Writing about Different Cultures and Settings (2018)
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Alyssa: I’m Alyssa and I’m representing WriteOnCon. I’m here today with Leah Henderson. Leah, do you want to introduce yourself?
Leah: Hi, Everyone! Thanks so much for joining us tonight to listen to what I have to say about… Something to do with writing, I’m assuming? I’m assuming it’s about writing but it should be fun. Thanks for joining us!
Alyssa: Yeah, and so today we’ll be talking about writing about cultures and settings that aren’t your own. So, do you want to go ahead and introduce your book and why this is relevant to your writing?
Leah: Sure. My debut MG novel is called One Shadow on the Wall and it is a story about a young boy and his two younger sister trying to decide what their next steps in the world after their father passes away. Their father comes back as a voice on the wind and the mom comes back as a spirit to guide them through. So they face different obstacles that they’re dealing with. For me, I was on a trip to Senegal years ago and was inspired to write this story. And, I say inspired with a little bit of hesitation because I wasn’t sure I was the person to write it. So there was a lot that happened before I let the inspiration actually turn into words.
Alyssa: So that leads well into our first question, which is: What does your research process look like when you are writing about a culture and setting that is not your own?
Leah: Okay, so, for me I was fortunate enough — I’m a big traveler and when I took this trip to Senegal there was this boy sitting on a wall. And I asked myself what his day was like — was it different than mine? Or the same as mine? As someone who writes, you go back and process this whatever way you do and for me it’s writing. So I wrote a little short story and quickly realized I knew nothing his life, I knew nothing about his culture to that extent. A professor of mine read the short story and was like, “This is the start of a novel.” And I was really apprehensive. I came back to the States and I dragged my feet and long story short for about two semesters I dragged my feet. One day, my father said to me, “You’re not the daughter your mom and I raised if you don’t figure out how to let that little boy have his story on the page.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness gracious.” So I got back on a plane, I went back to Senegal, and I literally did everything. My senses were on fire. I touched everything that I could, I tasted everything I could, I sniffed everything, I took pictures of everything, I asked so many questions. And I did all this before I knew what my story was. I had notebooks full of things, I had stacks and stacks of pictures. I would take my shoes off at random times just to feel what that might feel like. I did it all not knowing what I was going to need. So in this particular case, that was my first step. Then my second step was finding a way into my character that reflected something that I knew a lot about. And I’m an avid soccer player, so my character’s love of soccer was my way into this story. From there, all my other research came with sensitivity readers and doing more research on the place.
Alyssa: Awesome. So you touched a little bit on this already, but one of our questions is: Some people are hesitant about writing about cultures and settings that aren’t their own because they are afraid of misrepresenting. What would you tell someone who is struggling with those fears?
Leah: Fear is probably the best thing you have going for you. Because someone who is not afraid to make a mistake and do wrong will probably just go ahead and do it, not question it, not ask questions of it, and not ask anyone for help. I think when you have a fear of hurting someone with your words or your actions or whatever you do, you’re very meticulous about what you end up putting down. So using that fear and asking yourself why you want to tell this story… In my case, my dad really summed it up: I was not going to stand in the way of another kid like me seeing themselves on the page. Because I remember what it was like when I was young. And he was like, “You are going to try to get this right. You might now get everything right, but you’re going to try, and that’s better than not having it at all.” So I would go with it in that sense. I would say that fear is a good thing because it gets you questioning what you’re doing and looking at what you’re doing to make sure — in every way you can, because we sometimes still make mistakes — that you’re on the right track.
Alyssa: It’s kind of a controversial subject, too. There’s lots of discussion about, Does anyone have the right to write about cultural experiences not their own? Do you have any thoughts about that strain of thinking?
Leah: I think that what it comes to that topic, I think that a lot of times people are missing kind of the crux of the problem with writing outside of your own culture. If it’s the kind of situation where that culture’s voice is being muffled almost, and the stories that are being told and you’re only getting a single story, that’s a problem. I think sometimes when people get frustrated about other people writing about a certain culture — we’re getting the same story and it’s not an accurate one. So for me, it’s again that fear. And that question of: Why do you want to tell this story? What is it about this story? What is it that you think that you can bring to the table to write this story that somebody else could not write? And if you can answer those questions with absolute confidence, you should write your story. Because if it is a brilliant story, it is a brilliant story. And so I just think that a lot of times people aren’t thinking about it that way. They’re like, “Oh that’s a great topic, I’m just going to write it.” But you should think about it a little bit deeper than that.
Alyssa: Do you think that your experience being a minority writing about a minority is different from, like, a white person — like me — writing about a minority? What might the advantages or challenges might be in that dynamic?
