Writing About a Different Culture


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?
ISBN 978-0-9954632-5-7
Published by The Cobweb Press

 Would you like to buy a copy? It costs £11.95 from Amazon and in bookshops (they can order it if it’s not in stock). But until the 31st March, I can sell copies at a 33% discount, for £7.95 including free UK postage. Just send me a message via the contact form below, with your postal address (this is sent directly to me, it isn’t public). I will then send a book, and enclose payment instructions – you can pay by cheque or direct bank transfer. Why not buy a copy today?

Thank you for reading.

Anne x

*****

*******

Feeling Excited…


(Cover photo by Chloe Hughes)
I am very excited. CLARA has arrived from the printer, and all looks fine (books are never exactly how I envision them beforehand, due to the restrictions with ink colours, plus when I’m writing, I have no awareness of the thickness of the book). Now comes the scary bit, which is persuading people to actually read it! I do have a sense of urgency with Clara, it is a book which almost demanded to be written.

I began, over a year ago, by writing the Introduction, which was actually a point midway through the story. As I wrote it (originally so I could include it in the back of JOANNA) I had no idea who the characters would be, or how the story would unfold, or if it would even make sense in the wider context of the completed book. I figured it didn’t matter; if the story took off in a different direction, no one would care, and I have read ‘tasters’ in the back of books by famous authors which bear no resemblance to the story when it finally is written.

However, this was not the case with Clara. As I began to write, as I spent time researching the situations I wanted to include, as the story unfolded in my mind, everything came together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. By the time I came to write the part in the story where the Introduction would have slotted, it made complete sense. Other than changing the name of one character, it was perfect. As the writer, I had an “Oh wow!” moment, and had that butterfly feeling in my stomach that you get when something weird and wonderful has happened.

Clara was not an easy book to write, because the themes are sometimes uncomfortable, but it was a compelling story, and I think you will find it gripping. Let me tell you about some of the issues which I was trying to address.

Firstly, it was a natural extension of my story about Joanna. Before I wrote JOANNA, I thoroughly researched what it meant to be a psychopath. I learnt that most psychopaths are NOT killers, and are never convicted of any crime. They will though, be pretty awful people to live with. Which made me wonder, could a psychopath change? Could they, instead of being destructive, manage to use their psychopathy as a strength? Could a psychopath perhaps achieve something great, which a non-psychopath would find difficult or impossible? I wanted to explore this with Clara.

Secondly, my initial planning of the book coincided with a visit to the slums of Delhi. I was visiting some ActionAid projects, and I met women, in their homes, who have incredibly tough lives. I sat with them, walked with them, listened to their stories. And it affected me. I wanted to tell the world about them, and one way to achieve this was to ‘send’ Clara to India. Could I intertwine these two ideas, and write an exciting story? That was my goal.

I visited India several times during the writing of CLARA – sometimes visiting ActionAid, sometimes visiting Tearfund projects, and sometimes simply walking through areas and absorbing the life I was seeing. I made friends with people who live in India, and this was an invaluable help when questions arose while I was writing. When the first manuscript was completed, a kind friend in India read it through, to check I hadn’t written anything offensive, or that clashed with the culture. Originally, I had wanted to make Clara an Indian herself, but I soon realised this was too difficult. The culture is too different to my own, and I wanted to write the book in the first person, so the reader fully understands what it means to be a psychopath, what her thoughts and motivations are. Like me, Clara needed to be English, and to view her immersion into India through English eyes.

Weaving these themes together was a wonderful challenge, and although it took many rewrites before I was happy with it, I feel I have written a powerful book, perhaps a book that will shock. My editor, Peter Salmon, suggested I changed several parts – and my favourite comment (he writes comments as he does his initial read-through) was: “What the **** just happened!”

I hope it is also a book you will enjoy. It is exciting, but there are funny moments, and the story is an uplifting one. It shows how someone who is very bad, can achieve something that is very good. Would you like to buy a copy? It costs £11.95 from Amazon and in bookshops (they can order it if it’s not in stock). But until the 31st March, I can sell copies at a 33% discount, for £7.95 including free UK postage. Just send me a message via the contact form below, with your postal address (this is sent directly to me, it isn’t public). I will then send a book, and enclose payment instructions – you can pay by cheque or direct bank transfer. Why not buy a copy today?

