Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cultural truths and novelists

In the current issue of Poets and Writers, Mary Stewart Atwell discusses the question of whether writers have the right to portray the inner life of people very different from themselves -- whether urban writers can write about rural characters, men about women, or one race about another.  One point of view, she states, is that "if you have the writing chops to convince a reader of the authenticity of a character's inner life, no one's going to care whether the character is based on yourself or made out of whole cloth."  Of course, many of the best writers do manage to convince us of the inner life of characters they resemble very little -- people of differing cultures and nationalities, for example.  But I'm wondering if there isn't a broader question here.

Since this blog focuses on books by people who have written about their journeys to different parts of the world, I find this topic particularly relevant.  Of course, with memoir, people don't usually try to get inside anyone's head but their own, so I'm thinking here mostly of novels.  Particularly when I was reading two of those I've reviewed here -- Audrey Hepburn's Neck, by Alan Brown, and Country of Origin, by Don Lee -- I pondered this question, as both of these American writers have peopled their novels not only with Westerners living in Japan but with Japanese characters whose inner lives are also explored.  Without doubt these portraits convinced me of their plausibility. But at the same time I asked myself whether Japanese people would be convinced.   

So, I think we need to look a bit more deeply at this question -- because people of the same culture as the author of a book may be convinced that the character from another culture is authentically described, but that may not in fact be the case.  Instead, the author may unwittingly be perpetrating a stereotype.  We see this most clearly when we look at American literature of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries in which African Americans were portrayed by white authors.  So it is not, it seems, just a matter of being convincing but of actually knowing enough about the people who are portrayed to be able to tell the truth about their souls.

And I think this is true not only with respect to the individual characters from another culture but with respect to the culture as a whole.  The author may convince us that such-and-such behavior is typical of a certain culture, but if we know nothing about that culture, that is not a difficult task -- nor is it proof that the portrait drawn is accurate.  How many times have I heard someone who spent a week in Japan pontificating on the "Japanese people"?  Authors are not immune from this kind of over-simplification -- especially if it serves the wider goal of the story.  Myself, I would beware of believing a writer who has not spent a good deal of time living with or, if that is impossible, at least seriously studying, the culture of people he is describing in his work.  "Writing chops" are no substitute for knowledge. 

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