Multicultural Humor, Seriously

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I had agreed to give one of the keynote presentations at Reading The World in San Francisco in March 2004. Since humor plays a role in our work and the conference’s focus was multicultural, we decided to talk about the interplay between the two in children’s and young adult literature.

Only problem?

The number of humorous multicultural books published was insignificant. Not that we did a statistical study, but via the Internet, we did call on the cumulative wisdom—of authors, librarians, reviewers, university professors, booksellers, elementary and secondary teachers, and so forth—to offer titles that we might highlight. And the results were fairly sparse, especially when talking about comedies as opposed to books with some humor in them.

This inspired us to conduct a survey of our own, sending a query to twenty particularly well-read professionals. We began by asking for recommendations.

“I didn’t know the genre even existed in children’s books,” wrote illustrator Don Tate. “There must not be many in the area of books featuring African Americans.”

In response to our query for multicultural humor recommendations, most of left the question blank. Author Uma Krishnaswami listed twelve. Author Joseph Bruchac offered nine titles, but none that involved human characters. Everyone else suggested one to three. On the assumption that there simply had to be more, a university professor of language arts education wrote to say that she had been negligent in her studies.

In fairness, a handful of authors like Gary Soto, Walter Dean Myers, and Lensey Namioka have been writing funny books for years, though they’re more common at the picture book than novel level. Yet considering the thousands of books published annually, it was clear that it would be a challenge to meaningfully address the topic. So, why did we persevere?

Though multicultural humor was rare, we nevertheless were convinced it was on the rise. Lisa Yee’s debut novel, Millicent Min: Girl Genius—recently named the 2003 Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner via the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—is an excellent example of a comedy with an Asian American protagonist, and young adult novelist Nancy Osa’s Delacorte Prize winner Cuba 15 sparkles in part because of the humor in it. Perhaps Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery Honor Book, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, will stand as the book that heralded an increase in the publication of multicultural humor. But despite such positive signs, the children’s and young adult literature community has barely begun to graze our potential in this area.

Author Joseph Bruchac told us, “It has got to change. We need laughter to survive, and our children need it more than they ever have before.”

The idea of laughter as essential resonated with us. So, we set out to find out what the challenges were in publishing multicultural humor. The answers we found were rooted in the writing itself, in the history and politics, in often misguided perceptions, and perhaps most of all in our grown-up psyches.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges in publishing not only multicultural humor but any kind of humor seems to be adults’ need to have others take us seriously.

Perhaps because of our own insecurities, our need for societal approval, we apparently overcompensate. We write, illustrate, publish, and herald a disproportionate number of serious books at the expense of their funny brethren.

This tendency may be even greater with authors of multicultural books and those from historically underrepresented communities. Just labeling a book or author “multicultural” is sometimes seen as divisive, even diminishing. So, we’re more likely to write about what’s deemed “significant” by the whole in hopes that the significance will rub off on us, will have a positive effect on how our work is received.

Put another way, it’s tempting to write the umpteenth book about the Japanese American internment because most people will rush to agree that’s inherently a valuable topic. It matters, so we must matter, too. Our book must matter, too.

But at schools and libraries, young readers from communities of color are telling us again and again that while they appreciate a title about, say, the internment, slavery, Trail of Tears, or immigrant persecution, a steady reading diet of those books gets a little depressing after a while. As one African American young reader asked, “Why is it that it’s only the white kids in books who seem to laugh and have fun?”

The answer from author Rukhsana Khan was that: “It all comes back to trying to publish something ‘worthy.’ With prestige. They don’t take comedy as seriously as ‘literature’ because comedy is like a needle that pricks the balloon of ego.”

Which of course begs the question of, if not just the authors, who “they” are.

Author Carolyn Crimi explained, “The industry as a whole doesn’t reward funny books with any kind of serious recognition. I think many believe funny books are ‘easier’ to write and should therefore be taken less seriously when, in fact, humorous fiction is incredibly difficult to do well.”

While it’s impossible to talk about multicultural humor without incorporating concerns related to humor more generally, we also wondered if there might be some considerations that were inherent about writing comedy about specific cultural communities or characters from diverse backgrounds.

“The big problem,” author Johanna Hurwitz said, “is trying to be funny without making fun of an ethnic group in any way.”

Historically and sometimes still today, reactions to diversity have not always been a source of the kind of laughter most of us would like to encourage. So, what to do?

How does one know when the humor laughs at or laughs with?

We have to know what we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we have to be a member of the reflected group, it does mean we’re enough at ease to tell them a joke in their own language, so to speak, and know it will be well received. That can be a challenge for the author, but it can be an even bigger one for cross-cultural readers.

“Some comedy (a lot of Indian comedy),” clarified Joseph Bruchac, “doesn’t make much sense to the average white person.”

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the only way sense of humor will translate is by continued exposure, by trusting our readers to try harder when it doesn’t come easily.

To have faith.

Because sensibilities vary so greatly, even within communities, we have to do so knowing that the jokes may fall flat. We also have to risk possibility offending someone.

If it seems like too much to ask, perhaps now is the time to ask anyway. Author Uma Krishnaswami said, “[I]t’s time for children’s literature to begin looking at culturally based stories as stories about grounded communities rich in relationships and not just about sad, struggling people who miss other places and times, and whose journeys are about trying to fit into/understand the American way! That’s a shift in perspective that allows humor to emerge.”

We will and must continue to publish books that ask the tough questions and reflect the hard times. But we should also make more of an effort to inspire a smile, a chuckle, and in thoughtful literary ways.

After all, as author Carmen T. Bernier Grand wrote, “Music, dance, art, tears and laughter connect us as human beings. They are silk ribbons—sometimes hemp ropes—that spool us into each other.”

Note: though humor is the above topic, this same article could’ve focused just as directly on multicultural genre fiction (fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery), etc. just as easily. Really, the more global picture is that we’ve offered a completely disproportionate amount of serious, realistic fiction for children and teenagers rather than a mix of serious, funny, realistic, and fantasy/genre. Our point is that balance is a good thing.

2 thoughts on “Multicultural Humor, Seriously

  1. I really have enjoyed your site all around. Speaking from a teacher’s perspective and a marginalized Lenape, I really liked this one particularly. I teach at what seems to me a racist school. I want to incorporate more multiculturism, and humor would be a good way to go. Thanks for your YA recommendations and all other stuff.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Nicole. I’m sorry to hear things are bad at your school, but I do think one voice can make a difference.

    My theory: If the writing is strong enough that it can make differently minded folks laugh together, it may be strong enough to bring their hearts together, too.

    Good luck!

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