"Writing must come out of what we know, what we feel…. But ultimately it must transcend all that to reach across time and space and memory to touch those who have never—and who will never—live as we have lived."—Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Well-developed characters are multifaceted. Beyond traits and distinctions, there is an underlying foundation of how they’ve lived before the beginning of the story. It is up to the author to seamlessly weave in that experience in ways that aren’t merely backstory. Done well, this richness of the past can provide texture in your novel that often leads to an immersive experience for readers.
When your characters have identities across multiple cultures and represent first, second, and/or third diaspora, there is an added facet that requires context that drive their internal and external motivations. In my novel, The Candid Life of Meena Dave, the reader is immersed into a small story that explores the lived lives of the characters who simultaneously balance their eastern and western identities.
To make sure it was seamless and not academic or preachy, I had to be intentional in choosing the cultural areas to explore that would seep into the prose while driving the plot forward. For Meena’s story I used food, dress, and the symbolism of locked doors to show the intersections and tensions of two opposite value systems—collectivism of cultures vs. individualism of western cultures.
Uma rolled up the sleeves of her bulky sweater and washed her hands. “Get a notebook or take a video with your phone. You’re going to learn, and then you’re going to practice. Next time we come by, you’ll be able to make it for us.”
Meena was a little taken aback. Then she realized this was an opportunity only to learn something that seemed to be part of their culture, and possibly her own.
In this scene I used chai to not only show how Gujarati families individualize recipes to taste but also to highlight community. Meena was raised in a western household, lived individually and for herself. As she becomes immersed in the way of the Engineer’s House, she learns more about how these friends not only live collectively but also pass on their traditions to the next generation to ensure that certain aspects stay alive.
Meena didn’t recognize herself from the neck down. The sari was dramatic in the way it fell around her with little peeks of skin at the waist. “How do you walk in this?”
“Carefully,” Tanvi said.
This was carried over to clothes where identity is most often constructed. The auntie characters represent a generation older than Meena. They’ve had a long life of highlighting their duality through clothing, food, language, and other ways to show who they are in this world. They prefer long kurtas with leggings and ornate jewelry. Their choices are unconscious but important to them. These women were born in America, grew to middle age, have fully assimilated in western culture and they still use signifiers to keep their eastern culture visible.
When they teach Meena how to wear a sari, it’s another way to enfold her into their shared culture, welcome her into it. The aunties learned from their mothers and passed down this knowledge to their children and were giving Meena that rite of passage giving her another way to notice the communal aspect of how they view family.
That this wasn’t their apartment didn’t seem to faze them. Meena didn’t know what to do, so she grabbed the keys and her laptop and camera equipment. Her life was in this bag. And she realized she had no idea who these women were.
Identity, culture, and belonging are major throughlines in the novel and it was important to make sure there was a way to the growth arc for Meena. In the beginning, she’s hesitant to have people in and out of her apartment, ensures that doors are locked, and believes it is it tied to her sense of safety.
Meena finally understood the symbolism of the unlocked door. She hadn’t welcomed them freely into the space they’d been used to going in and out of their whole lives, as a matter of tradition. She’d been keeping them out.
From the beginning to the end, these small and large signifiers serve to not only enhance the story, but also set up this tension of self vs. community and how we figure out who we are in the world.
When writing about dual cultural identity, it is important to know that it isn’t static but on a continuum. Every experience emotional, psychological, and behavioral reshapes the characters and often fluctuates. As Meena grows, as she assimilates to the ways of the building and the people in it, she opens to the idea of wanting to know. And her knowing affects the aunties in that they change as well. For Meena, the search for identity is for that lost, true self. Once she finds it, the longing turns to belonging, which is the result of knowing yourself.
It is important that this is embedded in the novel. It isn’t simply about inserting pieces of culture into a story to highlight the differentness, it is about intentionality that writers need to understand and weave into the story. It is as much part of the craft of storytelling as is the ubiquitous beginning, middle, and end.