‘Cause One Can Teach the Other One*

writing-across-cultural-barriersIn 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.


Filed under Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, John Burdett, Paddy Richardson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

25 responses to “‘Cause One Can Teach the Other One*

  1. Pingback: ‘Cause One Can Teach the Other One* | e. michael helms

  2. While certainly not a mystery, my first book, a memoir of my tour of duty in Vietnam at an 18-19 year old combat Marine delves a bit into the culture of the Vietnamese people. My battalion operated near the DMZ in northernmost Quang Tri Province. There was a heavy French influence in that area. It was common to see Buddhist pagodas and Catholic churches near one another. The Vietnamese are also a diversified culture, from the Montagnards (the “Mountain People”) to heavily Chinese-influenced people in the more southern areas around Saigon. There are also several different dialects common to one group or another. I suppose, in a way, it was a mystery after all. At least to young men from the U.S. who had mostly never been outside their own country.
    Very interesting post, Margot!

    • It must have been like going to another planet, Michael, even if you only focus on the people, culture and language (as opposed to the war itself). And I’m sure your time in Vietnam gave you an interesting perspective – and quite a different one to the one you had before going – about the country. It’s that sort of understanding that is the beginning of learning about another culture, and it’s an important aspect of presenting the culture authentically if one’s a writer. At least that’s my perspective. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Well, I had my rant about this yesterday on Angela’s blog, so I’ll try not to rant again. 😉 Personally I think writers should write about anything they like and special interest groups should stop trying to tell other people how they should behave. Of course, people (including writers) should try to be sensitive to other people’s different life experiences, but we’re in danger of getting to a stage where we’re all frightened to say or write anything for fear of causing offence. If a writer writes a book that offends me – for example by portraying the Scottish character as a whisky-swilling drunk with a funny accent – then I blast it in a review. But I don’t try to stop the writer writing or necessarily accuse him/her of anything worse than lazy stereotyping…

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, FictionFan, about writers being free to write what they want. As you point out, people who don’t like what’s written don’t have to finish it. And they’re free, as you say, to pan things that offend them, or that show the author’s unwillingness to understand the topic. More than that, your point gets to the whole issue of freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, we risk censorship, with all of its dangerous consequences. I think if someone’s writing about a real people, in a real place, there is the responsibility to get the culture right, for accuracy if for nothing else. I think that’s the other side of the ‘freedom’ coin when it comes to writing about another culture. But that said, I see your point completely about the vital importance of freedom of expression. Feel free to rant any time. 😉

  4. Danger Zone: patronization lurks.

  5. It’s a real honour to inspire a post of yours, Margot. Thank you.

    And FF, I will respond to your rant on my site!!

    • It’s I who should thank you, Angela. It’s been really helpful for me to reflect on how I balance my own passion for freedom of expression with my equally strong feeling that writers need to have an understanding of their topics. And that includes different cultures and their members.

  6. Interesting article. Cultural accuracy is important, sure, but should never be worshiped. Verisimilitude is what matters most, like in dialogue. Having to choose between ‘accurate and boring’ and ‘not really so accurate but exciting’ the obvious choice should be the latter.

    However, as writers whenever it is possible we should strive to couple ‘accurate’ with ‘exciting’.

    Anyway, as readers we should also remember we’re reading fiction not handbooks =)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Peter. And you do make a strong point that in the end, it’s the story that matters. As you say, exciting and appealing stories can, and should, also be accurate, and I think a conscientious writer tries to achieve just that. You make a solid point, too, about considering all of this from the point of view of a reader. Readers want good stories. They know it’s fiction. They want their fiction to be credible, but they don’t choose a novel, hoping to get a textbook.

  7. Col

    Ficrion fan has summed things up nicely I think.

  8. A.M. Pietroschek

    I only remember the ‘risk’ of being misperceived as racist, when babbling less skilled about other cultures. Luckily many improvements have started to solve such problems.

    For an investigator, or team of investigators, the way through an unknown culture can be very difficult plus showing the reader many places and customs along the way. One thrilling option is, when the ‘local contact to work with’ is among the prime suspects of the crime..? 😉

  9. I’m afraid I sit with FF on this one – that out of the way the way the culture is portrayed has to have enough realism to be enjoyable – I found Anna Jaquiery’s book set in Cambodia but seen from the viewpoint of a French national, Death in Rainy Season, gave an accurate portrayal of how those of us that aren’t from Cambodia would view the culture and customs.

