‘Cause It’s My Culture, So Naturally I Use It*

Cultural PerspectivesMuch of what we think, do and value is impacted (sometimes dictated) by our culture. We don’t stop to think about each of our decisions or thoughts, but if you do stop and reflect, it’s not hard to see how deeply culture is woven into our lives and thinking patterns. You may notice it in particular if you spend time in another culture or if you read about characters from another culture. The ways in which those characters think, act and choose may seem strange or even wrong. But they may make more sense if you think about it from the point of view of that other culture. Let me show you what I mean with just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, which is owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, to help his friend Ariadne Oliver. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête, but has come to suspect that more is going on at Nasse House than a planned event. Poirot isn’t there long before he too begins to think that something is wrong. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. As a part of that process, he interviews the people involved with the fête, including Amy Folliat, whose family owned Nasse house for generations, and who actually introduced Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. As Mrs. Folliat explains to Poirot, Lady Hattie is of subnormal intelligence and after her family died, was under her (Mrs. Folliat’s) care. When Sir George proposed marriage, Amy Folliat urged her ward to accept, with the idea that she would be well provided for and not have to make her way alone. It wasn’t really a love match, and Mrs. Folliat’s concerned about Poirot’s reaction to that. But from Poirot’s perpective, which is impacted by his culture, it’s a wise choice:

 

‘It seems to me…that you made a most prudent arrangement for her. I am not, like the English, romantic. To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’

 

If you’re from a culture where marriage choices are based mostly on love and romance, Mrs. Folliat may seem almost coldly pragmatic. But it’s perfectly reasonable from a different cultural perspective.

We also see how culture impacts the way characters think and behave in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath.  LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate when a rape occurs at Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, a secluded Orthodox Jewish community. At first, the detectives think it may be the work of a serial rapist they’re already tracking. But there are enough differences that it could also be someone else. Then there’s a murder at the yeshiva. Now it looks as though whatever is going on has to do with the people there. In the course of the investigation, Decker also works with Rina Lazarus, a teacher at the yeshiva school. She and Decker are attracted to each other and each admits it. But even though she likes Decker, she doesn’t go out with him. If you’re from a culture where people who like each other go on dates, you might wonder why on earth Rina doesn’t say ‘yes,’ to a date. After all, it’s just dinner. But in the Orthodox Jewish culture, it’s not appropriate to spend time alone with a man to whom one isn’t married. Rina’s neither prudish nor afraid of Decker. But she is deeply affected by her culture, so dating as many of us conceive it is not a part of her thinking.

There’s a fascinating look at culture’s impact on people’s thinking and choices in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. These novels take place in 1970’s Laos, where Dr. Siri is the country’s chief (well, really only) medical examiner. He has very few resources at his disposal, but he is a skilled doctor. He prefers logical, scientific explanations for life, and tries to provide them in the context of his work. But the traditional Laos culture in which he lives sees the world differently. To members of that traditional culture, certain things simply do not have Western-style scientific explanations, and have to be attributed to something else. The Laotian government authorities try to discourage those traditions, but Dr. Siri learns to see the merit of them. As the series goes on, he gets better able to see the world that way and he finds that it’s a very useful ‘cultural lens.’

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. Her father Jim has hired Keeney to find out the truth about her death, so Keeney goes undercover at New Life to find out whether someone there may have had a motive for murder.  One of the things that come out in this novel is the Thai custom of disparaging one’s own baby:

 

‘My Kob has ears like an elephant,’ Mayuree added…
‘Kob has such beautiful eyes,’ Wen said, ‘whereas my poor Moo has small eyes and they aren’t even a nice color.’

 

If you’re not from the Thai culture, you may wonder how any loving mother could speak that way about her own child. But in the Thai culture it makes sense. It’s a way of protecting a baby from malevolent spirits who might be jealous of a smart, physically appealing child. From the Thai perspective, these two women behave like the loving mothers they are.

Mark David-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia group. Their families are financially desperate, so an arrangement is made for the girls to join the dhanda – a name used for India’s sex trade. The idea is that they’ll work in that business for a few years and send their earnings back to their families. At the end of that time, they’ll return to their villages and settle down. The two girls are both nervous, but they agree. Then they’re shipped to Scotland where they fall into the hands of some very nasty people. Basanti manages to escape, but in the meantime, she has lost contact with Preeti. Her search for Preeti leads to oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who helps Basanti find out the truth about her friend. You may very well wonder how anyone could allow a daughter to be a part of the sex trade, or how any teen could agree to it. But in that culture, family and family duty are of the utmost importance. These girls see it as their responsibility to help their families. Preeti even sees it as a source of pride. From the families’ perspective, it’s far better than allowing other children in the family to starve. This cultural and financial perspective doesn’t make underage prostitution a good thing. But it does help explain how it happens.

