Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing Across Cultures

This is a topic I have thought a great deal about throughout my writing career. I'm even teaching a class on it starting this week at

I, myself, was born into a Minnesota Norwegian family, learned Norwegian attending school in Norway, and have lived for the majority of my life within the Inupiaq culture of northern Alaska. I learned both the Norwegian language of my ancestors and the Inupiaq culture I am married into through a powerful immersion process. I wanted, through my writing, to approximate this experience for my readers.

I think of German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser who proposed a new field of inquiry he calls “literary anthropology,” a field which starts, as he describes it, with the question of how “literature—in relation to history or society—reflects something special that neither philosophies of history nor sociological theories are able to capture.”

It's captured through immersion, literary immersion. We readers know all about it. We have craved it, constantly, since discovering that very first book, the one that enfolded us into an unimagined world and kindled a lifelong passion for literary exploration. Within the pages of books, we are able to assume the worldviews of others—to become other. Understanding worldview is at the core of good writing. It's core to understanding culture, as well—culture in the broadest sense of the term.

People sometimes say that I write outside of my own culture or that I write through a borrowed culture. I can't imagine consciously doing any such thing. If you understand the worldview of your characters and write from within that worldview you are not writing outside of anything and you are not borrowing—you are immersing yourself within. Does your own individual perspective on life bleed through? Sure. But you are aware of this and you control it—not as a bad thing, but as a conscious thing.

People want to know what constitutes authentic writing from a cultural perspective. They want to know how to tell whether the books they are reading or writing are authentic to the cultures they represent. A good part of this comes from recognizing your own cultural bias. As Anne Lamodt writes:
“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In thinking of this over the years, I've come to realize something important. It's actually something that's pretty basic, as well. All writing is about crossing boundaries. Good writers learn how to inhabit the skins of others--even those whose life experiences are very different from their own. So, in a very real sense, the skills you need to successfully write across cultures are the same skills you need to master in order to be a good writer regardless of your subject.

Because let's face it: we live in an increasingly multicultural world and if we are to write within this world, we must learn these skills. How can we possibly write of a world in which all  characters share our own cultural perspective? Jane Austin might have been able to do it from a comfortable perch in her country parlor but we, in today's world, cannot. To do so, we would have to lock ourselves in our writing rooms and never emerge because today's world is everywhere reflective of a multitude of cultural perspectives. And it's not our job to amalgamate these. It's our job, as writers, to mine the gems we find there and let each shine of its own light.

I'll be talking about this a lot over the next eight weeks at Join me.

PS. It's August and this class is over now. Great class! I wanted to add a post script, though, because I was recently reminded of a guest post I did on this subject over at Cynstations.


  1. Reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

    1. The writing advice I got from one of my favorite mentors was to always inhabit my characters deeper...and still deeper yet. A bit like acting, isn't it?

  2. I've written an article for IBBY's Bookbird on very young children discovering other cultures through literature. 'Flying to pick blueberries' and is in the latest issue. MIght be interesting and even maybe relevant. I really enjoyed this blog entry - fascinating.
    Dr Virginia Lowe

  3. I'd like to read this, Virginia. Is it going to be posted online?

    Taking off my writing hat and putting on my hat as a school board member, I have to say that I think this is sorely needed in our educational system. Teaching them how to change cultural lenses, as it were, through reading will make our children smarter, make their brains more flexible. I guarantee it. Someone should do a study....

  4. Debby,
    Love your posts! I believe a lot of writing comes from noticing the many cultures we live among, that you can hardly see your own culture until you have seen it through the eyes of another. I'm sure your class discussions got into this.