Authoring Stories About Cultures Not Our Own by Katie Quirk
I cried straight through, from morning into evening, on that last day in the Tanzanian village I had called home for two years. It was spring of 2000 (well, spring in North America where I was headed, but in equatorial East Africa, it was the end of the year’s heavy monsoon season, transitioning into drier months). Officially, I had been teaching writing at a newly-formed university for the previous two years, but in reality, I was a student studying village life. The lessons I learned ranged from identifying different varieties of mangoes, to memorizing Swahili noun classes, to ceding my American sense of control over things like health, or what time (or even which day) a bus would arrive.
My most dedicated teacher was a girl named Modesta—she was probably about 14 when I left. Folks in Tanzania often don’t know their ages. Modesta, like many girls I met there, faced some hard circumstances—not enough money to be guaranteed healthy food or education beyond primary school—and yet, Modesta was anything but pitiable. She infected me, and everyone she knew, with joy.
But back to my crying. That last day, the tears started flowing midmorning as I bid Modesta goodbye, and they continued as I unpegged the last of my laundry from the clothesline, visited the medical dispensary for my final allotment of malaria meds, and watched my last sunset from the rocky hills above my house. Half an hour into my overnight train journey to Tanzania’s capital, just when I thought I had shed my last tear, the train passed by Modesta’s paternal grandfather’s remote village of Lawanima. I gazed out the window, remembering the full day’s walk Modesta and I had made to visit her relatives in this village that was only accessible by foot or bicycle. But I didn’t have to rely on my memory of Modesta’s relatives. Somehow even they had received the message that I would be leaving on that evening’s train, and there they were, lined up along the tracks, waving a final goodbye.
Several months later, I was settled back in the US. I had a good job and felt generally happy, and yet I spent most evenings at home, writing about Tanzania. Writing was my means of mourning and celebrating everything I missed about East Africa: laughing with vendors after a robust bargaining exchange in the market; taking the time to extensively greet each of my neighbors in the morning (What is the news of your family? What is the news of your work?…); listening to Tanzanian friends’ stories infused with tales of witchcraft and magic; and even, balancing sloshing buckets of water on my head.
I knew the old dictum—write what you know—but, frankly, after returning to the US, writing about living and working at a small college in Indiana never occurred to me. When I did occasionally venture off campus, I was boxed up in my car, headed for the grocery store, significantly less immersed in local culture than I had been in Tanzania.
The challenge came several years later when I put aside essays and nonfiction stories about my East-African home and decided to write a middle-grade novel set in Tanzania. Suddenly I had the liberty to combine everything that fascinated me about Tanzania and the local Sukuma tribe in a single piece of writing: witchcraft, traditional medicine, Tanzania’s post-colonial setting, oral storytelling and Tanzania’s unsung heroes, girls.
I read every bit of ethnography about the Sukuma I could get my hands on. I reread all of my journals from Tanzania and studied my heavy album of photographs. Now, in addition to catching up with Modesta in our weekly emails and regular phone calls, I asked her endless questions about Sukuma cultural practices, trying to get all my facts straight.
I was ready to start writing the novel, but with the liberty of writing fiction came new doubts. Now that I was no longer writing about my personal experience of Tanzania, but instead about a historic village that pre-dated my birth in a culture that was not my own, I questioned if I was the appropriate person to write this story. To be honest, the bigger question in my mind was whether others would judge me for writing about a culture that was not my own. Would it matter to readers that my protagonist and I were born on different continents? In my own estimation, skin color was one of the least important differences between me (I-can-sunburn-in-under-five-minutes, Irish white) and my protagonist (dark, Tanzanian brown), but I wondered if this would be an issue for some readers.
Many drafts later, my middle-grade novel, A Girl Called Problem, is in bookstores and in readers’ hands. It was released just a few months before the recent and welcome buzz about multiculturalism and diversity in children’s literature. As a writer, and also as a parent and a reader of children’s literature, I’ve appreciated and been fascinated by so many of the voices in this conversation: Lee and Low’s report on our country’s discouraging track record over the last eighteen years of publishing multicultural literature for kids; First Book’s commitment, announced at the Clinton Global Initiative, to increase the market for diverse children’s literature; and, in particular, Minh Le’s throughtful ponderings about authorship.
I also realize I now have some of my own answers to the question of what it takes to write about a culture other than one’s own. We can all agree that being foreign to a culture offers fresh perspective, but the real trick, in my mind, when writing about a different culture is that the writer must have experienced that culture long enough to see complexity.
I frequently think of an article about culture shock that I read while living in Tanzania. When adapting to another culture, a series of stages are noted: an initial honeymoon stage, in which the visitor romanticizes the new culture; then several stages of distress, during which she questions why she ever came to this “God-forsaken place;” and, finally, a stage of balance, where she is neither threatened nor romanced by the new culture, where she feels at home, recognizing that this culture, just like the one she came from, is complicated.
Complex characters are an important part of any writer’s craft, but they are of particular importance when writing about another culture. For example, in A Girl Called Problem, male insecurities and chauvinism limit the protagonist, Shida, and her village. Nevertheless, Shida’s greatest advocates are two forward-thinking men: her grandfather and one of her teachers. The very regal village nurse, whom Shida worships as a near-divinity, turns out to be younger and less experienced than Shida had imagined. Shida herself has a name that means “Problem” in Swahili, but she proves to be anything but a problem for her village. And the angry old witch, whom Shida fears and discounts, well…you’ll have to read the book to see what happens with her.
I didn’t intentionally set out to cast these characters as complex. Instead, they took shape in my mind against the backdrop of a culture that I am lucky enough to know as rich and wonderfully complicated. My time in Tanzania gave me the gift of seeing that complexity, and it was something I wanted to share.
The challenge of crafting complex characters applies equally to books about other types of difference, whether the setting is historical or paranormal, or the main characters deal with an experience that most readers will never have. Discussing the inspiration for his novel, The Fault in Our Stars, John Green described working in a hospital setting with kids who had cancer:
The kids I met were funny and bright and angry and dark and just as human as anybody else. And I really wanted to try to capture that, I guess, and I felt that the stories that I was reading sort of oversimplified and sometimes even dehumanized them. And I think generally we have a habit of imagining the very sick or the dying as being kind of fundamentally other. I guess I wanted to argue for their humanity, their complete humanity. [Source]
Good fiction offers us a window into other lives. I hope that after reading A Girl Called Problem, young readers will feel as if they have been to Tanzania. When they think of East Africa, they won’t just think of poverty or of lions. Instead they will think of Shida, a girl whose house and evening meal and clothing may look different their own, but whose struggles and interests feel familiar.
Katie Quirk (katie-quirk.com), author of A Girl Called Problem, lives in Maine and is currently working on a book about raising her son in India.