Writing Excuses 13.33: Reading Outside the Box
Key points: To understand what you are reading about another culture, start by understanding the culture. Ground yourself with a good spread of writing by people from inside the culture. Try reading nonfiction. Culture is not a monolith, it varies from place to place, even within a single family unit. Think about how many things your neighbor gets wrong. Read things produced for the culture by people from that culture. Read advertisements! Be aware of subtext and context. Be cautious about what you think you already know about a culture. Watch for evolution and time.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 33.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Reading Outside the Box.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Aliette] I’m Aliette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And we are currently trapped in a floating box in the Baltic Sea, but it is okay because we are here with wonderful special guest Kristie Claxton.
[Dan] Awesome. Kristie, tell us very briefly about yourself.
[Kristie] I am a POC writer. I… In my typical day job, I am a mom to about nine people…
[Kristie] During the day, then I go home and I’m a boss to four people.
[Dan] Very well put. Awesome. You’re also a writer as well.
[Kristie] I do write. I typically… I typically submit to a lot of contests and pray that someone will notice how great I am. It doesn’t typically happen, but sometimes I do. Right now, I’m writing a thriller about a con woman who comes to meet her… The fiancé of her deceased daughter, and she is picking up the con that her daughter had started.
[Dan] That sounds awesome, and I’m excited to read it. Cool. Well, we are happy to have you here, Kristie.
[Dan] We want to talk today about a question… We’re currently on the Writing Excuses cruise… The retreat… And in one of the classes that Aliette taught yesterday, a really good question came up and we said, “We are totally going to answer that in an episode, because everyone needs to hear this.” The question was, basically, if I remember correctly, “How can I know when I’m reading about a different culture, that what I’m reading is accurate and respectful and well done?” So, Aliette, what would you like to… Where would you like to start us on that answer?
[Aliette] Well, I think the… If you really want to have an idea of whether something is respectful or not to a given culture, then you need to actually understand what the culture is. To get a good grounding on what that culture is, then you need to read as much as possible that comes from people inside the culture, so that you have a good reference for okay, this is what’s happening. You also want to get a good spread, because cultures are going to be… Like, no culture is a monolith. You’re going to get very different perspectives. Like, for instance, in Vietnam, if you go… It’s still happening to some extent, North Vietnam, south-central Vietnam, and South Vietnam are going to be very different entities, and of course, you know, every province have their own. So you have to get a sense of, like, every author is going to have their different biases. It’s really hard. I mean, especially if you’re coming from outside, it feels very much like you’re staring at a wall of everything that feels similar, but as you read more and more, you become more aware of how things are playing out, and how someone’s… Someone may have prejudices against their neighbor, and the neighbors might give it back to them. Then, when you have… I think when you have that sort of grounding, then you can start getting a sense of whether the story that you’re… The one that you’re actually reading actually makes sense from that culture’s perspective.
[Howard] The thing that I’ve found, and I think I first discovered it when I was reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is a Syrian Christian. In his descriptions of… The book is about how we tell ourselves stories in order to make the world make sense, but our stories are wrong. Our stories create a narrative, and then reality will deny that narrative with the introduction of an element that he would call the black swan. But in reading it, he told… He shared anecdotes from his life. It’s a nonfiction book. I learned things about the Syrian Christian community, which was a thing that I didn’t even know existed until I picked up that book. In picking up that book, I recognized that the void in my own life was, one, I’m not reading enough nonfiction, and, two, I’m not reading enough anything written by people who aren’t me. So the filter that I see on fiction, whether or not the people are from my culture, is that fiction is when we make stuff up, and if I’m from outside the culture, I can’t tell if they’re making up things or if they’re reporting things correctly. So I start… Boy, I hate to lay this at everybody else’s feet, because I haven’t done it well yet, but if you read nonfiction from people who aren’t you, you are more likely to get the straight story that will then help you judge the fiction that you read.
[Aliette] Why do… I don’t know if we really get the straight story, because… I mean, we all tell stories, that’s how… I mean, one of the things that I was talking about in the course is that when you have family histories and family stories, for instance, no two people are going to give you the same explanation of what went down on Aunt Bea’s wedding, right?
