Analyzing Multicultural Short Stories: Techniques & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the multicultural short story and discuss some techniques and tips that can help you understand the story better. Additionally, we briefly examine an example and discuss how it uses its culture to inform the narrative.

Perspective

Everyone comes at life from a different reference point. Perhaps you had classmates who came from a rich family and never had to work a day in their life. At the very least you likely had friends who came from single-family homes, married homes, even homes with two parents of the same sex. However you grew up, your experience of childhood was your own, and your perspective on life is unique.

Things get even more complicated when we talk about entirely different cultures. Someone who grew up in Mexico City, for example, probably has a completely different outlook on life and set of experiences than someone who grew up in Nebraska. Each of these people, however, may choose to write books. When they write books from their own perspective, including the circumstances of life in their culture, this is considered multicultural literature.

Of course, it is not multicultural literature for them; it's their culture! But for anyone reading it outside of that particular culture, the work is considered multicultural literature. For students in America, this could mean a wide range of literature, from magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to Yoshiko Uchida's books covering the poignant experiences of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

Multicultural literature, even short stories, tells engaging narratives and gives us glimpses into cultures with which we are not familiar. In this lesson, we will explore how to properly analyze multicultural short stories and some tips that can help us in the process.

Techniques and Tips

Because a multicultural short story will have elements with which you are unfamiliar, understanding the story will likely not be a simple case of reading it a few times. Understanding the cultural context, like in most walks of life, is important to comprehend a multicultural short story. Here are a few tips and tricks for how to aid comprehension.

Research

This can't be stressed enough; outside, non-fiction research about the culture in which the story is set is perhaps your greatest asset to understanding a short story. Without having experienced the culture yourself first hand, you must try to learn as much as possible about the culture and time period in order to truly understand the story.

Pick up a history book about the people or country in which your story is set. Read an interview with the other, or with another author of the same age and culture. Learning facts about this culture can give you important context with which to understand the story you are reading; and you may even be able to pick up on a few subtle things you otherwise would have missed!

Languages

If the short story you are reading is set in a culture that primarily speaks another language, it is a good idea to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of that language. Many multicultural short stories will sprinkle in words and phrases from that language if they mean something particularly important or the author feels the English translation does not do justification to the true sense of the word.

Even if you don't have knowledge of the language, it is a good idea to have an English-other language dictionary on hand so you can easily look up any words you don't know.

Cultural Fluency

We all know stereotypes exist; they are a set of oversimplified accepted beliefs that are often wrongly applied to an entire group of people based on race or ethnicity. They are so prevalent there are probably even stereotypes we each hold in our minds without realizing we have them. Understanding what stereotypes are often applied to the culture we are writing can help enrich our experience of the story and aid in comprehension. The authors of multicultural short stories might work to break down these wrong ideas or capitalize on them to tell a fuller story of a certain culture.

Analysis

Armed with this extra knowledge about the story and the culture in which it is set, we can analyze these short stories just like we would any other tale. Important questions to ask are:

  • What is the plot of the story? Is there more than one? How do they interconnect?
  • Who are the main characters? What is their relationship to each other?
  • What is the setting? How does it shape the story?
  • What is the 'big idea' the author is telling? What is the point (or moral) of the story?

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