Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Culture, Craft, and Fictional Worlds

Tomorrow, an interview with Sheela Chari, the author of Vanished. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting about a few more books with cultural contexts, both insider and outsider narratives.

Girls reading The Broken Tusk. Photo courtesy of Pardada Pardadi.
It's easy to talk about authenticity, but who knows what that is? I was born in India and grew up there, but my slice of the reality of India is only my slice. I can't absolve myself of all responsibility, however, because it doesn't end there. A reader who doesn't know India will assume that my representation is "real." One who does may find my sense of the place and people is at odds with her own. So I may protest that I can't represent a country, but by default, I'm doing so. Writing, especially for young readers, comes with a certain responsibility. A sort of "do no harm" principle can't be denied.

I'm well aware that every choice I make in my writing either sustains the illusion of a credible fictional world or dissipates it. That's true of large choices of structure and premise, or small choices of details in a scene, or rhetorical choices in narrative and dialogue.

If it's all illusion, is it possible for writers to learn how to create that illusion so it rings true, does not patronize, and is not reductive and essentialist? It seems to me that if we pay close attention to elements of both the source culture and the target audience, and if the writer has a generous vision and an intelligent approach to it, it's possible to use the smoke and mirrors of the craft to do precisely that. We can avoid the kind of crashing and burning that we see in books where the writer has not given much thought to such matters, or worse, has adopted the faux colonial view that "othering" a whole culture is fine because, well, didn't Frances Hodgson Burnett and Laura Ingalls Wilder get away with it?

This attempt to analyse the nuts and bolts of technique assumes that the writer is aware of the passage of centuries and can write from a space beyond pure nostalgia. For the insider writer, it assumes an awareness of two emotional spaces--the one of the story and the shared understanding of possible target audiences. Inside and outside--concepts that apply to the story, the writer, the audience to come.

This is not to say that there won't always be readers who will find even well crafted books disappointing for completely personal reasons. If a reader's been taught to expect Jungle Book in every rendition of India, urban traffic jams (or girls reading books) may disappoint, although I'd argue that's precisely why we need new visions of those "other" spaces.

Still, just beginning with an examination of the pitfalls of writing across cultures is a start. What do those look like for the insider writer and for the outsider?

More to come, starting tomorrow with this week's Interview Wednesday.

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