[Aliette] So, whenever you tell a story that’s a bit the same, you’re telling it from your perspective. But I agree that with nonfiction, you don’t have the filter of I have to make up this to be entertaining, to follow certain conventions, so memoirs are fine. Like, one of the memoirs that I always recommend very heavily is Andrew Pham’s Under the Eaves of Heaven, which is about his father’s life in Vietnam from around the 1950s to when they settled in America, after the Vietnam War. It’s a really interesting piece about, like, that section of Vietnamese history seen through the eyes of his father, and seen through the eyes of the sun as well, so you really get that sense. I think it’s a really interesting thing for getting the sense of the life of both the father and the son.
[Mary] I think that’s a really good point that you make about the fact that… We always say culture is not a monolith, but it’s not just, “Oh, people who are coming from here have a slightly different…” Like, I’m from the American South, and my family is East Tennessee. I grew up in North Carolina. There are cultural differences between the two places. But it’s not just that, it’s even within a single family unit, you will have these differences. Kristie, you and I were talking yesterday a little bit, and you had some… Right after Aliette’s class, and you had some things to say.
[Kristie] Well, I think it’s very important not to just take one point of view or read just one thing. I’m from the American South. My family is from Tennessee. Southern Tennessee.
[Kristie] Right before the border of Georgia.
[Mary] I’m from Chattanooga.
[Kristie] I do not… Okay. Yes.
[Mary] We are…
[Kristie] Kissing cousins. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee. My father was in the military. I’ve lived all over the place. I do not have the same experiences as someone from the… Someone who’s lived in the South for any long period of time. Because I’ve lived in the North, we’ve lived in Germany, we’ve lived out West, I’ve lived… I’ve spent the majority of my time in Rhode Island. However, I’ve lived a completely different life than someone who has spent all of their time in Tennessee. So you can’t just take one point of view or one story or one… You can’t just interview one person and think, “Oh, I just know everything there is to know.” That’s… No.
[Kristie] Next to impossible.
[Mary] I mean, just think about how many things your neighbor gets wrong.
[Dan] Yeah. Let’s pause right now for our book of the week, which Kristie is going to tell us.
[Kristie] I recently read Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone. It is a retelling…
[That is so fabulous]
[Dan] Which is too perfect to not have already existed. That’s amazing that… Okay. So tell us about it.
[Kristie] It is a retelling of Sherlock Holmes and he has taken the majority of Sherlock Holmes’ stories and just made them supernatural. Where Watson is the logical deductive reasoner, and Warlock Holmes is the one who is using magic to solve the mysteries.
[Kristie] There is also a sequel as well.
[Dan] That’s fantastic.
[Kristie] The Hell Hounds of Baskerville.
[Dan] Who… Who’s it by?
[Kristie] You… No.
[Mary] That is something that we will Google and include in the liner notes.
[Mary] We’re on a ship…
[Howard] If you can remember Warlock Holmes, you’ve got it. If you can’t remember Warlock Holmes…
[Aliette] Maybe it’s not the book for you, right?
[Mary] But since we are talking about books, one thing that I want to say is that when you’re looking for… Since this prompt is for… This began from the what should I be reading. One of the things that I would say… Encourage people to do is read not just fiction and not just nonfiction, but making sure that you’re reading things that are produced for that culture by people from that culture. So magazines are actually really useful, and not just I’m going to read an article here or there, but actually read the entire magazine, cover to cover, including the advertisements. Because what people are trying to sell to other people within their community is really telling. Like, what do we sell on this podcast? We sell books that are science fiction and fantasy, predominantly, because that is who our community is. We also try to sell you that we know what we’re talking about.
[Howard] Jonathan Coulton’s song SkyMall, where he deconstructs the SkyMall magazine on airplanes and sings from the point of view of a SkyMall shopper… I wept when I listened to it, because he turned that high-end consumer life into something just so empty, and yet so full of wonder. Yeah, you read SkyMall and you think, “Who are these people?”
[Howard] “These people are not me. Who are these people?” SkyMall’s not a great example, because it’s trying to advertise to a cross-section of people with more money than sense, but any magazine will fulfill this in different ways because of… With the advertisers, because of that desire to feel a need they have.
