Janet Sumner Johnson
About Author Visits Blog Books Events Contact PB&J Society

Writing from a POV Outside your Culture

Feb 10, 2014 Uncategorized 4 comments

I have long heard the debate of whether a writer should attempt to write from a POV outside their own culture. The question is this: Can an author who is not of a certain ethnicity, do that ethnicity justice? Can s/he give an authentic point of view?

When you consider the works of people such as Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, and Khaled Hosseini, the idea feels pretty daunting if not impossible. How can you hope to capture the heart of a culture you haven’t lived?

Yet I believe that if a writer is willing to put in the work, it’s possible. Certainly, a character is not Hispanic, Chinese, French, or Russian just because we say they are. Simply giving them an accent is not good enough either.

Writing from the POV of another culture means a whole different way of thinking about the world. To list just a few of the things we must consider:

Honestly, the list could go on for a long time. But if we want to be authentic, we will take the time to understand how these things work within the culture we are writing from.

To give just a small example, I spent 18 months in a French Territory. I lived with girls from all over the world (France, Tahiti, Vanuatu . . .). When I was preparing to come back to the USA, a girl I knew was interested in buying my bike. She asked how much I wanted for it, and I told her $75. That amount felt like a nice even and reasonable number.

But when we got home, my French roommate shook her head. “I just don’t get you Americans. Why $75? Make it $70 or $80, that would be a nice round number. But you Americans insist on such odd amounts!”

I was flabbergasted. I had been going for a nice round number. To me, $70 or $80 felt uneven. But her comment made me think. Why did we see something so basic and seemingly simple in such a different way?

The answer? Our different monetary systems had biased our way of thinking. You see, the USA uses a 25 cent coin so my mind naturally breaks $100 into four 25’s. I do it without thinking about it. France, on the other hand, uses a 20 cent coin. My French friend naturally counts by 10’s and 20’s.

Such a simple thing that leaked from our experience into our way of thinking. This is how cultural bias is formed. Understanding such simple differences is one of the things we must do to successfully write from a POV outside our own culture.

Have you or would you ever consider writing from a POV outside your culture? If you have, what suggestions do you have for achieving an authentic voice?


4 Responses to “Writing from a POV Outside your Culture”

  1. I've grown up between two cultures which is weird sometimes but it helps when I'm writing because I can easily write characters of two different cultures.

    It's still daunting though because you don't want to get it wrong or upset anyone. Although I think writing about any one character, regardless of if it's the culture of the writer is never going to be easy. I remember a British author of Bangladeshi descent being criticised for her depiction of the Bangladeshi community so I guess you can never win.

  2. It does seem like a very risky proposition, since even in researching, we bring our own biases about what's different about another culture. I'd think the most wise thing would be to work with a co-author who is from that culture.

  3. Old Kitty says:

    I suppose I'm more comfortable and confident when writing from a culture similar to mine! But I think it's a totally wonderful experience to be able to immerse yourself into a totally different skin! Take care

  4. Marcia says:

    I don't think it's something I'd tackle, because I don't know what I don't know, and my cultural experience isn't very wide, actually.

Leave a Reply