Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Learning about New Cultures

Kathryn Page Camp
What do you do when you want to write about a culture you don’t belong to? You could wing it, which is a horrible response. You could give up. Or you could research, research, research.
That’s the choice Joanne Oppenheim made.
It doesn’t matter what the culture is: the options are the same. But I’ve been researching the Japanese American incarceration during World War II, and this is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Put those together, and it’s the perfect time to answer the question at the beginning of this post with an example involving the Japanese American incarceration.
The book is Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2006). So what can it teach writers about researching a culture we don’t belong to?
Dear Miss Breed actually tells two stories. The first is about Clara Breed, a Caucasian children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library. But her passion was for, and the primary focus of the book is, the Japanese American children who were incarcerated first at Santa Anita Racetrack in California and then at Poston, Arizona.
All Joanne Oppenheim wanted to do was track down a post-war classmate for a class reunion. She found her classmate, but she also discovered a sheaf of letters written to Clara Breed by Joanne’s classmate and other Japanese American children who had frequented the San Diego Public Library prior to the war. Those letters painted a picture of what Miss Breed’s young friends went through, and many are reprinted in the book. Letters written at the time of the events are always a great starting point for research.
But Joanne didn’t stop there. Most of the letters were upbeat, as if the writers didn’t want to depress Miss Breed with the full picture. So Joanne dug deeper. She found as many of Miss Breed’s correspondents as she could and interviewed them. She also looked at official documents, including the testimony given before the congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.
Even though the letters tried to be upbeat, they were probably Joanne’s best source because they were contemporaneous with the events. The interviews were second best. They took place long after the actual events when memories had faded, but by watching facial expressions or hearing changes in the interviewee’s voice, she could gain information about emotions that were missing from the Commission testimony. But all of these sources melded together to provide a fascinating and realistic picture of what it was like to be a Japanese American child living on the West Coast during World War II.
Are you interested in writing about a culture that is not your own? You could make it up. (Please don’t.) You could give up. Or you could follow Joanne Oppenheim’s example.
Because she chose the third option, I and many others learned about a new culture.
And isn’t that the goal?
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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