Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Writing and Cultural Norms

When I was in college, I read the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It stands today as one of the few assigned novels I actually liked, but that's neither here nor there. No, what stuck in my mind was how different the style of prose was from the American and British literature I'd read to that point. I think, and my memory may be faulty, that Things Fall Apart was my first experience with literature written from an African perspective about issues facing Africans.

All of the writing that exposed me to Africa prior to reading Achebe's novel was written from the perspective of the European "civilizing" the "Dark Continent" of Africa. It got really old, really fast, especially when I realized how darn boring all of that writing was (except for Egyptian history). And then I read Achebe's novel, and Africa came alive for me again.

Achebe's novel was powerful because of a strong connection to the issues at hand, and because he wrote it the way only an African can -- with respect for the issues faced by his protagonist, and acknowledgment that the issues are greater than fighting against the forces of "civilization."

Because see here's the big thing: We are all products of the culture we are raised in.

The resident of a particular country will always view their own nation different than a foreigner. Stories written by the member of a dominant culture in any country will almost always have elements of that culture inherent in it. I say "almost" because there are exceptions to every rule, and this one is no different. Regardless of that though, I'm certain that you can find shared themes across the mainstream fiction that comes out of each society, all the way back to the first stories told around the campfire.

For example: the Western republics have been trained that communism is bad. We're told it squashes freedoms, creates corruption, and is generally a bad deal to live under. However, someone living under a communist government might only see the safety of the streets and the jobs given to everyone, especially if they subscribe to the so-called "party line."

A secondary example is the Colonial period in world history. The Spanish monks who traveled to Latin America during the Age of Exploration saw themselves as bringing culture and light to the natives of the Spanish colonies. They ruthlessly stamped out the native practices that they saw as "barbaric" and "heathen," and thought nothing of it because they were absolutely convinced that their culture was better.

So what's the final theory I have to put out there? It's two-fold, really. Be mindful of your perspective when you're writing; are you advocating a particular type of culture over another? Or are you simply telling a story with the most objective stance you can possibly take?

It depends on you and what you want to write to be quite honest. As with other writing, there are no hard-and-fast rules -- except to tell a good story.

I do have a question for you though: can you think of a novel that made an argument so well you didn't even realize it was being made? Or have message-laden novels gone the proverbial way of the Dodo bird and moved out of the public consciousness?

Discuss in the comments please. I'd love to hear what you think.


Davin Malasarn said...

I've been promoting this book all over the place, but I really liked Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The entire time I was reading the book, I felt like nothing was happening. Then, when I got to the end, all of the emotion of the entire story seemed to finally combine in a way that was very moving. Ishiguro is a British writer, and I think there is a hint of British esthetic in there--moreso in his earlier book Remains of the Day. I actually started reading him only because I'm a huge fan of Japanese literature, and I was curious to see if he possessed some of the same characteristics I like from the purely Japanese writers.

Myself, I try to be as objective as I can be, but I realize that growing up in a Thai-American culture has affected the way I sense things. The Thai language is also onomatopoetic, and I think that affects my language choices.

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

Davin, that's interesting! I didn't know that about Thai language.

Of course we are all affected by the cultures we are immersed in, but some writers seem more conscious of it than others. I like books that point to paradoxes, conflicts, and political issues through striking scenes and writing that forces questions to be raised. Preachy writing in which the author is trying to tell you what the right answer is... that's old-fashioned and very much a product of imperialist culture, I believe.

But writing that sheds light on real problems and leaves all the chaos open to the reader's interpretation (yet aesthetically composed) is moving and stimulating.

Unknown said...

When I read Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trylogy for the first time it altered the way I think about things more with the impact of the story than any preaching. It opened a lot of questions about war and morality that I hadn't thought about before but didn't necisarily answer them. To me at least that was ver effective, but there are other books out there with a more direct agenda that can get away with being more conclusive. (Uncle Tom's Cabin for example)

Ay-leen the Peacemaker said...

So what's the final theory I have to put out there? It's two-fold, really. Be mindful of your perspective when you're writing; are you advocating a particular type of culture over another? Or are you simply telling a story with the most objective stance you can possibly take.

I think that the theory is more complicated in implementation, partly because you also mention that fact that we are all products of the culture we are raised in. And it's also simplifying the idea that we're all "advocating a viewpoint" in our writing --which, of course, is different from writing based upon one's home culture, or based upon one's life experiences.

For instance, if I write about a Vietnamese-American family, I'm not necessarily "advocating" for my community, but writing about it. And the story should not be used as "a factual piece of evidence" -- aka if the father in the story is strict, then *all* Vietnamese fathers must be strict-- but as a piece of individual art that reflects one's personal, subjective experience. To look at a piece of writing as something completely representative of a people and/or culture can be very damaging. It's also a conflict that comes up with a lot of minority writers too: where if we write something about our community, then our people will give us flak if we don't "represent" in a way that is beneficial to us. Because, of course, the dominant culture will judge our work not in itself but upon the whole community. That's not the writer's fault or their home community's fault, but a sign of systematic prejudice that marginalized peoples have to deal with.

Also I certainly think that all authors write based off their on experiences in life, but the reasoning behind their writing choices are not necessarily conscious 100% of the time. And it's hard if you are worried about writing with any kind of "bias" (and not just for culture or race, but for gender, sex, class, physical ability, size, and faith), because then where does the line between telling a story and preaching lie?

I suppose what I mean is that there are certain types of writing where the message is intentional and there are those that are not. What the writer should be aware of, then, is what unintentional messages they are sending (because those could be the damaging ones).


L. T. Host said...

Not 100% sure if I can think of one-- nothing is coming to mind immediately, and the library in my brain requires visual stimulus to recall the books I've read (I need to look at my bookshelves). But one of the big things I love about reading is the culture-- it brings it alive for me.

Which is part of why I love culture so much, because I love reading.