Cultural colonisation and the hidden curriculum
This week I’ve been editing a fascinating chapter for a textbook for Van Schaik that talks about the hidden curriculum in children’s books. This is not a new concept to me – the fact that the author’s preconceptions and biases translate themselves into the text, but it was a reminder of our responsibility as authors – especially when it comes to children. When we’re trying to build a new South Africa free of prejudice, it does have to start with the books that our children read, as well as the attitudes we promote to our kids.
A few weeks ago, my son came home and mentioned that a Grade 7 boy had punched him outside the library. I asked about who he was and my son shrugged and said he didn’t know his name. With not much more to go on, we let the subject drop. Then just a few days ago, he mentioned the same boy had offered him a free ticket to his stall at the Grade 7 fair if my son drummed up some business for him.
So they’d obviously made up.
The interesting thing for me is that in this entire exchange my son mentioned the other boy’s age, his grade, the fact that he was rather a lot bigger (and taller) than him. But as we were driving home, he pointed him out. He was black. At no stage had that ever been mentioned. And I can’t say how thrilled I was. One step closer to a society where you get clobbered or make up and no one plays the race card. Wonderful!
Of course the whole concept of culture in novels has been a hot topic with author Lionel Shriver’s recent comments in Brisbane regarding two members of student government at a US university wore sombreros to a tequila party and thereafter faced impeachment. She said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
This turned into a debate about the rights of writers to “use” other people’s stories (especially without permission). Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, walked out of the address and commented that advocating the use of others’ stories was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”
But I am not sure I agree with her, although I am not black and therefore my story has supposedly already been told. However, I am also not a man (and I’ve written as a man) and I am not a child (and I have written as a child) – both in my book Shadow Self. I have also written as a murderer (and I am not that either), a philander (nope) and a soldier (definitely not).
What I did do is join a team of other authors to write and research Rainbow Nation Navigation – which is a guide to South Africa’s main cultures. Yes, every family and individual is different, but we have to start somewhere in our journey to mutual knowledge.
With culture and human rights such a cornerstone of the South African constitution, I would love our society to get to a point where we do try to get to know each other’s cultures. But does writing as a different culture, colour or gender mean you are trying to appropriate that culture, colour or gender? I don’t think so. For me, it’s about trying to understand. Not colonise.