Monthly Archives: April 2017

Expressing a Culture in the Context of Another Culture

(Similar to Chloe, I had trouble finding information about the cultural essay – all there seems to be is a short blurb on personal cultural criticism that Chloe used in her blog post already. But I think she did a great job exploring the meaning of culture and the importance of the aspect of collectiveness in the cultural essay: “Compared with a personal essay, a personal cultural criticism sheds light on specific cultural issues that are loaded with more collective features of a cultural or sub-cultural group instead of the mere idiosyncratic bearing on the writer himself.”)

We mentioned in class that the Spanish used in La conciencia de la Mestiza is purposely alienating to readers who have no Spanish foundation, and purposely inclusive to readers who have more knowledge in Spanish. Here, the essay is exposing certain readers’ inability to fully understand the writer by making the reader feel his/her lacking of understanding. It exposes whether the reader cares enough to translate certain parts of the essay in order to understand better, or whether the reader cares enough to even read the essay.

As for the reader who knows more Spanish, the reader is automatically connected to the writer in a deeper way. There is something special about reading bits of your mother tongue among a foreign language – it is finding the familiar in a foreign land, the often-forgotten minority in the majority. A candle is more illuminating in a dark room, just like words from a mother tongue are more precious and special in a sea of words from a language that is so mainstream yet inadequate in expressing one’s identity.

The special thing about presenting one culture within another culture. It is a learning process for both the writer and the reader; the need for understanding goes both ways. Writing about Hong Kong in English is very much different from writing about Hong Kong in Chinese. Something that is old to me becomes something new to others, and sometimes even to myself – often times I gain new perspectives on my home culture when I need to present it in a language that is associated with a different culture, or when I need to cater my descriptions of home to an audience from a different culture. For example, if I compare a Hong Kong dessert with a Twinkie, that would obviously be catering to Americans, and in the process I learn to look at a dessert from home through another cultural lens too.

If all creative works aim to present a new perspective on various issues and aspects of life, then cultural essays aim to present a new perspective on certain cultural values/beliefs through the narrator’s relationship with a culture. New light is shed on the narrator’s culture and any other cultures explored in the essay. By highlighting cultural traits and traditions, the reader learns how different and/or similar their culture(s) is/are with the culture(s) of the writer, and learns to see another culture in the “other’s” eyes. I would expect that the writer has special authority in guiding the reader through issues in the essay, because the writer is (usually) familiar with the culture he/she writes about. This would be different from unreliable narrators – there seems to be a need for a reliable narrator in cultural essays, so that the critique of culture is clear and convincing, and so that the “other” culture isn’t more unaccessible than it was before the reader started reading the essay.

Being someone who has been exposed to so many cultures (Hong Kong, China, Scotland, USA, and more during travels), it’s hard to not see most of my essays as somewhat cultural essays. I feel a constant need to show people that there are sides of me they do not know. I don’t necessarily expect them to understand those parts of me, but I want them to acknowledge the existence those parts of identity and their inability to understand them.  So I am thankful for cultural essays that remind people that there is so much more than your skin color, place of birth, accent, favorite foods, fashion style, etc., but rather the conversation all those things have with one another and with different people’s experiences and values, how the representation of a certain culture is unique depending on which culture the writer is catering to.

The Cultural Essay: What is “culture” anyway?

This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately.

This semester, I’ve taken on several projects which have necessitated a lot of self exploration. Through this exploration, I’ve been forced to come face to face with questions concerning identity. As a biracial woman, I’ve found myself either occupying multiple, seemingly conflicting, cultures, or completely culture-less. Until I realized, do I even really know what culture is?

Merriam-Webster offers six definitions of the word “culture” (many of them containing sub-definitions). Most intriguing when considering what this word might mean for us as writers thinking about the cultural essay is:

a :  the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

b :  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time popular culture Southern culture

c :  the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization a corporate culture focused on the bottom line

d :  the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

By this definition, culture has many forms. For example, I may belong to vegan culture, to liberal arts college culture, to undergrad creative writing major culture, as much as I do to deeper seeded cultures. While, of course, cultures that are based in racial or geographic sharing are richer, having had years to cultivate and being informed by layers upon layers of complex history, these smaller now cultures have a richness of their own, and still inform our lives the way they can inform our writing.

If you’re like me, you may be sighing with relief, I do have a culture.  This is a common concern particularly for those who identify as white. While I do not identify as white, I grew up in a majority-white town, in an all-white family. So, culturally, I’m pretty white. But what does that mean? How many times have we heard “white people have no culture?” I won’t attempt to unpack that statement, because there is a lot there. I just want to point out that culture need not only be identified by race, so if you’re feeling culture-less, you’re not.

Now that we’re one step closer to understanding what culture might mean, how do we write about the cultures to which we belong, how do we turn them into an essay? This is where things get complicated… I think we already are. The small cultures to which we belong are the things that make us unique, that give us something to write about. For example, I belong to small town culture, more specifically small town Western New York culture, and this was the backbone of my piece “High Speed.” I also belong to a culture of college students who know how to cook, and this informed my piece “Tastes Like Darkness.” Yet, these were not cultural essays.

The cultural essay is defined as “a writer’s intellectual and emotional engagement with a certain aspect or artifact of a particular culture, which involves the writer’s first-hand experiences, thoughts, and insights. Compared with a personal essay, a personal cultural criticism sheds light on specific cultural issues that are loaded with more collective features of a cultural or sub-cultural group instead of the mere idiosyncratic bearing on the writer himself.

As Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg claim in The Fourth Genre (2nd ed.), ‘Including this personal voice in cultural criticism surrenders some of the authority–or the pretense of authority–generally found in academic writing, but substitutes for it the authority of apparent candor or personal honesty” (xxv), the voice that expresses the writer’s candid opinion on the cultural issue is what divides the subgenre from the academic critique.'”

So, what seems to truly define the cultural essay is less the culture that informs it, but more the voice of the collective, the sense of community promised by this voice. We saw this in Gloria Anzaldúa’s “La Conciencia de la Mestiza,” the way the “I” was used only sparingly in the piece.

Without undermining the importance of writing on and about larger cultures (those based on ethnicity, nationality, etc.), I think it’s particularly important for us, as writers in the age of Trump, to harness and channel the collective voice in our writing, seeing if we can’t explore our own emotional engagement with an aspect of our own particular cultures. Jess’s writing prompt this week asked us to do so, and while I found it really difficult to get started, it became one of the most rewarding writing exercises this semester.