Posted in Cultural Sensitivity Readers, fiction, Historical Fiction, India, Novel writing, Travel Writing

Cultural Sensitivity Readers are a Must for Novelists

Have you ever read a novel and noticed that something did not fit in the historical period or in a certain part of a country? That is every novelists’ fear—and certainly was mine.

That’s why I asked two people whose hometown was Kolkata to read through my novel before it was completed to make sure I had things culturally correct, as well as locations and descriptions captured as accurately as possible for the early 1900s. One person was in her thirties and the other in her eighties. Both were true Bengalis.

One of the two “beta” readers—think first reader to catch mistakes or cultural sensitivity readers—explained that painting henna onto the hands and feet of brides was not done in the province of Bengal, ever. Henna hands culturally did not belong to this region . So I had to take it out of my novel.

Rather than let that scene go to waste, I decided to share it with you today. Let me introduce the characters. Fiona is my protagonist, hailing from Iowa; Ameera is her Indian hostess; and Basanti is the bride they are visiting just days after her ten-day marriage ritual has been completed, which included painting her hands with henna. I hope you enjoy the scene and the visual examples of what they call mehndi (in English, mehendi) hands.

Mehendi Hands (A Scene from the book I couldn’t use.)

Basanti greeted Ameera and Fiona with “Namasté,” while they slipped off their shoes in the entryway. Fiona, embarrassed by her heavy work boots, placed them next to fine slippers, and silently promised to buy a pair for herself. When the new bride offered them a seat, Fiona saw the intricate henna stain snaking up the woman’s arm, a cluttered and confusing design.

After formalities, Ameera asked Basanti to show Fiona her palms. The warm orangey-brown henna ink climbed up the young bride’s wrists and wrapped to the forearm.

“Basanti’s mehndi hands are drawn with henna stain. A family member is typically the artist, like her sister-in-law.”

“Is that tradition?” Fiona asked. Tradition in Iowa consisted of a white or cream-colored dress, if the bride could afford it, then something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, as the old adage went. Fiona had always thought it a lot of hoop-la, but nothing compared to this.

Ameera said, “Yes, a family member fits the art to the couple’s sign.”

“The couple’s sign? What do you mean?” Fiona asked.

“Their Vedic zodiac sign. If one is a Taurus, for instance, then a bull will be drawn. If they are from a particular caste, then certain gods may be etched to bless the couple.”

Fiona scanned the bride’s hands. “Why are the fingertips a solid color?”

Basanti said with delight, “My new sister-in-law, my husband’s brother’s wife, believes dark fingertips are a sign of good luck. She brought this tradition from her family to her husband’s—now it will be my family, also.” She allowed a slip of a smile to show pride in her new family. “I am pleased by the depth of color; I hope my touch will always be firm and healing.”

Fiona noted, “No two fingers are alike.”

“It is indeed special as a gift from my new sister. Do you not agree?” 

“Yes, most beautiful.” Fiona was unaccustomed to using superlatives.

Basanti continued. “On the third day of celebration, the henna painting took place. My husband could not take me to bed until he found our names inscribed on my arms. He saw his name quickly but looked and looked for mine.”

She rolled her eyes. “Teasing me, he found mine before he even saw his own.”

Fiona, ill-at-ease with the topic of newlywed mating, changed the subject. “It appears the color is already fading in places. How long will it last?”

Ameera leaned forward to answer. “Basanti is not allowed to do housework until it is worn off. But by not working, it will last longer. Rubbing cream on it also makes it last. A husband may wonder, but he does not know it can be gone in days without much attention to delay homemaking.” The three laughed at keeping this kind of a secret. 

Basanti confided. “I have watched henna painted on my sister, cousins, and friends, as new brides. I longed for my mehndi hands,” touching the red dot on her forehead, “and bindi.” American women used rouge on their cheeks, face powder, and lip color, but nothing as showy as this.

Basanti lightly rubbed her arms, admiring the art. “The day the henna stained my skin, I felt the most beautiful I have ever been. I now feel my inner light illuminating.”

Fiona did not grasp what it had to do with getting married. Too much ceremony for her.

Ameera riffled the bracelets on Basanti’s wrist. “These are a gift from her aunt and uncle. She wears the red ones a year to show she is a newlywed. Then her husband’s parents replace them at the end of year with gold or brass ones; and she takes over responsibilities of the entire household.”

