In BBC The Reading Group, we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading.
How can we read books from other cultures more effectively? We discuss Zadie Smith’s bestseller The White Teeth and talk to the editor of the first ‘cultural dictionary’.
Listen to the BBC The Reading Group Part 3 programme:
ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to “The Reading Group” from the BBC World Service. In this series we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading. We hope that following this series will encourage your own interest in reading books in English as a foreign language.
Gary: Hello. In The Reading Group today we hear reasons to read the books of the young British novelist Zadie Smith. Her recently published second novel, The Autograph Man, is all about fame – and her first novel, White Teeth, written when she was only 21, made her famous. Later in the programme, a Reading Group member from Iran tells us why she’s a fan…
In Zadie Smith’s novels, the characters come from many different cultural backgrounds. And we focus first today on what it’s like for students of English to read books containing cultural references that may be strange and unfamiliar.
With me to identify some of the difficulties of reading books set in different cultures, and to offer ways of improving your understanding is Sheila Dignen.
Sheila is a lexicographer and a teacher. Sheila, welcome to The Reading Group.
Sheila: Thank you. Hello. I’m a passionate lexicographer – I’ve been working on dictionaries for 20 years! And I especially enjoy working on dictionaries for children and students of English.
Gary: You were the original driving force behind and editor of the first “cultural dictionary” – The Longman Dictionary of Language and Culture. What is a cultural dictionary and how can they help students to read books in English?
Sheila: Native speakers share a body of knowledge which they have because they’ve grown up in the same culture. Writers draw on this body of knowledge and tap into it to convey meaning. For example, eleven plus, unemployment benefit, Woolworths, Marks & Spencer’s; references to literary characters – Scrooge, Peter Pan: For a non-native speaker, they can fail to understand what a writer is trying to convey.
Gary: How do you go about choosing the words and cultural references to include in a dictionary? We heard in our last programme that Samuel Johnson included 40,000 entries in his dictionary of the English language – each one written out on a separate sheet of paper …
How do you choose which cultural references to include?
Sheila: Firstly, by reading texts. Then newspapers; teaching experience; and writing standard dictionaries – we are very aware of the information we were leaving out. A good example is ‘ladder’. In a standard dictionary you would define it as a structure. But it is often used in expressions like ‘walk under the ladder’ which means bad luck. It is a shame to leave this information out, and in this book we were able to include it.
Gary: Let’s put your dictionary to the test and look up ‘ladder’…
Sheila: OK, there is a standard definition, “a structure consisting of two bars or ropes joined to each other by steps, rungs and used for climbing” – and underneath we have a cultural note – “there is an old superstition which says it is unlucky to walk under a ladder”.
Gary: So you put your standard definition and cultural note in capital letters. Next one?
Sheila: Let’s look at the word “pirate” – “a person who sails the seas stopping and robbing ships at sea”. But what we share as native speakers of English is a cultural stereotype of a pirate. If I asked you to draw me a picture of a pirate, what would you draw?
Gary: I would draw a picture like here: a scarf on his head and a sword in his hand.
Sheila: Also, “pirates often speak roughly, drink a lot, especially rum and have a parrot on their shoulder – they sometimes wear a black patch over one eye and have a wooden leg. They also use phrases which are connected especially with pirates – for example ‘shiver me timbers’ used for showing great surprise”. This stereotype would not be the same in other culture.
Gary: Sheila Dignen, thank you very much. Now Karen Zarindast from Iran is here to share her enthusiasm for the novels of Zadie Smith.
Karen: Hello … It’s very nice to be here because I loved reading Zadie Smith’s novels.
Gary: When White Teeth was published in the year 2000, it was an instant best seller.
But what’s it all about?
The story centres on the friendship between two men, Archie and Samad.
Archie’s an Englishman whose job involves folding paper leaflets! Samad is a frustrated Bengali waiter.
Around them circle:
Archie’s Jamaican wife, Clara and her mother …
Archie and Clara’s daughter, Ire …
Samad’s wife and their difficult sons …
And a multitude of friends from almost every known race and religion!
It’s worth noting that Zadie Smith has an English father and Jamaican mother; and she grew up in a part of North London with a lively cultural mix.
In any case, White Teeth is very much about ideas of inheritance and about the danger of something cultural being lost as generations of people settle in other countries. Zadie Smith explains.
