Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Fiction? Isn't Non-Fiction a Better Way to Learn about Other Cultures?

When we plan to travel or move to a new place, it's natural that we want real, tangible information.  What's the weather like?  Where are good restaurants?  What do the locals do for fun?  Are there safety concerns to be aware of?

We scour the Web for answers and might even check out a few books, probably all non-fiction.

If we want to dive a little deeper, we might try to find local media sources -- online newspapers where we can read about what's going on in the place we are going to visit soon or are interested in.

Maybe we'll also search YouTube for videos from this location, and maybe we'll look for bloggers writing about it.

If we are really motivated (and planning to spend a lot of time there or spend a lot of money for a one-time trip), we might delve even deeper, buying not just guidebooks but books that tell us about that place's history, politics, and social problems.

But what about fiction?  It's easy to overlook fiction when doing research about a new place or trying to learn about a different culture.  We want real information.  Hmm... a real mistake.  Here are a few reasons why fiction is a great way to learn about another culture:

  1. Fiction is fun!  It's way more interesting than plowing through a non-fiction book on politics by an academic author.
  2. Fiction gets at the heart of culture.  Culture isn't about maps or good hotels or places to avoid.  Culture is about what's important to a society or people within that society.  Culture is about the way people think and what they worry about, what they dream about, what they hope for.  The only way to really learn these things is to know people from the culture, and in many cases, it may be difficult to get to know someone in a short time period from the culture you are trying to learn about.  Fiction can provide a faster insight (albeit not as deep) into the lives of "real" people.
  3. Fiction gives us insights into daily life.  It's hard to really get a sense of what daily life is like by reading a guidebook, a book about politics, or even the news.  Fiction presents us with the lives of several different people who live in a particular culture.  We can learn fairly quickly which behavior and activities are considered "normal" and which are not.
  4. Fiction helps us identify the things that are hard to identify.  If you ask someone to define or explain a culture, they will usually find this request difficult.  Think about it: how well could you answer a question like, "What's important to people in your culture?"  We tend to think about the variety within our culture and stumble up, unable to have a clear answer.  But someone from another culture simply wants a general overview: what is typically considered "normal" for people to find important in your culture?  A list of these things is bound to forget some and also bound to be confusing.  Fiction, on the other hand, presents us with tiny moments from life -- dilemmas that characters face, conversations, arguments, dreams, strange happenings.  Through reading about these experiences, we are likely to notice a few things that strike us as surprising -- things we would not expect to hear about or think about or do in our own culture.  It's these little tidbits -- the tiny things no one in a culture really thinks about -- that are what culture is often really about.
  5. Fiction helps us develop an empathetic relationship with someone from another culture.  When we read fiction, we tend to identify with the protagonist (or perhaps in rare cases, with another character instead).  In this way, fiction offers us a view into another lifestyle.  It makes us consider why people do the things they do and what we would do in a similar situation.  It helps us feel more compassion for people who are different from ourselves, and it gives us practice trying to understand different viewpoints.
These are just a few reasons.  If you have others, please share them!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Do Our Characters Have to Be Likeable?

In a New York Times article about Dutch author Herman Koch's new novel, "The Dinner," Claire Messud takes Americans to task for our desire to always "like" the characters in our fiction:

"North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable. This preference is strange, given that few real people are thoroughly nice and that those few aren’t interesting. "

I have often thought about this when watching European films, and it is an important reason to make sure to expose oneself to fiction from different cultures.

Is it important that fictional characters be likeable?  If you are a writer, this may be a question you've posed to yourself before.  Or perhaps you've never considered it.  Too wrapped up in our usual cultural understanding of good fiction, it may be difficult for most North American writers to consider writing an unlikeable protagonist.

We are all familiar with the "evil" or misguided antagonist and particularly enjoy seeing him or her discredited and the protagonist triumphing in the end.  If there are unlikeable or unsympathetic characters, they are almost always minor characters or people the protagonist must work around or overcome in order to succeed.

In most American fiction, our protagonists may be complex and may make mistakes, but we usually explain these away with a reason.  If a poor protagonist steals from the rich, the crime can be forgiven as necessarily survival technique and something that didn't really hurt the rich who were victimized.  If an alcoholic protagonist leaves his family, this perhaps can be forgiven because he is sick, and if he stops drinking and regrets his actions, we do not dislike him for his mistakes because he usually has other redeeming qualities.

Perhaps likeable is not the correct word.  I think what we want is sympathetic.  We want to side with our protagonists.  We want to believe that they are correct.  Because in some ways, we become the protagonist when we read a story.  We see the world through his or her eyes rather than our own, and we do not want to believe that we are wrong.

But this insistence on ignoring our own fallibility prevents us from having the intellectual and personal realizations we may come to have if we are forced to face a protagonist who is not sympathetic.  I have long noticed that American movies tend to create a black-and-white dichotomy of characters, with little room for the real good and bad traits we all have, while European movies tend to be more willing to give the protagonist some real flaws and the antagonist some sympathetic qualities.  As Messud points out, this is far closer to the truth in our everyday lives than a stark black-and-white, right-and-wrong scenario.

