One World, Many Cultures - CBCA 2012 panel speech

One World, Many Cultures – CBCA 2012 Panel  speech       Rosanne Hawke

 

My life changed when I lived in the Middle East for ten years – seven and half of those years spent in Pakistan. I was brought up in the bush by an English mum and an Aussie hard yakka farmer/grazier for a dad. He was third generation Cornish. In Pakistan I learned a new way of looking at the world, a different way of doing everything from wearing clothes, eating food, to giving gifts and going to weddings.

 

In the United Arab Emirates my children met a king, rolled down sand dunes and rode in dhows; in Pakistan they shook hands with a beggar, climbed mountains and rode horses around a glacial fairy lake. It's not unusual to find that the stories my children wanted to hear me tell would include mountain princes, teashops, carpets, sumptuous weddings and beautiful snow-topped mountains.

 

We had adventures: an earthquake, jeep rides on worst roads, family holidays in the Khagan Valley which is a short trek across the mountains to Azad Kashmir. Once we visited the Valley of Chitral, before the snow season, so we thought. We were in a Suzuki van and had to pass through the high Shangrila Pass to get into the valley. That night it snowed on the pass. The next day we tried to get out but the road was too slippery – we nearly went over the edge. So we returned and my husband put myself and the children on a plane and he would ask men to sit in the back of the Suzuki to weigh it down so he could get the van over the Shangrila Pass. He managed to get out of the valley but we didn't. The weather changed; the plane couldn't fly so we stayed in a hotel (complete with my flea powder). The hospitality of the mountain men came into play and we were looked after as if my husband was still there. When we finally were airborne the Himalayas from the air was like being a fly on a meringue cake the size of the world. My husband was worried to get home before us. No mobile phones.

 

Once, my husband let off firecrackers for the girls at the mountain school where I taught English to the teachers. It was election time and we didn't notice the Urdu posters that stated 'no loud noises'. My husband ended up at the police station but the retired army colonel in whose house we lived got him out again. One of our friends was kidnapped by militants. He survived but it started a story that my eldest daughter wanted and so I finally began writing.

 

I wrote to give my children more things to read but I found I was writing to make sense of the culture I saw and experienced, to record it and to enjoy it. I still do that, though now I also find myself giving a story to those children who have no way of writing their own yet. For example, Soraya, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, settling into South Australia; Ameera, underage, sent to Azad Kashmir for a wedding that turns out to be her own; Taj, in 1875, a first generation Afghan-Australian, yearns to go on an exploring expedition with his camel, Mustara, and Razaq, a strong and free mountain boy from tribal Pakistan, is sold.

 

Even my Cornish books are about culture, the cultural identity that many Anglo-Australian young people don't realise they have. These are the things I see and they are filtered by that experience of displacement I've known myself, and ultimately accepted in a culture other than my own. With Jenefer in Zenna Dare it was a move from the city to country Kapunda; finding a Cornish identity.

 

Place and country is important to me. When I've seen a place and lived in it I find it is easier to write a story set there. I seem to assimilate what I see and it comes out on my page. When I wonder what right I have to write a story about a Muslim girl like Soraya or Ameera I remind myself that living in that culture has helped me see in a certain way so as to have respect and empathy for the character. Also there is usually something in the story to allow for any cultural slip ups I might make, for example, Soraya's father was educated in London and Ameera's mother is Anglo-Australian.

 

Author and academic, Eva Sallis (1999) points out that 'Discomfort with lack of authenticity and lack of authority could easily dominate a readership which searches too rigidly for one's right to write' (p. 4). I decided the research I had undertaken plus over seven years of living in Pakistan would suffice, along with Ameera's mixed parentage. It can be beneficial to have a distance of observation. Cited in Inez Baranay's paper on Writing Self, Character and the Other is this:  'Empathy and intimacy are two types of inquiry into the other…having empathy and having the distance that comes from not being a member of whatever groups can be a powerful tool for observing' (McDonnell cited in Inez Baranay 2004, p. 7). This is encouraging for me, because even though Ameera has an Australian mother, I was concerned about that cultural authority some readers believe an author should possess.

 

Extensive research pays off, but writing across a cultural border demands more than getting the setting or cultural details right. To write Ameera's anguish I needed to feel her pain in wanting to marry for love, while understanding this view isn't considered a Pakistani value. Even though I try to honestly record what I see, I was concerned lest my worldview try to sneak underneath Ameera's, but I decided any 'mistakes' Ameera makes could be blamed on her mother who isn't Muslim. Certainly Ameera's cousin Haider contributes her 'Western-ness' to her Christian mother and therefore a 'kacha' (faulty) upbringing. Above all, Ameera's story had to be paramount. The research would not allow the story to be believable if it interfered with the fiction, but I hope it served the story as I tried to do, to coin a phrase from author Madeleine L'Engle (1980, p. 23). I nervously asked a Pakistani-Australian girl who said she loved Marrying Ameera if I had got it right and she said Marrying Ameera is 'a truly life-changing read ... A perfect depiction of the Pakistani culture and all other attributes of a Pakistani-Australian teenage girl' (2011, [personal communication], on 26 January). That girl said her name could have been on the cover. I think that was one of those moments when I was happy with my achievement.

 

I have had other feedback from younger readers who have enjoyed my books set in different cultures. Some have been readers from those cultures, but those readers not from the culture displayed have said it was good to learn about another culture. One 13-year-old said she loved it when there were words other than English in the text as it gave her the feeling she was learning about another culture. A Year 10 reviewer of Soraya the Storyteller said she hadn't believed before that a book could change a reader's opinion as this one had for her about asylum seekers. There are a lot of readers, even young ones, who are vicarious travellers.

 

I experienced the displacement that comes from crossing cultural boundaries not only in Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates but in changing states when I was fourteen. Much of my fiction shows the displacement that comes when a cultural border is crossed. Many people remain within their safe cultural boundaries. I know I did, but living in the Middle East for ten years ripped me from my mono-cultural cocoon. I'd like young readers to think about cultural boundaries that may confine them, rather than thoughtlessly living within them.

 

 

Read more about writing across borders in Rosanne Hawke's paper 'Crossing Borders: Writing Marrying Ameera' in the journal Write4Children at the University of Winchester's website. There is a link to this under Marrying Ameera on this website.

 

References

Baranay, I. 2004, 'It's the Other who Makes my Portrait: Writing Self, Character and the Other, Text, vol 8, no 2.

L'Engle, M 1980, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Harold Shaw, Wheaton, Illinois.

Sallis, E 1999, 'Research Fiction', Text, vol 3 no 2, October, pp.1-5.