In a recent, very interesting post, crime writer and fellow blogger Angela Savage made some important points about writing across cultural boundaries – that is, writing about a culture of which one is not a member. In that post (which you should read), Savage addresses the question of whether it’s appropriate to do that.
It’s not really an easy question, actually. On the one hand, there’s the argument that writers should write whatever they want, using whichever characters and so on they want. To argue otherwise is to argue for censorship. And there is merit to that argument – a lot of merit.
But (and this is a very important ‘but’), with every right comes a responsibility. Think of every right you have, whether it’s voting, self-expression, or something else. You’ll see that there’s a corresponding responsibility. So what’s the responsibility in the case of writing cross-culturally? As Savage argues (and she’s right), writers are responsible for understanding that other culture, and listening to (and incorporating) the narratives of its members. That is, the writer needs to acknowledge being a non-member and, thus, being responsible for gaining an understanding of that culture before making assumptions and writing about those assumptions.
We see all sorts of examples of that understanding, too, in crime fiction. For instance, Savage’s own series takes place in Thailand, and involves many Thai characters. Savage herself is Australian, as is her sleuth, Jayne Keeney. However, she lived in Southeast Asia (including Thailand) for some time. What’s more, she actively seeks out and listens to input from Thai friends and colleagues as she writes, and integrates their linguistic and cultural narratives into her work.
And she’s by no means alone in that sense of responsibility. John Burdett’s Bangkok series features Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is, among other things, a devout Buddhist. Burdett is British-born, but lives in Thailand for part of each year. Before writing his series, he became thoroughly familiar with the Bangkok culture, Thai beliefs and traditions, and of course, the language. The narratives of the Thai people are woven into this series because Burdett has taken the time to understand them.
As fans can tell you, Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series takes place mostly on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest US. Both of his protagonists are members of the Navajo Nation; in fact, both belong to the Navajo Tribal Police. And if you’ve read this series, you’ll know that many of the characters who people the Hillerman series are Navajo (some are members of other Native American Nations as well). Hillerman himself wasn’t Navajo. However, he lived for years in that part of the country. What’s more, he spent a great deal of time among the Navajo people. In fact, he was granted the status of Special Friend of the Dineh (Navajo people). And he always had a sense of responsibility about the people who inspired his novels. Several authors’ notes he wrote include caveats about the limits of his understanding. I know what you’re probably thinking, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In fact, Hillerman felt the same way and, more than once, acknowledged his debt to Upfield.
Paddy Richardson is a native of New Zealand. Her books mostly take place in that country, but she’s also experimented with characters from different cultures. In Swimming in the Dark, for instance, we are introduced to Ilse Klein and her mother Greta. They are from Leipzig, in what was once East Germany, and emigrated to New Zealand to escape the Stasi, the dreaded secret police. In one plot thread, we learn about their lives in Germany, and their adjustment to life in a completely different culture, with a different language. Later, Ilse becomes a secondary school teacher, which is how she meets fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. At first, Serena is one of her most promising students. Then, she suddenly seems to lose interest in school, and Ilse becomes concerned. Then, she disappears, and Ilse and Greta are caught up in the mystery. Before writing this novel, Richardson spent time in Leipzig. She understands the culture, and ensured that her story was culturally accurate.
Stan Jones’ series features Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. Active is Inupiat, as are many of the other characters in the novels. Jones isn’t, although he’s lived in Alaska most of his life. Jones’ time in Alaska allowed him to get to know many of the Native people who live in the far north, and he’s used that cultural understanding to create his characters. His author’s notes include really helpful information, and reflect his sense of responsibility to present the culture in authentic ways.
There are many other writers, too – I’m sure you could think of more than I could – who are members of one culture, but write about members of another culture. Do they have a right to do that? They do if you believe in the right to self-expression. But at the same time, there is a very strong argument that they also have a responsibility to do so in a way that reflects respect for and a thorough understanding of that other culture. It’s not an easy issue, but the underlying right-and-responsibility dynamic plays an important role.
What do you think about all of this? If you’re a writer, do you write about members of different cultures? How do you inform yourself?
Thanks, Angela, for the inspiration. Folks, do go have a look at her excellent post. And if you haven’t tried them, I recommend her Jayne Keeney novels very highly.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Doubt’s Different People.