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Culture

The content below the cut is PG-13

I write fiction.  Needless to say, many times, I need to create a world in which my story will unfold.  In, Kalaydan Chronicles:  Book I ~ The Moon-kissed Chi, I did this very thing.  In considering its people, I find I also need to consider it ‘s culture.

I came across a very well-written article on culture by Dennis O’Neil of Palomar Community College in San Marcos, California entitled, “What Is Culture“?

Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon.  It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds.  Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture.  They are not culture in themselves.  For this reason, archaeologists can not dig up culture directly in their excavations.  The broken pots and other artifacts of ancient people that they uncover are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns–they are things that were made and used through cultural knowledge and skills.  Dennis O’Neil, ‘What Is Culture?’

Keeping this in mind, I must answer a few questions about the culture of the people of this new world:

1.  Does everyone speak the same language?  Does it vary with class, age, status, etc?
2.  How do they dress?
3.  Are there gender roles in this society?
4.  What about biases, stereotypes, and prejudices?
5.  Is there a clearly defined class structure?

The questions above are only a few which I find I must answer as I further develop this world.  In O’Neil’s essay, he includes a list of cultural traits.  These serve as “tags” when defining the culture one is observing or developing.  Though not something one thinks about necessarily with respect to culture, society and culture are not the same things according to O’Neil, though they’re very much entwined.  It can be difficult to extricate one from the other without totally degrading the culture or diminishing the practices of the people to one degree or another.

Another thing, I’ve come to realize on my own, so it’s mentioned in my list above, is that the biases and prejudices a person has are many times resultant of the popular beliefs a society has.  Many times these beliefs are directly related to the cultural practices of a people.  In recognizing differences in behavior and beliefs in other cultures, assumptions and conclusions are drawn based on the culture one belongs to.

The Culture Show

Understanding within a culture by its people ensures its deeper meanings are retained from generation to generation.

From the outside looking in, one can find amusement, revulsion, distaste or perhaps appreciation for the practices of another culture.  We sometimes adopt practices of other cultures.  I for one, don’t wear shoes in the house, this resulting from my sojourn in Japan many years ago.  Some people go even further and become expatriated from their own birth culture.  You will find this sometimes with military members who have become completely immersed in a foreign country’s way of life.  The meanings and understandings of the practices within a culture will resonate most with the natives to that culture.  The reactions and behaviors of the various characters in a story will also serve to further illustrate the cultural elements of the societies within the story.

English: Festival of Lithuania's nations "...

There’s beauty to be found in every culture.

Beauty found in one’s culture can bolster national pride and appreciation for the uniqueness of those practices.  The inability to realized that beauty in another culture accounts many times for the derision and rivalry between cultures, social groups, nations, etc.

Français : Photographie prise lors du spectacl...

Along with meaning within a culture comes its deeply entrenched lore.

Looking at the picture above, I have no idea what’s going on.  However, becoming familiar with the lore of a culture can help further clarify the “play” the people of a culture engages in.  Kabuki comes to mind as well as performances of the Old Globe Theater.  Having a closer kinship to the culture of the latter, I understand more the intricacies of those performances than I do the performances in Kabuki.  Creating, for my people in my stories, a lore and presenting it in a way that can provide a more common understanding to the reader makes, it possible for me to show that world at play without losing the reader.

Geisha

Vestiges of the past continue to define the present for many cultures.

As time passes within a society, so does the adherence to cultural practices.  I’m very fascinated by the mystique and allure of the culture and practices of the Geisha.  In one, the Geisha at one time was the embodiment of culture, class, society, and much more.  And the beauty of Japan could not be better displayed than the perfection of art, skill, accomplishment and reverence that was the icon of Geisha.  As one experiences the passage of time in the worlds we as writers create in the stories we write, what elements of culture change either for the better or for worse?  In what way has the culture matured or de-evolved over time.  What’s been forgotten?  What’s never forgotten?

Oil on canvas

At a glance, one can usually guess to what culture a person belongs, what nationality of which they are part, from what they are wearing.  Nowadays in this global society, it may be a bit more of a challenge when a guest in many of the major metropolitan areas around the world.  But, the adoption primarily of the dress of one the people of one region by the people of another region identifies many things:  status on a global level of the countries involved, where the balance of power lies, and even the value systems of disparate cultures.  I’ll make it simple, those that mimic are the have-nots and those that are mimicked are the haves, or so one would think.  Another way to look at clothing is in terms of liberty one enjoys in the garments one wears.  Within the cultural structure, which members are afforded comfort in they way they are expected to dress and which are not?  Which are allowed dignity with respect to the rules of decency within the society and culture and which members are not?  The challenge is to bring these concepts to the illustration of the people I create in my stories.

A Muslim woman wearing hijab

Many aspects of a culture can be come iconic.  For many in western culture, the sight of a woman who is veiled to one degree or another can give rise to many feelings of anger and revulsion resulting from the perceptions one has with regard to the liberties and rights a woman is able to enjoy.  Other similarly incendiary icons could be the flag of a country, the religions relics of a people, those images that depict the quality of life a people enjoys, or even entertainment practices of a particular people.  Even though I suggest the previous concepts could prove incendiary when one views the icons representing them, but they could also engender the opposite reactions as well.  In effectively creating the world and its people, one can include these icons as part of the story to better tell the reader of the mindset of the people therein.

The importance of culture and the presence of the norms of the society within a story may or may not be intrinsic to its successful depiction.  However, it is another way the writer can pull the reader into the story, give them a sense of connection or disconnection with the various people.  The authors who stand out in my mind as having accomplished this very effectively in their books are JRR Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

In a subsequent blog post, I hope to discuss the varying layers of culture.  That topic could potentially be as involved as this one.

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