Thank you for reading. If you felt able to share this post, that would be very kind. I want the world to know about this book.
Take care.
Love,
Anne x

*******

********

India


(When I took the above photo, a man appeared from nowhere, and tried to make me pay him. I’m not sure he was even connected to the lorry! I walked away, and let Husband deal with him.)

Still so much that’s new in India. Today I tried ‘Dragon Fruit’ or ‘pitaya’. I’ve seen them in supermarkets in the UK, but never known how to eat them. I asked the man delivering them, and he said to cut it lengthways into quarters, and then gently pull back the peel. I washed it first, just to eliminate chance of eating germs. It looks really amazing. It tastes really disappointing! Is okay, but nowhere near as exciting as it looks. Apparently, they are very good for you, and full of cancer-fighting nutrients. They grow on cacti.

On Monday, Husband had to work. I arranged to meet a friend in the lobby for tea. I asked her if Mumbai was safe for a woman to walk around alone. She assured me that she walks everywhere, and has never had any trouble. The main danger is scams and pick-pockets, so I should be alert, but was unlikely to be attacked, even after dark, and even in poorer areas. Sometimes, being somewhere very different to home can seem scary, but usually it’s safe.

I had previously asked my friend to read through CLARA, to check it was acceptable from an Indian’s point of view. It is very difficult to write about another culture, and I was keen that I shouldn’t write something that seemed offensive to people living in India. There were a few changes she suggested, mainly to names, but mostly it was okay. When we met, I was able to show her the cover photograph. I am just waiting for the cover to arrive for approval, and then the printer can print it. All getting very exciting now. It is, I think, the best book I have written, so I hope you will read a copy.

In the evening we went to the hotel bar. There was also a rooftop bar, but it was shut due to a horrific fire at another hotel, where several people had been killed. I’m not sure whether the government had shut all rooftop bars as a precaution, perhaps to check their safety procedures. This bar was okay, but had the most uncomfortable seats ever. Women over 50 like comfy seats. I also got a lot of feedback from Husband about my cardigan. I ignored him, I’m sure it will start a new trend.

Last breakfast. The breakfast is nice, but the table-setting is a bit random. There should be cutlery, a bottle of water, glass, side-plate and napkin for each place. But there often isn’t. Sometimes things are delivered as you eat. It’s a little odd to be presented with a side-plate and napkin when you’ve nearly finished eating! There are a LOT of staff waiting the tables. I’m guessing each one has a specific role, and they don’t always keep up when new guests arrive to eat. They also have a tendency to come and chat while you’re eating. They hover near the table, and ask if everything is okay (which happens in UK restaurants) but then stay to ask what plans you have for the day, and if you’re enjoying the hotel. I’m not sure whether to pause my eating while they’re there, or carry on chewing whilst they chat.

Arriving home after a holiday is always nice. When you first arrive, there’s a certain novelty to cleaning your teeth in tap water, and being able to eat a bowl of cereal when you’re hungry. You have all your memories and photographs, and it doesn’t matter that you haven’t yet unpacked because you’ve only just arrived home. Then, two weeks later, you feel like you’ve never been away, you’re tired again, and feeling stressed because you still haven’t managed to put away the suitcases! Or perhaps you’re more organised than me.

I do enjoy being in India, even though it’s exhausting. I have visited several times over the last few months, talking to people who live in the poorer areas, learning about their lives, visiting their homes. It has been fascinating. I wonder when I’ll come again.

Thank you for reading.

Why not sign up to follow my blog?
anneethompson.com

xxxx

Don’t forget to look out for my new book: CLARA – A Good Psychopath?
An exciting story that shows what it’s like to be poor in India. It’s nearly ready…

***

Mumbai, India


 I am writing this in Mumbai. Husband has to work in India for a few days, and travelling on work expenses is always rather nice (I pay for my travel & food, but the hotel is no extra, and they’re nice!) so I tagged along. Plus I love India, it’s possibly my favourite country (not that I have seen more than a snippet of it -but what I’ve seen, I like.)

We arrived late Wednesday night, having woken early that morning (left home 5.45 am), so I was tired. We had to go through different immigration, as I was travelling on a tourist visa, and husband had a work one. The woman at the desk was very pleasant, and when husband pointed out for the sixth time where he would meet me, she laughed. When he went off to his work visa desk, she commented that he seemed very worried about me.

“Yes,” I smiled, “he thinks I’m incompetent.”

Immigration officer then asked for my visa. I gave her the print out with the hotel details on. (They look the same, both printed from the computer.) She politely asked if I also had a visa.

