Tag: cultures

Linky linky


-Malinda Lo on “What does ‘authentic’ mean, anyway?”. Some really interesting thoughts, especially the impossibility of saying “so-and-so is more authentic than…” (ie, authenticity isn’t an objective criteria and everyone has different experiences). Even though it’s a tricky business, I definitely think that Malinda is right when she says you can have, say, a character in Ancient Vietnam who insults her mother–but you have to be aware that, within the wider culture, she’s going not only to be viewed as unusual, but as an unfilial daughter, and there will be heavy consequences for her.

-Somehow ended up on deepad’s DW, where I found an old-ish post about emigrants vs. sourcelanders (to over-simplify, the diaspora versus those who remained in the “home” country). Interesting discussion especially as regards authenticity (though I’m not sure I agree with everything. Some of the arguments about who “owns/gets to write about” the cultural heritage of a particular country, for instance, make me more than a little uneasy, though a. I’m hardly neutral on the issue, obviously, and b. I can see where the frustration comes from–an all-too-familiar case of minorities/majorities in Western countries getting more attention than their “sourcelander” counterparts). ETA: sorry, this is the blog post in question. As a bonus and because, on second thought, the post, its comments and some of the attendant assumptions make me deeply uneasy, here’s a set of links to Asian people blogging about their various hyphenate experiences and how it’s affected them. Especially love this one by ciderpress.

-Two Dudes in an Attic reviews Servant of the Underworld (particularly like the description of Acatl as an emo wanker who would be moping and writing bad love poetry, were he alive today).

-Amy Sanderson reviews Servant of the Underworld.

FYI re US tropes…


Here’s a link to the US tropes post in my LJ mirror, which has a very interesting comment thread, particularly on the way Hollywood and the US functions in exporting movies and other cultural items; on the history of the US as a technological process; and on the fact the tropes I mention seem to be particularly associated with retreating empires (such as Britain in the mid-20th Century). Well worth checking out. Again, thanks to everyone for commenting, clarifying, disputing and discussing. It’s been very illuminating.

Meanwhile, we’re running out of boxes, and will be packing the eletronics next…

Today’s rant


Well, two rants, actually. It’s been a bemusing kind of day.

Resolutely failed to buy the Lymond chronicles in ebook format (I have the paper editions but wanted to have them handy for, say, holidays). However, my purse balked at paying ten freaking pounds per book for something I essentially already own in another format. (it occurred to me that for the price of three ebooks, I can buy a 16GB card, too. No comments necessary).

And if I see one more American remake of a successful other-language movie, under the pretext that Americans are too bemused to handle dubs or (Heaven forbid) subtitles, I’ll hit something. Hard, and with a spiked iron gauntlet. (this brought to you courtesy of Let Me In and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo).

Some linkage…


Mostly around the Spinrad article for Asimov’s, which is a bit like watching a trainwreck in progress. (he tries to make a bunch of good points, but they get lost in some poor phrasing and some appalling ideas)
The original article (incidentally, in the morass of stuff that made me want to hit something, there was the bit where he gushed about the Maya novel and its rigorous research–said research including choice bits like “Ancient Mayan codices [predicting] the end of the world in our era on a very specific date shortly approaching”. Er, no, sorry? That’s Christian Apocalypse eschatology getting mixed with the Maya calendar)
-Some back-and-forth going on on Jason Sanford’s blog
Cheryl Morgan about translation markets and the isolationist nature of the US book market
Nick Mamatas on the stuff Spinrad gets woefully wrong
-The awesome Charles A. Tan nails a lot of what I thought about the article in his editorial for the World SF blog (also, very nice stuff about mixed heritages/cultures, which I haven’t seen that often online).

I could rant, but honestly I feel the article and the comments are self-explanatory; and I’m reassured so many people are seeing it as problematic rather than taking it as gospel. I could dissect the article point by point (and believe me, there would be a lot of points to make, but I like my blood pressure the way it i. I think instead I’m going to go back to that article I was writing about Anglophone SF vs the rest of the world…

Writing cultures: insider vs. outsider


So, I came back from Vietnam recently; and one of the things that happened was sitting on the sofa and trying to explain stuff to the BF–and seeing how it all came together (or not) for him. That in turn made me think of an exercise I’ve attempted several times now, which is writing stories set in France for the benefit of an Anglophone audience–and of how this didn’t quite pan out the way I’d thought it would.

It’s a very different exercise from writing in a culture not related to me, such as the Aztecs (I’ll leave aside China, which is a little more problematic for me because China gave so much to Vietnam). And this set me thinking about the different approaches to writing a culture.

To simplify matters, let’s assign letters (yup, engineer at work). Suppose we have two cultures in presence. I’ll call the first one “A” (Americans, for instance). It’s your target audience. The second one is “B”, the one you’re attempting to write about (say, Chinese, Vietnamese, French…).

