Chatty Cathys

Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Effects of Culture

Today’s discussion may be a little… sensitive in nature. So I’ve decided to impose a little ruleage here: please understand nothing I say is meant offensively and please be respectful of others’ opinions. This really isn’t so much a “discussion” post as it is a “share your thoughts and insights with others” post.

 

There have been three recent events that sparked the idea for this discussion:

  1. My finishing of The Book Thief (review here)
  2. The suggested required reading of To Kill a Mockingbird
  3. A comment made about The Help

Before I begin I should mention that, with the exception of a military brat early childhood, I have grown up in Alabama. Both sides of my family are from Selma and my parents grew up during the Civil Rights era. I grew up surrounded by “Selma racism.” Luckily, both my parents were raised to be classy citizens and NOT consumed by bigotry and raised me and my siblings to be the same, but I’m beyond being shocked by the cruelty of my state’s racist past.

Anywho… I think I’ll begin with #3. My mom read The Help (her only comment on it was “I wonder if we treated our maid this bad?”) and a co-worker of hers found out; she had also read the book. This woman was from one of the northern states, maybe Michigan, and was flabbergasted that blacks were treated like that in the book. She asked my mom if the situations in the book were real or exaggerated. Clearly, they were real.

The lovely ladies at Gone Pecan (who have a fantastic blog that you should check out!) answered a question a couple weeks ago regarding what book(s) they remember enjoying in high school and what book(s) should be in today’s curriculum. The first book they mentioned was To Kill a Mockingbird (a book I haven’t read) and said it was a favorite from high school. They then suggested The Help should be in today’s curriculum. Which are both excellent answers.

Finally, I finished The Book Thief, which, if you don’t already know, centers around Nazi Germany during WWII.

So how do these three things tie together? They got me wondering about if where we live in our region of the world affects our attitudes and preferences towards books we read.

For me, reading books that deal with racism in the south, slavery, Civil Rights Movement, etc. are sort of a novelty. What I mean by this isn’t that it’s not serious but that it’s such a part of our culture down here that there’s really nothing new or eye-opening about it and therefore it’s mostly lost on me. I know we have a terrible and embarrassing past – I don’t enjoy being reminded of it in books I read. I grew up in this culture and I live in it every day. We’ve made great strides as a state but there’s still racism, from most races, so, for me, I feel only exposing myself (and others) to books that show how racist we were doesn’t help us to move on. If I read a book that takes place in the South (which I LOVE btw) I’d prefer it to be more modern, one that shows where we are now as a southern society and culture, not where we’ve been.

This being said, there are other cultures that I enjoy reading about because they are somewhat foreign to me, especially their histories. Usually the more dramatic and tumultuous, the more interested I am. For example: a while ago I came across a series that was about early 18th century Acadia and the Great Expulsion (or at least that’s what I think it’s called). It was VERY interesting to me. But would it be interesting to someone from that region? Maybe… maybe not.

My question for you is this: Do you feel where you’re from affects what types of subjects you enjoy or don’t enjoy? Are there subjects that you don’t enjoy reading because you feel the impact of book’s subject is lost on you? What subjects and/or cultures do you find yourself drawn to reading?

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13 thoughts on “Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Effects of Culture”

  1. Interesting discussion topic. The problem is that without continuing to examine the wrongs of the past, it’s easy to skim over the fact that there was, say, institutional racism in the Deep South. And it’s not like racism ended in 1969. I think it’s a touchy subject, especially if you’re white. Whenever I hear a white person say “let’s stop talking about racism or slavery,” I can’t help but think “easy for you to say.”

    To answer your question — I actually love to read books set in the cities I’ve lived in and know by heart. When I read “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer” (I grew up in Miami) or any of the YA books set in NYC (where I was born and lived for 17 years), I know what’s genuine and what’s made up. And as a Latina, I love reading books (it’s rare) with Latina protagonists, even if they’re not from the exact same background I am. I am not sure, to be honest, that I understand what you mean about the themes/messages being “lost” on you.

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    1. You’re absolutely right about racism not ending in the 60s… it’s still VERY much here, not only in our every day lives but in our education, government, etc. It’s not really a subject I say “oh let’s stop talking about it” very often – unless it gets really bad – because I genuinely enjoy talking about it, but find it, for me, becomes difficult to have an honest conversation because of how touchy a subject it is. I would hate to offend someone with what I say or think, which I feel really prohibits honest discussion for me.

      I totally agree about reading books set in cities or places I’ve lived in before – it connects me to the book and characters more. Or, like you said… you know what’s not genuine.

      What I mean by messages being “lost” on me is, and I’ll use The Help as an example, that when I read books that show the reality of my state’s or region’s history (such as racial issues) I’m not as shocked or my eyes aren’t as open as someone from a part of the country or world who may not be quite as familiar with the history. Reading The Help (or other books that are similar in theme/message) isn’t as moving for me as it might be for someone who didn’t grow up in a culture where the book’s culture was the everyday norm. This is just a general opinion of mine and based on my experience I’ve had with friends from outside the South… so it may not be true for everyone.

