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
We had adventures: an earthquake, jeep rides on worst roads, family holidays in the
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
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
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
Read more about writing across borders in Rosanne Hawke's paper 'Crossing Borders: Writing Marrying Ameera' in the journal Write4Children at the
L'Engle, M 1980, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Harold Shaw,
Sallis, E 1999, 'Research Fiction', Text, vol 3 no 2, October, pp.1-5.