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Writing out of “my culture”

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Even coming up with a title for this one made me squirm. Should I say writing about a “foreign” culture? “Foreign” depends on where you’re coming from – everything’s foreign somewhere. And it could be argued that everyone has her own individual culture, made up of details from all over the place. My two sons are “third culture kids” who fit in everywhere or nowhere, depending on who’s describing them.

Crossing Paths is written from the points of view of two women – both Tanzanian. Someone is probably going to accuse me of cultural appropriation, a concept I wrestle with, maybe because I’ve lived for 20 years outside the United States. As with most fiction, the characters are composites of different people I’ve known. Many of the sentiments expressed in the book and the actions of characters are things I saw or heard or knew happened while I lived in Tanzania. A Kenyan friend who read it asked if it was really fiction.

I wrote it the way I did because I had a story to tell and I thought it was best told from the point of view of the two women who lived it. I don’t pretend to be an authority on Tanzania and my knowledge of Swahili is pathetic. But I did live and work every day for over a decade with Tanzanians in a Tanzanian organization and I have always loved to note, discuss, laugh about, and enjoy cultural differences with people. It’s too bad that it’s becoming less acceptable to discuss such things in a divided America today – it’s not that way everywhere.

Many times one of my Tanzania colleagues and I have looked each other in the eye and laughed at our differences. What I’ve learned is that we are all indeed more alike than different – and we can celebrate and marvel at this.

Oil painting by Lesley Carnak, Cape Town
Oil painting by Lesley Charnock, Cape Town

I never considered writing the book in first person because that would have felt like I was crossing some line that didn’t seem right. But I don’t think I’ve appropriated anything by writing from the points of view of two very different Tanzanian women. On the contrary I hope Jacaranda Flowers will give people from outside Tanzania an opportunity to learn about and appreciate an attractive culture in which there are all sorts of people -- and to realize that our human similarities outweigh our differences.


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