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aruna
08-09-2015, 01:04 PM
I started a new thread rather than add to a thread with a similar title as that thread is specific to the OP's book. This is a more general question, which comes up again and again -- there are probably more threads on this but I wanted to highlight a particular article: this one. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/should-ethnicity-limit-what-a-fiction-writer-can-write-human-experience?utm_content=buffer71c4a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer)

I get the author's arguments. She has done her research, OK. She "knows" China. I think what irritates me is her lack of humility. The sense that she has the right to write a novel with Chinese characters because she has researched it all so well.

Now, I not only feel I know India well; I feel that in some way I AM Indian. When I am in India I feel more at home with the people than in any other country. And yet I know that there are nuances about Indian life that no amount of research can ever penetrate. I didn't grow up there. There's always a subtlety I will miss, no matter how thorough my research. And I feel this writer doesn't get that. She seems to think she is entitled to write a Chinese book and that the Chinese are wrong to question her right to do so. And that's where I feel she is wrong.

Roxxsmom
08-09-2015, 01:36 PM
I don't know what to say, really. The issue of representation in fiction comes up a lot. Of course she has a right to write the book if she wishes. She doesn't even have to research it or write it well. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good idea, or the right thing to do (or that anyone has to publish it). And she certainly doesn't have the right to expect what she's written to be well received by people in China, or by anyone else for that matter, especially if she doesn't do a good job.

I don't know if the question about whether it's ever appropriate for someone to write a story set in (or inspired by) a culture that's not their own will ever be resolved. Some people think it can be done well and appropriately, others disagree. I'm white American and of European background, and the whole idea terrifies me.

But I also see that the overwhelming majority of agents and editors have fantasy set in or inspired by non-European cultures on their wish lists right now. I've read lots of blogs and essays by people who aren't white who are begging authors to put more diversity in their books.

I remember seeing an essay by Nisi Shawl that talked about the three ways of doing this (http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10087): as an invader, as a tourist, or as a guest.

RichardGarfinkle
08-09-2015, 01:36 PM
To some extent this author's problem is defensiveness. Her argument is that she tried to do everything right, but it doesn't seem to be good enough. But that's the reality of writing. We can research and try to understand and put ourselves into the minds of others as best we can and we will still mess up. She shouldn't be arguing with those for whom it is not good enough. She doesn't get to decide what should be acceptable to someone else. Audiences get to make up their own minds.

On the broader question. I think we're all in a lot of trouble if we say that people should only write about their own cultures. By that I mean that we'll be failing in our job as writers if we end up only writing books with monocultured characters. We'll be creating a badly skewed view of the world, and perpetuating cultural isolation and echo-chamber thinking.

And paradoxically we need the errors in books written by people who are trying their best to portray other cultures and other times. We need to see the invisible assumptions and mistakes so we can try to correct them. People learn and grow closer by trial and error and communication.

Only by trying our best to understand can we learn how we don't understand. And only then can communication be improved and communication is one of the jobs of writers.

aruna
08-09-2015, 02:36 PM
I would love to see more white authors bringing more diversity into their novels, and I don't want to scare them off -- yes! Please do! But when you do be prepared to be questioned --- and I think that's what irritated me about this writer -- she didn't seem to think she should be questioned.

Tocotin
08-09-2015, 03:16 PM
Eh, I don't know. I think I'm on her side. What is she supposed to do? The man in the first paragraph dismissed her and her book outright, without having read it, because she is a Western woman.

I'm also writing about a culture not my own, simply because I'm here and this culture is what I experience every day. I wasn't going to do it at first, because I didn't feel comfortable in the culture, but then my perceptions slowly changed, and then I got a story idea and decided to try. I can buy and read books on it, talk to people, go to places my story is set, eat the food. I can't set a story in my own culture right now – it's too far to go there and I'm pretty much disconnected from it. Two years ago, I went home for the first time in 11 years. These are the only 2 places on Earth I know. Haven't been anywhere else.

I wish I could finish what I'm doing right now and publish it. I'm prepared to answer questions. If I get told: "But you're not Japanese! You don't understand the Japanese!" – what am I supposed to do? Answer: "Oh no, wait, I do, I really do!"? Or: "No, please, don't say that, I did my research! Want to see the sources?" Because, frankly, it's not my primary goal to make readers impressed with my knowledge, to make them accept me as an expert on anything. My goal is to tell them a story. Uh, okay, so I don't understand the Japanese – I have no way to defend myself from this kind of accusation. Hell, I don't claim to understand anyone, everyone is an enigma to me, Japanese or Chinese or American or Romanian. I don't understand myself sometimes. But this is not the point. The story is.

aruna
08-09-2015, 03:25 PM
Eh, I don't know. I think I'm on her side. What is she supposed to do? The man in the first paragraph dismissed her and her book outright, without having read it, because she is a Western woman.

.
But that's exactly the point! Westerners do have the tendency to go to "exotic" countries thinking they know everything and can do everything and visualise everything -- but they do so through their own framework of experience. It's extremely, extremely difficult for a Westerner to give up their entire mode of thinking and to "become" the other. It's especially difficult because Westerners grow up with this particular "can-do" attitude which is the exact opposite to the surrender of ego necessary for understanding an Eastern mentality. I see it time and again with Westerners in India -- thy go in with an attitude of "I CAN!!!" and it just doesn't work. Who knows -- maybe she was being unfairly judged, but the suspicion brought against her is entirely justified... and the fact that she doesn't grasp that doesn't speak well for her.

Tocotin
08-09-2015, 03:37 PM
How is that suspicion justified? All that man needed to do was to read the book – he'd have known then if she did her homework or not. But he chose not to. Of course, Westerners* do have this can-do-and-am-right attitude, but isn't it a simple courtesy to try and evaluate every case, instead of just generalizing? Especially when there is, you know, a proof – a book?

