Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing Foreign Cultures in Fiction and a Writer's Identity

Today’s post is an accumulation of responses to posts I’ve read as well as thoughts that have circulated in my mind in recent weeks. As such, don’t expect a structured post that goes on to make a point, but rather semi-connected musings as I reflect on being a writer from a different culture and a different language, writing in English and in hopes to appeal to the American or British [preferably both] industries.

Not a long while ago, I’ve been advised to play my strength and write about my country, since nobody writes about Bulgaria. It’s a small country, therefore unique and overlooked. I can see the merit in that proposal [yes, I’ve brainstormed ideas and toy with a modern Bulgarian UF], but this also prompted me to look back to everything that I’ve written so far and hope to write.

Because, you see, such a suggestion directly touches upon my identity as a writer. What you write about defines who you are. At least this my take on it. I’m decidedly non-Bulgarian or otherwise I would have written in Bulgarian rather than in English like a friend I have, whose work is inspiring and profound. Or at least trying to introduce the Bulgarian culture with its admirable qualities and faults. Not impossible, but a lot more harder, because Bulgaria is hard to convey in a different language, as is any other country for that matter.

No, I find it a lot more easier to throw scathing references to Jersey Shore, then sprinkle some Buffy the Vampire Slayer, surfer & 70’s slang along with other typically American cultural staples.

It’s easier because the American cultural dominates the world. The US has established one of the largest cultural hegemonies in the world. When communism finally fell in my country and Bulgaria could finally enter the world, culturally America influenced us a lot. I grew up with Cartoon Network, Looney Tunes, Disney and what not. Same with music, same with cinema and television. Bulgaria adopted reality TV with successful Bulgarian versions of Dancing with the Stars, Music Idol, Survivor, Music Academy and Big Brother. Even our food comes from American franchises such as the eternal McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, KFC and we even have Starbucks now.

All these things coexist with our loud taverns, greasy snack-selling kiosks, chalga music and Bulgarian superstitions and small personal rituals [all of which I love; well minus the chalga]. I’m not here to say ‘Grr, those pesky Americans are to blame,’ cause they nobody is at fault that one culture is popular all around the world. But it does explain why I find it easier to use the cultural references I grew up with and write for a considerably larger audience, because a lot of people look up America and are interested what comes from there as music, movies and literature.

Perhaps that makes me a traitor as my friends have joked about it. Perhaps my choice to look to the West, instead of looking in my cultural heritage, robs of me of my very own identity. I do fear that I’m doing the impossible, writing about a country that I have never stepped in and therefore can’t understand, which is a lot more different than being an immigrant in the USA or any other country for that matter. Do I even have an identity from a cultural standpoint? It is one of the toughest questions that I stand before.

There has been talk about multiculturalism in speculative fiction, about introducing different [overlooked] countries, about representing people of color and even challenging the ideal for beauty as fellow writer Theresa Bazelli did in her post ‘Searching for Beauty’:

“… that was when I started noticing things I'd taken for granted. I realized that most of the women that the men pined after in the stories were either buxom red heads, cool blonds, or girl next door brunettes. In the odd occasion that there was a raven haired girl involved, her skin was always pale and perfect, or at most, a Mediterranean olive.

I just hope this makes you writers stop and think. You may think that you're writing your novels just for entertainment, and yes! I hope you are! but consciously nor not, you're teaching the world about what you value and what you call beautiful. What you leave out shows just as much as what you leave in.”

And the current ideal of beauty belongs to which culture? Yes, the American, which I want to mention in order to illustrate how complex the issue with cultural identity is and how hard its diversification will be. Because culture is not only art, religion, literature, music, but also the ideal of beauty, the dining manners, the body language [whether people will look you in the eye or avoid eye contact] and even the way a person will cross the street [which speaks a lot about Bulgarians].

I’m pumped to take on the challenge; throw magic, folklore and Bulgaria in the pot, but it’s not that easy from a technical side. I’m not writing for my fellow Bulgarians [who don’t read in English] and know the culture as well, if not better, as I do. I’m writing for outsiders, which makes brings a whole set of problems attached with the execution.

Ekaterina Sedia’s essay “Seeing Through Foreign Eyes” pretty much nails it:

“Each culture has its own baggage, assumptions, background noise that is so familiar it fades into invisibility. References common to everyone in any given culture that require no explanation – and it is tempting to assume that the rest of the world shares them. Who doesn’t know Nancy Drew or Crisco? So when reading translated literature, for me it is always a small jolt of joy to spot such things, small details that are so obvious to the author that they deserve barely a mention, and could only be guessed at. On the other hand, to a non-native, these things might appear strange and exotic, and the outsider will point them out and question.

