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Internal cultural conflict – my musings

In the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot of about culture – what it is, what it means to me, and how I can incorporate it better in my writing. And it all started with Playcentre.

I grew up as a Playcentre kid, and so it was natural for me to return with my own children, though it took me awhile to remember it was an option. We’ve been going for three terms now and it’s made a huge impact on me, and my kids (even helped in making our decision to home school Ivy). Recently I’ve been going to some workshops as I work my way towards achieving Course Two, and a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending one called ‘Celebrating Culture’ It was a two night course, and really threw me for quite a loop.

Why? Because I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about culture in general, let alone my own. I’m very accepting of people from all walks of lives and while I find different ways of living interesting, I’ve been more inclined to look for the similarities than the differences.

This negatively impacts on my writing. I paint my stories in broad strokes and while this is okay, it means that many of them never really come to life, unless they are in a fairly modern setting. I’ve struggled with this for a while now, and in particular with finding that balance between too much culture (I’m sure you all know those books that spend so much time detailing the world that you start thinking ‘okay, okay, now when are we going to get back to the story!?’) and not enough.

Out of laziness, I have avoided working on it, but I can’t put it off any longer. I want my stories to jump off the page at you, I want to draw you in with my words and have you experience the story as if it were real.

Throughout the course I was fascinated as we talked about what we thought culture was, and what our personal cultures were. Through discussion I realized that actually, I’m not very ‘typical’ in some areas, and that many of the rules I was raised with (and have since passed on to my own children) are quite culture bound. Maori culture bound, that is. And I had been unable to see that.

You see, I AM part Maori. Ngai Tahu. And I’ve been to several hui down south, Bruce Bay, to be precise. I even have memories of practising for a powhiri, welcoming Prince Philip to the area (back then there was no marae, but a hall where the hui was held), searching for fool’s gold in the river, smoking eels over a rubbish drum, and flax weaving too. These are good memories.

I also remember arriving down there and having this feeling that I had come home, even though I’d never been there before and I was probably only 9 the first time. It is the home of my ancestors and somehow, even at that young age, and without anyone telling me what to expect, I felt that very deeply.

And yet, for much of my life I’ve been denying all of this. Because I grew up in a culture where being Maori wasn’t a good thing, and being a half-caste was worse. And I am actually kind of pale, and I don’t look like a Maori (and I’m only 1/8th so really, not much of a Maori in the eyes of many). It’s an awkward position – on the one hand, I don’t look Maori so what right have I got to explore that, and on the other I am Maori but feel like I should keep quiet about that because its not something to be proud of. (Thank goodness the times have changed somewhat, huh?)

The older I get, and the more I learn and explore who and what I am (in all senses), the more I realize just how trapped I have been by my desire to fit in, and my fear of standing up for what I believe in. It’s only now, as an adult, with a family of my own, that I can cast off the boxes I’ve allowed to build up around me, and it’s only now that I can understand my mother’s journey to exploring her culture and Maori heritage back when I was a teen and wanted nothing to do with any of it—now, that I find myself on a similar path.

Which leads me here, to where I realize WHY culture has been such a struggle for me, not just in life but in my writing. Because if it’s not okay to be interested by my own, if in fact if it’s discouraged by society in general, why would I have interest in other peoples cultures?

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about my culture (all aspects of it—each of us has a culture of our own, after all), and finally I’ve come to see just how important it is to acknowledge, and embrace. It hasn’t been until now, when I am beginning to bridge that internal gap, that I have been able to see how I can integrate culture into my writing, without fear, and bring my stories to life. And maybe, just maybe, writing it out will help kick this internal conflict to the curb once and for all.

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7 thoughts on “Internal cultural conflict – my musings”

  1. You’ve brought up something really valuable here Cassie. I know what you mean in some ways – about feeling displaced culturally. For me, ‘Kiwi Culture’ was an outside thing that I had to adjust to when I was about eight and I’ve always carried that vague sense of not quite fitting in. I feel now that culture is deeply personal and it’s important to find something that is your own.
    I definitely see that as worthy of exploration in our fictional worlds!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting! Culture is definitely personal, and I think that with the way society is growing and changing, it’s becoming more obvious in general that no two people are the same. Even people raised within the same culture will have different viewpoints and thoughts. Children raised in the same family, even, interpret the events and experiences of their lives in different ways.

      Maybe no one really fits in? Maybe we need to stop thinking in those terms? Because I think more people feel like outsiders than insiders, and the fact that we are all unique just makes the world a more interesting place 😉

  2. I can relate, I think, to the two-cultures thing, though for me the analogy would be place … there’s a sense, now, in which wherever I find myself, home is partially elsewhere. It’s something that can be difficult to work through, but it’s always interesting, as here, to read of someone else’s journey through these issues. I think the trick is to find some way in which to allow the separate parts of one’s existence (the backstory, I guess, although it also permeates who we are in the ‘now’) to interact constructively, and to accommodate each other.
    It’s probably not just a healthy attitude for a person, but a very useful skill for a writer–effective fiction needs a writer who can empathise with his / her characters, and if we can’t empathise with our own various aspects, what hope do we have for understanding our characters, and for making their actions natural and credible?

    1. I completely agree with you, Simon! And I think a lot of people experience this conflict in aligning everything that goes into making them who they are. Increasingly, people move around, are of blended families and have wide ranges of cultural backgrounds, but I’m not sure that we’ve developed good strategies for making sense of that just yet. Hopefully, in the years to come, that will develop.

  3. This is great Cassie :). I’ve found myself exploring culture a little as I try find an answer to “who am i?”. It’s great that you have a Maori tie. Sometimes I think that I’d be able to have a stronger sense of my culture if I could ‘justify’ my sense of attachment to Maori culture. I am 0% Maori, what gives me the right to incorporate Maori traditions and mythology in my writing? Some days I just say ‘stuff it’ and do it anyway 🙂

    1. Yes, do it anyway! It’s funny, because I’m all for people exploring cultures and know many people who are 0% Maori heritage, but who really find themselves drawn to Maori culture. In fact, in part it has been others enthusiasm for it that’s allowed me to say ‘actually, you know what, this DOES resonate with me, and I DO want to know more.” I really think that increasingly people are going to realize that so much of ‘culture’ is not about what you were born into, but about the choices you make throughout your life. Much like your family might be one religion, but as you grow you might explore other options and decide to convert. Maybe one day ‘culture’ and ‘race’ will be unbound, that could be interesting! Might be a story in there lol

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