This week’s topic is writing on cultures that are not your own, a subject which, rightly so, generates debate. Certainly writing on cultures not your own, as with writing anything that is not a direct personal experience, needs to be approached with care. Personally, I would love to write a novel set in Japan. Japan is a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time; I’m intrigued by the culture and I studied the language for several years at school (sadly all I can remember now is a few hiragana, and that’s about it – I keep promising myself one day I will learn again). I’m drawn to books set in Japan – Murakami’s works being the obvious example, but another all time favourite is NUMBER9DREAM by David Mitchell (who lived in Japan for some years), set in Tokyo. But for me to write about life in Japan, or about any other culture which is not my own, I would naturally worry about getting the details right, and writing in a way that didn’t reinforce the stereotypes that are automatically embedded in any one culture viewing another.
In this theoretical project there are some obvious things I could do to mitigate potential blunders – research being the first point of call. I would want to do my research thoroughly. Ideally I would like to visit the place I was writing about, but for most writers, financial concerns are going to limit the feasibility of travel. Fortunately, we are in a unique position compared to the vast majority of writers who have come before – for now we have the Internet. And with the Internet comes such a wealth of information available in the form of visual media, personal narratives, online magazines and podcasts and interactive maps and blogs – that there is no excuse for not doing your homework.
Having scoured your resources (as Paul pointed out in yesterday’s post), the crucial question as a writer is then what you include. What seems interesting as an outsider is par for the course to someone on the inside of their culture. Who are your characters? Are you writing from an outsider’s perspective, or someone within the culture? You want to give enough detail for the reader to immerse themselves in your story and its world, but not to saturate the narrative with unnecessary detail.
However good your research, there are certain things which even if you spent years living in another country would still be inexplicable to you. Subtle nuances of language, elements of humour or slang, historical frames of reference – some things just can’t be absorbed or learned, and as a writer you have to accept that complete and utter authenticity is impossible – you’re writing fiction, after all.
Writing science fiction and fantasy arguably makes the depiction of other cultures more approachable – you can invent cultures, and use them metaphorically, or to examine a particular set of tropes or characteristics.
In writing OSIRIS, my location was an ocean city that had been cut off from land for fifty years – I wanted its citizens to have evolved rituals and beliefs which were particular to the city and its landscape, and would be inherently ‘other’ for any reader.
As a writer, everything you produce is autobiographical and everything is fictional. Inevitably, your work is coloured by your personal experience, your background, your way of viewing the world. But you are also writing fiction. A writer’s greatest tool is their imagination – and that imagination should not be constrained. So long as you are writing with respect and humanity about the culture, gender, sexuality, race or species you are depicting, there really are no limits.