There’s a really interesting case of cultural impact in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Ilsa Klein is a secondary school teacher in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s become concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman, who’s stopped coming to class regularly, and stopped being a part of the group when she’s there. Ilsa’s choices about helping Serena have much more far-reaching consequences than she could have imagined, and through it all, there’s an interesting debate. There are many social services available in New Zealand for students who are struggling. Admittedly sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. But most social service professionals try to do their best. Ilsa and her mother Gerda, though, come from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany. To them, trusting any government agency is out of the question, especially from Gerda’s perspective. Government workers were responsible for a great deal of denouncement, spying, and so on that led to the disappearances and deaths of many East Germans during the Soviet era. That cultural ‘rule’ – that you don’t trust any agency – may seem strange if you come from a culture where those agencies do a lot of good. But to these women, from that culture, it makes perfect sense.

And that’s the thing about culture. It impacts the way we see the world, ourselves, others, and their actions and values. It even affects the way we see fictional characters and the way they see each other. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Living Colour’s Pride.

33 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Colin Cotterill, Faye Kellerman, Mark Douglas-Home, Paddy Richardson

33 responses to “‘Cause It’s My Culture, So Naturally I Use It*

  1. I just came to this same conclusion when trying to decide whether or not to participate in a call for submissions about a northern town. Since I’m from the south, I decided I wouldn’t have an accurate voice. If I’d lived there for any period of time, I might have thought otherwise, but…

    • Renee – You make a compelling point about the writing perspective on all of this. It’s very hard to write about a place if you don’t have an authentic voice, or haven’t lived in a place long enough to understand that culture. That’s part of the reason for which the mysteries I write are set in the place where I spent most of my adult life. I know the voice.

  2. Bridging cultural gaps is something which is both necessary and almost second nature to DI Napoleon Bonaparte, in Arthur Upfield’s series of mysteries from Australia. Bony himself is half-white, half-Aborigine, and he is all too conscious of the differences between the white-Anglo culture and the black-Aborigine culture. Each group has its own approach to everything – to life, to crime, even to the passage of time – and if Bony wants to succeed in understanding and solving any of his cases, he must take those differences into account. It’s one of the most appealing things to me about these books.

    • Les – I’m very glad you mentioned Bony, because his way of dealing with different groups of people is indeed appealing. In The Bushman Who Came Back, for instance, there’s a great scene where he visits an Aborigine camp. He understands the Aborigine way of doing things, and even though Whites might think those ways are strange, or even wrong, he knows them well enough to use them to his advantage. It’s very clever I think.

  3. Very, very interesting post about using and showing cultural biases in mystery fiction. I have read some of these, and really looking forward to trying The Sea Detective. I have often commented about my difficulty in reading books about the South (USA). But sometimes they are written from a point of view that I can step back and understand how where you grow up affects who you are. Sometimes.

    • Tracy – Thanks. I think culture really does affect what we think of characters, what we think of plots, and so on. And of course it affects the way the characters interact too. And I couldn’t agree more that where and how one grows up profoundly affects one’s identity. Oh, and I hope you’ll enjoy The Sea Detective. It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s well done I think.

  4. I’ve just read (and will shortly be blogging on) a fascinating book called Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay, a 1950s murder story set in Papua New Guinea: it’s whole premise is about cultural differences and the impact of the British/Australian colonists on the country. It is a really excellent book – it won one of the first Edgars. I think it is largely forgotten now – I only heard of it recently – but deserves to be revived.

    • Moira – Oh, that does sound interesting! I’ve read two Charlotte Jays in the last few months (Hank of Hair and Arms of Adonis) – both quite good. I like her writing style and I have the feeling she handled this topic really well. She does deserve more notice than she gets.

  5. I’ve become very aware (mainly through reading your posts) of how insular my reading tastes are when it comes to crime – I’d say around 70% of everything I read is British-based or by a British author. But I do enjoy reading Japanese fiction occasionally, primarily because I feel I don’t really understand their culture, so it interests me to try to work it out. On the surface our lifestyles aren’t too different but our thought processes and desires, if I can put it that way, seem to be poles apart somehow. Most recently I noticed that again in Shuichi Yoshida’s ‘Parade’.

    • FictionFan – I so wish I had the time to read as broadly as I would like. I think we do get into patterns of reading, and it can be very difficult to break them unless we do so deliberately. It’s interesting that you’ve been experimenting with Japanese crime fiction (I’d like to know it better, to be honest). I think when you read another country’s crime fiction, or crime fiction that takes place in another culture, you do get a sense of what that culture is like. And that’s what helps a thinking person hold up a mirror (i.e. Just because I think something is right/wrong/odd/usual/etc.. doesn’t mean everyone does…). That to me is one of the benefits of reading.

  6. Your comments on Thai people disparaging their children were fascinating! I’d never come across that concept before.

    • Tess – To be honest, I wouldn’t have known about that either but for The Half Child. When I read that passage, I looked up a few things because it fascinated me too. Savage ‘does her homework,’ and to me, what’s interesting is that although you and I might think of comments like that as nasty, even cruel, they aren’t if you look at it from the point of view of those two young women. In their culture, that’s loving behaviour.

