Archive for January, 2012

Writing about Another Culture

January 27th, 2012 12 comments

When it comes to writing fiction about another culture, some writers are paralyzed, convinced they’ll get it wrong. Others write boldly, using whatever snippets of knowledge they may have. Meanwhile, others don’t even attempt to portray another culture—out of fear of offending.

Here are some suggestions that have helped me along:

Avoid stereotypes. Some examples of stereotypes are: the submissive Asian woman, the ignorant American, the black criminal, the drunken Indian, the Muslim terrorist or the Hispanic gang member. Granted, all of these stereotypes have a grain of truth to them; that’s how they came about. But what happens when readers come across these sorts of stereotypes in a story? For some, these generalizations will confirm their world view. However, other readers may think, Oh, here we go again. We’ve seen this before. Some readers may lose faith in the writer. Some may become offended. Others may stop reading altogether.

So, how does one avoid cultural stereotypes?

Do your research. Go to the source. That is, don’t rely on the six o’clock news for your cultural information. Read literature and short stories straight from the culture. Sift through books with culture-related photographs. Watch films from the culture. Take notes and soak up details about the clothing, the music, the language, the setting, and the themes.

Plan an outing. Whenever possible, go to the spot you are writing about. If you can’t travel to the culture, go to Chinatown or eat at a Moroccan restaurant or participate in a multicultural festival. Attend a dance or music performance, a play, a book reading, a lecture, a cooking demonstration or a political event—anything that will shed light on the culture. Stay alert, ask questions, and take notes. You never know—a gesture, a piece of jewelry, a turn of phrase or a particular food could be the killer detail that helps create an authentic scene or character.

Strive for accuracy. Don’t take any detail for granted. For example, if you’re writing a scene involving a culturally-specific food, be open to learning more. Read a recipe in an ethnic cookbook; find out how the food is prepared, seasoned, garnished, served, and eaten. Talk to a cook. Aim for authentic and relevant details. One incorrect detail could cause a reader to pause or lose faith in the writing.

Keep an open mind. Don’t conduct research with the idea of simply confirming what you already believe to be true. Rather, set aside your filter and be open to new ideas that may contradict your current view.

Go beyond the obvious. Don’t settle for the first portrayal of the culture that comes to you. Avoid the easy and superficial plot lines. Dig deeper. Consider including issues of moral values, religion, rituals, family dynamics and taboos.

Include foreign words—but sparingly. Foreign phrases can add a wonderful cultural flavor to a story. It can be a lot of fun. That is, if the reader already knows the language. Readers who aren’t familiar with the language may stumble or become annoyed by lots of words they don’t understand. Select foreign words carefully. Consider including words and phrases the average reader may already know, phrases that can’t be translated easily, and phrases that will be used repeatedly throughout the story. Weave in the meaning of the phrase the first few times it’s used, but trust the reader will remember the third or fourth time it appears. I found that more than one or two foreign words per page can distract readers.

Emphasize universal themes. In my experience, the best multicultural fiction highlights a particular culture while at the same time developing universal themes that everyone can relate to, for example—longing for a loved one, the bond between a parent and child, sibling loyalty and rivalry, the desire to have a home of one’s own, and (my favorite) the tension involving a mother-in-law. Everyone can relate to that.

If you must include a stereotype—do so with a twist. Some writers insist that their plot requires a black maid or an oppressed Arab woman to make their story work. Okay. Fair enough. Those people do exist in real life, after all. To avoid creating a caricature, add an unexpected twist or two to make your character go beyond cliché and toward authenticity. Add multiple layers to create a more fully formed, fully human character.

Interview someone and get feedback. Talk to someone from the culture. Ask them or someone who knows the culture well to read your story or excerpts from your manuscript. Ask, “What parts seem authentic to you? What doesn’t?”

Regardless of the challenges, don’t shy away from multicultural characters. If you eliminate other cultures from your writing out of fear of offending, other problems crop up. A story that features only one dominant culture is unrealistic, repetitive and possibly offensive in a different way.

Remember that writing about other cultures is inevitable. Fiction writers can’t avoid writing from the point of view of characters of different ages, genders, socio-economic backgrounds or professions. In a sense, these are all different “cultures.”

Meanwhile, a multicultural world is not only the future, but it’s the present. As the world shrinks, our neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members are increasingly from different cultures. Our written stories should reflect this.

A Small Sample of Multicultural Fiction:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Note: This blog post first appeared on the website, a site developed by my social media hero Johanna Harness.

To read a sample of my own multicultural writing, see my short story, “My Brother’s Wife,” set in Jordan and told from the point of view of a Jordanian girl, published in this month’s edition of The Writer magazine. You can read the story online.

