What Is a Multicultural Novel?

IMG_4759When I find the courage to peek at my Amazon rankings, I consistently see my highest ranking in the category of “multicultural” novels. I was surprised I had written a multicultural novel. I thought I’d written a crime novel. There’s an interracial romance; maybe that makes the book multicultural. And maybe also because it is set in Detroit, a city with a black majority population. Then there’s my white main character, who writes from a first person pov.

My book’s been out about a month and it’s taken me this much time to think about the multicultural label and what it means. Is it good? Is it bad? Does it matter? My first concern was if I had been accidentally slotted into a category where I did not belong and had no right to be in. I did a search for adult multicultural novels and was relieved to see I’d read and adored most of them: Life of Pi, Poisonwood Bible, The Namesake, The Kite Runner, Like Water For Chocolate. This was not academic research, just a quick look at Goodreads. Barbara Kingsolver is the only white author in my short list. Other authors are Indian-American, Spanish-Canadian, Mexican, Afghan-American.

Next I came across an essay-ish letter from a famous Detroit novelist. I’d read and adored his book, too. Middlesex is also set in Detroit, but in another era, when there were many first generation immigrants settling in Detroit, and the family in Middlesex is still steeped in Greek tradition, which is how the novel ALMOST became multicultural. The author is very happy that he did not allow that to happen as he believes that to call a novel “multicultural” is to subtly denigrate it.


Here’s what I think. Amazon will have her labels and it has nothing to do with authors or books. In all the books I mentioned, two cultures mash up against each other, make accommodations or not. That is happening in Detroit and it is happening all over the USA. I see it every night on television when white police officers shoot black men and boys, over and over, night after night. I see it in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I see it when CK takes a knee and some people don’t get that it is not about disrespect for the flag or our military. With the disarray our country is in, I didn’t know how I could write a novel set in Detroit with a white woman protagonist and simply ignore race.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how to include race. For a minute I thought I might be able to ignore it because I didn’t have a clue how to do it. But I write realism, or something close to it, and I had my heart set on writing a crime novel set in Detroit featuring Lily White. I didn’t know she’d meet a black cop. I didn’t know they’d click. But it makes sense. Half the cops in Detroit are black. Once I had those two locked in as the main characters, I found my way. And whatever anyone wants to call it is okay with me.




Detroit’s New Century

Detroit in 1967 barely survived a race riot. The rioting had its roots in the black community’s frustration and simmering anger at blatant discriminatory treatment, particularly by a white, and often racist, police force. Fires flared and looting was rampant. By the end of the week, the National Guard had been called in, and government tanks patrolled Woodward Avenue. Detroit lay in ruin.

I was 12 years old and fear reached into my little community just outside the city limits. I didn’t understand what was going on but I loved Motown music and I wasn’t going to let any white grown up tell me how to feel about black people. Motown had captured my heart, and I knew, even then, what side I was on. These were affirmative action years; I heard hate speech all the time, but I knew I was on the side of right. The side that said all people, regardless of race, were entitled to respect.

MLK-Day-photoIn 1967, white families left the city in droves. Houses were vacant or burned and black people began to buy guns in hope of some kind of self-defense against the corrupt powers that dug ever deeper into their city. Overnight, the Motor City became the Murder City. Crime shot way up and cooperation between the races had all but vanished. Nevertheless, by the time I was a teenager, the city’s allure attracted suburban kids like me who grew up on Motown music and who learned from the lessons unfolding before us. Martin Luther King preached peace; Rosa Parks just wanted to sit on the bus. Racism is wrong.

My friends and I sought out new music in Detroit’s decaying ballrooms like Eastown and the Grande. Where once fancy dances were held, now kids, both black and white, roamed the dance floor, listening to the MC5 open for bands from like The Who, Fleetwood Mac and Cream. At one concert, I sat crossed legged on the floor in front of the stage convinced that Yes were really English housewives pulling a joke on Americans. They looked like women, they were very skinny, with shiny blouses, make up and high heels. Their voices were high, and so was I. They of course were men, just dressing up as glam rockers were starting to do back then.

