Culture vultures

As I mentioned last week, I loved Suzy Ismail‘s presentation on “Writing Across Cultures.” With #WNDB and the landmark Supreme Court decisions lately, it seems a particularly timely one.

While the conventional wisdom is to write what you know, we all write across cultures in some way. Let’s face it, if all my characters were almost middle-aged white Jewish women who live in a big city with their husband and child and work as a librarian, I wouldn’t be writing children’s books! 🙂

Suzy made the same point and more at her presentation, using thought-provoking academic handouts to help us change our perspective on culture. As Suzy said, “Reaching out to an audience in a different voice than our own” is writing across cultures, and we do that all the time. When we create characters who are a different age, gender, or race – not to mention from a different ethnic or religious background or from a different place – we are writing outside of our own culture.

Suzy’s best advice was to be authentic, humble and respectful, and open. She pointed out that good writing results from good research and that we should immerse ourselves in a separate culture by filling our senses with it and researching it with an open heart and mind. An image that struck me was her reference to the United States as a salad bowl rather than a melting pot – a delicious dish that retains the integrity of its components while combining them into something new and different.

She also warned us to be careful of being too politically correct. Our characters belong to a particular culture; they are of it and not outside it. They must speak and act in ways that are normal and comfortable to them, even if they might not be so to us.

Reinforcement came from her reference to the author Debby Dahl Edwardson, that the same skills needed to write across cultures are the same needed to be a good writer.

Suzy talked about so much more, including the six universal emotions, stereotypes and the U-curve of culture shock, but the real takeaway from this presentation was that culture is not a matter of knowing, it is a matter of being.

We are not all the same, but we are all human, and keeping that in our minds helps us as we write – and as we live.


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