It was with some trepidation that I began to write CLARA. I had recently returned from a visit to see the work of ActionAid in the slums of India. I had visited women who have incredibly tough lives, sat in their homes, listened to their stories, and it affected me. I wanted to tell the world what I had seen and heard, and weaving it into a story seemed the best way for me to do this.
Over the next 18 months, I visited India several times. I contacted Tearfund, and they showed me the work they are doing amongst women in the Red Light District. I met women who had been trafficked, I chatted to sex workers, I wandered through slums. My eyes were hungry, as I absorbed what I was seeing.
However, how does one write about a culture that is vastly different to ones own? Does an author even have the right to try and describe things that they have never experienced? Well, yes, obviously – otherwise all crime writers would be convicted criminals, and all historical fiction writers would be time-travellers. But to do the subject justice takes a lot of time, hours of research, and some good advisers. I made some good friends in India, and as I wrote the book, when I came to a point where I needed information I could ask for help. Issues such as: Do people in the slums have shopping bags? Do they possess more than one set of clothes? Do they drink tea out of mugs?
However, every time that I visited India, every book that I read about India, I learnt something new. I sat in homes, I visited schools, I laughed with women moaning about their families (because whilst it’s tough, there’s a lot of laughter in slums too). There was always more I could add to my book. I began to wonder, was it even possible to write about a place when I had never actually lived there? But, here’s the thing, as I discovered more about the culture, I also started to ‘not notice’ things. Sights and sounds and smells which had bombarded me when I first arrived, began to be normal, part of what I expected, and I stopped being conscious of them. I was writing a novel which would mostly be read by people who do not live in India. Many of them will never have visited India. I therefore needed to include all those details which were obvious, different, unusual. Those details which over time, people stop noticing.
CLARA is also set partly in New jersey. I have lived there, but actually, in many ways, writing about life there was more difficult, because I had forgotten all the things that struck me when we first arrived. I had to refer to old diaries, so that I could see the culture afresh, and describe it to my readers. Which made me realise that, although a story written by a foreigner would have less depth than one written by a resident, it would also perhaps be easier to understand for those readers who are experiencing the country solely through the eyes of the characters.
I had, initially, planned that Clara herself would be an Indian. However, I soon realised that this would be impossible, I could not accurately represent her thoughts and feelings. Clara needed to be English, because I could show an English person’s reactions and thoughts to India. I needed Clara to be the one describing India, because then the book would be authentic.
When the first manuscript was completed, I sent it to a friend, who checked for anything which might have been offensive to someone living in India, or anything which jarred from a cultural perspective. She suggested some changes – mainly names – it transpires that a Google search for “Indian names” results in names that Indian people do not recognise!
In conclusion, yes, it is possible to write about a culture which is different to your own. But you need to be immersed in that culture for a while, and you need a lot of help from people who have lived it. Writing CLARA was a challenge, but hugely rewarding. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
CLARA – A Good Psychopath?
Published by The Cobweb Press
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Thank you for reading.
Interesting facts about “culture shock” woven into an inspiring story!
So glad you enjoyed the book.