Despite the fears of our parents, white kids came to the city for summer concerts on the river, for the jazz festival held at outdoor Hart Plaza, for the ethnic festivals, too. We freely mingled with black kids our own age and no harm was ever done. I think one white girl one time had her gold necklace ripped off her neck by a black girl, and the news made a big deal of it, but I was there and we were all peaceniks back then. Still, Detroit had not recovered economically and the neighborhoods had as many abandoned as occupied houses. The abandoned homes soon turned into drug houses, crash pads and crack dens.

Renaissance_Center,_Detroit,_Michigan_from_S_2014-12-07Detroit’s first stab at urban renewal came with the appropriately named Renaissance Center, a group of skyscraper hotels and businesses on the riverfront, constructed in 1977. It’s been a slow climb uphill since then. We’ve had some bumps along the way. The 2008 housing market disaster deeply affected Detroit. One solution the city came up with was to sell houses for as little as a dollar. This got the millennials interested and a white population once again began to very so slowly grow. During the late half of the twentieth century, white people had come to Detroit to work and to play, but not to stay.

Now, in the new century, Detroit policemen are equal parts black and white. Young white folks are buying homes, putting down new roots, and staying. GM and Ford have a significant presence in the city once again. All the sports teams built new stadiums in the city and Ford Field hosted the Super Bowl a few years ago. Many shabby hotels got pricey makeovers to host football fans. Restaurants popped up everywhere. Casinos came in, adding another dash of glamour. Just this year, Ford bought the long vacant train station with plans to restore it to its former glory.

For me, Detroit is and always was a treasure. Yes, it lost a bit of its luster, but I always knew it would come back. It has, though people who are not from the area don’t seem to know it. That’s why I set my novel, Lily White in Detroit, in my favorite city. I wanted to showcase the place, the people, the relationship between black and white, as it really is today in this new century. It’s not a perfect city and I don’t pretend it is. But the potential for renewal has slowly and at times painfully, grown once again into a city Detroiters are proud to call their own.


Life Lessons on Race Relations

I remember when schools were first integrated. I remember adults being really pissed off about it. Then, we got like one black kid from Inkster in my high school and all the ranting calmed down. Inkster. Do you believe that’s the name of a black community? Dearborn’s racist mayor didn’t want black auto workers living in his town so he established Inkster just the other side of Taylor. Encouraged blacks to move there, with a little help from redlining and realtors.

Back to that black kid. I didn’t know him, but I knew how he must have felt my first day at Marygrove College when I was the only white person roaming the halls. I hadn’t known Marygrove was a predominantly black school when I enrolled. I only knew I’d received a badly needed scholarship. I wasn’t that surprised as the school was on Six Mile. One of Detroit’s mayors had drawn the color line at Eight Mile and was known for shouting that white people would do well not to cross it.

Which was strange because me and my friends went downtown all the time. We went to the ruined splendor of the Grande Ballroom and Eastown every weekend for concerts when we were teens. The dealers would line the staircase up to the frayed velvet seats and chant their wares: Pot. Acid. Speed. ‘ludes.  Most of the pills were a dollar. A joint was fifty cents. We got a bit older and switched out drugs for alcohol, concerts for art district installations and poetry readings in our 20s. In our 30s we took our kids to Tiger and Red Wing games. In our 40s there were the free concerts on the river and by our 50s downtown had the best restaurants, art, culture, and music in Michigan.

So white people did not stay north of Eight Mile; we went into the neighborhoods to party and visit friends. Rent was cheap in Detroit. Plenty of people got places there after high school. One of my best friends Suzy had kids with Greg, a black guy who was part of our circle of friends. I visited her in the apartment they had in Detroit. Once I started at Marygrove, I went to house parties and bars with my black classmates. Most times, I was the only white person, but almost everyone was friendly or at least polite. I got along just fine south of Eight Mile.

There were a few exceptions.

Once, at a club, I was buying a round and the bartender called me peckerwood and asked why I was doing in his neighborhood. He was smiling when he said it. I told him we were celebrating finals being over. I had no idea what a peckerwood was; when I asked my friend Lorna she went over and yelled at him. She just said it was a negative term for white people. Okay. We went back to dancing and everyone laughed (even me) when I had too much wine to learn the Hustle. Yes, I was a sterotype.

Another time, everyone in Black Literature, even the professor, cracked up when I said that maybe the “white  witch” in the poem wasn’t a person, maybe it was heroin or cocaine. But it wasn’t rude laughter, it was kind of how people laugh when a baby tries to take her first steps. Another class, Black History, nobody laughed when the lecture came around to the way white southern women routinely used their female slaves as nursemaids to their babies.