Leah: I think it is very different. I think that — for — going back like I said, when I was young, I didn’t get to see myself in books, in a variety of books. That just wasn’t the case. I couldn’t just go to the bookstore and, you know, stumble upon the shelves and see what I wanted to see. That didn’t happen. So in my case with writing this particular story — I don’t even know of another Senegalese story that’s in a children’s book that’s in America. And I’m not saying that there aren’t any, but I don’t know of it. I don’t know of any. And so, in that case, writing that story was — I understood why I needed to do it. I understood why I needed to get it right. And I think that when you come from an experience where you see yourself all the time, where it’s never a question that you can do XYZ, you can be the astronaut, you could be the ballerina, you could be the this, you could be the that — I think sometimes when you’re writing a story about a marginalized character who never gets to see that, their perspective on the world is going to be very different than yours. I think sometimes, that might be lost. I think a person who is not from a marginalized group might not even realize on the level that that happens on a daily basis. So, not that you can’t figure out how to write the story. But it is different, and it is going to ask you to do more than you would normally do. It’s like writing a historical novel, set in a time that you’re not from. You have to do a ton of research! You have to do a ton of checking! It’s the same thing. It’s the same thing.
Alyssa: What are some key things people should keep in mind when they are writing outside their personal culture and setting?
Leah: Keep in mind that you’re not giving a stereotypical view of a character of a place. Also, keep in mind that your worldview may be very different from the worldview of your character. Although you may think that something is wrong, or not right about that culture, you gotta make sure that you’re not putting that in your character’s world. Because that’s not how your characters might feel about it, that’s not how their families feel about it, that’s not how they were raised about it. So those were the things I know when I was writing I had to be very careful because — you know, I don’t come from a village, I don’t have an experience where I ever had any challenge about going to school, I don’t have an experience where my parents aren’t there. All of these different things are not in any way part of my world. So I have to be careful about what I assume these characters can do, will do, will say. And what they won’t do. So that’s just being mindful of your own worldview in those cases.
Alyssa: And do you have tips for pushing into that and removing the outsider point of view that creeps in sometimes when we’re writing about something we’re not intimately familiar with?
Leah: I think putting on an anthropologist’s hat where you’re looking at all sides in an argument, and when you’re doing your research — even if it never finds its way into the book — you do the research that it takes to understand why a certain thing even started in this community. You know? Because when you understand why it started in this community, you can understand why it’s still thriving in the community, why the perspective of it might be different than yours. That’s something I did a lot of in my book. I had to go back and say, “Wait, but this is a thriving situation. Why is it so? What is making it that way, and why does it continue?” Even though it’s something I completely disagree with. I think that’s the key: Knowing all sides. Because then, even if you have a character that disagrees with their cultural — with what’s happening in their culture itself — you can at least bring in other characters that can speak to why something is the way it is. I think it brings more authenticity to what you’re working on.
Alyssa: How do you decide what cultures and settings to write about in your own writing?
Leah: Like I said, I’m an avid traveler. The stories that — for me — always have stuff going on in this head of mine — and the stories for me where a character is walking down the street with me, and I think of something that they would do… You know, I’ll be walking my dog, or I’ll be shopping for clothes, and I’ll be like, “Oh, my character would wear that.” When the character sticks with me like that and I haven’t even started writing them yet, I know that there’s something there. I know there’s something there that I need to explore. So I just go with my gut in that way. The stories that make it to the top of all the stuff that’s going on in my head — those are the stories that I try to work on.
Alyssa: What would you recommend for people who don’t have the opportunity to travel as widely as you do? What if they want to write about a different place or people?
Leah: So, this is the thing, traveling is an immense blessing and I do realize that. But we have so many things here, at home, that can help you to tell these stories. We have embassies you can go to. We have meet-ups of tons of different cultures, you can meet people from different backgrounds. For my book, I met this wonderful — I called the embassy, the Senegalese embassy, to ask a couple of questions, met this wonderful man, had dinner, and he helped me through some of the writing passages, and he became a character for me in my book, and now he’s a friend, and his kids are — you know — his kids celebrated my book with me. And you know — that’s in the US. I’ve met a lot of people in the States, but you just have to be willing to reach out to people. You have to be willing to also understand that if you make a mistake, you have to fix it. And be open to people’s suggestions, because if you can’t go to that people — especially — you’re dependent on videos, watching a lot of videos. Youtube has tons of videos. People are always putting their videos — and you should watch every single one that you can, because you never know. People put up their random travel videos. And you’re like, “What are we going to look at?” But maybe that thing over in the corner is really something that could work in your book. So if you can’t get there, watching Anthony Bourdain travel to the place, watching these videos. Listening to music — in the culture — is something that I do all the time. I’ll just have the music on, and then I’ll try to make some of the dishes, and see what my house smells like. All those kinds of things! So you can still do a lot, and not leave your living room, or your kitchen, or your neighborhood. But yeah, definitely reaching out to people from those communities is a really good thing to do, if you can’t get there yourself.
