Being both a language teacher and a writer, I’m thrilled about the momentum of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices movements. Just as kids deserve to see themselves on the page, we all deserve to learn about new experiences, foods, and ways of interacting with the world! That’s why most of us grew to love reading in the first place.
The tricky bit is writing about a culture in a way that makes those within that culture feel validated without alienating others. How? Read on…
First, recognize that language and culture are inextricable. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis contends that our language influences how we think about the world. (Remember hearing that Inuit people have a dozen words for snow? There’s a lot more to that theory, but the idea is that they are able to more subtly distinguish differences which most of the rest of us do not recognize since we just call it “snow.”).
Similarly, words evoke different thoughts in different cultures. Take the English word “bread.” If you’re American, you’re probably picturing a rectangular sandwich loaf, but ask a French or German person and they’re likely picturing something more like a baguette or a hearty rye. One word. Multiple images.
What does this have to do with children’s literature? First, do your research, especially if you’re writing or illustrating outside your own culture On the other hand, misunderstandings which arise from differences in interpretation can be inspirations themselves– like the time my French host mom asked if I wanted a douche (shower) to freshen up from my long flight. I suddenly realized high school French class had not prepared me as well as I’d have liked.
This brings us to the second important concept in understanding cultures: Products, Practices and Perspectives. World language teachers today use this trio to help students visualize and understand their own native cultures as well as the new culture they are learning. Products are tangible cultural items– anything from bread to an Advent wreath to a recycling bin. They can also be intangible things such as a legend or dance. Products can be used in other cultures (the Viennese waltz is danced all over the world), but usually play an important role in their original culture. The catch? Without context, products of a culture can be little more than fascinating “artifacts.”
The next step in understanding a culture is the 2nd P: “Practices.” Practices represent knowledge of how to act in a culture and when certain activities take place. Holiday traditions (such as lighting the advent wreath), meal times, and rites of passage (like getting your driver’s license) are all practices, most of which also incorporate products. This is rich inspiration for writers: including practices important to your character’s culture is a great way to connect to readers. Just remember that like products, showing practices without context can also isolate readers unfamiliar with them.
The third P is “Perspectives”– the background and context we’ve been waiting for!
Perspectives explore the “why” of a culture: why do many Germans light advent wreaths? Perhaps because the time of reflection and waiting before Christmas is more valued than “Black Friday” deals. Getting a driver’s license in the US is a huge rite of passage because most Americans have cars (and public transportation can be sparse, particularly in rural areas). The important caveat is to avoid over-generalization. For example, If you live in New York City, getting your license may not have the same priority as in a small town. Not every German has an Advent wreath, either! There’s a huge difference between general cultural tendencies and individual reality, so use perspectives as a guide to make the motivations of your characters feel natural and make us care about them, not to perpetuate stereotypes!
What cultural products are you including in your writing? Are they integrated with the practices and perspectives which support them or are they “artifacts” on a shelf? If you write about cultural experiences, I would love to see a comment about them– in the form of a product, practice and perspective if you can! No matter what culture you are writing about, examining your characters’ actions and motivations in the context of the 3 P’s will result in a richer, more reflective intercultural experience.