Basanti said, “Many Hindu couples rush to marry the last week of April, like we did to avoid May, an inhospitable time of year to wed. Wednesday is the best day of the week, but also, our Vedic astrologer searched the position of the moon for us to determine the best time. It bodes well for our future together.” 

Fiona admitted to the two women, “This is a bit overwhelming to me.”

When Ameera rose to leave and bid her friend farewell, Fiona pulled her boots back on as gracefully as possible and knew to expect the same slight bow and the “Namasté” greeting as they left.

Walking back, Fiona’s thoughts were all a-jumble by arranged marriages, superstitions, painted hands, signs, and bangle bracelets. In comparison, weddings in Iowa now appeared lackluster.

****

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Posted in Craft of writing

REVISION of “DRAFTING A SCENE”

REVISION

Revision is the only way to improve our writing. — Rhonda Wiley-Jones

The only kind of writing is rewriting. — Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast 

Hopefully you saw the first version of this scene in the previous blog post, Drafting a Scene for my Novel. (If not, review it to get the most out of this post.) After taking it to my writers’ critique group yesterday, see my revisions below in red. They represent changes I made as a result of their comments and from my own need to clarify what I wanted to say. (NOTE: I use the word, Moslem instead of Muslim, because in 1906 that was the preferred word.)

THE REVISED SCENE

Pastor John led the way out of Ramita’s front garden, leaving the sweet smells of flowers. John opened the gate for Fiona to the street and the offensive odors that would come. He stepped behind her and then to the street side of the path. Fiona followed his chivalrous behavior wondering what he was doing, until she recalled Ramita’s words, “Pastor John needs a wife.”

Awkward and uncertain about how to behave around this attentive man of God, Fiona attempted to make casual conversation. Her innate curiosity helped. “I see different kinds of lettering on shop doors. At first I thought them all the same, but after a few days of observing them, I think they are different languages.”

“You have a keen eye.” He pointed to a small sweetmeats shop and said, “That is run by a Moslem. The lettering is Urdu, one of several major languages and the language of Moslem speakers.”

Fiona tried the word on her tongue, “Ur-du. Right? That feels funny in my mouth.

He laughed at her reaction and said, “You would like the taste of these sweets in your mouth as well. Bengal is known as the sweet tooth of India.”

Now standing in front of the bakery, he pointed out the wonders displayed. “That is called pathishapta. It’s a rolled pancake stuffed with a cream of coconut, milk, cream, and an ingredient from the date palm, jaggery. My boys love it.Image result for sweets in indian culture

“See those ball-shaped treats? They are made from a condensed milk and coconut, and often made to celebrate Lakshmi Puja.”

“What’s that?”

“A prayer ritual, usually performed during Diwali, a major Indian festival. The third day of Diwali is considered auspicious and set to greet the god Lakshmi. They believe that the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, comes to bestow gifts and blessings. She is thought to revere cleanliness, so devotees clean their houses and decorate with lights, and prepare delicacies as offerings. The more satisfied she is with the visit the greater the blessings, wealth and prosperity the household will attract during the next year.”

“Do they celebrate once a year or more often?”

“Only during the Diwali festival. But there are many festivals throughout the year. Unfortunately, there are no festivals while you are here. And that’s a shame. I wish you could experience one of them.”

“Yeah, me, too. And what is that?” Fiona said, pointing to another round treat.

“That’s a rasgulla. Of all things, it is a ball of unripened cheese soaked in sugar syrup. Actually, it’s pretty good.” He pointed to another item. “The malpoa has different versions. The one made in here in Bengal is a cream pancake deep fried with raisins and syrup applied later. That was Martha’s … ”

He stopped himself abruptly and then apologized. “I shouldn’t speak of my wife to you.  It’s not my place to burden you with my memories.”

“No, no, that’s okay. You will always remember her fondly and why wouldn’t you?”

He pointed to a tobacco shop across the street and said, “Now see that smoke shop over there? That is run by a Hindu, because the lettering is Hindi. In missionary language school before getting Calcutta I learned that Hindustani is the mother language of Urdu and Hindi.”

