Thursday, December 22, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: Dealing with Religion

Both Desert Jewels and Creating Esther are written for a secular audience, but religion was a part of both cultures. Some mention was necessary for authenticity.

That wasn’t a problem with Desert Jewels. Although most Japanese Americans were Buddhist, many were Christians, and that included the person I used as my model. So I made my protagonist a Christian and avoided the issues I would have faced if she were Buddhist.

It wasn’t as easy with Creating Esther. Yes, some Native Americans were Christians by then, but it was still an anomaly. And the boarding schools did not understand how to integrate Christianity into the local culture. Since I wanted to show a realistic picture of what it would be like for most of the children attending the Indian boarding schools in 1895 and 1896, I had to include the conflict between Ojibwe religious beliefs and Christianity as taught by the boarding schools. My challenge was to be sensitive to Native American religious practices while remaining true to my Christian beliefs.

In the end, I decided to show the conflict between the two without resolving it. Here is a passage from the protagonist’s first boarding school Christmas:

“What is Christmas?” Ishkode asked Mrs. Hansen. “Everyone talks about it coming next week, but what is it?”

“It’s the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.”

Even though Ishkode had been attending chapel every Sunday for three months, she still didn’t understand who Jesus was. Sometimes he sounded like Wenebojo, who was born of a human mother and a spirit father. But she had asked a minister after chapel one day, and he said Wenebojo was not Jesus.

Now Ishkode rubbed her forehead. It was too confusing.

Actually, the book even shows the negatives about how the boarding schools practiced and taught Christianity. The Christianity I found in my research is not the Christianity I find in my Bible. I’m sure many of the teachers and administrators were sincere, but they were also misguided.

Boarding school staff tried to convert the Native American students by forcing religion on them. That approach doesn’t work in life, and it doesn’t work for fiction writers, either.

So use a soft touch when writing about religion.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. Desert Jewels is searching for a home, and Creating Esther has just begun circulating to publishers. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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