About a month ago, I discovered a magazine called Cloth, Paper, Scissors, which focuses on collage and mixed-media art as a means of artistic discovery. In the very first issue (Winter, 2004, pages 40-45), was an article by the writer Jenny Cruise about how she makes a 3-dimensional collage of a book before she begins writing it.
Here’s what she said about one collage, “Determined to find pearls for my nicho [Latin American display niche or box] that wouldn’t break the bank, I went to the local Goodwill and not only found three necklaces for $2.75, but also a broken pocket watch that looked exactly like my book, even though there was no pocket watch in the story.”
The writer in me groaned. I knew exactly what she meant. I envied her pocket watch find. What a gift to caress in your hand a tangible object that encapsulates your story.
What I’ve tried to encapsulate lately—cultural voice—is far less substantial than a pocket watch. It slips, twists, and falls out of my grasp. In my work in progress, I need characters from two different cultures: Greek and Vietnamese.
I had a fleeting experience, thirty years ago, with a few Vietnamese people, but not with their culture. In the year I spent in Viet Nam I was never inside a Vietnamese house; never ate, as the Army called it “on the economy,” meaning to eat Vietnamese food; learned only three or four useful Vietnamese words; and came home with no appreciation of Vietnamese culture, art, history, or values. My loss.
My Greek experience consists of attending one rather lengthy Orthodox Greek church service, and watching My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.
At least, thanks to the opportunity to take cross-cultural classes from a brilliant and talented anthropologist, I know how much I don’t know. I’m better off than the woman I met recently at a writers’ event. She was struggling with the same problem of including characters of a different cultural background in her book, and I asked her how she’d approached it.
She admitted that she knew nothing about the other culture, but had attended one of their holiday celebrations and took lots of photographs of the costumes, and she figured she could wing it from there because, “underneath, we’re all alike, aren’t we?”
No, we aren’t.
The best way to write characters from other cultures is to grow up in the culture, like Jane Haddem in an Armenian culture, or spend decades in close association with it, like Amy and David Thurlo living in the Four Corners area of the American southwest.
Not having those options, the next-best choice would be to interview as many people Vietnamese and Greek people as I can, preferably people who are the same age and had the same experiences as my characters will have.
Except that I don’t have the time, money, or contacts to do that. And, in one case—Vietnamese who lived through the fall of Saigon in 1975— I can’t, at this point, risk contamination. Even if I could get up the courage to ask my two Vietnamese co-workers what their experiences were in March and April 1975, their answers would inevitably be colored by the thirty-three years that have passed since then. What I need is raw data, to live in 1975, not 2008.
So after much struggle, here’s what I’ve come up with on how I’m going to attempt to write characters from other backgrounds without, I hope, appropriating their voice. I don’t know if it will work or not, but at least I’m making some headway in developing characters.
1. I admit that I don’t know enough about the other cultures to write a main character. I could never write Father Tibor to the same degree Jane Haddam can or develop the same intricacies of the Clah family like the Thurlo have done. So, my Greek and Vietnamese characters will weave through the story like ribbons, but I wouldn’t dare try to write the story from their point of view.
2. I’ve acculturated two of the characters to American culture, and I make the other characters’ response to that acculturation part of the story. One of the most culturally-jarring experiences I ever had was to be introduced to an Australian aborigine, who spoke in what I had pigeon-holed in my head as the accent assigned to a bulky, red-faced, British-heritage Australian. The combination of face and voice didn’t match my pre-conceived ideas, and I know I can use that kind of tension to advantage in the story.
3. My protagonist will hit a wall each time she comes up against cultural differences in one of these characters. I intend to write her as the outsider, always looking in with respect, but not having an innate understanding of what she’s looking at.
4. Sound and pictures help. I’ve spent far too much time lately looking at the fall of Saigon on YouTube. I’m watching the body language and the facial expressions. It also has helped to play Greek and Vietnamese music as background. Fortunately, my library has a large collection of audio-books in other languages. I’ve listened to some of those books, not having a clue what the words say, but just absorbing the rhythms, the rise and fall of how the language is spoken.
Writing quote for the week:
There are nine-and-sixty ways of composing tribal lays—and every single one of them is right!
~Rudyard Kipling, British writer