If we want to read fiction to get away from real life -- to experience an ordered world where things make sense and end happily -- then likeable protagonists will be our preference.  But it's important to look beyond this once in a while and have one's sense of self challenged by the consideration that we -- and the protagonists we identify with -- are not always right or even sympathetic.

We do stupid, selfish things.  We are mean to people.  We are ruthless.  We are self-loathing and self-defeatist.  These are qualities we should not ignore.  It is dangerous to always consider oneself to be right.  Reading about characters who we identify with but also see as unlikeable and/or wrong can help us identify these qualities in ourselves.  They do more than entertain; they stretch our minds and our sense of right and wrong, the very purpose of good fiction.

I once read that you should expose yourself to the opposite point of view to really learn the truth: if you are liberal, reading the New York Times will only reinforce your existing beliefs, while reading a more conservative paper will make you look at things in a different light.  It may be important to do the same with fiction.  Reading what is difficult and sometimes not enjoyable -- but good writing that makes you think -- has the potential to help you understand yourself and the world better.  And it will make you a better writer yourself.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Where Are You Running To?

I stumbled upon the anthology Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers at a library book sale a few months ago.  This chance encounter has proven to be a positive one because it's a fabulous book that has helped remind me of the importance of exploring international as well as domestic fiction.

I haven't finished the anthology yet, but I want to write a little about the first story, Where Are You Running To? by Ma Jian.  Ma Jian is a Chinese author whose work has been banned in China and who now lives in London.  He has had several novels published in English.

Where Are You Running To? is a melancholy story in which running serves as a metaphor for searching.  All of the characters in the book are running -- searching for themselves, their pasts and their futures, and the truth.

The protagonist is Zhao Chunyu, a chairwoman of the neighborhood committee who was sent to a labor camp with her husband when she was young and "rehabilitated" in 1981.  These character traits are so casually a part of the story that it forces the reader from outside China to acknowledge the differences in their own personal and cultural history and that of China and many Chinese people.  This is not a story that could be set in another place.  It is definitively Chinese, and the characters in it have experiences that may be mirrored elsewhere but are specifically Chinese.

Chunyu's daughter, Xin, suffered from bone cancer and died because in their poverty, they could not afford expensive medical treatment, and no one would help them.  This, despite the slogan painted on the hospital's cafeteria wall: Cure the Sick and Heal the Wounded; Practice Revolutionary Humanism.

Chunyu's son is running away from her, and she is chasing after him.  She is trying to turn him into the star pianist that Xin was, but he does not enjoy playing the piano, nor is he as good at it.

Most of the story recalls memories of Xin's last days, when the family pushed her around in a cart and begged for money.  They were criticized for "creating such a commotion," and are told by the police that the paper they are using to tell Xin's story is the size of a poster, and it is forbidden that members of the public write things on a sheet of paper that size.

Again and again, the presence of this family is tolerated -- first by the hospital and then by a luxury hotel -- but then they are pushed aside by those who have money and power.  There is a sense that these are average people and that others do not want to be bothered by problems and sadness.  People want to pretend that everything is okay, and so they ignore and push aside this family and their sad story.

Late in the story, Chunyu is mistaken for a prostitute when she tries to hide behind a tall man during the chase of her son, and "she feels so humiliated, she wishes she could bury herself beneath the ground."  Yet again, she suffers a disgrace and affront to her sense of self, yet she keeps going because she has no other choice.

In the end, it is Chunyu who is taken away by running, and her son begins to chase her: "A sense of freedom that she's never experienced before courses through her body.  At least she feels that she has caught up with herself."  The world becomes clearer to her as she runs faster and faster, and "she wants to catch up with her past."

There is a sense, in the end, that the world was more ordered, understandable, and empathetic in the past, before the changes that sent them to the labor camps and turned the country on its head.  Chunyu seems to be flying away to a future she wished for when she was a child, not the life she ended up having, and her son finishes the story by trying to figure out where it is she is racing to.  A child of this new world, he would not understand her dreams of the future any more than she could understand his.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I'm glad you decided to join me on this blog.  I'm a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction, and I started this blog to share my thoughts and writings related to different cultures.

Writing Cultures.  What does that mean?  To me, it has a couple of meanings:

  • Writing about different cultures -- one's own, or a foreign culture.
  • Reading writing about different cultures -- again, one's own, or a foreign culture.
  • The culture(s) of writing itself -- what it means to be a writer, who writes, what a writing community is.
  • Short snippets of writing -- like "cultures" of different bacteria used to test for diseases.
I hope to share information, links, and writing related to all of these topics, and I hope you'll join me.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please feel free to leave a note on the blog.  I'd love to hear from you!