She then asked where I had come from. I was surprised, but gave my full postal address. I even remembered the postcode, which often defeats me, so felt rather pleased with myself. Immigration officer looked confused and asked for my boarding pass. It was somewhat crumpled, but I dug it out from the bottom of my bag, then realised my mistake. “Heathrow!” I said, ” You wanted me to say Heathrow, not my address, didn’t you!”

Immigration officer continued to smile. We then had trouble making the fingerprint machine work (but I don’t think that was my fault.) Eventually I was allowed into India. I think Immigration Officer went for a tea break.

We’re staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It’s beautiful. There was a mix up with our booking (also not my fault) and as a goodwill gesture, they upgraded us to a suite. The hotel really is beautiful. There are flowers and candles everywhere, and the corridors are all open, with lots of carved lattice work.

When we returned yesterday evening, there were patterns of flower petals everywhere, so pretty. (Romantic husband referred to them as ‘vegetation on the floor’ ).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walked to Gateway to India. Lots of people there, some were catching ferries across the sea. It was previously owned by Portugal, (the Portuguese for good is ‘bom’ and its a bay, hence was called Bombay).

 

 

 

 

We went to a market and bartered for some trinkets. I am not very good at bartering, especially when the crafts are actually very pretty, and the price seems to be low to start with. Tradesmen smile a lot when I shop (and tell me not to bring my husband next time, because he’s cannier than me!)

Wandered around the city. I love the faded colonial buildings covered in vines, the huge plants, the colour everywhere. Every sense is bombarded, so much noise and smell (not always pleasant), and so hot. We met some friends for lunch. They said that in a couple of weeks the rain will come, sometimes raining for several days continually, which cools everything down.

I also visited the slums on the mainland, where I was shown around by Sahaara, one of the projects Tearfund works with. I went on my own, as Husband is working (very brave of me!) I will write up what I saw and post it later this week. Right now, I need a shower!

Excuse the bleary photos -all taken with my ancient phone.
Take care,

Anne x

Why not sign up to follow my blog?
anneethompson.com

 

If you enjoyed this, you will love my new book: The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary.
I have always written a diary on holiday, so last Christmas, I decided to find all my old diaries and blogs, and make a book for my children. However, several other people also asked for a copy, so I have written a public version – it’s available on Amazon and has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!

Why not buy a copy today? I think it will make you laugh.

The US link is here:

https://www.amazon.com/Sarcastic-Mothers-Holiday-Diary-ebook/dp/B07N95281F/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549015525&sr=8-1&keywords=the+sarcastic+mothers+holiday+diary

The India link is here:

https://www.amazon.in/Sarcastic-Mothers-Holiday-Diary-ebook/dp/B07N95281F/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1549015429&sr=8-1&keywords=the+sarcastic+mothers+holiday+diary

The UK link is here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sarcastic-Mothers-Holiday-Diary-ebook/dp/B07N95281F/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1549014970&sr=8-2&keywords=the+sarcastic+mothers+holiday+diary

 

Last Day in Delhi


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We walked to India Gate. Lots of families and school children were sitting on the grass, and taking photos. Street sellers had stalls of food and drink. Some men sat next to stoves and kettles, selling cups of chai (tea). Women walked through the tourists selling bangles. They were almost aggressive – at one point I realised a bracelet had been clipped to my wrist as I walked and she was negotiating the price!

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Walking is quite difficult for white tourists because the tuktuk drivers follow you, offering to take you. They don’t believe you want to walk. After a while, they drive to the end of the street, and offer again when you get there.

Near to the President’s Residence are roads of large bungalows. Each property had a guard on the gate and high walls topped with spikes – only the monkeys could climb over. The gardens were green – lawns and trees and shrubs (didn’t see any flowers.) It was lovely, but easy to be lonely if you lived there I expect, especially for the wives, it was very enclosed.

We saw more monkeys. There was a huge male sorting through the rubbish. We stopped to take his photo, but a man walking past told us we weren’t allowed to. Apparently we were in a military zone (though there were no signs up.) I like that in India, when we do things wrong, people tell us – they don’t shout or fine us, they just inform us we’ve done something wrong. (Shame though, it would’ve been a good photo.)

We went to Janpath Market. There were a mix of stalls in the street, and shop fronts with goods spilling into the road. At one point, everyone began to quickly collect together all their things and move them off the road. I thought perhaps a rainstorm was coming. They laughed, and told us that no, someone had spotted a policeman! Apparently, they are meant to keep all their items within the shop, they could be fined for displaying things on the street.

