April 7, 2017

Trans-Cultural Writing

By Tony Kail

As a non-fiction writer who has spent several years writing about various religious and healing cultures, I am reminded on a daily basis the importance of practicing transcultural writing skills. As a cultural anthropologist that provides training to medical organizations, I have become quite familiar with a specialized area of nursing known as ‘transcultural nursing’. Transcultural nursing focuses on learning about a patient’s culture and being able to provide effective healthcare while showing sensitivity and respect to the beliefs, customs and practices of the patient. The discipline also focuses on keeping communication open with patients while avoiding stereotypes and personal judgements that could affect patient care. These practices also translate to those of us who are researchers and writers that write about historical people, places and cultures.

As a writer it is important that we understand that writing about a particular culture means that we are taking part in the world’s dialogue about a culture. Anthropology teaches that we can be susceptible to becoming ‘ethnocentric’. That is trying to place our own prejudices and beliefs on someone else’s culture because we feel that our way of thinking is the only way of thinking. How can this manifest in writing? Suppose you are writing about a particular practice or religion that you personally philosophically disagree with. Our terminology can reflect bias feelings. For example, what if you perceived a specific practice as foolish but yet the practice is considered a valid way of being among members of a specific culture. Would you use terms to convey your belief? ‘Foolish’, ‘Weird’ and even more descriptive terms like ‘demonic’, ‘scary’ or ‘evil’ can quickly convey to your reader that you are less interested in being non-bias and accurate in providing historical data and more concerned about promoting a specific worldview. This is acceptable if you are writing for a specific religious or philosophical genre but it is very questionable when used in non-fiction or historical writing.

Another element that is important is that as non-fiction writers we need to realize that no matter how interesting our subject matter may be to us that it is someone else’s reality. Recently writing about the culture of hoodoo and African inspired rootwork history in the southern U.S. it could become very easy to get caught up in the imagery of the fascinating vintage products used in hoodoo and the pop culture representations of blues singers and mojo bags. However the truth is that the rootwork culture is a living culture with living practitioners. It is not practiced as a hobby or a game, but it is a traditional practice with a real historic lineage that had to survive through slavery and segregation in the South. 

This understanding affected how I performed interviews and how I communicated the stories of these practitioners. No longer were they anonymous shadowy characters but were real people. They were sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. While interviewing sources to obtain knowledge about a particular culture it is important that we show respect in our listening and our writing as in the practice of transcultural nursing.
Tony Kail is a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer and writer. Kail holds a degree in cultural anthropology and has been involved in research of magico-religious cultures for more than twenty-five years. He is a cultural consultant for local, state and federal medical and public safety agencies on issues related to cultural diversity, religious culture and transcultural communication. His latest book is A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo:Rootworkers, Conjurers & Spirituals from The History Press. Website: Twitter: @memphishoodoo

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