Writing Diverse Characters: An Interview with Lyric Shard

Diversity is more important than ever in today's literature. However, it's difficult to write a character from a diverse background when you don't know anything about your character's culture. Now, a pair of authors have teamed up to create a series of interviews to help remedy this, and I'm honored to host said interviews on this blog.

Inspired by a suggestion from Tiffany Goldman (@mstiffanywriter), a teen writer, these interviews were created to help inform young writers on writing true and respectable characters from diverse backgrounds. Tiffany and Kelsey Simon (@kelalysimon) came together to create the questions, and would love to get more writers and readers interested in sharing their stories.

Today's interview is from Lyric Shard (@Shards_Lyric), an awesome teen writer who I was lucky enough to be in #TeenPit class of 2017 with. As mentioned above, all the interview questions were written by the creators of this interview series, and not by me.

Tell us a little about yourself, as well as your heritage, if you don’t mind.

LS: I’m Lyric, and I write YA mystery, sometimes #ownvoices. I’m from Bangladesh, and speak Bangla (yes, I refuse to spell it ‘Bengali’) so you can call me either Bangladeshi or Bangalee.

What is your definition of culture, and would you consider yourself of a specific cultural group?

LS: Culture, to me, is every bit of who you are. It’s not just what you eat and wear, or just the festivals you celebrate. It is how you talk, how you look at people, what you love, what you loathe. This is something a lot of diverse books miss out on when the writer is of a different culture. Because you don’t learn a culture unless you’ve been a part of it. There’s a lot more to a culture than meets the eye.

I consider myself a part of both the Islamic culture and the Bangalee culture. A lot of things are contradictory in there and it’s kind of amazing how people have still mixed these two together throughout history.

What are some important values of your culture?

LS: First would be family and friendship; it goes against individuality in a lot of ways but isn’t exactly collectivism either; hard work; competition; and from my viewpoint, I’d add money-centric, because it is a third world country.

Were these values taught to you in a specific way? If so, how?

LS: Most of it came in naturally. It’s mostly just growing up in it, with it. I’d say I learned most of it by simply imitating others. The sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not is infused in you in ways you don’t really notice.

What do you think are some of the positive things about being a member of your culture/ethnic group? Are there any negatives? 

LS: I’d say being in any culture that isn’t celebrated as the ‘greatest’ all over the world makes you more understanding, tolerant, patient and even stronger. I love how this culture has shaped me to see things past bias and ignorance. Also, it lets me be a part of two different cultures, which is amazing.

Every culture has negative sides and patriarchy would be the worst thing here. I guess it’s just the part we fight to change because I know there were worse stuff in this culture in the past and it has changed with time.

Do you participate in an organized religion? How is that connected to your culture (if it is)?

LS: Yes, I’m a practicing Muslim, which means I’m a part of the religion ‘Islam’. Born Muslim, brought up through the Islamic culture, and of course, I love every bit of who I am as a Muslim.
90% of the population in Bangladesh are Muslims, so the culture is meshed with it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a certain thing is just cultural or religious too, but there are things that aren’t both and I believe it’s important to be able to tell them apart. Because sometimes some part of culture can be more than what the religion is, or maybe even completely opposite to it.

What are some holidays your culture celebrates? And if you don’t mind, please describe them.

LS: There’s ‘NoboBorsho’ which translates to ‘New Year’ and it is on April 14th. That’s the first day of the Bangla year. The Independence day is on 26th March and there’s the Victory Day on 16th December when the independence war ended. We also observe Mother Language Day on 21st February (yes, people died for their right to speak their mother tongue). Then there are the two Eids for Muslims and Durga Puja for the Hindus and they are celebrated pretty much in a massive scale and we get long holidays for them.

Do you eat any foods indigenous to your culture (or avoid any foods for cultural reasons)? If so, could you name some (and if necessary, give brief reason why)?

LS: We’re a little too addicted to curry flavor. I think most foods are the same as everywhere else except that you need rice in every meal and everything has to have curry flavor. I have to admit, no food is complete without enough curry powder (except dessert, of course).

