Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Culture Clash: Writing Fiction From Diverse Life Experiences
In an era when the American administration is doing its best to seal the country off from foreigners and migrants including refugees, I’ve been reflecting on how exposure to people who look different from you and have different backgrounds can enrich your life. I was brought up in Ghana, which of course was a British colony. I came of age on the campus of the University of Ghana (UG), with its iconic orange-tiled roofs. Both my late Black American mother and late Ghanaian father were lecturers there, in Sociology/Social Welfare and African Studies respectively.
Balme Library, University of Ghana (Photo: Kwei Quartey)
Ghana’s connections to Britain, a lot stronger then than they are now, brought a large number of nationalities to the university from all the Commonwealth of Nations. Apart from the British, there were Australians, Canadians (for some time, our next-door neighbors were Canadians), Indians, Jamaicans, Ugandans, South Africans, and others I’m sure I’ve forgotten. Without my conscious knowledge, I was observing aspects of their culture. Many were a part of a memorable cast of characters, some amusing, others quite strange. I recall one lecturer who always wore a floppy hat, and had a strange movement disorder and a habit of talking to herself. Whereas some of these professors might have a difficult time getting employment elsewhere, the academic world always has room for “unique” personalities who are sometimes both brilliant and bizarre.
Universities and colleges are often called “ivory towers,” a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world. In some ways, that was the case with the University of Ghana. Quiet, clean, and rather lush, the campus was neither anything like the hectic urban life of Accra nor the rural sectors of the country, which, at the time, accounted for most of the population. That’s no longer the case, as only some 43% live in rural areas.
At the time, the University provided a perk to expatriates like my mother and dependents (if there were any): a comped visit every 1-3 years (somewhat subject to negotiation) to their country of origin. That meant my three brothers and me got to accompany my mother to New York City for entire summer vacations. That an institution in a developing country was able to afford that kind of perk seems staggering to me now, but back then I took it for granted. Maybe I was a tad “entitled,” an uncomfortable word in the modern zeitgeist.
My 2nd brother (R), Mom, and me (Photo by unknown)
Because my mother was an American, her children were automatically US citizens (jus sanguinis), making travel to the US, UK, and Europe a cinch. In the face of all this, my father was uncomfortable about any show of privilege and he might have squirmed with some guilt at the perk, which my pragmatic mother on the other hand made full use of. Apart from our being able to see her mother (“Granny”) in New York, my mother, as much as she loved Ghana, likely thought it important for her four boys to experience America as a part of their cultural experience and heritage. Indeed, when the time came for the family to move piecemeal to the USA (minus my father, who had died a couple of years before), American life wasn’t the culture shock that it would have been for the uninitiated.
Moving Beyond The Ivory Tower
On the diametrically opposite end of traveling to her hometown of New York City, my mother as a sociologist and social worker took her students off the university campus on field trips to remote rural areas, for which experience students of hers expressed great appreciation. Part of these visits was to explore how village life, culture, and belief systems could be used in constructive ways to advance development and mold social policy.
My mother also let us, her sons, tag along on these field trips, and there I felt the heaviness of my privileged circumstances in contrast to rural living conditions. I remember visiting one village where 80 percent of adults suffered from river blindness, or onchocerciasis. This horrific disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which induces body itching so intense that one cannot sleep. Eventually, the sufferer goes blind. In villages where the affliction is endemic, it’s common to see blind adults being led around by children.
A boy leads a man blinded by onchocerciasis (Photo: WHO)
At the time of that field trip, I had already decided I wanted to be a physician, but I believe this wrenching, seminal experience solidified my ambition by raising the curtain on what truly hellish suffering is like and making me want to do something about it.
On one occasion, my mother turned down my request to accompany her to the psychiatric hospital in Accra. I remember her saying, “That’s not the kind of thing you should see.” The state of mental health care in Ghana at the time was abysmal, and that remains mostly the case now. Even with a renovation of the Accra psychiatric hospital in July 2020, an overwhelming amount of work remains to be done there, not to mention the rest of the country.
Bart, another of my best childhood friends, lived down the road from us on the university campus, an easy 3-minute walk between our homes. We had a lot of fun and adventure together, and I commonly stayed for lunch and went on trips with his family and vice versa. They were Dutch expatriates who had lived in Ghana for decade. Hanging out with them was a very different experience from visiting my father’s relatives a world away in “real” Accra. My mother, brothers and I were in the awkward position of not having learned my father’s indigenous language, Ga. If he had spoken it to his children from an early age while my mother spoke to us in English, we would have been fluent in both. But my father might have felt like he would be unfairly excluding her. By tradition in Ghana, my mother was largely excluded from the affairs of her husband and his side of the family. Knowing my mother had always felt cut off by this position, my father might not have wanted her to feel further isolated. At any rate, not speaking Ga fluently was (and is) a distinct disadvantage. My name Kwei is so quintessentially of the Ga people that most Ghanaians would assume I knew how to speak the language. Repeatedly trying to explain why this was not the case was (still is) a royal pain in the rear. We took formal Ga lessons when I was a teenager, but there was no immersion.
But there was, and is, more to this language deficit. Language and culture are intertwined. Interacting with another language means engaging with the culture that speaks the language. My mother was the more present and assertive parent, my father the more self-effacing. I never had a strong sense he was proud of his Ga heritage, or perhaps I never recognized it. Sure, he took my brothers and me to traditional events and family gatherings in town, but I always felt like an outsider looking in. I wasn’t standing with one foot on dry land and one in the pond, I barely had a toe in the water. And once these small nibbles of Ga culture ended, it was back to the comfortable ivory tower. These experiences were both a culture clash and a culture miss.
The Writing Paradox
While all this cross culture and diversity in my life experience are a bit of a muddle, that jumble is the very materiel and fodder for my writing. In truth, I constantly strive to grasp a culture I feel I just missed–a lost opportunity, in a sense. I have a theory that a writer’s work is a surrogate for control of a world beyond control. I’m driven to wrestle with my own confusion. Each book is an exploration of Ghanaian culture and the attempt to firmly understand it, and murder mystery is the best genre in which to do it, because the central question in a murder is, why? Sure, the how is the mechanics of the matter, particularly in locked-room mysteries, but we all want to know what intricacies in the murderer’s mind compelled him to commit the crime.
In one form or the other, the backdrops to my stories have some kind of culture clash. In Wife Of The Gods, a young, progressive female medical student challenges the age-old tradition of indentured servitude of girls to a fetish priest in return for his protection against family curses. Darko Dawson is unfamiliar with this tradition, which is a culture clash within his own country. In Gold Of Our Fathers, illegal Chinese miners in Ghana are in conflict with the locals. The Missing American is where Ghanaian and American values meet like a river lagoon colliding with the sea at high tide. In a funny scene in the upcoming Sleep Well, My Lady, Emma Djan, who has little to no privilege in her background, goes undercover as a wealthy woman and discovers why people in Mercedes Benzes feel superior–because that’s what a Benz does to you. (Apologies to all Benz owners out there. Full disclosure: I don’t have one.)
I think the maxim, “Write what you know” is incomplete. I think you should also write what you care about. If there’s no emotion underlying your writing, it may seem flat. So, as long as I can write, I will keep exploring these culture clashes.