*not really sure who is a Westerner and who isn't.

aruna
08-09-2015, 03:49 PM
I'm afraid that through experience I have a bit of a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude about Westerners writing novels from an Eastern PoV! I know it's unfair. But I too would have questions and doubts before I even open the book... It's different if they are writing from the PoV of a Westerner in an Asian culture. But trying to step inside the skin of an Asian, or any other completely different mind-set for that matter, is just so very hard...

Tocotin
08-09-2015, 04:01 PM
Aruna, I know. I understand that. Tell you something. Because I'm writing about Japan (and not from a Westerner's point of view), I try to read any English-language novels set in Japan, to see how other writers deal with specific problems. They very VERY rarely succeed in getting things right - maybe 5% of the books I read were okay. But yesterday I finished reading a book set during the Pacific War in Malaysia, a book that has Japanese characters. It was horribly inaccurate in portraying Japanese attitudes of that time, Japanese attitudes in general; it was full of anachronistic mistakes and of fetishization of Japanese culture; the Japanese language was wrong too. If the author were a Westerner, it would be a totally Orientalist book. But the author is Malaysian. My point is, it's very easy to get another culture wrong, no matter who is writing what.

buz
08-09-2015, 04:06 PM
I would love to see more white authors bringing more diversity into their novels, and I don't want to scare them off -- yes! Please do! But when you do be prepared to be questioned --- and I think that's what irritated me about this writer -- she didn't seem to think she should be questioned.

I think her objection was more that she was being questioned without the questioner having read the book.


But that's exactly the point! Westerners do have the tendency to go to "exotic" countries thinking they know everything and can do everything and visualise everything -- but they do so through their own framework of experience.

But it doesn't sound like that's what she did.


It's extremely, extremely difficult for a Westerner to give up their entire mode of thinking and to "become" the other. It's especially difficult because Westerners grow up with this particular "can-do" attitude which is the exact opposite to the surrender of ego necessary for understanding an Eastern mentality.

I think part of what the author was saying is that individuals are individual and to approach the "Eastern mentality" (or in her case Chineseness) as one single thing that will be expressed by all single individuals is as incorrect as approaching it from a Western view, and that dismissing the author's identity also includes an assertion that there is this Chineseness thing that a) will be applicable to all people living in China and b) cannot be penetrated from the outside.

Which, I don't know what to think of, because I'm Western. :D It makes sense to me from a logical perspective and knowing a general history of China in which there are several cultures in one boundary, that there would be this diversity that should mean characterization would have several approaches, but I'm not there, have never been. I assume there is a line between "range of diversity within Chinese cultural parameters" and "simply not believable as Chinese"--I think her assertion is that she worked within that former range and therefore her book shouldn't be dismissed based on her identity. I think the objector's assertion is that based on what you're saying about what a lot of Westerners do and think, which is true, but perhaps not true of her--I can't say.


I see it time and again with Westerners in India -- thy go in with an attitude of "I CAN!!!" and it just doesn't work. Who knows -- maybe she was being unfairly judged, but the suspicion brought against her is entirely justified... and the fact that she doesn't grasp that doesn't speak well for her.

Well, she does fold that in:


However, research doesn’t eliminate the risk of errors, and the controversy that can arise from these errors should they occur. When a character from a similar background as the author seems inauthentic, this is often attributed to weakness in the writing. When a character of another gender or nationality or ethnicity fails to convince or reinforces lazy stereotypes, this is interpreted as misrepresentation — and sometimes justifiably so, for when we write stories about characters from a different background to us we are writing stories about our own perceptions and prejudices.

But then she goes on to say that readers bring their own prejudices as well and, well, basically says stuff about unfair judgment.

I don't know. On the one hand, as a Western person, if I wrote a book about China, I would not expect my book to be widely embraced by Chinese people and judged only on its own merits. I would expect people to say "fuck you white European-descent American person" and not even read it and I think their feelings would be valid. Because even if I thought I did everything right, who's to say I can fully understand--and even if I could, who am I to tell people who don't want to hear me that they have to listen?

At the same time, though, I think she makes a lot of good points. It sounds like she was mostly just trying to counter the idea that a Western person could never write from an Asian perspective so don't even try. But it sounds like your objection is that she doesn't hammer in more forcefully that Western people have a history of screwing this up and barging in with their own preconceptions? :D

If she had, would that have made the piece more acceptable?

(that is a serious question by the way; not trying to be snarky)

Liosse de Velishaf
08-09-2015, 08:05 PM
She just sounds whiny to me. She claims to have done all this research, but never came across the issue of fetishization and appropriation as likely accusations to be leveled against her? I've read many books by Westerners about Eastern settings, and time and time again, even as a Westerner, I come across glaring inaccuracies and fetishization of culture. And then reviews by people who live in the culture depicted in the book point out many things I never even thought about. Some of these are fairly subtle, but others are quite overt, and even though I had an eye out for errors, they completely escaped me.

As someone from outside another culture, you will never be able to write that story like an insider. Doesn't matter how much research you do, or how long you live in that culture. It's never going to be perfect. I believe we can and should try to expand our horizons, and writers should not feel guilty for wanting to write cultures other than their own. There's a lot to be gained for both sides from these attempts. However, it should be done knowing and admitting it for what it is, an outsider perspective, perhaps a sincere attempt at understanding, perhaps not, but always an imperfect act. Perhaps a brilliant Western author could write a better story about another culture than a shitty writer from that culture. maybe it would be massively more popular even among that culture. But what makes it better writing is not that the Western writer has a better grasp on the culture than the crappy eastern writer. It's merely an ability to better express whatever flawed view they have. Quality of expression is still not quality of experience, and it never will be. That's an important thing to accept when attempting to write outside of your own experience.

TessB
08-09-2015, 08:39 PM
Honest question -- how tightly are we drawing the circle around 'culture'? East/west is one spoken about in this thread, but then there was a post about an eastern author (Malaysian) writing poorly about Japanese culture. If immigrants cannot ever fully understand the host culture, then is it possible at all for someone from a host culture to write a story about immigrants?

