06 May 2013

everybody knows

I went to a school where over eighty per cent of the kids were fifth-generation residents of the county. For the entire ten years we lived in this particular area, we were known as "the foreigners" not-quite-behind-our-backs. My schoolmates would regularly take it upon themselves to inspect my school lunches and declare "that's weird."

Some weird things I brought to school were:
  • sandwiches made with cold cuts which were not bologna
  • sandwiches made with rye bread or French boule, not Wonderbread
  • sandwiches made with cheese which were not Kraft slices
  • sandwiches made with Wonderbread and peanut butter, but with home-made peach jam, not store-bought grape jelly
  • Swiss ladybug chocolates
  • Hopjes coffee candies
  • cookies that came from a deli, not the cookie aisle at the local A&P
The most memorable occasion was when my dad packed our lunches instead of my mum, and he decided to give us a hot meal of bratwurst slices and sauerkraut packed in a spare thermos so it would stay warm. It worked very well, but I had a crowd of about five kids eyeing my lunch and making comments. The next day a girl came up to me and solemnly told me that her dad said sauerkraut was only a topping for hot dogs, and that eating it in quantity as a side dish would make me ill.

"That's crap," I said. "We eat sauerkraut all winter at home."

That turned out not to be a very good defence.

Live and learn is the way the saying goes, and the thing I learned from the critiques of my lunches (besides that intolerance is truly irrational) is that while writing what you know is important, you have to give the reader a chance to understand.

Say your character has trouble with kudzu growing on their property and choking out the other plants, and say you want to make that a plot point. You can't just have the characters complaining about the kudzu, or making jokes about it, or mention it's killed the rose bushes. "Kudzu" is a totally opaque term if you've never encountered it before.

What to do? Well, mentioning it's a type of plant is a good start. I'm deliberately using kudzu as an example because the first time I encountered the word, someone had written a jokey piece about it with "the war on kudzu" being literally treated as a military action. At the end of the piece I could see it was supposed to be amusing, but I wasn't sure if kudzu was a dangerous animal or a quasi-military Japanese-American survivalist group. Maybe an isolationist cult that had militarised? I wasn't sure.

I definitely couldn't tell from the piece that it was supposed to be a plant.

Yes, there's search engines and dictionaries and encyclopedias which a reader can reference, but it's not likely they're going to bother the moment they get confused by your text. They'll either keep going, hoping for some context to let them puzzle it out, or else they'll give up and read something in which they can understand the references. Readers don't necessarily want the entire background on something they don't understand. They just want to be able to say, "Ah, okay, it's a type of plant" so they can get on to the next part of the story.

If you're not even giving them that, even something as humble and commonplace as sauerkraut will remain exotic and opaque.


  1. Finding the line between not patronising the reader and making the writing accessible is a toughie.

  2. You make a very good point here Catherine, and I think a very important one. The reader needs to understand what it is you're writing about and yet they don't want spoon feeding either. Giving them just enough information so that as you say, they recognise the subject, is the real trick to pull out of the hat.

  3. Kids are awesome at disliking good things. Miserable species. I refuse to believe I'm related to them.

  4. Great advice. Was that me with the kudzu? I joke about it a lot. "Cattle love kudzu, but not as much as kudzu loves Georgia."

    Your lunches sound a lot healthier, better, tastier, than the ones the other kids had. There were a lot of ethnic Dutch folks where I grew up, and old people with heavy accents were not particularly remarkable. I won't go anywhere near saying the area was tolerant, but they were intolerant of different things.

    1. And, to be fair, it's my mum who's Dutch -- my dad's Croatian. Where I live now that's too banal to bother mentioning, but back there and back then it caused some head explosions.

  5. The original confusing kudzu article I read was from the 1990s, but every time I read about it on your blog I think, "which is a plant" and start giggling, which is really unfair of me, given how much work it is to keep under control.

  6. The beginning of this had me thinking of the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding- where she bemoans her lack of blond hair and wonder bread and gets made fun of for bringing "Moose kaka?!?" to school for lunch.

    I also had absolutely no idea what kudzu is. And this is a great example of one of the many, many reason we need others to read our work.

  7. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a great example! I love that film. I remember when I went to see it, you could tell who all the, well, "ethnic" people were in the audience because we were laughing at the establishing shots. Whoever did the sets for that really knew their stuff.


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