Keeping It Cultural

By Gareth Trew

I am obsessed with cultural diversity; it is one of my many drugs. For me, the discovery of a new culture – especially one vastly different to my own – is endlessly fascinating. As such, many readers may find the following akin to a Frenchman praising the delights of Paris. Whilst this might be true to an extent, I do believe (and very much hope!) that my arguments are also valid and speak for themselves.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly exposed to emerging writers from different cultural backgrounds – working for an international publication based in a foreign country is bound to do that to you, I suppose. Throughout this exposure, I’ve consistently noticed this type of question cropping up: should I write about my culture if I want an international readership? In my opinion, the answer is yes, absolutely. As I said in my previous piece Maintaining Creative Integrity (The Missing Slate, Issue 1), your unique voice is one of – if not the single most – valuable tools that you possess. It is what sets you apart from the plethora of other (and potentially more qualified) writers around you. Your culture, of course, plays a predominant role in the development of this voice. Furthermore, it is not only a significant part of who you are, but for many readers, it will be a fascinating one. If you can make it accessible to them, really bring it to life, then much of your work will be done for you. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude springs to mind). So, failing to acknowledge and utilise your culture, I think, would be incredibly counterproductive to say the least.

This brings me to that old adage “write what you know.” An established writer may well scoff with impunity at this and reply that they’ll write about whatever should take their fancy, thank you very much – and fair play to them. I am nothing if not a firm believer in artistic freedom. For the emerging writer, however, I think this is very sound advice, because unless you are blessed with natural literary genius, chances are that you will still be honing your skills. Working with your culture means not having to juggle unfamiliar subject matter as well as the myriad of literary technicalities.

Another practicality is that thoroughly understanding a culture other than your own – particularly one that differs greatly from it – takes a substantial amount of time and potentially, money as well. Two things emerging writers tend not to have a great deal of. There is also the simple logic that you are far more likely to have something valid and interesting to say about a culture you have been brought up with, rather than one you know much less about. In fact, this principle often proves the difference between capturing the truth of something and merely writing an idea of it. Personally – though I believe I also speak for most artists worth their salt – I am infinitely more interested in the former.

Naturally, there must be balance. If an international readership is desired, a degree of accessibility has to be included. Sometimes, a few footnotes explaining unfamiliar terms or concepts will suffice, but I stress – a few. If there are too many, a reader can feel inundated and that the piece is not really worth the effort. Additionally (this is particularly relevant to poetry), the sense and rhythm of a piece can be lost through constantly having to skip to the end to clarify the meaning of unknowns. There will, of course, be exceptions to this. For example, I have recently read Katharine Susannah Prichard’s play Brumby Innes, which deals largely with Indigenous Australian culture. The first act of the piece depicts a corroboree and is written almost entirely in Indigenous Australian language. Despite the necessary pages of explanatory notes, I found the play very engaging and not at all a chore to read.

A good rule of thumb, I think, is that the less widely understood you believe your culture to be, the more you should initially endeavour to write about those aspects of it that are most easily accessible. Having “tested the water” in this manner, you can then experiment with how fully you are able to write about your culture without alienating readers. Of course you may not want an international readership, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I certainly do not believe it is something you should feel you have to strive for. If your aim is to write about the intricacies of your culture for those who understand it, that is a perfectly valid thing to do. Simply keep your desired readership very much in mind when considering the accessibility of your work.

Gareth Trew is a young, Australian writer whose chief passion is poetry. His poems have been published in various print and online journals. He serves as a Contributing Editor for The Missing Slate.