As a Canadian, visiting the USA gives me culture shock on a number of minor but important things -- my editor had to remind me to be careful with early 20s characters smoking pot, whereas it's ridiculously common in my area. Can I write about Americans, since we're both North American cultures, or will I never fully understand the nuances? I'm willing to say right now that I don't get everything about the USA, from little things like no electric kettles to big things like the gun culture. But doing my research has helped immensely.

So what's the material difference between that and me writing about, say, someone with a Hutu background? I'm more likely to make incorrect assumptions about Americans because of how closely related our cultures are. Also see: American authors writing about British characters, especially historical ones. I can pick out American authors really easily a lot of the time, because of things like Regency nobles arguing for bootstrap politics / class mobility, or even things like putting cream in tea. (good God, people!)

I partially kid, but I'm also serious. My next contemporary novel has a hero who is American born and raised, but whose family origin and culture is West Indies / Caribbean. Is that going to lend itself to the same problems? I'm a western writer and he's a western character, except... not quite. his life experiences are naturally going to be different than that of a Canadian Ashkenazi Jew. On the other hand, my family also immigrated to North America and had the same kind of outsider problems, including having to change surnames in order to 'pass' among white society, get hired, etc.

And then on the OTHER other hand, I have a bit of a kneejerk reaction to straight people writing fetishization-type romances about queer characters, for instance.

It's far too nebulous for me to be able to say -->|<-- here is the line at which writing about someone with different origins and life experiences than you becomes entitlement and appropriation. IS there one?

buz
08-09-2015, 09:49 PM
She just sounds whiny to me. She claims to have done all this research, but never came across the issue of fetishization and appropriation as likely accusations to be leveled against her? I've read many books by Westerners about Eastern settings, and time and time again, even as a Westerner, I come across glaring inaccuracies and fetishization of culture. And then reviews by people who live in the culture depicted in the book point out many things I never even thought about. Some of these are fairly subtle, but others are quite overt, and even though I had an eye out for errors, they completely escaped me.

She does sound defensive, overly so perhaps, but--

she discusses Orientalism and personal prejudices, so I don't think she's unaware of stuff like that. (Although she even discusses this in kind of a whiny manner, I agree)

Again, I think her objection is that accusations were made before the book was read, not that these accusations were raised:


Returning to the man in the audience in the bookshop in Chengdu, was he correct in his statement (voiced with resounding finality) that I would “never understand the Chinese”? Is The Incarnations “just a Western perspective” full of Asian stereotypes, or are the characters convincingly Chinese? Every reader is welcome to come to their own conclusions about my book. My only hope is that readers will focus on what is written in the pages, and put out of mind the author biography at the back.




Perhaps a brilliant Western author could write a better story about another culture than a shitty writer from that culture. maybe it would be massively more popular even among that culture. But what makes it better writing is not that the Western writer has a better grasp on the culture than the crappy eastern writer. It's merely an ability to better express whatever flawed view they have. Quality of expression is still not quality of experience, and it never will be. That's an important thing to accept when attempting to write outside of your own experience.

But I don't think that's her point. Her point is about expression. She's not saying "I'm totally Chinese," she's saying "I can write a Chinese character." She's talking about writing, not experience.

I agree that it's an important thing to accept potential limitations you don't know about and she doesn't seem to, which is kind of a turn off, and the major point of disagreement I'd have with the tone of what is written. There is, as Aruna says, a lack of humility that's kind of ehhh. But I don't think her overall point is invalid.


Honest question -- how tightly are we drawing the circle around 'culture'? East/west is one spoken about in this thread, but then there was a post about an eastern author (Malaysian) writing poorly about Japanese culture. If immigrants cannot ever fully understand the host culture, then is it possible at all for someone from a host culture to write a story about immigrants?

As a Canadian, visiting the USA gives me culture shock on a number of minor but important things -- my editor had to remind me to be careful with early 20s characters smoking pot, whereas it's ridiculously common in my area. Can I write about Americans, since we're both North American cultures, or will I never fully understand the nuances? I'm willing to say right now that I don't get everything about the USA, from little things like no electric kettles to big things like the gun culture. But doing my research has helped immensely.

This another thing--I can only actually say I'm inside the culture of this tiny place I live in. Three hours to the south is different, and three hours to the north is also different, but it's still all the US.

I don't get the being careful with early 20s chars smoking pot in the US in general because there are places where that is common. All my cousins did, for example. But not so much where I live. So it depends on where you set it, I suppose. There's so much diversity it's hard to pin too many things down to the whole country I think--I mean, to the point where you can apply it to individual characters as "not American."

So is China that diverse? I mean, I'm really asking. I don't know.

Maze Runner
08-09-2015, 10:42 PM
Fascinating topic. How are we defining culture? I grew up in a neighborhood in the NE US that was half white and half black. I spent a large part of my adult life in the jazz world where I was surrounded by black musicians. I feel I know the black culture as well as one can from the outside/in. I've got many black characters in two of the three novels I've written, one female MC, but not written from her POV. I would feel out of my element to try and write from a black POV, male or female, and yet, does that mean I can only write MCs from my "whitish" culture?

I'm of half European (Italian) and half ME (Lebanese) descent. I grew up on my mother's side (divorce) and can't say that I know my ME culture as well as I do African American or Northern European. I have this story knocking around in my head that takes place in America, in Upper Middle Class white suburbia, and even though I now live in a suburb that's predominantly white, I've never seen that "culture" from the inside, but it holds a fascination for me, probably for just that reason. Should I not write it? Are there people who grew up in Scarsdale, NY or Beverly Hills, CA who will see it as an appropriation of their culture, as a misrepresentation? What if I want to write from the perspective of a rural American Southerner of Irish or German or English descent whose ancestors lived through the Civil War? Would anyone say peep? Maybe they would, especially if enough people thought I got major points wrong. You just get to the point, I do anyway, of unlimited limitations (if you will) and you start to think, Okay, so I'll only write from a perspective that I've lived and breathed my whole life--but that is so limiting. By the way, I've read or watched stories by Italian American writers, and thought, wha? Where did they grow up?

