Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Culture Class: Writing Fiction Out of Diversity: Guest Post by KWEI QUARTEY

Kwei Quartey:

Culture Clash: Writing Fiction Out of Diversity

In an era when an American administration has done its best to seal the country off from foreigners and migrants, including refugees, I've been reflecting on how exposure to people of different backgrounds can enrich your life. I was brought up in Ghana, which of course was a British colony. I came of age on the campus of the University of Ghana (UG), with its iconic red-tiled roofs. Both my late Black American mother and late Ghanaian father were lecturers there, in Sociology/Social Welfare and African Studies respectively. 

Ghana's connections to Britain, a lot stronger then than they are now, brought a large number of nationalities to the university from all the Commonwealth of Nations. Apart from the British, there were Australians, (for some time, our direct neighbors were Australians), Canadians, Indians, Jamaicans, Ugandans, South Africans, and others I'm sure I've forgotten. Without my conscious knowledge, I was likely observing and absorbing aspects of their culture. Many were a part of a memorable cast of characters, some amusing, others quite strange. I recall one lecturer who had an odd movement disorder and a habit of talking to herself. Whereas some of these professors might have a difficult time getting employment elsewhere, the academic world always has room for "unique" personalities who are sometimes both brilliant and bizarre. 

Universities and colleges are often called "ivory towers," a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world. That was almost certainly the case with the University of Ghana. Quiet, clean, and rather lush, the campus was neither anything like the hectic urban life of Accra nor the rural sectors of the country, which, at the time, accounted for most of the population. That's no longer the case, as only some 43% live in rural areas. 

At the time, the University provided a perk to expatriates like my mother and dependents (if there were any): a comped visit every 2-3 years to their country of origin. That meant my three brothers and me got to accompany my mother to New York City for entire summers when classes at UG were out. That an institution in a developing country was able to provide that kind of gratuity seems staggering to me now—It certainly couldn't happen in the present day—but back then I took it for granted. Maybe I was a tad "entitled," an uncomfortable word in the modern zeitgeist. 

Because my mother was an American, her children were automatically US citizens (jus sanguinis), making travel to the US, UK, and Europe a cinch. In the face of all this, my father was uncomfortable about any show of privilege and he might have squirmed with guilt at the privilege, which my always pragmatic mother on the other hand made full use of. Apart from our being able to see her mother ("Granny") in New York, my mother, as much as she loved Ghana, likely thought it important for her four boys to experience America as a part of their cultural experience and heritage. Indeed, when the time came for the family to move piecemeal to the USA (minus my father, who had died a couple of years before), American life wasn't the culture shock that it would have been for the uninitiated. 

Moving Beyond The Ivory Tower 

On the diametrically opposite end of traveling to her hometown of New York City, my mother was a sociologist and social worker who took her students off the university campus on field trips to remote rural areas, for which experience students of hers expressed great appreciation. Part of the motive for these visits was to explore how village life, culture, and belief systems could be used in constructive ways to advance development and mold social policy. 

My mother also let us, her sons, tag along on these field trips, and there I felt the heaviness of my comfy living circumstances in contrast to rural living conditions. I remember visiting one village where 80 percent of adults suffered from river blindness, or onchocerciasis. This horrific disease is caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which induces body itching so intense that one cannot sleep. Eventually, the sufferer goes blind. In villages where the affliction is endemic, it's common to see blind adults being led around by children. 

At the time of that field trip, I had already decided I wanted to be a physician, but I believe this wrenching, seminal experience solidified my ambition by raising the curtain on what truly hellish suffering is like and making me want to do something about it. 

On one occasion, my mother turned down my request to accompany her to the psychiatric hospital in Accra. I remember her saying, "That's not the kind of thing you should see." The state of mental health care in Ghana at the time was abysmal, and that remains mostly the case now. Even with a renovation of the Accra psychiatric hospital in July 2020, an overwhelming amount of work remains to be done there, not to mention the rest of the country. 

Cultural Discomfort 

Bart, one of my best childhood friends, lived down the road from us on the university campus, an easy 3-minute walk between our homes. We went biking, swimming, fishing, exploring, and generally had fun and adventure together. I commonly stayed for lunch and went on trips with his family, and vice versa. Bart’s folks were Dutch expatriates who had lived in Ghana for decades. Hanging out with them was a very different experience from visiting my father's relatives a world away in "real" Accra. My mother, brothers and I were in the awkward position of not having learned my father's indigenous language, Ga. If he had spoken it to his children from an early age while my mother spoke to us in English, we would have been fluent in both. But my father might have felt like he would be unfairly excluding her. Traditionally in Ghana, the spouse is largely irrelevant to decisions made by the in-laws. Not speaking Ga fluently became a distinct disadvantage for my brothers and me, and put us in an awkward position. My name Kwei is so quintessentially of the Ga people that most Ghanaians would have assumed I knew how to speak the language. Repeatedly trying to explain why this was not the case became (still is) a royal pain in the rear. I did go to formal Ga lessons as a teenager, but there was no immersion, which got me nowhere. 

But there was, and is, more to this language deficit. Language and culture are intertwined. Interacting with another language means engaging with the culture that speaks the language. My mother was the more present and assertive parent, my father the more self-effacing. I never quite got the feeling he was proud of his Ga heritage, or maybe I never recognized it. Sure, he took my brothers and me to traditional events and family gatherings in town, but I always felt like an outsider looking in. I wasn't standing with one foot on dry land and one in the pond, I barely had a toe in the water. And once these small nibbles of Ga culture ended, it was back to the comfortable ivory tower. These experiences were both a culture clash and a culture miss. 

The Writing Paradox 

While all this cross culture and diversity in my life experience are a bit of a muddle, that jumble is the very materiel and fodder for my writing. In truth, I constantly strive to grasp a culture I feel I just missed—a lost opportunity. That might not be all bad. Enlightenment grows out of the recognition that one doesn’t have all the answers; I have a theory that a writer's work is a surrogate for control of a barely controllable world. I'm driven to wrestle with my own confusion. Not only for the reader but for me as well, each of my books is an exploration of Ghanaian culture and the attempt understand it. The murder mystery is the best genre in which to do this, because the central question in a murder is, why a killer has behaved in such a way—a surrogate for what drives society to do what it does. We all want to know what intricacies in the murderer's mind compelled him to commit the crime. 

In one form or the other, the backdrops to my stories have some kind of culture clash. In Wife Of The Gods, a young, progressive female medical student fiercely confronts an age-old practice of indentured servitude of girls to a fetish priest in return for his protection against family curses. Darko Dawson is unfamiliar with this tradition, which is a culture clash within his own country.

I think the maxim, "Write what you know" is inadequate. I think you should also write what you care about. If there's no emotion underlying your writing, it may seem flat. So, I will keep exploring these culture clashes as long as I write.


Kwei Quartey is a crime fiction writer and retired physician based in Pasadena, California. Quartey was born in Ghana, West Africa, to a Ghanaian father and a black American mother, both of whom were lecturers at the University of Ghana. His novel Wife of the Gods made the Los Angeles Times bestseller list in 2009. The following year, the National Book Club voted him Best Male Author. He has two mystery series set in Ghana: the Detective Inspector Darko Dawson investigations and the Emma Djan investigations.


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