I wanted a photograph of a man frying potatoes, so asked his permission and offered him a few notes (bout 40p in value.) He laughed, and said no. When I walked away, a man rushed up, told me that the food man had changed his mind, then told the food man that he should accept. I have noticed things like this before in Delhi. There is a sort of ‘Mafia’ which runs everything. It isn’t necessarily sinister, but there is definitely an organisation that runs below the surface, mostly unnoticed by tourists. People who run the market, and will direct you towards certain stalls and find change if you have the wrong money. Or taxi drivers who only know the way to certain hotels. Or information offices, who tell you everything is shut except for certain places. It makes you feel slightly wary.

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I like India. Delhi has been very different to what we experienced a few years ago in Mumbai – it is less intense, fewer random people on the street touched us, there were very few children begging, the traffic seemed less chaotic (it mostly stayed on the road.) But both cities were busy, full of colour and decoration, and the people were polite. You feel that people TRY in India, even in the slums, they weren’t sitting back, waiting for aid, they were actively trying to survive.

The only thing I found really difficult, to the point I don’t think I could live in India, was the pollution. There was a thick haze everyday, and I found walking fast uncomfortable. It actually hurt to draw breath. I’m not sure what India is doing to address this, nor what part Europe and America play in causing it. But something needs to change. On our last morning, there was the Delhi half marathon. I looked online for the route, but mainly saw posts from medics, warning people to be careful if they wanted to run, and advising people with asthma or heart problems, to stay at home. I hope the air pollution can be sorted. Before it’s too late.

img_5440 img_5437 The round parliament building.

These white cars were everywhere!

img_5433 People enjoyed being on the grass, watching all the tourists.

img_5419 img_5418 Schoolgirls and street sellers

img_5411 img_5416 India Gate, inscribed with the names of martyrs.

 

xxxx

Thank you for reading.

You can follow my blog at: anneethompson.com

xxxxx

From Delhi to the Taj Mahal


If you like monuments, you should visit the Taj Mahal. If you like seeing different cultures and people, the drive to Agra is fascinating!

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Woke at 4am. The bed had jolted, so I assumed it was D returning (he sometimes wanders off at night, if he can’t sleep.) Sat up, and realised I was alone, then bed jolted again. Wondered if Delhi was having an earthquake. Located wandering husband and told him he should sit under table if there was an earthquake (which I know after doing online research following earth tremors when we were in Italy 2 years ago.) Husband looked at me as if I were mad. Went back to sleep.

Later, I looked online, and read that Delhi had felt tremors measuring 4.5 on Richter scale.

Car was booked for 7am. Arrived in lobby. Was told, “Yes sir, your car is ready. Please take a seat.” Waited for a while before driver actually appeared. I think, in India, it is considered polite to tell people what they want to hear. It is sometimes almost true.

Drove through Delhi traffic. This is a lot like dancing a tango, lots of tension and near-misses. Seat belts are a necessity. Drove on freeway to a toll booth. Everything completely stationary. Many people honked their horns (no idea why, but Indian drivers use their horns a LOT.) Several people got out of their cars and had a look around. Then the barriers opened, cars surged forwards, people ran back to their cars, avoiding all the lane changing traffic, we were off.

We drove through fields. Passed hundreds of chimneys in a brick making area. Passed green fields with neat crops, people working on ancient tractors or horse and carts. People walked with great sacks on their heads. When we left the freeway, the traffic became more eclectic. Oxen tethered on the back of a too-small truck, tractors pulling trailers stacked high with sacks, lorries with great mounds of grain. All the time bikes and motorbikes and tuktuks, weaving through the traffic, horns sounding.

The drive through Agra was another world. We crossed the wide Yamuna River. On the grassy banks oxen and donkeys grazed while people washed their laundry. Fields of linen were stretched out to dry in the sunshine. Pigs and goats wandered freely, while water birds floated on the river. In the town, the roads were a tumble of traffic, cows, people carrying sacks on their heads. And monkeys scampering across roof tops. I don’t know if the monkeys were introduced by people, perhaps one of the temples, but now they were everywhere. I didn’t entirely trust them when we walked around – they watched us with their clever eyes, darting behind walls then jumping up unexpectedly. It was us who were the novelty, the monkeys were comfortably free.

