How to utilize cultural differences in your writing


Here is a joke for you:

“After a plane crashed into the sea, the flight attendant asked all the passengers to get out via the evacuation slide, but they were too scared to do so. The flight attendant asked the captain for help, who then successfully persuaded all the passengers to go down the slide within three minutes. When asked how he did it, the captain answered: ‘It’s easy. I told the Americans it’s an adventure; told the British it’s an honor; told the French it’s romantic; told the Germans it’s a rule; and then I told the Japanese it’s an order. The Chinese are the easiest: I told them it’s free.'”

Cultural differences are all around us. In recent years American businesses began to ponder upon the values of multicultural marketing, with a focus on the Spanish and Asian communities. In fact, as of 2007, Spanish is spoken by over 30% of the American population. In Australia, the multicultural market “comprises 1.4 million households with purchasing power of more than $75 billion per year”, or “20% of the population”. The National Multicultural Awards were launched by the New South Wales government (where Sydney is) in 1990 to “celebrate the achievements of individuals and organizations in engaging and providing services to a culturally diverse nation”.

Bilingual authors such as Jen Minkman (interviewed here as eBook Dynasty’s October 2013 Resident Writer) understand the advantages of multicultural marketing. Not only does Jen write in both Dutch and English, but her 2012 paranormal romance novel Shadow of Time is themed around the struggles of Native Americans to augment their rightful status in American political and cultural history. Although Jen had never been to the United States prior to this novel, she spent months researching the setting and background of the Navajo Indians in order to honor their tradition. Her success in entering the American market also has obvious benefits. In her words, “You get to reach a far wider audience in English, as Dutch is a language that is only spoken by a minority of Europeans.”

Of course, not all of us can be bilingual writers and access all of the world’s markets. But we can still utilize cultural differences in our writing, both to broaden our literary reach and to enhance mutual understanding between readers from different cultural backgrounds. Here are five tips to help “multicultural marketing” your writing:

1. Research: In the same way that research is required in any sort of writing, you need to understand the cultural features to be integrated in your book. Start with a simple Google and/or Wikipedia search and proceed to read any information you can find about that culture. In particular, read what other authors have written about it, both fiction and non-fiction. Basic facts help you gain a glimpse of a culture and its characteristics, while novels enable you to explore the many ways that culture impacts on its people and the society to which it belongs. The Writer’s Digest offers an article titled “How to Write Historical Fiction“, whose principles apply here as well — research helps you write about a culture accurately and authentically.

2. More than language: In your research, try to understand not only how a culture is expressed via the use of language, but also how it is lived. To borrow Elizabeth Gilbert’s words, how do people in this culture eat, pray and love? What are their habits, mannerisms and myths, and how do they convey their beliefs? What are their views of the world and how do they perceive their position in the universe? Culture is exhibited in every aspect of our daily life and serves as a yardstick for us to measure our existence and that of the others. Take the aforementioned Shadow of Time as an example. Jen not only uses fluent Navajo language in her book, but also describes in detail how the Navajo Indians have traditionally lived and believed. She has made them come alive.

3. Focus on positive interaction: A culture is interesting to us because it interacts with our own culture. At some point in the past, you would have noticed how that culture and/or some of its traits helped enlightening your intellect and ended up triggering your imagination. Focus on these positive moments. Showcase how considerably different cultures can smash against each other to give off sparkles of light. Explore and describe how particular aspects of a culture have improved and will continue to improve your own world. In this case, Mark Reutlinger’s Made in China is a good example (interviewed here as eBook Dynasty’s August 2013 Resident Writer), which focuses on the positive outcome of an economic showdown between America and a hostile Chinese government in the near future.

4. Share the bright side of humanity: Even the most horrible cultural conflicts can shed light on who we are as humans. After all, we have more similarities among us than differences. By writing about how distinguishable the others are from us, we see our own reflection in them as an imagined mirror. For example, Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer is tremendously popular in the West NOT because it is originally written in English (instead of a Chinese book translated into English); NOR is it because it is a typical coming-of-age, rags-to-rich and/or struggle-to-success story. Instead, it is because the story itself is able to reach across all ethnic and cultural barriers and highlight the values of love, friendship and family, as well as a deeply felt passion for pure artistic perfection. Ken Oldis’ The Chinawoman is another example that helps readers reflect on how cultures resemble each other in peculiar ways.

5. Translation: The aforementioned books are able to reach a far wider audience via translation. While Shadow of Time, Made in China and The Chinawoman have entered the Chinese market as ebooks, Mao’s Last Dancer has won wide acclaim in China and Taiwan after it is translated into Chinese from English. A book exploring the differences of two cultures is highly likely to attract the attention of readers from both cultures. Particularly in today’s increasingly globalized world, we cannot help but feeling the positive and negative impacts of other cultures on our daily lives. In the same way that products, services and capitals flow across our political and economic borders, we, too, can have our writing transcend all linguistic and cultural boundaries — especially when such writing benefits multiple sides of these imagined barriers.

Do your “multicultural marketing” and present yourself as an author of many cultures. This is a challenge that is definitely worth facing.


Jen Minkman, Mark Reutlinger and Ken Oldis are three of the 23 English-language author I have translated, published and promoted to the Chinese world since February 2011. (No, I did not have the good fortune to introduce Li Cunxin back to the Chinese world, a fact that still annoys me today.) Would you like to have 1.5 billion potential Chinese readers as well? Please support “A Guide to Self-Publishing in the Chinese World” Indigogo Campaign.


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