Yes, write what you know, but specifically what do you know? Can an African American author who grew up on Park and 59th in NYC write with authority from the POV of an African American living in Bed Stuy? Can a Lebanese Christian write from the POV of a Muslim from Saudi Arabia?

Liosse de Velishaf
08-10-2015, 09:17 AM
There isn't a clear line where something becomes appropriation, and even watching White European-descended English-speaking people trying to write about other White European-descended English-speaking people can be unintentionally hilarious. Especially between Brits and Americans and maybe Canadians. You get into uncanny valley territory between them because sometimes the differences are so subtle to an outsider, but they stick out like a roaring fire to an insider.

The Eastern/Western divide is certainly a big one, because many Eastern countries share a larger sphere of intermixing. But yes, a Malaysian doesn't have some secret access into Japanese culture, and an Indian doesn't have a special Eastern-person password into Chinese culture. There's just likely to be more familiarity on the average.

My point is not that you shouldn't write about other cultures. I'm just saying be aware of the issues and be prepared to accept the criticism you should know are coming. Even if you disagree, being whiny about it isn't likely to help your case. And, remember the Nacirema (https://msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html). ;)

aruna
08-10-2015, 10:11 AM
For me the point is not wheter you can write convincingly about other cultures -- of course you can, if you take the proper care and respect.
The question is whether you can write convincingly enough to convince and please natives of that culture, and whether they are right to doubt you. And here there IS a very clear line, which is why that Chinese guy dismissed her without reading the book. That line is language.

I'm assuming she wrote in English, and I'd go so far as to state that a book however well-written, in a language other than the native language of the characters and setting can never ever be completely convincing.

I see this in Germany, where ALL movies and series are dubbed into German. Imagine Downton Abbey in German. Friends in German. Sex in the City in German. It NEVER convinces. Never. Same with English novels translated into German, which I used to read regularly when I was learning German. They were so completely off, I couldn't do it after a while. All the more so when trying to write Chinese (or Indian, Japanese etc) characters in their native land, all speaking English. It doesn't work for the natives.

And yes, it can work wonderfully for native Englishspeakers and you can even achieve wonderful reviews -- but it never feels authentic for a native, and that's what the author doesn't seem to get. She thinks she should not be criticised because the guy hadn't read the book, buthe knows. Oh yes he knows!

Snitchcat
08-10-2015, 01:39 PM
Fascinating topic! Will return to this when I get home. :)

Liosse de Velishaf
08-10-2015, 07:03 PM
Reminds me of watching anime subbed into English vs. anime dubbed into English. It's just not the same.

I think the language point is a good one. Imagine trying to fit Japanese's honorifics system into English. They always give up and "localize", by which I mean ignore a ton of cultural aspects because they don't think English-speakers are smart or interested enough to work it out.

Snitchcat
08-10-2015, 07:51 PM
Writing About A Culture Not Your Own

In the broader context of writing about a culture that is not your own, yes, it can be done. But can it be done with minimal errors and without "omg, what!" reactions? Perhaps the former, but not the latter. I have yet to read a China-based book by a Western author that has called to me beyond the cover (which usually conveys the sentiment, "Oh, Hell, no!").

The only author I've read that would be considered non-Chinese is Nury Vitachi. Comedy detective series set in Hong Kong (mostly). It's been a while since I've read his work, but highly recommended. I believe Vitachi also grew up in HK. Makes him an HK native. Does he know the language? I need to ask. Wouldn't put it passed him, though (although, I have yet to see him admit to it or not).

IMO, research and first-hand experience go a long way to contributing to the authenticity of a story set in a culture not your own. But, personal belief dictates that [you] should be humble and respectful. And if necessary, learn something of the language (written or spoken) with attempts at accuracy, to really get an inside glimpse of the culture. Of course, this may not be practical.

On the other hand, once the story is written and out in the world, expecting the natives to praise the story and accept it as "the best thing ever written on their culture" (as it were) is a bit much, not to mention arrogant and obnoxious. Cultural natives will always be privvy to a set of nuances that are not available to outsiders researching the culture. Even if you've lived several decades in another culture, you wouldn't pick up on everything because you didn't grow up in it. Different perspectives.

However this is seen, IMO, it's a huge undertaking. One I don't care to take on. Kudos to those who do, and do it well!

Barker's Article

As far as Barker's article goes...well, I went through it. She does have some valid points, but I didn't think I had enough information, so went searching for more.


I encountered questions such as, “How can you write about the Chinese when you aren’t fluent in mandarin?”
(Source: https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/should-ethnicity-limit-what-a-fiction-writer-can-write-human-experience?utm_content=buffer71c4a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer)


She'd learned to speak some Putonghua in England but, unfortunately, hadn't bothered with tones, so was effectively incomprehensible, and she couldn't read any characters.

Does she believe in reincarnation?

"I don't think so but I'm open to the possibility.
(Source: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1544834/continental-drifter-novelist-susan-barker-opens-about-her) (Link is dodgy. Look for an article called, "Continental drifter: novelist Susan Barker opens up about her nomadic lifestyle".)

So... not only does Barker not speak the language to any competent degree she can't read it, and she doesn't believe in reincarnation. Without reading the novel, I can't say how authentic her portrayal of a Beijing taxi driver is. However, this admittance already gives me pause. Barker has just outed herself as not understanding Chinese culture despite her years researching. The average Mainlander, will be more than open to the possibility of reincarnation, even if s/he doesn't believe in it personally. Reincarnation is part of the Chinese mindset -- whether or not you believe.


