Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Striking Out on Unfamiliar Paths

We have a tendency to stick with things we know and like, don't we? If I put a new recipe on the table, my kids eye it suspiciously. I suspect most of us watch the same shows on the same television channels every night. When we're reading, we gravitate toward books that are about subjects we know we have an interest in. I do, anyway.

One of my friends was clearing her bookshelves a couple of years ago and gave me a copy of Alexander McCall Smith's novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I took it, of course, though she said it was a mystery and I'm not too interested in mystery stories (too much murder and stuff). So the book sat on my bookshelf since then, until I decided to thin my collection. To be fair, however, I felt I should at least read the book before I shipped it off. As you can probably guess, I'm glad, mainly because the book made me curious about Africa and sent me off on a search that has taught me some interesting facts.

The book is set in Botswana. Could you point to Botswana on a map? I couldn't. To save you the trouble of looking it up, the country is in the southern tip of Africa, just above South Africa and bordered on one side by Namibia and on the other by Zimbabwe. Most of the countryside consists of the Kalahari Desert, and the main source of income for citizens is cattle, which is good for the people but hard on the land. My research also indicates that Botswana is a relatively stable democracy in Africa and that the economy is relatively successful. Everything is not rosy, however; Botswana has the second-highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world. One in four people in Botswana has HIV/AIDS, and life expectancy in the country has dropped from 65 to 35 years. At least the government takes the problem seriously and the country has achieved universal access to treatment.

Sadly, I doubt I would ever have known that information had I not read this book. You might say, so what? Africa is half the world away. It's highly unlikely knowing this stuff about Botswana is going to have any impact on your day-to-day life. I would grant that might be true in a physical sense, but in a psychological sense, that argument is wrong. One of the things I teach in my Introduction to Rhetoric class is very basic intercultural communication, with "culture" interpreted in a broad sense, not just as national or ethnic differences. In that class, we try to learn the skill of being able to look past the stereotypes built up around a culture to find the human connection that allows us to have curiosity with respect, compassion without condescension. If we can develop those skills, we can communicate across cultures, whether we are talking about American to Batswana (just FYI, that's not a typo - the language in Botswana has an interesting use of prefixes I won't go into here) or Democrat to Republican. And that does, indeed, have an impact on our daily lives.

What does that have to do with reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency? The best way to understand a culture, I believe, is to get to know someone from that culture, realizing, of course, that an individual is only a piece of the overall picture. That's the great gift that reading a novel gives us. Non-fiction gives us facts about a culture; a novel gives us a person to get to know, a face to put on the culture. We can see inside the person's head to observe how they respond to events, and we can compare their response to our own. We can understand their motivations and how where they come from influences the decisions they make. In short, if the character is well-developed and sympathetic, we care. And caring is the first step toward the attitudes that make successful intercultural communication possible.

So while I thought The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had some problems as a novel (it was more like a collection of short mystery stories, kind of like the Encyclopedia Brown series with an African woman as the detective), I'm glad I took it off the shelf to read it, finally. And while I'm not going to make this my "year of reading interculturally," I do have some other books I'd like to get to this year that will extend my knowledge of other cultures.  One of those is the book I'm working on now, On the Rez, a non-fiction book about life on the Pine Ridge reservation for the Sioux. I'm off to a slow start - I find it harder to read non-fiction at the end of a long day - but I've already found some interesting insights that I really needed as I write Native American characters for my novels. So I'll plow on, a page at a time if I have to. It will be worth the effort.

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