On the first day of my International Literature for Children and Young Adults course, the professor (after taking attendance and going over the syllabus) launched into the discussion.
“By a raise of hands, how many can find Canada on a map?”
All students raised their hands.
“Now how many can find Belgium?”
I raised my hand, my face smirking. Five other hands were raised.
“Now how many can find Tajikistan?”
I frowned. None of us raised our hands.
She then handed to each of us a blank map of the Middle East and North Africa. We were instructed to write in each country’s name from the list on the back of the worksheet, but only the countries we were confident to write in.
I hung my head in shame over that worksheet. I knew where Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran were, but the other countries for me were one big blur.
The world was right in front of me, and I couldn’t identify it.
Fortunately I had a second chance to redeem myself at midterms. Our first assignment was to complete an online version of this worksheet every week. I quizzed myself everyday and anyway I could: first online, then on the bus (with a blank map), and lastly imagining the map before falling asleep.
I aced that mid-term. And I still can locate the United Arab Emirates on a blank map.
Why did it take a college course to get me to learn world geography? Why wasn’t world geography taught in elementary, middle, or high school?
I only learned American geography because my parents bought a puzzle of the 50 states, and my sisters and I had puzzle races to see who was the fastest at placing the states accurately.
School only taught me how to sing the states in alphabetical order.
So not only was I geographically ignorant in 2008, I was also culturally ignorant. When I left several months after that class ended to study abroad in Dublin, I assumed that Ireland was the U.S.A. of Europe. The Irish speak English, and Americans speak English, so by that poor logic everything else culturally must be identical.
How wrong I was!
As I was learning that vehicles drove on the left side of the road and the five names for each Dublin street, I was also learning the history of the Irish struggle for independence and the structure of the Government of Ireland.
And how Ireland loves their writers.
But every Irish person I met had a strong grasp on American history and current events–and believed they could imitate Boston and New York accents.
Why was I so naïve about the world?
My host dad was impressed if any American knew world events. America is so large, and so much happens everyday in the 50 states. It already takes a lot of time to catch up on American current events, so how could Americans have time to partake in world events?
This answered my question, but now I was asking myself something new:
Why didn’t I take on the task myself?
To be honest, I didn’t recognize that I was geographically deficient. I thought knowing all 50 states and a handful of countries was enough for me to get by. There will always be maps for reference and the Internet for fact retrieval.
But that isn’t good enough for me anymore.
Knowing world events is very important for today’s writer because our audience stretches beyond country borders. When we write blogs, social media posts, website copy, e-books, advertisements –the whole world is reading.
Knowing a country’s name is just pointing to a 2D map. Understanding a country’s history, culture, and current events is feeling the elevation beneath your fingertips on a 3D globe.
In other words, the readers become more real the more you understand them.
We don’t need to write about world events to understand our world readers. We must understand where our world readers are coming from and what events are impacting them if we want what we write about to resonate with them.
For me, taking time to learn about world events has been time well spent. Current events have sparked plot twists in my fiction. World films have inspired plays. Various cultural events instigated song lyrics.
There are so many stories around the world for you to discover. When you open yourself up to the world, the world will open up for you.