[P]eople are the same everywhere, and what differs between East and West are cultural differences that with enough time and research can be understood. The man listened, his arms folded. He hadn’t read The Incarnations, but that didn’t matter to him. He was basing his judgment not on the contents of the book, but my identity as a British author.
(Source: https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/should-ethnicity-limit-what-a-fiction-writer-can-write-human-experience?utm_content=buffer71c4a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer)

Why would that member of the audience not be allowed to judge Barker's work using her identity as a British author? She said it herself: Linguistically and culturally, she is British. And that smacks to me of arrogance and a "better than thou" attitude. Or at least one that purports to know my culture's ins and outs better than I do. Perhaps Beijing-specific culture, since I lack in-depth experience of it. However, what she fails to acknowledge in any interview or article I've so far read about/on her, is that the Chinese written language is a very integral part of the culture. It is through the written and spoken language and dialects that Chinese culture is sustained, embraced and understood.

With enough time and research can you know a culture very well? Sure. You can also live your entire life in another country, immersed in another culture. But if you don't learn the language, you are still only an outside observer. And even if you know the visual and aural representations enough to be fluent, you will never be native. There will always be nuances that are missed.

However, credit goes to her for admitting such:


However, the further the creative leap beyond the perimeters of our own identity, the more challenges there are, and the greater the chance of missteps and errors.

Unfortunately, Barker contradicts herself, thus establishes she doesn't "get" what it means to be Chinese:


The objective was not to construct a fictional Chinese everyman, but a main character that was original and idiosyncratic, but still convincingly from Beijing.


[T]he authenticity of the Chinese characters had been a primary concern

Versus:


Yes, there are characters who are cruel, irrational, and egotistical, but the intention was to make a statement about what it is to be human, not what it is to be Chinese.

So, what does she want her Beijing taxi driver to represent? Beijing Chinese taxi driver, or plain human but not Chinese?

What Barker fails to understand about China, its culture and its people, is how being Chinese is being human, and that being human is being Chinese. The two are inseparable for the Chinese nation. Compare this to, say, Eire and being Irish. Or France and being French. This applies to all countries and cultures. So, for Barker to "make a statement about [being] human" and dismiss "what it is to be Chinese" belittles the Chinese culture and the Chinese identity. The Chinese/human identity is an essential core that is not conveyed through Barker's article. Even more disconcerting in her dismissal is the fact she is of Malaysian-Chinese descent, yet identifies as British, but does not dismiss being Malaysian-Chinese and being human. Ergo, I do not see how she can represent deeper aspects of the Chinese culture with such superficiality.


The longer I spent in China the more diverse its citizens seemed, and any distinct “Chinese psyche” impossible to define.
The "Chinese psyche" is, in fact, quite simple: filial duty, and the family before the individual, and the country before the family. (Barring today's hideously entitled new-rich morons and their offspring. >,<) Confucian teachings still pervade Chinese education (formal, informal, at home, at work, throughout Chinese society), as do all the classic poets and bards and philosophers, e.g., Song, Tang, Mencius, Mozi, Gongsun Longzi, Zhuang Zi, Zou Yan (Yin Yang philosopher), etc. While almost all (?) of these works have been translated into English, there is still more that will never be. I believe this is the same for any language and culture. (By the way, I listed some of the more lesser-known philosophers instead of the well-known ones because there is more to Chinese philosophy than just Confucius, Sun Tzu and Laozi.)

Reading those philosophers in Chinese, and Mao in Chinese, means you spend months and years thinking. Not hours, or days, etc. The Chinese language can convey meaning in as little as four or five words per line. Example poem: "春眠不觉晓,处处闻啼鸟,夜来风雨声,花落知多少。" (Chun(1) mian(2) bu(4) jue(2) xiao(3), Chu(4) chu(4) wen(2) ti(2) niao(3), Ye(4) lai(2) feng(1) yu(3) sheng(3), hua(1) luo(4) zhi(1) duo(1) shao(3)). (I slumbered and the spring dawn passed me by, from all around I heard birds cry, at night came the sounds of the wind and rain, who knows how many petals lay slain?) Deeper meaning can be inferred from this particular poem, especially with knowledge of the era in which it was written (poet: Meng Haorang; period: Tang Dynasty).

Barker is also asked,


"Aren't you just sensationalizing Chinese history?"I have been asked about my book, "Isn't that just Orientalism?"... This interpretation, however, fails to take into account how widespread this “Orientalist” imagery is in TV and film productions in China today.

Unfortunately, what Barker again fails to realise is the extent to which the language and nuances play a significant part in these "cliched" dramas. The body language conveys volumes while the dialogue adds a depth that is missed if you don't understand the spoken / written language (various Chinese dramas are subtitled in Chinese). For example, she basically ballet dances her way when she walks using pigeon-sized steps. In line with this body language is the vocabulary: imperial, highly educated, and (in some cases) insidiously vicious under the guise of sainthood. E.g., "Your health is of great concern to every one of your sisters here. Thus it is imperative that the royal physician takes your pulse, so as to provide you with the highest quality medication from the royal medicinal gardens. Please rest until you are a delicate lily again." Behind this flowery speech is the hidden message: "If you're pregnant, it had better not be a boy; if it is, you will take abortion medicine. And if you don't, you will be forced to do so, and if you become ill in the process, you only have yourself to blame. Be cooperative and stay pretty. Ancestors help you if you rebel!"

(Quick note: "Sisters" is a term that may have been used in the Imperial court to address fellow concubines. I have yet to fully research this term.)

Or, there's always the straight forward, "carried out with your legs straight" (literal translation). Basically means, you're dead (and buried). In Chinese culture, if you lie on your back on your bed with your legs straight, feet facing the door, you're a corpse, ready for burial (or cremation).


Looking at works distributed in English-speaking countries alone, there are the novels of Su Tong (My Life as Emperor) and Shan Sa (Empress), and the films of Zhang Yimou (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower).

With limited understanding of the language and deeper meanings often conveyed through it, it appears Barker is very limited to anything that is translated into English. But how much is meaning and subtlety lost in translation? More so when the two languages do not have a common core? (E.g., Latin / French / English / Greek, etc., vs. Chinese / English, or Arabic / Japanese).

So:


Should fiction writers steer clear of writing Asian characters with predominately negative characters traits, so as not to appear maligning? Should bleak depictions of Asian history or society be avoided, or counterbalanced with more positive narratives?