In a way, this pointing and questioning mode of storytelling is common in fantasy: after all, we all are familiar with portal stories, where your normal person travels to a strange world and hopefully gets a native guide and will have things explained to them. In a way, American writers writing about foreign cultures provides the same set-up – they point and explain things a native wouldn’t find mention-worthy. They’re a guide who shares the reader’s references, and thus the things they find weird, the reader will too. They nudge conspiratorially, the writer is a reader’s ally, outside of the foreign milieu they are traveling through. If not careful, it results in blatant exotization.

A foreign writer describing their culture, however, is not the same thing at all. Their alliance is to the cultural milieu with which they share their perspective, and the American reader is thus pushed outside of the text; the readers may find themselves alone, and suspect that there are things being said they don’t understand. And it seems as if that’s a turn off to many American readers.”

Basically, for me it boils down to either write about my culture like a native and produce a book that could very well be unreadable – I’m a writer and I panic about this; it’s what we do to procrastinate – or conspire with my target audience [the bigger one, the US one], play the ever diligent tour guide and come off as a foreigner writing about Bulgaria. Let me say, it’s a lot more complicated than ‘we need more diversity in our fiction’.

As Ekaterina Sedia says:

“So the issue with books set in foreign cultures, I think, that even though many SF/F readers call for more perspectives and diversity, they don’t really want that. They want someone familiar to show them some exotic stuff without actually challenging the readers’ assumptions or values.”

I tend to agree with her.
PS: It's up to use to change that you. I've not given up. I do plan on writing about Bulgaria, but I wanted to also open myself to how difficult it is in my particular case.


Juliette Wade said...

This is really interesting, Harry. I think there's more going on than just cultural hegemony... you might find Aliette de Bodard's thoughts on the subject of writing in English worth looking at. Effectively, when English was the language that introduced you to so much of the literature, a lot of those types of ideas occur in that language (which makes sense). But I'd love to see Bulgaria appear. And I love to be challenged in my cultural assumptions! I think what Ekaterina Sedia says is definitely valid, but not universally true.

Harry Markov said...

@ Juliette: This is why I said that these are my musings at the moment. I am beyond sure that with further reading more of the bigger picture will become clear to me.

At the moment this is what I got and I do agree that while valid nothing is really universally true. Because one way or the other, it's all about perception and different points of view.

PS: the way you handle culture, I am beyond sure that you love the challenges.

T.S. Bazelli said...

There are layers that come with another cultural perspective. Personally I find there's a kind of beauty stepping between those layers, even if I don't catch every nuance.

Take for example language. There are some things that are impossible to say in English. There are 3 words for love in Greek, where in English there is only 1.

Is it a challenge? Sure. But you can do it. I know you can switch your modes of seeing and thinking. Plus your beta readers, will also be likely point out things that are not clear.

Harry Markov said...

@ Theresa: Yes, I am nodding my head at the moment, not sure that I can say more than just add that getting the layers and then stacking them in a new language is challenge. Plus, as Ekaterina says, they are quite quite invisible to catch.

But not giving up.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post! One point of interest is how all, or nearly all of the reality TV shows you mention originate in Britain, but the Americana is so uber-pervasive that for you the origin is the US.

I've been thinking similarly with my superhero story. Britain may not have quite the same issues as Bulgaria as a cultural presence on the world stage, but as the above example illustrates, even where we have an effect, it tends to be sublimated to the US dominance. But even though I've lived in the US, I wouldn't feel comfortable writing something set in a US city. I'll admit my motivation started as being from a wish to write what I knew, but then I thought about actually wanting to write a superhero thing set in Britain. I know it wouldn't be the first - Misfits is the recent success, but comics have been there before, and we've had a couple of comedy superhero things that were moderately successful. But still, part of the comedy is that it feels unnatural for Brits to fit into that American dominated genre. We can't stand out and call ourselves 'super' - a superhero has to be self-deprecating or mocking.

So, I wanted to write a superhero story that wasn't a comedy, and that was set in the UK. I think it's going to be an odd lurch in my mind as I force myself not to use settings that could come from generic America. But I like the challenege. I think thinking about presenting one's culture to the world stage is a good thing, but we also shouldn't be put off writing for other cultures simply because they are not our own. If you want to write in an Americanised setting, go for it. If you're inspired by the challange of presenting your own culture for others, go for that.

K. A. Laity said...

Very interesting, Harry -- I really enjoyed. I am always more engaged by books that show me something new, but I guess that's not the average reader's attitude at all. I think, however, in the end we have to write what excites us. Readers will either find it or not :-\

Harry Markov said...

@ Serenity: REALLY? You invented all of the reality TV shows. Since I do not know my reality TV, I apologize if I am in error. :)

I'm tempted to write a super hero Bulgarian and just show how unsuited the whole idea is for our culture. One thing for Bulgarians is that they don't mix well in teams and use their powers for personal gain.

Harry Markov said...

@ KA Laity: Yes, I agree. It's all up to me and write what I want, but this is somewhat hindered in the need to appear commercial enough to get picked up. It's searching the perfect balance that is the tricky part. :)