Monday, November 15, 2010

Ethnicity in Writing—by Julia Buckley

Hope you’ll all welcome fellow Midnight Ink author Julia Buckley to Mystery Writing is Murder today! Julia’s Madeline Mann, which Kirkus called “a bright debut” is now available on Kindle.

Book Design 2 smallMy writer’s group has gone through many incarnations and has been winnowed down to five dedicated, hard-working women. Once, more than a decade ago, it had more members who had varying levels of commitment to their writing. It was this group that did a reading of my first draft of Madeline Mann, which came out on Kindle a couple of weeks ago.

While the group discussed my book, a young woman pursed her lips over the names of Madeline’s brothers, Fritz and Gerhard. “Must they be so ETHNIC?” she asked, sounding almost disgusted.

This shocked me for a variety of reasons. First, because we live in a country that isn’t very old; therefore everyone, either immediately or distantly, is from somewhere else. Second, I felt the question revealed more about the woman posing it than it did about my characters, and what it revealed wasn’t flattering. Third, I thought that the German ethnicity of the Mann family, informed as it was by my own childhood with European parents, would be one of the things they liked best about the book.

Ethnicity, in fact, is simply one of many things that makes fiction either authentic or not so. Because I had a German mother and a Hungarian father, I felt that I could create a fun and authentic picture of what Madeline’s German-American family would be like. Had I chosen to write a character who was French, or Mexican, or Russian, I could certainly have tried to make her life authentic by researching and talking to people who came from those particular cultures, but I wouldn’t be able to write with the same authority that my own background gave me.

I’m not sure what would make a reader shy away from “ethnic” fiction, and in fact Madeline’s German family is really mostly similar to the stereotypical American family. What seemed to offend the reader the most, then, were the characters’ names. She seemed to think they were somehow an exaggeration because they were so different from names she was used to.

One of the joys of fiction, to me, is that we can enter worlds where things are different and names are different and behaviors are different–and then we learn things from all of those differences. Gerhard and Fritz were names I heard on a daily basis, because not only did my mother have family members with very German names, but she had many German-American friends whose children had names just like these.

Ironically, my parents married in the late 1950s and their cultural world suggested that the best way to raise “American” children was to speak only English in the house. Since neither of my parents could claim English as a native tongue, they felt obliged to make us feel comfortable in our environment. They spoke only English at home, and they gave us distinctly non-European names: William, Christopher, Claudia, Linda, Julia. This, despite the fact that my mother’s friends and relatives had beautiful German names like Loli and Lizabeth and Nanne and MariTereze, and her brothers had the lovely names of Ferdi and Hermann-Josef.

In Madeline Mann, I was able to pay tribute to my mother’s German ethnicity while writing a very American murder mystery.

A day or two after the book appeared on Kindle, I got an e-mail from my uncle, Hermann-Josef (nicknamed Ebbo) in Germany. I have not seen Ebbo in person since I was one week old; he came to America to be with my mother during her final pregnancy, and he was there when I was born. He held me in his lap and they took photos to commemorate the occasion, but that is the only physical bond between us.

In his older years, though, Onkel Ebbo has discovered e-mail and the Internet, and his world will never be the same. He sends me e-mails all the time, either in German (which I can only partly translate) or in an English that he has translated online, and which is ultimately garbled. But the gist of his e-mail was “Congratulations on your book! I love the German names Fritz and Gerhard!”

And that was a wonderful antidote to my earlier experience, in which my wonderful German-American brothers were viewed with such disdain.

When Robert Fate was kind enough to read my book and blurb it, the brothers were what he loved best: He wrote “I love Buckley's flawless style; her small town American settings are perfect, and her characters are so real it wouldn't surprise me to discover one of the brothers rummaging in my refrigerator.”

Vindication! And a reminder that ethnicity is as integral to a story as is plot or setting.

Julia Buckley, the proud daughter of a German mother and a Hungarian father, lives in the Chicago area. Her first mystery, THE DARK BACKWARD, was published in 2006. Visit her website at or her blog, Mysterious Musings. She also posts at Inkspot and Poe's Deadly Daughters.

Buckley is a member of Sisters in Crime, MWA and RWA. She recently earned her Master of Arts in Literature, and is at work on a young adult suspense novel and on a new mystery series. Kirkus Reviews called Madeline Mann "a bright debut," and The Library Journal called Buckley "a writer to watch."