I came across a writing tip from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler. She was trying to get into the head of her Iranian character, and she said (I wish I knew where) that she consciously uses food as an entry point into her characters, especially if they are from foreign cultures – capturing the meals they cooked, the specific dishes they made, who said what to whom as they ate it. For me, this suggestion was a game changer as I struggled to write about an Arab character in my novel. Suddenly, as I had Mustafa buying snacks from a vendor, or cooking and eating freka soup while making chit chat with his roommate, I felt an intimacy that had been lacking before, a total immersion in his world. I'm going to re-read Ms. Tyler’s book, “Digging to America” to see how she does it so well.
I discovered another tip to evoke a foreign culture fairly quickly: proverbs and sayings. These juicy and often ironic bits of wisdom can serve a story and character well. My Arab character is always thinking things like, “Trust in Allah but tie your camel.” Or “If you are a peg, endure the knocking. If you are a mallet, strike.” While he doesn’t say these proverbs out loud, they flavor his thoughts.
Yiddish proverbs are also coming in very handy in a children’s story I’m writing set in a shtetl. (But beware. Yiddish proverbs are so enticing, it’s easy to get carried away and build an entire scene around them instead of the other way around.) Here is one I particularly liked. Dear Gd: You do such wonderful things for complete strangers--why not for me?
And Donald Trump brings to mind this Yiddish saying: If you want to know what Gd thinks of money, look at the people He gives it to.
Best of all, proverbs are free. You can use them in your writing, provided you say, “Like my bubbe used to say,” or “like my mother always told me.”
If anyone has a favorite proverb, please post and send in country's origin.
Create a character who is wildly different from you in a cultural sense. Do some research on the food and sayings popular in that culture. Let your character sit down to eat with another person. Remember, food isn’t the point of the scene but merely the backdrop. It shouldn’t overwhelm the scene, unless you’re trying to create a particular drama around food itself. If you like, let your character’s interior thoughts contain a proverb that helps illuminate his personality or life situation.