If you’re a member of B, then there are a number of things that are going to be way easier for you. The small things–you’re not going to oversweat, say, what time people of B usually get up at and what they have for breakfast, because you know. The big things: your outlook on life is likely to be typical of B already. You’re not going to contaminate the narration by, say, having a Vietnamese shouting at or striking his mother (pretty much unthinkable in Confucian ideology), or thinking that good French students go to university (we don’t. It’s rather complicated, but we have a two-tier higher education system, where only the worst students go into the state universities. The best ones go into “Grandes Ecoles”, the great schools of business, engineering and literature).
There are a number of things that are going to be harder, though. For you, pretty much anything belonging to B is natural, which means that you’ll likely spend less time describing it or even mentioning it at all. When a French character of mine goes home after work, I’m not going to make a big deal of their buying bread at the bakery, because for me it’s perfectly natural. I’m going to be tempted to skip the bakery description, too, because I assume my reader will know what I’m talking about.
Of course, the problem is that maybe they won’t. Maybe they come from a place where they don’t sell bread. Maybe a French bakery–with a long counter displaying cakes and viennoiseries under glass panes, and a cash register behind which you’ll find the different kinds of bread from baguettes to loafs–isn’t a sight that’s familiar to my reader at all. What I subconsciously assume is natural to A might not be at all: it might be slightly different, it might be counter-intuitive. I don’t describe the streets of Paris, but the truth is that they’re not the same as those of Los Angeles.
It’s what I’d tend to call the “insider” point of view: the flavour of the narration is pretty much bang to rights, but it can end up feeling pretty hard to relate to for a member of A, because you’ll likely end up leaving out the details that might have made sense to A (not to mention that the attitudes of the characters will be those of B, and that A might find them hard to relate to without explanations. It’s not easy to understand why the French are so obsessed with their two-tier education system unless you’ve been there). And I think that’s why people sometimes have trouble relating to “insider” stories–because they tend not to be formulated in the frame of reference to which the people of A used.

On the contrary, if you’re a member of A writing about B is going to have to learn things the hard way, by researching the culture–and speaking as someone who has a moderate amount of experience in the subject, this could be one of those things that take years before you can be anything like remotely proficient in culture B. But the sad truth is that no matter how many years you spend researching B, you’re always going to make mistakes. Even after all that research, you’ll get some of the little details wrong: the food, the daily habits. You’ll have some of your culture creeping into mindsets (because those tend to revert pretty quickly to your default pattern unless you’re really careful about what you’re doing. I know I always have the temptation to be an advocate for women’s rights in my historical fiction, even though I know that the idea of equality between genders didn’t make its way into popular culture until, at best, the tail end of the 19th century.
You’re going to have one huge advantage over a member of B writing about B, though: you’re already part of the target audience. You know, or can pretty easily find, what members of A will find odd or non-intuitive about B. At worst, this can degenerate into exoticism, where you use B for a touch of local colour and not much else; at best, it makes you able to find the bits of B that will speak to your audience, and make those bits stand out. You have a common frame of mind with your audience, which makes you able to easily reach out to it. Also, you’ve just spent some time (months to years) learning about B–and you’ve already gone through all the hassle of understanding the parts that didn’t seem to make sense at first. You know what is striking or unfamiliar, and you will usually think of describing those in your fiction.
This is what I’d tend to call the “outsider” writing: a lot of the time, the narration will be familiar while the mindset will be anything from completely wrong to slightly off, but this will have a much more palpable flavour, at least at first read.

Obviously, for a member of A looking for an “authentic” [1] narration about B, neither insider nor outsider are really satisfying: the first lack the details/character empathy that will make them feel included in the conversation between author and reader; and the second, while much easier to get into, is ultimately rather frustrating because it’s likely to be off.

I guess the best way to be authentic would be to merge both approaches, but it’s hard–I haven’t found many books that pulled this off satisfactorily (in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to think of a single one. If you know one, please chime in). It requires you to be equally proficient in both A and B, in order to both know about B and the bits of B will appeal to A. And then we move into a whole new category of problems, the main one being separating A and B in the author’s mind (same thing for a member of B who’s been living in A for a while, and is now writing about B).

In the meantime, you’re left with those–and I guess both have their merits and their flaws. I don’t have an easy solution to this (and I certainly don’t advocate that everyone should stick to writing what they know, which makes it all too easy to keep minds closed to other ways of life and other cultures). But it certainly brings up an interesting set of problems.

What do you think? Am I just stating the obvious? Have I got it completely wrong? Are there any approaches I left out, or anything else worth pointing out?

[1]It’s not the point of this post, but I think we can argue for a long while about what “authentic” means. It’s nowhere as clear-cut as it seems, especially in the light of today’s world where you can find very distinct subcultures everywhere (if you take Asians, Asian-Americans and Asians living in Asia will have a lot in common, but also a lot of differences. And the culture of, say, my grandparents is no longer the culture of twenty-something Vietnamese, even though they both live in the same country).
When do you start being authentic–is it only when you write about the little bit of subculture that you happen to be a part of? Is it when you write about your own country of origins? What if you’re a first or second-generation immigrant, or a mixed-race? It’s a thorny subject, and it’s likely to get thornier as the world shrinks on itself and people move effortlessly across boundaries.