It’s Day 8 of Supposed Crimes 30-day Challenge.
Blogging today on the question of How does culture inform storytelling?
This question gets at the heart of why can be difficult to teach literature. If everyone shares the culture of the author, it’s easy to see idioms or other common cultural/historical touchstones, symbolism, or character motivations.
But in fact, most readers do not share much in common with an author culturally when we are reading them in the classroom. Whether it is because it is a largely “white” audience reading Langston Hughes, or a class full of children who know nothing older than last week’s news trying to grapple with the Dust Bowl historical period in The Grapes of Wrath. Background knowledge is crucial to understanding most authors’ works in their cultural context. Too often without it, there’s the danger of applying modern mores and social expectations, even labels, on a work that was never meant to address those things.
This misunderstanding of the cultural tapestry that is the setting of a story has led to works being banned from reading lists because of “offensive language” or “gratuitous violence.” Rather than allowing that language or that violence to be presented and giving students the background knowledge to understand it in its own context, we apply modern mores. As a consequence we lose those lessons showing how we have moved forward and grew from that history. Quite literally, we have lost what that history taught us. (“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”)
Characters are best understood when presented fully in their cultural context. Storylines are most compelling when firmly rooted in the mores, cultural norms, and historical events of their time period. Contemporary works are different when set in Britain versus the U.S. or South Africa vs. Nigeria, because their cultures are different.
“The Hero’s Journey” discussed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, discusses a commonality he found in myths that describes the “hero” path in those stories. But even he didn’t exhaust research in all cultures of the world, only those who have hero myths. Also, not every culture sees the hero as an idea in the singular person. Some cultures have groups of 4 or 5 collectively become heroes, and unable to succeed otherwise.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presented a TED talk on the danger of the single story. I believe in part she was talking about the lack of cultural context we end up having when presenting one work from a culture or time period as if it is the seminal discussion of that time, place, or people and hopscotch our way through the literary berry patch.
As a writer I feel it is crucial to present a fully realized cultural setting and characters who are molded from that culture. But I also need to be aware, and present for a reader from another culture, enough of an explanation so that the character and situations are understood in their context. Which means I do research. Not just on the culture of my story, but on the ways it differs from the cultures of my readers, so I can see where the gaps might be and include metaphors, similes and other relational language accordingly.