Heart and Understanding: Adopting a Foreign Culture as a Writer

My son Brendan is a missionary in Peru. He and his wife and children live high in the Andes among the Quechua people. He uses the Quechua language daily, as well as Spanish. Brendan and his family eat the foods of the region (including guinea pig) and are observant of Quechua cultural expectations, which may or may not make sense to Americans. He has adjusted to this life out of love and respect for the Quechua people and his calling among them. Although he knows that to some extent he will always be regarded as a foreigner, he also knows that the people trust him.

Hungarian peasant house

Although I am not living in a foreign culture as Brendan is, in my work as a historical fiction writer, I had to learn similar adjustments in my mindset and heart. My novel The Songs We Hide is set in Hungary in 1951. As I wrote the novel, I had to “become” as Hungarian as I could, which was a greater challege than I could have known. It was also a greater reward. Here are some thoughts on both the struggle and the discovery, as described in my author’s statement  for the book:

I didn’t know at the outset how hard it would be to write about a time, place and culture not my own. As I spent endless hours reading, interviewing, listening to Hungarian music, negotiating the streets of Budapest, and especially writing draft after draft, I struggled not only with understanding it all but also with setting aside my modern American assumptions. Whether we recognize it or not, Americans are optimistic and entrepreneurial, counting on opportunity. We take pride in speaking our minds and making our own choices. But what if, as in Cold War Europe, opportunity barely existed? What if speaking up meant endangering not only ourselves but others as well? What if social constraints were so tight that every choice carried a high cost?

As I wrote The Songs We Hide, I had to think with the guardedness, and sometimes bitterness, of post-war Europe.  The mental adjustment wasn’t easy. Still, at some point my frustration turned to understanding. I learned to appreciate dark Hungarian humor. I’ve come to love Hungary’s beautiful folk heritage and especially its rich musical tradition. This culture that is not my own has nonetheless become part of me, and that’s been my greatest reward in this project.

Machu Picchu: Visiting It Again As I Scroll Through Photos

It’s a wet, cold March in Tacoma, and I’m thinking back on January, when I was in Peru, loving every moment of the equatorial sunshine.  Rory and I went to Peru to visit my son Brendan and his family.  This was our sixth trip to Peru, but on previous trips we had never seen Machu Picchu.  This time we did.  It was awesome, in the old sense of the word, meaning that it’s impressive beyond words.  Here are some of my favorite photos from the day we went there.

Olly and Brendan on the train to Machu Picchu

En route to Machu Picchu. Getting there was almost as enchanting as being there.

One of the slooes of Machu Picchu. Can you imagine building this?!

One of the slopes of Machu Picchu. Can you imagine building this?!

You look through a stone window, and it’s like the whole world is below you.

A cute guy I picked up. Lucky me, I married him, too.

Another cute guy! They're everywhere at Machu Picchu!

Another cute guy! They’re everywhere at Machu Picchu!