Insert – Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith: It’s a painful thought to think that if we’re coming to these countries only to be assimilated by some huge Americanised kind of service station culture – where everybody’s being given the same thing or the ideal thing for a white American male – then that’s not something that any of us want I don’t think – so it’s about trying to strike some kind of balance between where you come from and where you are and being able to survive that transition.
Gary: “Trying to strike some kind of balance between where you come from and where you are” … Do you identify in any way with that, Karen?
Karen: I do 100%. I am very much Iranian but not religiously. But I have some very Iranian habits. For example, when I first moved here, I would offer my food to everyone in the class, and if they wouldn’t take it, I would insist. Everyone would look at me as if I was mad or trying to poison them! Then I discovered it was different here.
Gary: Why do you like the novel White Teeth so much?
Karen: I think it came out at a very interesting time, the peak of political correctness where everyone believed that all was OK, there were equal opportunities and the colour of your skin didn’t matter. No-one from previous generations of immigrants explained that actually people are treated differently. And Zadie Smith did that.
Gary: And why do you think it’s called White Teeth?
Karen: One of the heroes, called Clara, is this beautiful, brilliant-looking, elegant, glamorous woman who’s from Jamaica. She is very much like Naomi Campbell.
The one problem she has is, she lacks upper teeth. She wears artificial teeth but they can’t replace real teeth. She hides this from her child, Ire, until she’s 16. I wonder if this is a reference to things that we are born with and can’t change, like skin colour, lack of teeth, being disabled. Things that we have to live with.
That’s my understanding.
Gary: Karen, thank you very much. Now author Gillian Lazar joins us again. Gillian is one of the team of lexicographers who wrote the Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture which we discussed earlier in the programme.
So for The Reading Group today, she too focuses on some of the problems we encounter when reading books from other cultures; and she offers some solutions.
Insert 3 – Gillian Lazar
Gillian: Last time, I mentioned that a good reader is like a detective, searching for clues.
But readers, just like detectives, are shaped by the culture or society in which they live. Imagine a detective preparing to investigate a crime at a wedding.
Depending on the detective’s nationality, religion or background, he or she might have all kinds of assumptions about what happens at weddings. What do the bride and groom wear, for example? What happens at the ceremony?
Readers reading a novel about a wedding may also have different expectations about it, depending on their own society, religion or background. Reading about a wedding from a culture different from our own may be fascinating and exhilarating, but also confusing and difficult. So how can we read books from other cultures more effectively?
One way is to prepare ourselves a little before we start reading, by gathering together some useful background information. We might ask ourselves, for example, who the writer was or is, and in what circumstances the text was written. For classic novels, literary encyclopaedias may provide helpful background. For more modern novels, newspaper reviews and the wide range of resources on the internet can provide us with a few clues. From this background information, we can begin to make some predictions about the book, so that we actively engage in interpreting its cultural meanings while we read.
As we read, we may be puzzled by some of the cultural references in the book, particularly to objects, customs or institutions that do not exist in our own society. But it may just be possible to guess from context what these mean. For example, a poem by South African poet Stephen Grey entitled ‘Apollo Café’ lists, amongst other things, the comic books, watermelon and brooms that can be bought at the café. To a European reader this is slightly baffling as a café is a place to drink coffee. But for a South African, a café, or café (caffee) as it is known, is a small shop selling a lot of different goods – a corner shop to a British reader, a drugstore to an American, and perhaps something entirely different to you! If you were reading the poem in a book, you might be able to guess from the context what kind of place a South African café is.
If you can’t guess, dictionaries and reference books may provide some help.
The Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture, for example, contains many entries providing cultural information. My students have found this of particular help when reading British or American novels.
But take heart even if a cultural dictionary is no use. We inevitably interpret books differently depending on the age we live in or the social groups to which we belong. Reading books from other cultures does open other worlds to us… but sometimes these worlds may never be fully understood.
Gary: Gillian Lazar, thank you. Next time: we offer help on choosing what to read.
ANNOUNCER: And that brings us to the end of today’s programme. If you’d like to share your reading experiences, you can join our BBC Learning English group on Facebook. We’ll have topics on the Discussion board linked to the subjects covered in The Reading Group programmes. So, until next time, happy reading!
Source: BBC Learning EnglishMore Series for You: