Celebrating Diversity in Stories

As a young girl, I was exposed to stories that celebrated my country and continent. Although we were encouraged to read the classics like Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickinson, Dickens and so much more, we also had the pleasure of reading amazing works from African greats like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Coming to America exposed me to even more diversity, of not only the ‘generalized’ American classics, but of regional gems. How can we forget Radio Mark Twain’s view of the south and slavery in Huckleberry Finn or Carson McCullers’s view of the South in the 30s with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. What about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, set during the Great Depression in California?

The beauty of writing stories that take a deeper look at a specific group of individuals, or of a particular region, culture and society, is that the writer has the task of creating believable and realistic situations. Without overwhelming the reader with local lingo or phrases in its native tongue, the writer must find a balance – the ability to teach and at the same time entertain the reader without making it a history lesson/article.

Some important things to take note:

Descriptions/Setting – Of course this is the central part of the story, where the reader has to have an idea of where the story is taking place. It can be a gradual build up or it can start with a bang! before unraveling like a spool of thread. Try to bring the country or region to life in the reader’s eye. If the story takes place in the Sudan, then by gosh, the reader must be made to feel the heat and acrid conditions. If the character lives in the slums, then by all means, show us each graffiti infested walls and the smell of poverty and hopelessness.

Characters/Dialogue (Accents/Dialects/Native Tongue) – A very, VERY integral part of the story as well. The characters to be placed in your setting (see above) must be as authentic as the surroundings. Even if it’s a stranger in a foreign land, personal characteristics, traits and overall mannerisms should reflect wherever he or she is from. Dialogue also plays a role in your story. If a reader stumbles upon a story based in India, it would seem a bit funny to have the character – supposedly born and raised there – speaking like he has lived in New York City all his life! If Mark Twain had written Huckleberry Finn in ‘straight’ English, would it still have the same impact? His ability to show the southern drawl and twang with both Huck and Jim made the novel as authentic as can be.

It’s one of the reasons why writers have to be very good listeners. Keep your ears (as well as eyes) open. Those lucky enough to travel to many places can take the time to distinguish the accents and dialects of the people they meet. Others who cannot do so, can take refuge in watching movies or TV (or even listening to the radio). Why, even your next-door neighbor could be from the North, South, East or West and exchanging a few words here and there can get you accustomed to his or her style of speaking.

With all that said, one has to remember that the story, no matter where it’s based or set, must be able to engage, capture and never let the reader go. For a few minutes, it should take the reader into that world and make them feel like they are a part of the characters’ lives


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