How to Tell Stories Across Cultures

Illustration by Zoya Taylor

“Their eyes lock for a moment. They’d been stealing glances at each other for what seemed to be an eternity but were too shy to talk to one another. No one is watching as they start to move closer…but their friend returns.”

This could have happened between two people in a Toronto bar or between two students in Nepal. Any well-told story should be able to transcend culture and hit at an emotional truth. But, creating a world that draws inspiration from a certain culture can be tricky to achieve. My play Osia is about a family grappling with their desire for a better future. Because of my Ghanaian heritage I chose to set the play in Ghana but it will be viewed by a Canadian audience. As I created the world of my play, I discovered five things that helped me shape the story so that someone from any cultural background would be able to identify with it.

1 – We are all fundamentally the same

Happiness. Joy. Jealousy. Greed. Lust. Love. This emotional compass is the same in all people, from all over the world. The way these emotions are expressed may vary due to cultural norms, but they will always exist.

The main differences between people of different cultures are how they walk, move, talk. The cadence and pace of their culture. Their beauty standards. All these are external or, if anything, superficial.

I share my work with friends, family, and mentors, and they have told me the moments that stand out most to them are moments that show a character’s vulnerability and tap into emotional “fundamentals.”

Photo taken by Jijo Quayson

2 – Don’t dilute the element of cultural specificity

For the characters to be believable you need to wholeheartedly commit to and understand the world you are creating. Including the “superficial aspects” of a culture strengthens the reality of the fictional world and gives a play a distinct flavor.

To achieve a form of realism in Osia, I used many words in various Ghanaian languages, onomatopoeic noises, and movements that I see as part of that culture: vocal ticks like “sucking teeth” (a sound of disapproval made by sucking in air between closed teeth) and different forms of exclaiming ( “ey,” “ah,” “oh”). These choices helped build the world of the play and give each character a distinct voice.

3 – Use your first-person experience of a culture

If you are writing about somewhere you’ve been, somewhere you know, or somewhere you belong, allow your subconscious knowledge to come to the forefront of the work.

A first-hand, intimate awareness of a culture is a rare gift. No matter how many videos someone studies, a story told by someone with such personal knowledge will always be more powerful. Many things about a culture are not documented, or may be obscure and not easily found. In Osia, I weave in songs that I was taught by family members, some of which were not written down. It’s important to capture moments that have been passed on by an oral tradition because that’s part of honing into your first person-experience.

Osia group
Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot

4 – Research, research, research

Even if you are writing about a culture that you may have lived in, experienced, or know, make research your friend. Research is a great way to learn more about things you thought you knew well, find new meaning, and see familiar things in another light.

While researching several Ghanaian languages closely, I found that the phrase “o wele sah” literally means “your skin is tough,” or more colloquially used means “you’re grown.” Further research showed me the “wele” also means “cow skin.” I harnessed this triple meaning in my play and the motif of “cow skin and toughness” appears throughout the piece.

5 – Storytelling is the act of sharing an imagined reality

You may set something in a country or relate it to a certain culture, but the point of art is not necessarily to create an exact mirror image of life. Theatre is about creating dynamic, affecting moments. Take liberties in your writing as necessary.

My real-life experience of Ghana is that the culture is vibrant, laid-back, loving, and friendly. In Osia, while the language and location are inspired by this country, I took liberties in my writing by introducing many elements Ghanaians would not normally encounter as a way to place pressure on the characters and create conflict in the play.

As a storyteller, do not be afraid to do the same. Conflict is what creates action.

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Written By

Jijo is a storyteller with Ghanaian heritage who was born and raised in Britain and has lived in Canada since when she was fourteen. She enjoys being an arts administrator and theatre teacher for youth, loves Pixar with a burning passion easily hotter than the face of the sun, and also likes churros.