Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cultural Scars

A few weeks ago I was listening to the audiobook version of Lee Child's Tripwire. A lot of the story takes place in and around the World Trade Center in New York. It surprised me how hard it was to listen to events staged in a building that no longer existed. As a result, I became acutely aware of the scars we bear as a culture.

When we write we are told to make sure our characters are well-rounded, that they have a past, and plans for their future. The same thing's true for the world in which our characters live.  Each society has its triumphs, dirty secrets, and tragedies. How they affect us, the characters in our own stories, depends on who we are and how remote those events are from us.

For Americans, our cultural scars include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the race riots of the 1960s, the war in Vietnam, the Challenger explosion, and the September 11 attacks. Each one of these events fundamentally changed how we function as a culture and interact with the world around us. But, there's something else you need to notice about the list. Off the top of my head, I only included events that occurred in my lifetime, or slightly before it. I didn't include the Civil War even though it changed, well, everything, about a young country.

If my grandparents were still with us, I'm sure they'd have included the Great Depression on the list of cultural scars. How did living through the Depression alter how my grandparents interacted with the world around them? They didn't spend money on things they didn't need to. They didn't accumulate "stuff" just to do it. My mother's parents hid cash around the house - although not under the mattress -  because they didn't trust banks. They paid cash for everything and didn't trust or use credit cards either. But I didn't live through the Great Depression. I'm two generations removed from it. So, while I know the lessons from the Depression, I also lived through the "me" generation of the 1980's where the mantra of the day was "why delay gratification? The good times will never end?" Well, they did.

To me the 9/11 attacks were more about the end of American innocence rather than the Kennedy assassination. Yes, we could be touched here in America. Our streets can look like those over seas where unrest is common. The September 11 terrorist attacks created a culture of fear. Politicians now sell it. They get elected because of it. One where we willingly sacrifice our civil liberties and outage at governmental prying for the illusion of "safety." I often wonder if my grandchildren will think the benefit was worth what we gave up.

Okay, sorry I drifted off topic. Back to my point.

Cultures are people too. They have pasts and scars. Those scars in turn inflict invisible wounds on the members of that society. The best stories are recognize this. Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns has several rich cultures that hide scars. Jora'h, one of my favorite characters from the story, must confront  his culture's despicable acts, and decide whether to bear those scars at the cost of his values or expose those secrets and endanger his people. Each race has a secret that drives its society and present policy/ actions. A culture's present responsibility for its earlier choices is one of the themes in the series. Kevin's consideration and interweaving of these macro-issues makes him one of the best world builders out there.

Paradigm shifts happen when those wounds hit a critical mass and result in change. We change because of our cultural past as much as society changes because of what we do. Our writing should reflect the world around our character, and that world has scars that carve rivulets into its people's souls.


R. W. Ware said...

Interesting. I think this can be addressed on many more levels than you do here: local, provincial, national and international. The War of 1812; the Civil War; the attack Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks all had profound effects on the American culture. Ripples of them all still affect us. We still have Southerners and Northerners; we're still "Yanks" to a good portion of the world; Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are both examples of us being prodded to fight, although ironically, one galvanized us to unite and attack, and the other has been a source of division. Politics change. Intolerance takes on different guises. Bigotry is cultivated. This happened with incidents other than armed attacks, though. You mentioned The Great Depression, but not the sequel (in which we are living), or The Dustbowl which changed the way we cultivated the land, and swept a deadly hand across most of the country. How about The Trail of Tears? One reaction to this is that many Native Americans refuse to use a $20 bill because it bears Andrew Jackson's face. Or the Indian Wars? The Gold Rush?

For all of that (and I'm still overlooking a bunch), I think you struck the nail on the head--if only briefly. Though all of those events have ripples through a culture, the actual influences only effect those living through the changes when they happen--though their ripples may have a lasting affect on a nation or world. Your example of grandparents hiding money is not isolated, but, as you say, the next generation (or the one after) may think of those views as old fashioned or outdated.

What effects on the Japanese Cultrue were changed due to Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Remember that this is an island culture who, from the time they recorded history, have dealt with natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes--to the point where they built their houses out of removable parts (shoji are removable doors with paper windows) and, from this learned to respect others "harmony" above all. Yet, since the technological explosion in their culture, they have moved past many of the tenets they held so dear.

I agree that it should be remembered in fiction, but, I believe if you go too deep, you chance coming down with a severe case of world-builder's syndrome. It definitely requires a balance between pre-planning and some exploration. Cultural Scars are just one way of making your milieu more than a setting, but one that should have its time in the spotlight. Good post, and Kevin is a great example of not only world-building (without miring the story in it--a personal favorite example is Captain Nemo) but his plotting is excellent. He is one of my favorite writers for those two very things.

Nancy DiMauro said...


Exactly, right. As writers we need to be aware of those scars but guard against those scars taking over the story - unless the story's theme is how these events shape a culture and its people.