Alyssa: Those are some excellent tips! What is the role of a sensitivity reader, and how are they important to the project?
Leah: There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about sensitivity readers, and I think that in my case — I’ll give you one example that could sum up why I believe that they are so important. So I write my book, and as I said, I’m very apprehensive about everything that’s happening. And at this point, I’ve had five sensitivity readers, right? So I had an early sensitivity — I had a student, a Senegalese student, read an early draft just to get big bone overarching theme kind of stuff. After that, I had another student read, and then I had two professors read, and then another gentleman read. I was feel okay, but still hesitant. You know? Because people aren’t necessarily — that’s not necessarily what they do for a living, to criticize or critique your work in that way. So for some people, it’s almost like asking your mother to do something. “Oh! You’re wonderful, you’re gorgeous, you’re great!” And I’m like, “No, but I want you — tell me if you just –” “Oh, no, no! you’re fine, you’re fine!” You know what I mean? And so you’re still feeling a little leery. So I asked some other people, and this woman got me in touch with a student in Senegal, in Dakar. And I told him exactly what I needed, and we got a contract together to make it really professional, and I told him what I could offer him in payment, everything like that. And he was like, “No, no, no, you don’t have to pay me anything.” And I remember saying, “No, this is business. I want you to look at my work in a very critical way, and that takes your time.” So for me, that got him to understand how important it was for him to look at my work critically. So after, say, six people have read my book, he comes back to me and he made some notes throughout. But then he calls me and he says, “Miss Henderson?” And I said, “Yes?” And he said, “You named your dog after a very famous Senegalese prophet.” And it’s a mangy dog running around these piles of garbage! And not one person besides that one boy saw that. And that name had been in there from the very beginning. And if that book had gone into anyone’s hands in Senegal, and they had read that, that’s all they would have remembered. So for me, when I talk about not want to hurt or do harm or offend, that one thing would have done immense damage. And I know that, because I know how that — the cultural thought behind that. It would have just been really bad. It would have been really bad. And so, for me, I didn’t catch it because I don’t know every Senegalese prophet, and to have readers who can catch those things for you, so that you don’t — I mean, you’re still — you can still potentially make mistakes. But to not have anybody look at it? The chance of you making a mistake about a culture that you’re not a part of, that you are not immersed in on a daily basis, is a lot a greater than if you have — and when you have sensitivity readers, you need to make sure that they understand what they need to do. Because just having a friend — say, a black friend — “Oh, can you read my black characters?” No. That’s not going to get you what you need. Because they’re going to look at it kind of like your mom probably, and not give you anything that’s really concrete. And I think if you’re writing a story and you really care about making sure you’re not doing any harm, you are going to hire someone to look it over for you and at least try to make sure — and if there are places that are of great concern, have more person — if you can afford to have more than one person look at it, or critique partners from those cultures do a swap and trade with projects — something like that. But I think it is really important right now, especially, because if you’re going to do that and you get called out on it, you have to be able to back up why you did what you did. And if you didn’t do any kind of due diligence — you know? It’s — It could get sticky.
Alyssa: What are some of your favorite things about researching and writing about different cultures and settings?
Leah: So, I’m a researcher. Research is my thing. And it is probably one of the reasons why half the stuff I want to write never gets written, because I’m always researching. I just find it fascinating, and the reason I find it fascinating is because the world is so small. And it’s like, we don’t think it is, but it really is. And when you delve into different cultures and you start looking at some of the things that they do, and some of the things that have been passed through — through whatever, migration, whatever way it has happened, to other cultures, and how these similarities and how they’ve taken them and made them their own — I find that really fascinating. I find it extremely fascinating.
Alyssa: How do you think that experience has bettered you as a writer?
Leah: So, I think, just in general, traveling has made me a more empathetic person. And so, I think when it comes to my writing, it’s again not wanting to do harm and not wanting to — and to give kids stories that everybody deserves to read, and to give them stories that make them proud to be the person in that book. Because I even think about when I was young, and they would read a story with a black character in it, and it was such an awful portrayal of a black character that you didn’t want to be in the room when they were discussing it. So to have stories where — so that kids who are not from that culture would say, “Oh! I do that too!” or “Oh! That’s so cool, can you teach me?” I want to be able to tell those stories. I want to be able to bring those stories out there and share them with people when other people haven’t been able to share for themselves.
Alyssa: When you’re writing a character that their first language isn’t English, but you’re writing the book in English, what are some just basic writing tips you’d recommend to make the voice authentic?