Alcohol is culturally unaccepted, although mostly for religious reasons, it isn’t popular among members of religions except Islam either. Another thing I as a Muslim don’t eat is pork (no, I don’t need to be told how my life won’t be complete without bacon).

Are there any specific things that are considered disrespectful in your culture? What about respectful?

LS: The first thing I can think about is calling anyone older than you by their name. It’s considered extremely disrespectful. Another one would be ... books. This one really threw me off when I first started school in America and I was just watching my classmates use books for everything -- sitting stool, footrest and what not. Here in Bangladesh, you respect books, and you don’t want to touch it with your feet unless you have a death wish.

What would you say are some common misconceptions about people of your culture?

LS: The first thing would be, “We’re extremely genius and all we ever do is study.” We all know that Indian kid in movies who has a deep accent and perfect grades. In reality, there’s only one of those Indian kids each grade, so that makes them around 1% of the student population. Also, people think we loathe sports. Again, all that brown kid does is stay inside and study. And somehow that one brown kid represents all of over 2 billion brown kids.

“Brown women don’t have freedom.” It’s 2017 in this part of the world too. We’ve fought for our rights over here too. Yes, our culture has grown for centuries based on patriarchy, but which culture hasn’t? This also is always in the movies where the Muslim girl is oppressed by being forced to wear the hijab. In reality, that’s not how it works. You wear a hijab because you feel comfortable in it. And your life goal is not finding someone who will give you the strength to take off your hijab and finally be free. I don’t want to take it off, but the pop culture has made everyone believe that they are ‘helping’ by encouraging a girl to take it off. I feel just as naked without it as I would without my shirt on.

Have you ever felt excluded from something because of your culture?

LS: It hasn’t been about my culture, but more about the Hijab I wear. So there has been times where I’ve been told ‘You sure you wanna wear that?’; translation: ‘You won’t belong there if you wear that’. ‘You look… you know, kind of out of place’; translation: ‘Get outta here and don’t come back if you’re gonna keep wearing that’. Just pretend you don’t know the translation and enjoy yourself.

Do you ever remember excluding based on culture?

LS: I can’t really think of a time like that, mostly because I haven’t been away from my country for too long. I’ve spent quite a while in SoCal as an exchange student, and I think the place was way too diverse that I didn’t ever really stand out as different.

What about racism? Have you ever experienced it? In what form?

LS: It’s like you sign a contract to be a victim of racism once you decide wearing something that gives out a lot about your beliefs. Again, my brown skin hasn’t been really a big deal, but my religion has been. I’ve had someone write ‘ISIS’ on my shirt when we were signing each other’s shirts in school. I’ve been told not to pull my hijab up into a Niqab because I look like I’m about to blow up the entire place. It’s always worse on the internet, mostly because I speak up against racism there while in real life, I never know what to say. Oh, and I’ve always, al-freaking-ways been ‘randomly selected’ for security checks for TSA.

What do you think can be done about racism and prejudice?

LS: The only reason racism exists is ignorance. Also, ignoring the fact that ignorance is there in the first place. There are so many people defining my culture for me, but if I ask them if they’ve ever spent even a day with someone of my culture or religion, the answer will be ‘no’. Forget trying to be a part of the culture or studying it, they don’t even know a generic name for someone in my culture, but they still have more to say about it than I do.

So, if you really want to know something about a culture, ask someone who’s been a part of it their whole life instead of assuming things from what you’ve seen on the internet. I can’t suggest anything on a massive scale to wipe out racism, but a little step would be for you to acknowledge the ignorance and try to remove it. I think PoC and all other diverse people try our best to share everything about us that will help you know us better, so all you have to do is take the time to listen and ask questions. I’ve been asked over a hundred times if I’m forced to wear the Hijab or what happens when I take it off, and I’ve gladly answered them every single time and I won’t mind doing it another hundred times. It’s not rude to come over and ask and try to understand. What’s rude is telling me I should take off my headscarf because I’m being oppressed. No thank you.

You can follow Lyric on Twitter @Shards_Lyric

If you're a marginalized writer and you'd like to share about your culture in an interview like this one, please reach out to Kelsey Simon (@kelalysimon) on Twitter.

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