Writing to show culture

Today, during jury duty, I finished reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.

To me it was an excellent novel for how the writing (word choice, character names, description, etc.) showed the culture.  Now, I’ve never been to Africa, so perhaps someone who grew up in Botswana would have a different opinion of this novel.  But as a Westerner reading this novel, I felt that the author used every tool in the tool box to convey the different feel of African culture.

For example, the main characters, such as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and Mma Ramotswe, are always referred to in this manner.  We never learn what J.L.B. stands for and we only learn Mma Ramotswe’s first name towards the end of the book and only as part of a conversation.  This “formality of reference” conveys a feeling of a culture where adults are always addressed in a certain way.  It sets the book apart from a traditional Western narrative.

Another example is in how the author sidetracks into different stories.  In Chapter One, the story starts with J.L.B. Matekoni thinking about his proposal to Mma Ramotswe, but then in the midst of thinking about the proposal and the proper time to call his fiancée, J.L.B. Matekoni starts thinking about a dog he had as a boy.

Some would argue that this should be cut from the story because it doesn’t directly contribute to the story’s progress, but in actual fact this side thought works to support the African feel to the story.

It’s not just that he’s describing a different way of life – where a dog would be valued for its snake-killing abilities – but that this diversion in the story is part and parcel of how that culture works.  These breaks in the story help to set the tone and feel of the story.

The author is also incredibly skilled at introducing cultural observations into the story without derailing it.  For example, when Mma Ramotswe meets an American woman the narrator says, “The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect.  Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving their other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief.”

These are just a few of the things I noted as I was reading.  I’m sure there are others.

I did look up the author and it turns out he was raised in southern Africa and has spent time there as an adult as well.  And I think it shows in his books.

Stepping back from this book in particular, I think it’s useful for authors to think about how they can use their writing to show the culture they’re writing about.  Culture manifests itself in so many different ways.

Anyone who has ever listened to German versus Italian can hear the difference in the flow of the words.  And if you understand what’s being said you can hear a difference in the way the speakers convey meaning to one another.

In the same way that languages flow differently, people in different cultures interact differently, view the world differently, prioritize differently.  I think some authors truly grasp this and it shows in their writing whereas other writers never manage to step away from their own culture, so that no matter how fantastically different the worlds they write about, the narrative always feels the same.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  If the story’s good, it doesn’t necessarily matter who’s telling it.  But it is sometimes nice to find someone who can write with the voice of an “other.”  It’s almost like you’re being told two stories then – the actual story and the story of the culture.

(Also, the book is written in third person omniscient.  It shifts from the thinking of one character to another mid-scene and does it well.  So, if you want an example of that, this would be a good one.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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One Response to Writing to show culture

  1. lynxchild says:

    Thanks for posting this! I own The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but I’ve never read it. Now I’m inspired to!

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