Reading Outside Your Usual Cultural Space

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A book can take you anywhere—a different place, time, planet, or reality. A book can transform you into someone else, dropping you into other people’s lives so that you see the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick, and feel their hurts and their triumphs.

In fact, studies have shown that the neurological activity of readers mirrors the neurological activity of the characters about which they are reading. In addition, reading novels is widely believed to increase empathy, primarily by letting us share someone else’s experience.

We need to encourage this kind of armchair adventure more than ever these days.

1807 caged birdThis is one reason I was glad to see Maya Angelou’s debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on my daughter’s freshman year summer reading list. I have quoted Angelou many times, but I knew next to nothing about her life until I happened to catch the episode “And Still I Rise” on the PBS series, American Masters. I had no idea what this woman went through or the strength and grace she embodied throughout her unspeakably tragic life until then.

I will be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings this summer along with my daughter, and I have also been making intentional choices about other books on my never-ending and always growing TBR (to be read) list.

1807 hate u giveFor instance, I recently read the debut novel of another woman of color, Angie Thomas. Her breakaway young adult hit, The Hate U Give, was inspired by a real-life shooting in which an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer. I listened to this story as an audio book, and it was the first time in a while that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to put down whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

I was fortunate to be able to later participate in a book group discussion with Action Together North Shore, a local activist group of which I am a member. We had so many more people show up to discuss the book than we expected. The conversation was generously led by a black woman who is a professor of African American studies at Salem State University, but the rest of our group was white. A lot of learning took place.

1807 blood and boneSince then, I have read a very different story by another woman of color, Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel that tells the story of two races—one with magic, one without—who are pitted in a generations-long battle for power. The racial metaphor is clear, but the vehicle for the message could not be more different from Thomas’ super realistic storytelling in The Hate U Give.

1807 freshwaterAnother book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.

1807 born a crimeOn the other end of the spectrum is Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. This insightful, touching, and funny look into his life growing up in South Africa during apartheid as the child of a mixed-race couple was eye opening for me. I recommend this one as an audio book, read by the author.

1807 homegoingMy most recent read was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s an epic story that covers three hundred years in the lives of two Ghana-born half sisters and several generations of their kin. I won’t lie—it was a challenging read in terms of the material, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot. Gyasi succeeds in drawing her reader in so that they not only begin to understand the stories of her characters, they feel them. That’s the power of story. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: o_teuerle Flickr via Compfight cc

21 thoughts on “Reading Outside Your Usual Cultural Space

  1. Jamie, I always read yours posts. I like them. Thanks.
    If you can, see my film MINHA POESIA (MY POETRY). I show how my mother make poetry with Just her eyes moviments. She lives to write and writes to live. This is true.

    thanks, darling. Hug.
    Leide Jacob.

    • Leide, thank you so much for sharing this. I am so moved by your mother’s story and by your beautiful film. Truly, there is such fire in the human spirit. I am in awe of the work your mother does and also of the way you collaborate with her. Love knows no bounds, and that is a beautiful thing even when it breaks your heart. Thank you, again. You have given me the gift of insight into a different perspective and also the gift of deep gratitude.

  2. Great idea, and great recommendations, thank you! As someone who writes alternate world fantasy, I’m always looking for more insights and ideas and lived experiences from cultures other than my own. It’s so easy to accidentally fall into the typical faux-Medieval mindset that so many fantasies are set in, I need all the help I can get imagining myself in another world.

    • You’re very welcome, Joy. Nice to see you. 🙂
      I hadn’t thought of that application specifically, but you’re right. Taking intentional journeys into other experiences can certainly help us create our own unique worlds. The challenge is to balance our own imaginations with real-world influences, and to steer clear of cultural appropriation. I wasn’t very familiar with that term until I listened to a few of the related podcasts from the excellent team at Writing Excuses. Here is a link to the search results if you’re interested: https://writingexcuses.com/?s=cultural+appropriation It’s always a concern with world building (even fantasy worlds). I’m still learning, but some of these conversations were helpful. Happy writing!

      • I agree, it’s a big concern of mine too. I try to be as sensitive as I can, because whenever you start mixing together pieces and ideas from various cultures into a new one, no matter how “alien” you try to make it, it seems someone sees themselves in it anyway. I had someone criticize one of my cultures’s religions because it was “too derivative of Christianity” — based on what? Because it has an afterlife. Well gee, there aren’t that many options there in terms of what happens after you die, and there are multiple real-world religions that have all of them.

      • It is some sticky territory, to be sure. I am aware and careful and respectful, but you also have to be careful not to let your anxiety stunt your imagination and creativity. It’s a place of tension for me, for sure.

    • Thank you for those recommendations. They are both new to me, and I have made a note. 🙂

  3. Thank you. This is an interesting and appreciated post. I have always read prolifically but now in senior years I am very selective. I do not go to the dark and grim. The world around us is dark and grim enough. I now choose to journey in the books that take me to Hope. these often go through dark places but never, never leave the reader there. How hard it is to be discerning in all choices .

    • I completely understand, Faye. It is true that the real world has enough darkness and strife in it. Like you, I have chosen to steer clear of fictional darkness in some of my entertainment (TV and movies, for instance). I did force myself to read the books I shared in this list. I wasn’t looking forward to them as an escape or even an enjoyable journey, but I felt I had to “do the work,” as they say. The Hate U Give actually did turn out to be pretty hopeful, so if you feel an urge to try any of these, I’d recommend that one.
      I have one more “heavy” book I’m reading now (Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, an indigenous writer), and then I’m switching over to some FUN books for a while. I just purchased two from a great indie bookstore in Portsmouth NH that should fit the bill quite nicely! 🙂

  4. I’ve recently read Who Fears Death, by another Nigerian woman, named Nnedi Okorafor. I was ready for another perspective on fantasy fiction, and I have to tell you, this book was amazing. I’m putting Children of Blood and Bone on my TBR list. Thanks for this great list of culturally diverse books!

  5. Another book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.

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