Left the car in the carpark at Taj Mahal. We had to leave bags in the car, though could take cameras and a handbag. Our ticket price included a bottle of water (which I didn’t trust enough to drink), a bus ride to the monument (though we could have walked, it wasn’t far) and shoe covers. If you don’t have shoe covers, you have to remove your shoes and leave them in an open cubbyhole.

The Taj Mahal is beautiful. Made of white marble, inlaid with precious stones that form floral patterns, surrounded by gardens and fountains. It is the tomb made for a loved wife of an historical ruler. She was the second wife (bit of an insult to the first wife) and she died giving birth to their fourteenth child (so I figure she deserved a nice tomb.) The entrance gate was engraved with an extract from the Koran, written in increasingly large letters as it got higher, so when standing on the ground, it all looks the same size. Clever.

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All the architecture and craftsmanship was clever. But for me, there was no atmosphere. Perhaps you need to be the only visitor. I would suggest that everyone should first visit Huymayun’s Tomb, so you appreciate how it is meant to feel. But the photos are pretty….

img_5409 Traffic at the toll booths.

img_5396 Lots of milk churns being carried as we drove into rural areas.

img_5390 p1100161 People washing laundry in the river.

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The Taj Mahal

 

Indian Money Troubles….


I have been learning a little about why the government here withdrew Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes so abruptly (overnight – with no notice.) I can also tell you about the impact we have seen so far on normal people.

So, last week, with no warning, the rupee notes which are most used, were demonetised. That is, everyone was told they now had no value. Cashpoint machines closed, and the only way to change old notes for the new currency was through the banks. This meant that 100 rupee notes soon became scarce, as people needed them. So, even if people had the new bank notes, no one would give them change if they bought something with a higher value note. (Eg. You could buy some apples using a $10 note, but no one would give you any change.)It also meant that no one received tips – which when you’re very poor, matters. So, why did the goverment do this?

There are a whole host of rumours on social media in India, most of which seem to be untrue. There seem to be several different reasons, but two main ones are often mentioned: to stop tax evasion, and to stop money that terrorists/criminals are printing.

India is largely a cash based society. Lots of people have no bank account, they are paid in cash, store their wealth in cash and pay others in cash. This means there is huge potential for tax evasion. A high proportion of the poorest people in India run shops or market stalls. These are automatically taxed ( you pay a ‘market tax’ to have your stall in the street.) So, the poor people are paying tax, even though their income is very low. However, the richer people, those who own businesses, often deal only or partly, in cash ( a bit like plumbers in the UK!) so they have the ability to pay no tax. Which means the government is losing vast amounts of income. This isn’t fair. The vendors who I listened to, approved of the government’s decision, even though in the short term, it made their lives very difficult. It was forcing people to open bank accounts, which enabled the authorities to track cash and stop tax evasion.

India also has a lot of ‘black money’. This is counterfeit money, produced by terrorists and criminals, which has begun to flood the market. One report I read said that terrorists are using counterfeit money in India to fund their campaigns. By withdrawing the currency quickly, with no notice, the government stopped these people from converting their money into gold or other assets. The only way to exchange old currency for new money is through the banks, which criminals and terrorists don’t want to do as they are more likely to be caught.

One report I read said that in India, property is also bought partly for cash. The current currency crisis ( bit of alliteration there) means house prices will probably drop, making them more affordable for the less wealthy. This will lead to an increase in building work, which will produce more work for labourers. Not sure if that’s true, or wishful thinking…

For normal people, this is a difficult time. When we visited the slums in the East of New Delhi, the women were complaining (and laughing) because all their secret cash had now been exposed. They told me that wives tend to hide money, so their husbands cannot drink it. They have now had to reveal all this hidden money, so it can be changed by the banks, which means their husbands now know they have it and can take it from them.

People are not buying cheaper goods, they are not giving money as tips, which impacts the poor people. They also complained that while they are queuing at the banks, they are not working, so are losing pay. Some people pay others to stand in line for them, but this caused disputes too, with those people who were losing work saying it wasn’t fair. If they needed money, people would exchange it for them, but at a bad rate, so they made a loss they couldn’t afford.

The queues outside the banks are getting longer. We saw one line begin to disintegrate, with people at the front trying to push past the guards and shouting. It could so easily turn to riots. Every bank has a guard on the door, holding at least a stick, sometimes a gun. It’s tough to be poor in India. I hope this doesn’t make life even harder.

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Thank you for reading.

I will write more about our trip tomorrow. Why not sign up to follow my blog, so you don’t miss it? We have a day of tourism, then venture into the slums…..

anneethompson.com