Writing, Reading, Living Different Cultures

I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:

 

As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.

Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.

Ratatouille Anton Ego Perspective Quote

At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.

One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.

Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.

I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.

Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.

So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.

Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.

Image via The Autodidactic Hacker

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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NYC Subway Library Offers Free Reads This Summer

Subway riders in New York City are in for a treat this summer: e-books, e-shorts, and excerpts from full-length books are available in subway stations for free download.

This six-week Subway Library promotion comes from the cooperation of the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Transit Wireless.

The e-books and short stories come from the NYPL’s permanent collection, while excerpts have been made available by big-name publishers (including Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Plympton, and Simon & Schuster).

Along with the free reading, there is a social media competition, and a special Library Train will alternate running along the 6th and 8th Avenue lines (E and F trains). The latter has a car decorated to look like the Rose Main Reading Room inside the 42nd Street branch of the NYPL.

Publishers Weekly Subway Library Train Interior

Read more about and browse the free selection at the Subway Library website!

Found via Tor.com and Publishers Weekly.

Image: interior of Subway Library train car by NYPL via Publishers Weekly

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading Tor.com’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.

[…]

“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.

Empathy

Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Quotes: I Don’t Need Characters to Be Likeable

Author Chuck Wendig shared a list of reasons that will make him put down a book he’s reading. Number 16 includes this bit:

“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”

– Chuck Wendig

Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.

Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.