Leah: Oh gosh. So… So, Wolof is pretty much a spoken language. I spent a lot of time in Senegal, and it is a very animated language. And to not have that in my story felt like my story wouldn’t have been right. I have a lot of Wolof in my book, and I’m actually surprised that they let me have as much Wolof in my book, and I think one of the reasons that it works is because the words that I decided to choose are so expressive that you kind of get — even if you don’t know what the word means, you get from context really easily what’s going on. Like, you might not know exactly, exactly what it is, but you get an idea of what’s happening. I think when — I had a glossary, and I was telling my editor, “You know, I have the glossary if you want to use the glossary.” And they were like, “No! You’re fine! You don’t need it.” And I think one of the key things when doing it is if your reader can read your passage and not come back and say, “What is that?” Then you’re good.
Alyssa: We talked a little earlier about this, but…. When I was researching you in preparation for this interview, I saw another interview you did where you talked about how difficult it was some days to put words on the page, and how much you struggled with that sort of — “Is this a story I should write? Am I the person for this story?” You talked about that your dad was really encouraging and really helped push you. But could you talk a little more about where you found the answer, sort of? And did that sustain you for the whole process? Or did you find yourself going through cycles of — going back to, why am I doing this, and all that?
Leah: I definitely went through cycles. For me, I have a super supportive family — my mom, my dad, my brothers — extremely supportive — my dog — everybody, extremely supportive. My professors… So when I saw this boy on the wall, I’m — I do photography kind of as a — for fun. I grabbed my camera and I took a really quick picture of him. I went through the day and he just stuck in my head. When we came back later in the day, he was still over by the wall. I jumped out, and I was like, “You guys, I’ll be back!” And I went over to ask him his permission to take a picture — because I do not like taking pictures of people and not having their permission — and so I asked him if I could take his picture again. I asked him to sit on the wall, and the boats were behind him. And he was like, “No, I want to stand up.” He didn’t say this in English — it was more in our gesturing about — he was going to stand. So I said, “Okay, that’s fine.” And I took the picture looking at the framing moreso than looking at him while I was taking the picture. And when I walked away, I was just so struck by what I saw on the camera. Because… it was like he was daring me not to see him. So when I went to start writing this book, and I was struggling, I printed those pictures out and I put them on my wall, and they were in my phone, they were in my computer. It was like… I just kept saying to myself, that he was telling me, “I dare you not to see me.” And it was the kind of thing — along with what my dad said — that — I’m competitive, because I’m a big athlete, and so that competitive part of me was like, “You’re not going to let him down. You’re going to figure it out, you’re going to put your big girl pants on, and you’re going to figure it out.” So I would go through waves where I would doubt what I was doing, I’d be really unsure of what I was putting down on the page, but I had an immense amount of support. So when I was really doubtful, they were really encouraging. I don’t know that I would have finished this particular project had it not been for people just… Like, my professors in general were like, “Just send me ten more pages. Just send ten more pages.” And I’d be like, “I don’t want to write this story –” “No, just send me ten more pages. You can send me whatever else you want but send ten pages of that, too.” And I was at my book launch and I was being interviewed for my book launch and I realized then, for the first time, that my professors never graded that work. So when you have people around you that just know that you just need to keep going in order to find — like, I’m going to cry right now — when you have people like that in your life, you’re extremely fortunate. And if you do not have people like that in your life, then you simply need to ask yourself why you need to finish this project. Because if it’s so hard to write it, there’s a reason why. And if that reason why is a compelling one, you’re going to get through, because you know it’s what you need to do. So if you don’t have support, just keep asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” And remember that answer. Tape that answer to the wall. If you don’t have a picture of the little boy like I did, you take your answer to the wall. Every time you get stuck, you look at that and you tell yourself, “I want this because of this.” And if that reason is compelling enough, you’re going to finish that story.
Alyssa: I feel super inspired. What lessons do you think you’ve learned, having taken it through draft stage to selling it to actual publication and putting it out in the world? Do you have any lessons you’ve learned that you’d go back in time and tell yourself?
Leah: The first thing I would tell myself — I was doing this Skype visit today with some students — and the first thing I would say to myself is, “Be kinder to yourself.” Be kinder to yourself in general, but be kinder to yourself about your writing and your words. Like, it does not have to be perfect, and it’s never going to be perfect. But if you continue to doubt yourself, it’s on the page. You know? When you write with confidence, it’s a different story. And I think that — if I could’ve gone back, I would’ve said, “You’ve got this. You’re going to do everything in your power to get that boy’s story as right as you can get it. And it might not be perfect, but that is okay, because at the end of the day I think if he were to ever read it he would know that you put your heart and your soul in it, and you tried your best.” And so, if I could go back, I’d tell myself that first and foremost. I’d tell myself that, “One day, you’re going to get some letters from some kids that are going to completely decimate your heart and put it back together again. And that is all worth it for those letters. That’s what I would say.
Alyssa: That’s awesome. Thanks for joining us today, and thanks for all your amazing advice. I feel super inspired!
Leah: It was my pleasure. I enjoyed it! I absolutely enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.