Essentially, what Barker is saying then, is that she's whining about how one man's perspective represents every native Chinese person's perspective, and that there are no dark or bleak or unsavoury depictions of Asian characters.

I wonder then, if Barker has actually talked to Triad members, or watched films or read books or stories that depict the worst of Chinese society without subtitles, without translations? I assume not. Those films, those stories, those books, are off limits because they are not in English. Where, then, does she think negative depictions come from? (I have a magazine about Chinese torture, and it's in Chinese only; I haven't found an English translation of it. I also have a horror SF series called, "Beautiful Demon Hunters" (direct translation, no English version). It's not a series for the faint of heart.)


If literature must be bowdlerized in this manner, then this begs the question: what is literature for?

Hmm... it is quite arrogant to assume that literature about cultures not your own must depict bleakness, darkness, or negativity to be considered literature.

(By-the-bye, I deplore the term "Asian"-- the continent is vast and "Asian" does not automatically mean Chinese! Oops, did I just oust Barker not understanding the Chinese culture in the best way possible?)

Tocotin
08-10-2015, 08:14 PM
For me the point is not wheter you can write convincingly about other cultures -- of course you can, if you take the proper care and respect.
The question is whether you can write convincingly enough to convince and please natives of that culture, and whether they are right to doubt you. And here there IS a very clear line, which is why that Chinese guy dismissed her without reading the book. That line is language.

I'm assuming she wrote in English, and I'd go so far as to state that a book however well-written, in a language other than the native language of the characters and setting can never ever be completely convincing.

I see this in Germany, where ALL movies and series are dubbed into German. Imagine Downton Abbey in German. Friends in German. Sex in the City in German. It NEVER convinces. Never. Same with English novels translated into German, which I used to read regularly when I was learning German. They were so completely off, I couldn't do it after a while. All the more so when trying to write Chinese (or Indian, Japanese etc) characters in their native land, all speaking English. It doesn't work for the natives.

And yes, it can work wonderfully for native Englishspeakers and you can even achieve wonderful reviews -- but it never feels authentic for a native, and that's what the author doesn't seem to get. She thinks she should not be criticised because the guy hadn't read the book, buthe knows. Oh yes he knows!

Yes, but what does that guy know? That he won't be pleased, no matter what? That he refuses to be pleased, because the author is not a native? What is he doing there, then? Is he there just to remind her that she's not Chinese and never shall be – if so, what does it accomplish, apart from stating the obvious? What does it help with, apart from hinting at a need of segregation?

It takes two sides to enjoy a book, and the reader needs to want to be pleased, without requiring impossible things from the author. If the reader KNOWS from the start that the author doesn't meet certain requirements, necessary for the reader to enjoy the book, then the book is not for him/her.

I'm not aiming to please or convince "the natives" – I'm aiming to please and convince those who are willing to be pleased and/or convinced. Authenticity is important when writing different cultures, but it's difficult to measure. I wouldn't be so sure that absolutely all "natives" by definition require the same level of authenticity to enjoy a book written by an outsider – some of them might not even care, some might be willing to overlook certain shortcomings, if the story or the characters interest them. And some of them might say "OMG, this author doesn't know our culture/history, we never did it this way! SO NOT AUTHENTIC", while it's them who lack knowledge and not the author.

From the top of my head: Valery Bryusov, one of the leading Russian Symbolists, in 1907 wrote The Fiery Angel, a historical religious novel set in 16th century Germany. It was so "authentic" that German critics were convinced he just found a period manuscript and translated it from German to Russian.

aruna
08-10-2015, 09:34 PM
Snitchcat, thanks for the very informative post.

Tocotin, if a writer isn't trying to please natives of the culture she's writing about, and only wants to write for her own community, all well and good. Many writers do this successfully. But then, you shouldn't be peeved if natives of that culture are critical. I think that's only natural.

I can imagine she'd be doubtful, too, if she heard of a Chinese writer who came to England as an adult and lived there for six years and learned a bit of English (but not to read or write it) and lived with a few natives and went to a few language schools, and then wrote a novel -- in Mandarin -- about a Cockney taxi-driver. Just writing that summary makes me sceptical! :)

Liosse de Velishaf
08-11-2015, 04:44 AM
There are a lot of reasons to write a story set in another culture, but some are more acceptable than others. Natives of a culture have every right to complain about an out-group author writing about them. What is the goal of writing about a culture if you have no intention of accurately portraying and or exploring it? Why do that? Why not write about something else? Because you think the fact that it captured your imagination gives you a right to it? How can you argue the culture inspired you, that you care about it, if you can't be bothered to research it and learn about it properly? It's unreasonable to expect and outsider to write like an insider, but you can still write respectfully, and own up to your imperfections.

Robert Dawson
08-11-2015, 05:11 AM
After reading the original article, I find myself wondering: would those Westerners who agree with the anonymous Chinese speaker that Barker, as a Westerner, "can never understand the Chinese" tell a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day) to his face that, being Japanese, he could never understand the English? (Or, for that matter, mutter it behind his back?)

My own take on Remains is that no, it is probably not quite the book that any English novelist would have written - but that because of Ishiguro's outside viewpoint and painstaking research, he has perhaps achieved insights about English society that an English novelist might not have. I don't consider those differences to be "imperfections" that need to be "owned up to." (Of course, I'm Canadian, only lived in England for six years*, and have never been nor employed a butler, so maybe my opinion is rubbish.)

Might the same be true of a Western author writing carefully enough about a non-Western society? I do not see why it is impossible.

*Aruna: I'm not parodying the "six years" of your post. That just is how long I lived in England for, honestly.