    • You make an interesting point here, Cleo. When a culture is portrayed through the eyes of a member of another culture, it presents a very different picture to the one portrayed when a member of that culture is the protagonist. Hmmm….much to think about there, for which thanks.

  10. kathy d

    I read Angela Savage’s blog and I agree with her viewpoint. I replied there and won’t repeat all of what I said.
    Angela is very careful in writing about Thailand and has lived in Southeast Asia and communicates with people there and writes respectfully about Thai culture, language, history, people, etc.
    An author who has been left out here who is very sensitivity to Indigenous peoples is Adrian Hyland who worked with many Indigenous people for years. His writing is very respectful of their cultures.
    I think writers can write what they want — but have to take the reactions of consequences to it if people are offended. That goes with free speech.
    And it’s not “special interest groups” when one is discussing a community, culture, nationality or religion that encompasses tens or even hundreds of million people.
    The world is not a level playing field. Look at whose books are published, whose are on the NY Times bestsellers’ lists, whose are published, promoted or sold in other countries. Look at who are nominated for writing awards — even more, look at the compositions of panels at writers/readers’ conferences. That needs a lot of changing to incorporate in women and people from various countries and nationalities.
    But we live in a world full of prejudice and sexism and inequity — and everyone has a right to be heard and respected — and to speak out, walk out or write criticisms. So, writers do have responsibility.
    In the States, there is “cultural appropriation,” seen overtly in the music world, but also in language, hairstyles, dress, etc.
    This is an important conversation. But there have to be roads opened up for all communities to be heard in all spheres.
    Until the world is a level playing field, free of inequities, these discussions and differences are going to continue.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that the world is not a level playing field, as the saying goes. There are a lot of inequities. And that’s what makes this such an important topic, at least in my opinion. On the one hand, writers are free to write what they wish. To limit what writers are allowed to write is perilously close to outright censorship. As you say, if a writer chooses to write in a way that’s not responsible, s/he faces the consequences of very negative reviews and offended readers. That said, though, writers also have a responsibility, as you say, when they portray other people in other cultures. I honestly don’t think those have to conflict. Adrian Hyland is one example (and thanks for mentioning his work); Angela Savage is another. Both write what they want. Both accepted the responsibility for understanding their topics.

  11. Interesting post, Margot. Thank you to you and Angela. Sometimes when I read about India in the Western press I often find factual errors but it doesn’t bother me because as an Indian I know what the truth is and that’s good enough for me. So it’s easy for me to extend that to fiction. I believe in libertarianism — leave people alone, let them be.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Prashant. And thanks for your perspective on this issue. It really isn’t an easy one; and, as you can see, there’s a variety of opinion on the topic. I’m learning a lot from from what everyone’s saying about it.

  12. tracybham

    I agree with Fiction Fan’s view (and often do). Coincidentally, I was just thinking about this same topic because I am currently reading THIRTY THREE TEETH by Colin Cotterill, and I was wondering how true his picture of Laos was at the time of writing the book. My conclusion was that I don’t really care because I enjoy his books and his writing so much.

    There are other authors I read and like who write about cultures that they are outside of. Quentin Bates writes the Gunnhildur series set in Iceland. He has lived there a good amount of time, and I think that gives him a good perspective. Sometimes authors who are outside of a culture supply more about the setting and the people because they are seeing it from an ousiders’ viewpoint. I don’t think I am expressing that well, but if you live in a culture it is a part of you so you don’t dwell on it.

    • I think you’re expressing yourself very well, Tracy. People outside of a culture notice things that members may take for granted, or at least not notice very much. So they present, perhaps, a more complete picture of it. And you’re right that Bates is among several authors who write very effectively about a culture different from their own. The key is a good story with well-drawn, authentic characters. And that, to me, entails an understanding of the culture.

  13. Tricky question – of course people can write whatever they like, we shouldn’t censor. But there have been some books that I felt were either patronizing or too far from the writer’s own world. But then of course one can just avoid that author…

    • One can, Moira; and as you say, people shouldn’t be censored. But at the same time, I agree that some books I’ve read don’t really show a lot of respect for the people depicted. It is, as you say, a tricky challenge…

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