella says:

      “the specific traditions and lifestyle that make a person’s ethnicity and/or origin unique.”

      I like the way you phrased this, Karen. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. If it helps, my multicultural umbrella does include national origin (including that of, say, Irish and German Americans) and are inclusive of books with GLBT characters, etc.

  3. Chrissie says:

    I think Multicultural means just what it says when broken down – many cultures. I don’t think it means ethnicity. It’s about the background of a person or group that influences what they are today.

    • lindacovella says:

      Wondering, though, if ethnicity and culture are closely related. Interesting. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion, Chrissie, !!

  4. Linda, thanks again for today’s post and for this topic.

    “Wondering, though, if ethnicity and culture are closely related.” This is a good question. I think that sometimes they are related, and sometimes they are not. In my case, my ethnicity is Bulu (in the Cameroonian context), and it’s also the name of my tribe and the name of the language I speak. In this case, there is a whole cultural package that comes with being “Bulu,” i.e. way to address the elders, to dance, to cook…

    I also think that art and culture are closely related, and that art can create a specific culture or subculture, that has nothing to do with ethnicity, and that its result might be labeled “cultural phenomenon” (books can do that, too)…

    You gave me much food for thought. :)

    • lindacovella says:

      oboy, this *is* a complex subject. More and more I’m seeing there isn’t one pat answer. There are so many interconnections–and individual cases, too.
      I agree about the relationship between art and culture. Another layer!

  5. Wow what a great post and a question. Before I started blogging I would have just said multicultural literature is literature that is not about Western culture (or just American culture). But now I’m not so sure. For example, I interview Dia Reeves and she said that multicultural should include white people in Europe because they have different cultures(I’m paraphrasing here), which makes a lot of sense. I don’t think multicultural should apply to GLBT, people with disbilities, etc. because to me, that’s not really a culture. But I’m not sure what it would go under otherwise. I don’t think it should be seperated. Ultimately, what we all want (as you said above) is to not need the multicultural label and just have genres and stories for kids.

    There is definitely a connection between culture and ethnicity. I don’t think there’s a defnite answer to this question :)

    • lindacovella says:

      Hey, Ari, thanks for your comments. The evolution of your thoughts on this somewhat follows mine, including the last sentence. :-}

  6. JenF@ says:

    I’m with Chrissie in that I tend to think of the word simply as “many cultures.”

    Maybe multi-cultural literature is “culture literature,” where characters’ cultures–distinctly, accurately, and richly detailed–play a vital role in the story. Any culture counts.

    When I read a mystery, I expect foul play, clues, and secrets. When I read historical fiction, I expect to be transported to some time and place in the past. When I read multi-cultural fiction, I expect to be transported into a distinct culture and have that culture influence the course of events in the story.

    Maybe it’s better that it’s not clearly defined because that triggers discussion, and isn’t that what we want literature to do?

    • lindacovella says:

      “When I read multi-cultural fiction, I expect to be transported into a distinct culture and have that culture influence the course of events in the story.”

      Great point, Jen. Thanks for your comments!

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