My current manuscript is set in 1973. Writing in an historic setting is new to me, and it’s been quite a challenge. In an effort to get things ‘right’ I’ve interviewed people who were the same age as my main character and spent time in the library reading the magazines and news reports of the era. I’m listening to the hit songs, and checking out the fashions online. Still, there are things that worry me.
Normally I write about paranormal worlds, so far no vampires or fairies have been upset by me appropriating their culture. I don’t want to take the same license with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, or the gay power movement. I’m going to write about those things through the eyes of a white girl, which is something I know, but I want her friends, black, gay, or whatever they are, to be a realistic, fully faceted portrayal.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job until this weekend, when I was invited to a Jerusalem Market. Having never heard of such a thing, I went more out of curiosity than anything else. A sign at the front made it clear that while the event took place during Passover in the time period of Jesus’ life, it would not be historically accurate. I’ve been to a few Renfests, so that didn’t bother me.
The Wailing Wall did.
The Western Wall is one of the most sacred locations for the Jewish Culture. At the Jerusalem Market, it was a wall where children were encouraged to write prayers in chalk. I assume this was a nod to the practice of slipping slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks of the real Western Wall. I assumed because no one explained the wall, why it was there, or what made it important. I’m struggling to come up with an equivalent for the Western Wall, something sacred and yet public, a part of everyday life. If I could find something as important to my culture as the Wall is to many religions, I think I could decide if this model was offensive.
The Market was clearly not meant to be offensive. Most of the booths talked about some aspect of Jewish culture during Jesus’ life. Roman centurions wandered the grounds. One man was dressed as a Rabbi. A booth held samples of the herbs used at the time, explaining what each one was used for. Another let children experiment making clay pots. There was a puppet show about Jesus, and a chance to listen to an actor dressed as Jesus teach lessons under the trees.
At the matzo baking station I began to doubt that the intention was what mattered. I’ve heard stories of Passover from Jewish friends. I know just a little bit about the deep cleaning a house goes through and how not even a crumb of leavened bread can be left behind. I didn’t learn anything like that while I mixed my flour and water. The only discussion of why Jews don’t eat leavened bread during Passover was “they were running away from Pharaoh, so they didn’t have time for the bread to rise.” When the matzo was finished we were offered a mixture of apples and walnuts to spread on it. “It’s supposed to look like the mortar in the wall,” the volunteer told me. She didn’t remember what it was called, but encouraged me to try it anyway.
As a member of the majority, I can’t decide what offends the minority. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get a say in what is and isn’t okay to be a children’s activity. Still, to me, taking a part of another culture and turning it into a learning activity for kids might not be bad. Taking a part of another culture, not bothering to learn what it is or the meaning behind it, and making it a fun activity for kids crosses the line to me. Then again, when I posted about it on Facebook a Jewish friend wasn’t offended, saying that at least learning was going on.
So if everyone isn’t offended by the same thing, and I can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive, how do I know what’s okay to write? My plan going forward is to tell the story, making the characters as real as possible. I’m going to stay away from stereotypes and base my characters on the people I interview, not the common idea of what someone of that race, gender, or minority should be. I’m also hoping to find some beta readers from the cultures I’m writing about, people who can tell me if I’ve missed something important.
I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but hopefully it’s a good start.