  7. This is such an exciting topic. With the world getting smaller we are bumping into other cultures more often and a bit of rubbing off it also taking place. In a hundred years we will be more like each other if there still is life on earth.

    • Patti – You’re absolutely right that we are getting more and more global. This means that understanding the way other cultures see the world is going to be increasingly important. You have a well-taken point too that as we get to learn about other people, a lot of borrowing takes place. I could do post after post just on the linguistic borrowing alone. Trust me. But it happens with other aspects of life too.

  8. Such an interesting topic. I have lived in many different cultures (especially when growing up) and it has made me very aware of other traditions and practices which we (in the West) find strange and hard to understand – and our cultures and traditions no doubt baffle as well – so I can relate to a lot of what has been said here. I think it is vital to understand other cultures and not to judge or impose our ways upon them. Mind you, when working with Chinese in business, I found it hard to be dismissed as invisible in some meetings, because I was a woman. I also managed to offend no end of men by having the nerve to chair meetings and, sin of sins, sit at the head of a conference table to do so. I wondered why they never held a door open but let it slam in my face. Then someone told me – I should know my place! Not that I wouldn’t have held a door for them – but they made a big point of it.

    • Jane – Thanks. And it sounds as though you’ve had plenty of experiences encountering people from different cultures. As you say, other traditions and beliefs may seem strange, but they make sense if you’re a member of that other culture. And your experience in China shows that one’s own traditions and beliefs may seem strange to others. The idea of a woman chairing a meeting might have seemed awfully strange – even wrong – to those other people. But to you, with your background and cultural perceptions, it made perfect sense. I think that how we respond to different cultural world views is an important part of negotiating our increasingly smaller world.

      • Indeed. I took it in my stride once I was made aware. I cannot change 5,000 years plus of tradition and why should I? It was an odd feeling to be a second class citizen, but then it doesn’t hurt to briefly travel in another’s shoes. When I look around the world and see what ‘our’ culture has done and is doing to other peoples, well, I think I can understand their wish to hang on to as much as they can, whilst they can.

  9. This is exactly why I deliberately select books set in different countries and different eras. I love learning about other cultures. People are surprised at how much I know about people in parts of the world I’ve never visited, but I get 99% of it from the fiction I read.

    • Barbara – I’ve learned a great deal about the way other cultures see the world too from my reading. To me, that’s one of the great things about reading. And it’s one reason that to me, research is so important. I like the people and places I read about to be depicted authentically. I get quite cranky if it’s done in a stereotypical, not-very-well-researched way.

  10. kathy d.

    One of the joys of reading fiction it to learn about other countries and their cultures. Angela Savage’s books set in Thailand are certainly educational as well as entertaining, from learning about million-year-old fish to the ecology of the coastlines to cultural issues.
    And I’d say that about Kishwar Desai’s books set in India. She deals with women’s issues and mistreatment in one book. And then deals with social views of surrogacy, and how it impacts on people of different classes, castes and religions.
    Now that global crime fiction is so much more available, it is so enjoyable to read about various cultures.

    • Kathy – You’re right; in a lot of cases it’s easier to find crime fiction from all over the world (and set all over the world) than it ever was. That’s especially true for people who read e-books. I’m glad you mentioned Kishwar Desai’s work too. She truly shares India when she writes, and has taught me a lot. So of course has Angela Savage. Books like those remind us that not everyone has the same world view. And that’s a good thing.

  11. Col

    The McKinty book – The Cold Cold Ground recently read can’t help but touch upon culture and identity and traditions in Northern Ireland. A seemingly innocuous question like asking someone where they went to school, automatically identifies someone as has having a particular faith and therefore in the mind of the questioner pigeon holes them for allegiances and loyalties. There’s no physical differences to assist the bigots identify which of the two tribes you may belong to.

    • Col – That’s quite true. And of course, neither side takes the trouble to see the world from the other’s point of view. If you’re ‘one of them’ that’s enough to make you The Enemy. If you’re ‘one of us,’ then that brands you as a friend. And as you say, since there aren’t physical differences between the two groups, they rely on questions like where one lives or what school one attended.

  12. Margot – Great post on another fascinating aspect of crime fiction. Off topic, a little, but I recall that saying about popular culture : if it’s popular, it’s culture!

  13. Another post I could reflect on all day. Clashes in culture are fascinating and can create humour as well as tension.

    Swearing, for example, is something I often have to deal with. It really is unacceptable in polite British society but the number of times my students have innocently said something to me because they’ve heard it in an American film. I had sex referred to by the F- word and a bad person as the C- word. I’m always seized by the desire to laugh while explaining to them it really isn’t the correct terminology.

    • Sarah – I can well imagine that you have some interesting experiences trying to help your students understand not just language, but all the cultural factors that go with it. Those nuances can be difficult to pick up, too, because they’re more ephemeral. Your example of how that works is a good one too. One can learn that a certain swear word means a certain thing, but all of the subtleties of when to use it and mostly, when not to use it take more time.

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