Fiona tried to walk in the crowded streets without touching John’s shoulder, but she felt the moist skin from his arm from time to time. She stiffened when he reached for her hand. In tight places he slid his arm behind her and nudged her forward. She took measured steps.

“Ironically though, Urdu is written from right to left; and Hindi, from left to right, like we write. Hindi takes many words and expressions from the Sanskrit and Urdu more from Persian.”

“It looks nothing like our alphabet. How many letters does it have?”

“In Urdu, over thirty consonants and at least twenty vowels. Then in Hindi about twenty-eight consonants and thirty-five vowels. Of course, then there are exceptions and combination of letters, much like we have the “oy” sound for the words joy or voice. The written script may be different in the two; but if you speak one, you understand the other when it is spoken.”

“That doesn’t make sense to me. They seem…”

“Incongruent?”

“Yes, even paradoxical. Do you speak either?”

“I studied Hindi, but can’t say I’m fluent; I stumble along if a native speaker is patient.”

They stepped prudently around a Brahma bull lazily chewing its cud and ignoring them. Fiona from the top of the ghat, man-made stone steps from the upper street level down to the river, looked down to see women washing clothes, while locals and pilgrims bathed before prayers. The wide passageway led down to the Ganges, the holiest of all rivers, or in this case the Hooghly, a diversion from the mother of all Indian rivers.

“I’m so tall and white; so out of place, like a pot roast at a bake sale. What’s the word for foreigner?”

Pardesi, which is Hindi. Though this is the Indian continent, did you know there is no such thing as an Indian race?”

Fiona cocked her head, puzzled. “But they are all dark skinned.”

“Yes, more than you and me, but the range of color is golden to mahogany to black. The Aryans are fair-skinned, more like us; while the Dravidians are Negroid typed.” He saw her perplexed face. “It is believed that Dravidians from the South invaded the North and then integrated, marrying lighter-skinned Aryans;  creating many skin tones.”

“And those two strains of people have inter-married with Mongolians from north of India. When you take into account all these factors, you will see why Indian complexions vary widely.”

Avoiding the marriage subject, she said. “I suppose sun exposure deepens the skin tone, as well.” Then she sniffed the air, like a dog and asked, “What is that  strange scent? I see men smoking pipes and dipping snuff from gourds or pouches, but this scent is unfamiliar.”

He looked about and then pointed to an old gentleman pulling a long drag from an elaborate silver hookah. The device, elegant and expensive, sat in stark contrast to the man with tattered clothes. His only other possession appeared to be an amulet pouch on his belt. The turbaned man with eyes closed sucked on a tube from the instrument.

John said, “That’s called a hookah,  a smoking machine used for opium.”

“Hook-ah, you call it. What is opium, like tobacco?”

“Similar, but more potent. Historically it may have been used by priests or healers to produce effects that made them seem like men with special powers. Today it’s used by pilgrims and priests to attain a meditative state.”

He guided her closer to the contemplative. “In addition to its prevailing use as anesthesia and a painkiller, doctors use it to treat respiratory and stomach ailments.”

Fiona  pointed to the man. “He seems to be lost in thought. Why do you think he is using the hookah?”

“He might say he’s trying to get closer to God.” He chuckled and then sobered.  “I would say there is only one way to God through Jesus Christ. Prayer also helps.”

Fiona  fought her discomfort fueled by his closeness and attention. She fiddled with the compass in her pocket that she found after thinking she had lost it on ship. The compass had been Uncle Louis’  parting gift  to Will. And he  left it with her so she could find her way in the world without him.

The compass reminded Fiona of how much she had wanted to make this trip with Will. It provided the only certainty she had about anything right now. North was always north.

THE PROCESS OF REVISION 

Can you see the improvement in the second version of the scene, especially the added paragraphs of new content the group wanted to see in the scene?

  1. When you return to the first post, you see “Stepping a Character” aids any writer in developing a scene that is lively with action, dialogue, and utilizes more of the senses. I didn’t use all the elements I anticipated, but it gave me ready-made content to work with as I drafted the scene.
  2. Next, you see the value of a good critique group in this post and how it improves our writing (my writing especially). Never shy away from getting feedback from other writers and/or readers and for heaven’s sake don’t ignore it. Weigh to see if it fits what you want to accomplish in the writing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I make changes.

What is your experience working with a feedback from other writers or readers?