Heritage House and a Hidden Gem

January 20th, 2012 5 comments

Seven women. One SUV. Three destinations.

All members of the same book club, we were on a mission to check out Dubai’s Heritage House on the Deira side of Dubai Creek. We had just read the memoir At the Drop of a Veil, set in Saudi Arabia in the 1940s and 50s. We wondered if Dubai’s Heritage House was similar to one of the houses described in the book.

Also on our agenda was the school next door and lunch afterward.

Although most of us are familiar with the Bur Dubai side of the Creek, few of us had heard of Heritage House or the school next to it, both located on Al Ahmadiya Street.

And a surprise awaited.

Heritage House

Built around 1890, this restored house is one of the best examples of a traditional Emirati home. From 1910, it was owned by Sheikh Ahmad, the most famous pearl merchant in Dubai at the time. His name graces both Al Ahmadiya Street and Al Ahmadiya School. Like other traditional homes of the region, this one has a large courtyard.

The house changed hands over the years. In 1935, decorative motifs and other artistic elements were added. In 1994, restoration began, and Heritage House was opened as a museum in 2000. Below is one of the outdoor sitting areas off the courtyard.

As is the custom in the region, the home has carved wooden doors.

Like other UAE heritage sites, traditional Emirati scenes are re-created for visitors to imagine life before the oil boom. Below is the majlis, the most important room in the house and where guests are received.

Here is al-hijla, the bridal room.

The kitchen is a small room in the corner of the house, far from the living rooms to keep the cooking odors away. Here are the traditional cooking utensils.

This is the upper level of the house.

In the center of the house is an outdoor majlis area where we relaxed. This visit was perfectly slow-paced, and completely different from a visit to the Dubai Museum, where one must struggle against throngs of tourists. By this point we had forgotten about all about the house in the book we had read. 

As we took in the morning, we were served Arabic coffee and an unexpected snack of black-eyed peas, and finally sweet tea—all complimentary.

Before we left, we stopped by the gift shop and admired the kitschy Arabic trinkets, which always make me smile.

Just as we were leaving, a busload of Polish tourists came pouring in; fortunately, we were onto our next destination, which for me, turned out to be the highlight of the day.

Al Ahmadiya School 

Al Ahmadiya School is also located on Al Ahmadiya Street. Built in 1912, it was the first school in Dubai and was in active operation as a school from 1912 until 1965. This school was attended by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the prime mover  behind modern Dubai.

Today the school is a historical landmark. When we walked into the school, this is what we saw.

We passed through the archway and into the courtyard. We were all surprised by the simplicity and beauty of this historic school.

Some of us wondered why we had never heard of it before.

This school was calming and peaceful. I have never seen scalloped archways like this in Dubai, nor have I seen a school like this here. In my eyes, this school is a hidden gem in the city.

Off the courtyard are many little classrooms, each with a Quranic inscription above.

Afterward, we lunched at a Yemeni restaurant overlooking the abra boats on the Creek. As we reflected on our little excursion, we ate a traditional mandi meal of rice and lamb, as well as roasted fish and large rounds of fresh Yemeni-style bread.

Heritage House and Al Ahmadiya School are open daily 8:00am to 7:30pm, and Fridays 2:30pm to 7:30pm. Entrance is free.

What is your favorite historical or cultural sight in the UAE?

View from the Top ~ The Burj Khalifa

January 18th, 2012 3 comments

The Burj Khalifa (Khalifa Tower) turns two this month. It’s hard to believe it opened two years ago, but it’s true. I remember when it was just a billboard sign—perhaps a twinkle in Sheikh Mohammed’s eye.

Some facts and figures:

At 828 m high, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world with the largest number of stories (200) and the highest occupied floor (level 160), and–in case you care–it houses Giorgio Armani’s first hotel.

It has a super-sleek elevator and reaches the viewing decking before you register all the TV screens inside. Naturally, this elevator is the fastest, moving at 10 meters per second.

The viewing deck is lovely and bright—except for the squeaky floor boards, which I found slightly unnerving.

 Here is a view from above. On the left is the edge of Dubai Mall. In the center is Souk Al-Bahar (one of my favorite places in Dubai), and to the right is the  Palace Hotel. In the water is the Dubai Fountain, which is also a record breaker: the world’s tallest performing fountain.

The view below includes more of the residential buildings on the left. This is a relatively new area of the city, yet it’s called “Old Town” in typical Dubai-fashion—to reinvent and confuse us.

Below is a view of Sheikh Zayed Road and Defense Interchange.

On our way out, we picked up a bar of Gold to Go. And why not?

What are your impressions of the Burj Khalifa?