How to Write a Cultural Biography

An effective cultural biography is well-written and structured, but above all, it tells a story about a person's life and growth through rich cultural experiences and history. Explore the subject’s background and personal successes, passions and dreams as they relate to tradition and culture. If you have the opportunity to interview your subject, ask specific questions eliciting more than yes or no responses.

Research and Planning Phase

Research a life story by finding out as much about the subject's milestone events and cultural history as possible. Get to know your subject by gathering information about his background and geographic region. If you are focusing on a historical figure or popular individual, research known facts and extract culturally relevant details through documents, letters, interviews and media. If your subject is alive and willing, set up an in-person interview. Get background information and devise several questions about the individual's birthplace, social class, education, home life and neighborhood. If you wish, email your subject the basic history-gathering questions prior to your interview, but ask the deeper questions in person.

The Successful Interview

In the interview, you can get a subject to open up and share personal experiences that make a cultural biography specific. If the individual was born in a foreign country, find out when he moved and what the cultural traditions of his birthplace included. Explore what the cultural traditions of his grandparents were as well as where they lived and their primary language. Establish what the person’s milestones have been in life, such as early schooling, continuing education, career, work and family. Throughout the course of your interview, explore any opportunities for getting the individual to share growth experiences. For instance, how he brings past cultural traditions into his present day life.

Cultural Experiences and Facts

When writing a cultural biography, explore the subject’s memories and historical facts referencing primary and secondary sources pertaining to race and culture. These topics can be positive or negative, but your primary goal is to find out how they affected the person. A pivotal life experience could focus on race, war, social class, financial status or religious beliefs. Find out what effect your subject’s culture has had on her life, values, actions and decisions. Give readers a clear understanding about the values that were instilled in your subject through her upbringing. Explore which attitudes about success and failure, marriage and education were shared in her home. Find out what the family discussions were like at the dinner table or social events. Determine if aspects of the person’s upbringing affected her beliefs about others.

Organization and Style

After all of the interview questions are done and you have gathered the historical facts, formulate an outline or timeline for the biography. Scale it down to several key elements that give structure to the biography. Some biographies are written in a narrative style, with events flowing in chronological order. Other biographies are written with freer formats and styles, such as those centered on significant life events and powerful experiences of the subject. Biography passages can also include flashbacks from the subject’s point of view. Regardless of the style you choose, write the cultural biography in a way that shows your readers what you mean instead of telling them. Include quotes, examples of cuisine and customs that paint a picture of your subject’s lifestyle, religion, history, struggles and triumphs. End with a comparison of the person’s early life to his experiences and attitudes now.

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