Robert Dawson
08-11-2015, 05:45 AM
One could also ask - is this any different from the inability of many writers to fully put themselves in the shoes of others within their own society? Did D.H.Lawrence really understand the life of a gamekeeper? let alone a paraplegic like Lord Chatterley? (I'd give a fairly definite "no" on that last, but Lawrence fans don't seem perturbed.) Could Agatha Christie really see the world through the eyes of a Belgian immigrant? Should our entire literature consists of stories about more or less successful writers?

aruna
08-11-2015, 07:39 AM
My own take on Remains is that no, it is probably not quite the book that any English novelist would have written - but that because of Ishiguro's outside viewpoint and painstaking research, he has perhaps achieved insights about English society that an English novelist might not have. I don't consider those differences to be "imperfections" that need to be "owned up to." (Of course, I'm Canadian, only lived in England for six years*, and have never been nor employed a butler, so maybe my opinion is rubbish.)

.

Robert, Ishiguro grew up in England. He was immersed in the culture since he was a child. English is (one of them) his native language! That makes a huge difference! My little granddaughter lives in China and at 6 is already fluent in Mandarin -- I'm very impressed! I'm sure when she grows up, even as an Austrian, if she decided to be a novelist she will be able to write convincing novels set in China.

The British novelist M.M.Kaye grew up in India during the Raj and wrote at least two fantastic Indian novels -- The Far Pavillions and Shadow of the Moon. The books have a truly authentic feel, unlike the novel I mentioned earlier, Sisters of the Sari, which was based purely on the writers research as an outsider.That's the difference: research as opposed to "full immersion". You need a full immersion background to avoid criticism by insiders.

One of the crass mistakes the author of Sisters of the Sari made was this: the novel was set in Madras (Chennai) and at one point the owner of a hostel for poor working women decided to hold a feast (or the feast was sponsored by the white rich woman, I forget). The main course of the feast was -- chicken curry.

Now, how did this writer, who claims to have lived in Madras, not know that vegetarianism is the default diet there? That restaurants which serve meat are labeled "non-veg"? At least 80% of the residents of such a hostel would have been vegetarian. It would not have been the wonderful treat they regarded it as.

Later, she describes a beggar who lives on the street with her daughter, and at some point the beggar gets some money to buy a meal for herself and her child. Again, she chooses chicken and is SOOOO happy to at last serve her daughter meat. The writer didn't "get" that meat is not the delicacy it would be in the west. It is not a luxury you are eager to get once you can afford it. Even a beggar (except maybe a Muslim beggar, which was not the case) would be unlikely to crave it. It would be basically regarded as inedible -- just as a Western beggar would not, probably, be delighted about a meal of, say, fried maggots.

That's the kind of naive mistake a Westerner might make. An Indian reading this book would have immediately noticed this and been irritated. Westerners don't notice. The book has almost exclusively rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

J.S.F.
08-11-2015, 12:43 PM
(Pasted from Aruna's post #16) "The question is whether you can write convincingly enough to convince and please natives of that culture, and whether they are right to doubt you."

The bolding is what I'm looking at here. To be honest, I'd say most writers would be able to craft a decent story about a culture that is not their own provided they did the necessary research beforehand. Whether it would convince and please natives of said culture is another matter. I've lived in Japan half my life, speak the language well enough, write it well enough--although my kanji knowledge still sucks--and I still don't know all the intricacies of the language or culture. Even the 'gaijin tarento' who live here, who are fluent, who've been here longer and/or have done more research, don't know everything. So if I were to write a novel about an aspect of Japanese culture, even if I've done mountains of research with experts in the field I was writing about, I would expect to be called on it by Japanese literary/cultural experts.

For the writer who wrote about China, I haven't read her novel so I cannot comment. I don't know if it's good or bad. However, I would never tell her not to write about it. At the same time, though, I cannot say anything if a native Chinese questions her about it. It is their country, after all, and they would (or should) know more about the culture having been brought up in its intricacies from birth. I would be a bit miffed if I wrote a novel, did all the research, and had it dismissed by a native without him/her having read it, but I suppose that comes with the territory.

Just my thoughts. The idea of appropriation is something I'll have a think on and get back to later when my brain is functioning a bit better.

Roxxsmom
08-11-2015, 01:39 PM
I would love to see more white authors bringing more diversity into their novels, and I don't want to scare them off -- yes! Please do! But when you do be prepared to be questioned --- and I think that's what irritated me about this writer -- she didn't seem to think she should be questioned.

This, definitely.

And really, any time you write something, you have to be prepared for criticism.

Some people won't like it, and some of them will lambaste it. Sometimes people have stupid reasons, or their criticism is levied in a way that's petty or rude. But if someone says you've portrayed someone from a different demographic from yourself in a way that's hurtful or disrespectful, it's something to consider at least.

I think it's probably pretty painful to try your hardest (and for a work to be published and therefore non-fixable) and be told you didn't get it right in some ways. And while it's always possible the person is just impossibly picky, it's also good to listen to what they said and see if there's anything you can learn about it.

Having said this, people from a given culture will not all be in agreement about the reality and norms of their own world either. I suspect it's possible to be told you did a great job by some people from that culture or demographic and to be found lacking by others.

Confusing and frustrating, but it can still be used as a learning experience.

onesecondglance
08-12-2015, 12:49 AM
I find this topic very interesting, as someone writing a novel set outside England but for an English audience. I have no pretension that a native of that country would think it a good representation - that would be the highest praise I could imagine, and I sincerely doubt I can hit that high - but I'd at least like to not commit enormous errors, and certainly not be offensive in my ignorance.

It's no excuse to say that I'm not writing about that culture, because setting the story there makes it about that culture anyway. I know I'm ignorant, and research - from visiting in person to reading to talking to natives - can only go so far. I hope that's enough.

Liosse de Velishaf
08-12-2015, 04:07 AM
After reading the original article, I find myself wondering: would those Westerners who agree with the anonymous Chinese speaker that Barker, as a Westerner, "can never understand the Chinese" tell a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains Of The Day) to his face that, being Japanese, he could never understand the English? (Or, for that matter, mutter it behind his back?)

My own take on Remains is that no, it is probably not quite the book that any English novelist would have written - but that because of Ishiguro's outside viewpoint and painstaking research, he has perhaps achieved insights about English society that an English novelist might not have. I don't consider those differences to be "imperfections" that need to be "owned up to." (Of course, I'm Canadian, only lived in England for six years*, and have never been nor employed a butler, so maybe my opinion is rubbish.)