“White people is stupid,” one woman said.

That confused me. I knew about verbs and black English;  it didn’t faze me even though I was an English major. I even agreed with her that white people who kept slaves and entrusted their babies to them were cruelly contradictory. Entrusting a slave to feed your baby, but not trusting them to learn to read was messed up. Slavery was messed up. But the word IS seemed to me like she meant present tense. Like right at that moment white people like me (I was the only white person in that class) were stupid. Still. Her words meant all white people, not just slave owners.

It felt worse that the professor didn’t respond to the remark, just let it go with a nod of his head. A few people came up to me after class and said they hoped I was okay, that the student had been wrong to say that. Nice, so many of my black classmates were nice. But still, that was the moment I woke up. Not everybody at Marygrove was cool with white people. Some were angry at the entire pale-faced race and talking about slavery enflamed them even more.

I do understand that, now. But I was younger then and I took those words of that one student too personally. She didn’t know me. And what I didn’t know about black people could fill a book. A bunch of books. What I didn’t know at the time but have since learned is that systemic racism slaps black people in the face the way I’d felt slapped in that class so long ago. Sometimes, it even shoots them in the back. And they die.

How to Soothe Pre-Book Release Jitters


My new novel is coming out in ten days. The same week, I’m hosting a family party for my son, daughter-in-law and two delicious grandchildren. They are staying with me but everyone else is coming here for the picnic next Saturday to see them, especially one-year-old Julia June, whom they’ve not yet met. Also my husband will not be here for the party, so I’m doing this solo. While preparing for my book release.

I learned of this convergence of events a few months ago, so I called Dora Badger from the Woodward Press and asked her to put together a marketing plan and prepare a press release. The plan is working and the press release has been sent.

For reviews, Dora did the research and provided links, all I had to do was contacted book bloggers. Done! I’ve already gotten some responses requesting ARCs, even an interview on one blogger’s site.

Good luck (and the graciousness of a friend) enabled me to tape an interview (did that last week) for local cable news that will air on my release day. Next on the marketing plan is scheduling guest blogs and a book tour. This makes me more nervous than being on TV for the first time, but I will do it. I know I need to front-load as much as possible because the kids are coming and of course I want to devote my time to them.

Luckily I signed up for Bouchercon 2018 a while ago hoping my book would be out and I could sell it there. The largest mystery conference in the world is in St Pete this year where I own a tiny condo, so it seemed sensible that I try to be there. My books will be on sale and I’m gathering a basket of books and other goodies from Michigan Sisters in Crime for the silent auction. (If you are a member of MiSinC, email me to get your book included.) I’m also checking out the only indie bookstore I know of in Detroit, Pages.

A few days ago, I did a little work on the landing page of my website, which I overhauled months ago to reflect the new direction into crime novels my writing has been taking me. Dora designed a new header then, so now she’s tweaking things using that to design and order book marks. She’s also putting together a press kit. I didn’t even know what a sell sheet is, but apparently it goes in the press kit. I saw her design of that, and love it. Dora’s going to have a complete press kit on my website soon. And I’ll have copies to include when I send ARCs.

So this is how I am managing to stay half-way sane during the run-up to publication day, with Dora’s help and also the input of Rachel Thompson author of “Book Marketing Challenge.” Rachel discusses a blog title check on CoSchedule.com It’s an effectiveness calculator and after five tries my title today scored a 72. Rachel says anything over 70 is good-to-go. My first title came in at 20-smething, so I’m glad I finally went there and tested my ability to create headlines that might actually bring people to my blog, which I love writing but is also pre-marketing.

To stop my nerves, jitters, and worries, I’m doing work I enjoy and it takes my mind off ruminating about whether people will like my book or if anyone will even read it. I can’t be the only author who gets the jitters and gives in to self-defeating thoughts just before a book becomes public.

Turns out instead of worrying, there’s plenty of work you can do to stop those self-defeating thoughts come true. Also, rewrite those thoughts into positive ones. “I am doing everything I can to prepare for the success of my book’s release” is my mantra now. Being confident and positive is just as important as all the other book-related stuff.

And now, I need to do laundry.

White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.


The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.