The contention that a language dies every two weeks may be comforting to those who seek social conformity, but to author and culture expert Mark Kurlansky, it’s tragic.
“Biologists know that to survive, we need diversity—we rely on there being different species to live,” he said recently. “They also know that we have evolved into a very social species with an inherent need to belong. Even arbitrary groupings begin to protect each other, emulate each other and care for one another.”
But Kurlansky refuses to see the success of the world lying in its homogenization, more like concentric circles of cultures vitalized on each other’s strengths.
“I don’t believe in the liberal politically correct view held in places like Britain that we are all the same. I believe we should embrace our differences and celebrate them, not try and erase them.”
The author of “The Basque History of the World,” and many other works will speak at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival on Friday, Oct. 11, on the subject of celebrating cultures, collecting and preserving stories and cultural survival strategies. He also will lead a workshop on Saturday, Oct. 12.
Kurlansky has built a lauded writing career based on and about cultures around the world. He has published 25 books, including fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. His books always race to the top of The New York Times bestseller list and his articles appear in major newspapers and magazines, including Audubon and Time.
His calm, softly raspy voice and low-hum energy on the phone belie the fervor he puts into his craft. Researching people and places with a journalistic license and matching curiosity, he conveys with simplicity and basic compassion how the world is, how it came to be thus and where it could go.
“I truly don’t believe that the way to get along is to act the same as everyone else, or act like the dominant culture,” he said.
However, that pressure to conform is something required though mostly unspoken in many countries, America included.
Using the Basques as an example, he explains that they originally came West after being selected from Ellis Island and sent out to be shepherds.
Traditionally, the Basque culture is one of high education, high success and agreeable nature. So while shepherding might have been beneath their capabilities, they understood it as a vital stepping stone to establishing themselves in a new country.
“They are in a sense the model immigrants,” he said. “They educate their kids, they get good jobs and they contribute economically. They adapt quickly and do very well. That’s why now you see very few Basque shepherds—they’re the owners now.”
He said cultural hostilities form over a few typical scenarios: failure to assimilate into popular culture, diminishment of property values and competition for jobs.
“But there are many people that believe like I do that immigration greatly enriches the country,” he continued. “By celebrating and encouraging each other to feel good about ethnic diversity, we all benefit.”
Don’t call him simplistic or overly optimistic,
“The only way you get anything done is by looking for positive solutions, by going at things with optimism,” he said.