Might the same be true of a Western author writing carefully enough about a non-Western society? I do not see why it is impossible.

*Aruna: I'm not parodying the "six years" of your post. That just is how long I lived in England for, honestly.


Think of it like the language issue. You can be quite fluent even if you aren't a native speaker, but you will never speak like a truly native speaker. I can make myself understood in Japanese. But I can't speak it like a native speaker, or debate Japanese philosophical or religious thought like a native Japanese Buddhist monk might be able to, even though I know quite a bit about Japanese religion and philosophy.





If you want to write about another culture, again, go for it. But don't get cranky if a native dislikes the story, and perhaps consider learning from critiques instead of complaining about them.

patskywriter
08-15-2015, 09:27 AM
I'm black, both my parents were black, I grew up in a black neighborhood, attended a black college, and yet I can write a story, base a character on myself, and know that I could be sharply criticized for not making my character black enough. I'm pretty sure that I can capture the particular culture I grew up in but still not satisfy black readers who have their own experiences and opinions on what it means to be black and what is "authentically black." I suspect this wouldn't be unique to black folks.

I read the African-American classic "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" a few decades after it was first published. Even though it was considered a revolutionary book (for its time) heralding "blackness," I remember commenting to a friend that it seemed that the book was written by a white guy who used a tourist guide to black culture. The characters lacked the nuance I felt necessary for them to be believable as black people.

So on one hand, I'm thinking that if a writer can capture some of the "realness" of a culture, whatever the culture is, he or she has a good shot at creating believable characters and situations. But on the other hand, a certain amount of research/observation is necessary if the writer is striving for a certain level of accuracy. For example, if I were basing a story in Japan, I'd be totally wrong if I had young office workers graciously allowing elderly people to get on the commuter trains first in Shinjuku. But that's how I'd describe that scene if I based it on childhood descriptions of Japanese culture, where the elderly are "revered and treated with deference." Americans would read that and not give it a second thought, especially if they grew up hearing the same thing. However, Japanese readers would know better, at least the ones in Shinjuku. They know that the office workers routinely shove the old people out of the way, get on first, and take all the seats. The elderly riders are forced to stand and crash into each other when the train takes off because they're too short and bent over to reach the safety bars. (This is based on my experiences back in 1981—hopefully things are better now.) This is the type of thing you don't pick up on unless you see it for yourself—it's probably not discussed in tourist guides or even in descriptions of Japanese culture—but it's there and it's real. And although describing a scene like this one way or the other wouldn't make or break the book, I would think it would make a big difference in how seriously the story would be taken by knowledgeable readers.

bombergirl69
08-15-2015, 06:36 PM
I really appreciate this thread and thanks for sharing the article! So many interesting aspects to it...

We come up against "other" all the time, and the author is right that the author's identity, background, etc., i.e., how dissimilar s/he is to the subjects of the book, can be powerful, whether talking culture, gender, occupation and so forth. There is no way around that. I wonder if it would have made any difference if she was Chinese herself, but raised in London. I think people in general do want to know "Can I trust this author?" and the author's (probably even perceived) expertise is going to make a difference.

There are some who will not read a book about their culture, gender, occupation, region, whatever unless it is written by "one of theirs." Fair enough. Unfortunately, there are so many authors who have done a terrible, terrible job of it, it's not hard to see why "natives" (of whatever culture) roll their eyes. Some may be more trivial aspects of a profession (in my profession, maybe mixing up "thesis" and "dissertation" in the US anyway) and others really offensive (this came up in a thread in the query section) which make the author look either ignorant and lazy, or arrogant.

I would absolutely defend an author's right to write whatever they please, though. I don't like the idea of an "authenticity police" dictating who can write what! I think the market can take care of that. If it sucks, it sucks. No one has to buy it or give it high ratings.

I agree completely that research, personal experience and sure, language, all contribute to people taking a work seriously. I speak-spoke (rusty now) pretty good Swahili, and as an example, women in that language do not marry, they are married. Perhaps things have changed (been many years) but certainly knowing language helps a ton! Even though my ex is Kenyan, spent quite of bit of time with him and his family there, traveled extensively in Kenya, if I were to write about Kenya, my MC would be western. I just don't have enough confidence to pull off a Kenyan MC, get inside their head.

My book now involved a white MC with a Native love interest. I have spent a lot of time consulting with my husband, who is Blackfeet, and others. The love interest does not play a huge role, and it's 1st pp so no getting in his head, but what details I do have I want right (as I can, as a white girl, get them.) I also do not have enough confidence to write about a MC who is Native because there is absolutely no way I could know enough to do that. I know others have, and I guess been quite successful (Hillerman) but I don't see myself ever being able to do that.

There are people who would never read any book written by an "other" -- a non-southerner, non-lawyer, man/woman, whatever and I get why. sometimes people get it wrong and don't care. Were I the author in the original article, I guess I'd want to know the man's objections, specifically and how he thought I could address them in the book. If he had not read it, I 'd give him a copy. Did I make language mistakes? Something specific? Or is he someone who just will not read/be comfortable with any book by a westerner? If that's the case, he'd get no argument from me, he doesn't have to read anything, but that's a different discussion (should "other" ever write? Apparently he, hypothetically, feels, "no."), not a discussion about my book in particular.

Anyway, a very good thread. Very thought provoking.

Indubitably
08-18-2015, 02:20 AM
That's the kind of naive mistake a Westerner might make. An Indian reading this book would have immediately noticed this and been irritated. Westerners don't notice. The book has almost exclusively rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Reminds me of The Physician. Five stars on Netflix. :Shrug: There are a lot of cases like that, though, where people prefer wallpaper or stereotypical settings and characters to the real thing. I think the former prevent the latter from receiving a warm reception, actually, because people absorb an idea of what X is, even if we all insist we know fiction is fiction and we don't take our entertainment as educational.