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  2. I do think familiarity with a subject changes how we read fiction… I used to love reading historical fiction, so much so I took history classes in college and ended up getting a master’s degree in history. This sort of ruined my reading of most historical fiction… I just can’t enjoy it without going all analytical and critical. And that takes the fun out of reading for fun!

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    1. Right! I think I’m like that – I know too much fact that it tends to color the fiction. I think I enjoy reading more about things, places, people, etc. that I’m not quite as familiar with – it’s a good learning experience while getting to enjoy a story I don’t yet know.

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  3. I’ve never really been in this kind of position, so I don’t really know how to respond. There aren’t a whole lot of books set in Canada, and any that are don’t focus on my region, really.

    I understand what you’re saying about wanting books that show how the South has evolved, but I don’t think that makes the stories about the past any less important or necessary.

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    1. No, it really doesn’t… and I think that as children we were exposed to many stories that dealt with racism and our culture which is very good – we need to hear about our past. But for me, as an adult, not really my cup of tea.
      I was actually hoping you’d have some great books set in Canada to share – oh well… 🙂

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  4. Oh I get what you are saying totally. This may be one of the reason I avoid books from India dealing with women and oppression and all the good juicy stuff. Or even things about Muslims because most of the times when I am reading the books I am very sensitive and even a little sentence that can be construed as critical makes my hackles rise. However, to play the Devil’s Advocate, I think those of us who live in the culture, belong to the religion, etc, need to read these books if only to be aware of how we are being viewed by the rest of the world. I’d rather know if the woman across the street thinks I’m an oppressed soul, ya know? 😀 Maybe she’ll give me cookies when I tell her my parents don’t let me have any. haha.

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    1. That’s actually an interesting point about reading those books that may make us a little uncomfortable so we can be aware of how we are being viewed by others. I think it’s easy to point fingers at the “bad guys” in whatever culture’s history, but when you often fall into that “bad guy” category it’s harder to read about those subjects, especially if you don’t think of yourself as being a “bad guy.” However, I think I do want to know what people outside my home think about me so I’m better able to say “That’s not me! I’m different! I’m sympathetic! I baked you cookies!” And then I’ll share them with you since your parents don’t let you have them. 🙂

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  5. Interesting conversation. If I (random minority blogger) may put in my two cents: I enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, but I felt that the message was wasted on me. It felt like it was trying to tell me something I already knew.

    When a different class tried to get me to read Tom & Huck that same semester, I put my foot down. I felt like saying “let’s stop talking about slavery,” but I think that everybody gets like this at times. Even Octavia Spencer deflected a possible such conversation after winning an Oscar for The Help.

    Personally, I refuse to read or watch The Help, because its the message is one I don’t need to hear again and its subject is too touchy. But books with different messages and different subjects are fine. Anything is fine with me so long as it is heartfelt, universal, and original.

    I am planning to read the Book Thief, for example. It’s also set in a painful period, but–I wonder if it’s because its painfulness doesn’t ring familiar that I can stand it?

    Maybe I’m odd in that I dislike historical books in general because their troubles always rouse me to want to help others, but then I look at reality and find that the trouble’s past with time. Maybe I’d be better off reading current books about oppressed Indians, then, if I can only find ways to quell my unease afterwards.

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    1. Thank you for your two cents; I read your comment and thought “Yes! She gets where I’m coming from!” I think we all need to know our history, both that of our race/culture/ethnic group and our country, but sometimes I feel certain issues are so overdone or so over-popularized that it prevents us from moving forward. I watched The Help with my mom, who, as I mentioned in my post, grew up in the same time and similar situations as the setting of the book, so it was interesting for me to talk to her about her experiences, but like you said about To Kill a Mockingbird, the message was wasted on me.

      The Book Thief was really the catalyst for this post because I wondered if my feelings towards reading about racial issues of the South are similar to those of Germans reading about the Jews and WWII – do they feel the same guilt or embarrassment for their country’s past? (P.S. I really hope you like The Book Thief – it was fantastic!)

      Thanks so much for your comment!

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  6. I grew up and still live in Louisiana. I understand what you mean about racism stories having less of an impact because we are desensitized to it. But, and maybe it’s because I was a history major, I like reading individual stories. I know we’ve heard over and over some of the horrid things we’ve done, but they’re kind of general and I would like a more specific story. Sure, I know we had a war in the 1940s, but it isn’t until I actually studied the time period that I understood the hows and whys.

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  7. Opps, hit enter. I also wanted to say that if we avoid the kinds if stories we are desensitized to, we might forget why the situation is so wrong. And because the people who’ve lived through this or other situations have different experiences, I want to know how they survived and if it makes them stronger or effected their world view. I find that I am more interested in the stories I am familiar with. Which is probably why I like to reread books or am obsessed with Harry Potter fanfiction 🙂

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