By Annum Salman
“In the world of words, how do you make your writing relate to your audience?” I remember being asked this question in a writing workshop and thinking about my writing style. After spending my childhood and teenage years in Pakistan, I travelled abroad to study and as the distance from home grew, I found myself holding my Pakistani culture closer to myself than ever before. I started thinking about the idea of home more, thinking about people a lot more, and my writing started becoming influenced by it.
Living in the UK, where people come from everywhere, heritage and culture can be two rich sources of inspiration. Whether you are writing fiction or poetry, incorporating elements of your heritage and culture can give your work a unique flavour and depth that is hard to achieve otherwise. In this blog, we will explore why heritage and culture can be such powerful sources of inspiration, and how you can use them to create meaningful and impactful pieces of writing.
First, let’s define heritage and culture. Heritage refers to the cultural traditions, values, beliefs, and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. Culture, on the other hand, encompasses a wider range of elements, including language, art, music, literature, and cuisine, to name a few.
Both ideas are deeply rooted in our sense of identity and belonging. They can evoke strong emotions, memories, and a sense of connection to our past, present, and future. For example, if you are writing fiction, you can use your cultural background to create unique and authentic characters and settings. This takes me back to my English Language A Level class. Having been born in a highly westernised ex-English colony, I was used to naming characters in stories Alex, Ben, and Carol. It was only later that I realised the benefit of naming my characters names I’d hear around me: My Professor said, “Great story, but I just can’t see an Alex having chai from a street stall.” Thinking about it, I couldn’t either. Alex was inspired by a friend, Ali, and I couldn’t understand any particular reason why I couldn’t call him that. While developing writing over the years, I came to realise the importance of reflecting the Alis, Zainabs, and Zarahs in my writing. We exist. In the world and also in other countries with stories that are worth telling.
The more we begin to consider values and traditions of our culture and backgrounds, the more we’re able to explore the ways in which these elements shape the lives of our characters. This can lead to stories that are rich in meaning and are a true representation of the world. In the journey of becoming a more authentic writer, I’ve also learned to not over-explain my culture. It is a common error often made by foreign writers writing in English because we fall into the belief that nobody will understand our world unless we give every detail. The key is to know the balance between explaining and overexplaining and trusting that the reader is smart. While a story shouldn’t be crowded with words from another native language, a few terms can be used to enable flow in the story.
Having diverse characters and voices in your writing can also help to challenge harmful stereotypes and biases. By presenting characters from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, you can help to counteract negative portrayals and promote understanding and empathy between different groups. Not all Muslim characters are aggressive or, worst, terrorists. We’re now in the age where platforms like Netflix are providing opportunities for multilingual content and have rules for gender and racial diversity, and as writers we need to avail the opportunity to represent the world we see. This can have a positive impact on both the writer and the reader, helping to create a more inclusive and respectful society. This will additionally create stories that are more accessible and relatable to a wider audience, giving them a more realistic view of the world that is made up of different voices, backgrounds, and experiences. This also encourages a loyal and engaged readership, and it can help to promote your writing to new audiences.
Similarly, if you are writing poetry, you can use your heritage and culture to create poems that are infused with a sense of place and time. You can draw on the rhythms, sounds, and imagery of your cultural background to create poems that are evocative and memorable. Popular brown poets like Rupi Kaur and Nikita Gill are known to write about their experiences being brown women and are inspired by their histories. From Maya Angelou to George the Poet, black poets too, use their history and heritage, as well as personal and lived experiences of those they knew, as inspirations to writing.
In addition to using your own heritage and culture as a source of inspiration, you can also look to that of others to gain new perspectives and ideas. However, while doing so, it’s necessary to be culturally sensitive. An unbiased way to do so would be to share the writing with a friend belonging to the culture you’re writing about, delving into authentic experiences and having deep conversations with foreigners about their lives.
Digging into my background and exploring my sense of belonging has expanded my realm of stories and has helped me become more authentic as a writer. It’s necessary for different voices to be heard and read, and it’s calming to know that there’s finally space for coloured writers to paint their worlds for readers. Have you ever incorporated culture and heritage in your writing? Do you have any tips and tricks to do so? Let us know in the comments below!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annum is a spokenword poet hailing from Pakistan. She completed her MA in Creative Writing from the UK and went on to publish her debut poetry book, Sense Me in 2019, that centers around the theme of identity. She writes about family, culture, race, gender and mental health among other topics. Annum has had many feature shows in the UK as well as in Pakistan and currently lives in London where she works as a PR professional and marketeer and also instructs workshops on poetry. You can find her dabbling with poetry in various forms on Instagram @writeroholic
One thought on “Incorporating culture and heritage into your writing”
Fascinating insight – with some helpful advice 🌹