[Aliette] I do want to caution this… That’s why I was talking about grounding, which is a lot of these things are going to have subtext that you’re just not going to see. The example I always take for this is there’s a series of short stories that are set during the Ming dynasty, and for the life of me, I can’t… It’s Stories to Warn the World [Stories to Caution the World?], and then i can’t actually remember the name of the author. But I remember being very struck because at one point, a woman crosses the street, very slowly, very daintily, and there’s a lot of description… It’s like two sentences of description or something. The subtext is she would have had bound feet, and that’s why she was crossing the street so slowly. If you don’t know this, then you’ll just miss it. It’s the same with like, a lot of… For instance, the Vietnamese magazines are going to have… I saw one that was for a shampoo brand, because there is a tem… [Garbled] it was based on a Vietnamese fairytale, where one of the characters actually gets the other out of the house under the pretext of washing her hair. If you don’t know that this is a reference to this particular fairytale, then you’re like, “Oh, this is nice, but…” You kind of… You don’t have the vocabulary. It’s like when you’re learning a foreign language, and all those proverbs are like, “I’m sorry, what does that mean exactly?”
[Dan] That’s a really good point, that sometimes without context, you can miss a lot of those clues. One of the cultures that I love to read and to read about is South American literature. One of my all-time favorite authors is Isabel Allende. If you have the chance, for example, Allende writes for both a Chilean audience and for an English-speaking audience in different books. It’s fascinating to read both of them and compare what is she emphasizing when she’s writing House of the Spirits versus some of her stuff that’s written in Spanish. So if you have the chance to compare two works like that, and see what gets emphasized or what gets left out, that can tell you a lot about those contextual clues.
[Kristie] I just wanted to mention using vernacular because I think a lot of… I… Like I said, I spent a majority of my time in Rhode Island. There are a lot of things that are specific to New England that I know about, that someone may not pick up if they’re from, say, the South or the Northwest or even from another country. I think that’s one of the biggest things around here that, with Writing Excuses, is that we’re trying to be everything to all people. Sometimes you can get that. And sometimes you can’t. You have to be very careful about how you put it when you’re doing it.
[Howard] I’ve found that the best I can hope for personally is to be honest about myself to all people, and to be honest about what I don’t know when I’m trying to tell stories that involve other people. Because the older I get, the stupider I get.
[Howard] The less I know that I know. Does that make sense?
[Mary] I want to say, on that note, that one of the things that you have to be most cautious of, the thing that I would encourage you to do is that… The things that you think you know about another culture are the things that are all… Those are the things where you are at the biggest risk of getting it wrong. Completely and totally wrong. I was writing a novel that was set in theater in 1907, and I’m like… I was researching the clothes, the hats, streetcar timetables. Didn’t do any research on the theater, because I’ve spent 25 years in the theater. Dress rehearsal. Not a thing. Tech rehearsal. Not a thing. There were all of these historical mistakes that I was just making right and left. So, also, when you are… Along with that, remember that cultures evolve over time. So it’s not enough to just be like, “This is the way it is now.” How was it 10 years ago, 15, 50 years ago? Because that evolution is also going to tell you a lot about conflict points between characters. So when you’re trying to write another culture, it’s not fast research.
[Kristie] No. It definitely is not fast research, and you have to pay attention. Because my mother will say something that does not translate to what I think at all.
[Kristie] When my mother goes into a store, they’re following her because she’s black. When I go into a store, they’re following me because they want to sell me something.
[Kristie] So you’ve got to be… You’ve got to take all stories as much as possible. Unless you’re truly trying to say something just from one person’s point of view, from the South. You can tell that story.
[Howard] A couple of things that I think are worth watching. One of them hasn’t come out… One of them hasn’t come out yet, and that’s Marvel’s new Black Panther movie. Which has a black director and a largely black cast. They are… They appear to be trying to do justice to a lot of these cultural things. The original Black Panther comic book did not do any of that. So it’ll be fascinating to see what they come up with. The other was the Netflix Luke Cage, which I, as a white dude, watched and I could tell I am missing inner-city cultural note…
[Howard] After inner-city cultural note. I know there is context I don’t have, but I was… There were tears in my eyes as I realized there is a huge library of knowledge here I don’t have, but other people are getting it and they didn’t used to get this from TV. They didn’t used to get this. I’ve watched it a couple of times now. I still don’t understand it. So the trend of native voices producing things, there’s no substitute for that. There’s no substitute for that. Consuming that is the only way I’m going to approach any sort of knowledge.
[Dan] All right. This has been a really good discussion. Mary, you have our writing exercise, our thing for the end of the episode.
[Mary] Right. I’m going to give you homework that I actually did. This is a year-long project. Because, as we’ve said, this is not simple. This thing of learning to write outside of your box. What I want you to do is I first want you to identify your box. This is tricky. There are two ways you can do it. One is you can categorize yourself by census records. So, like, I’m a white woman, American white woman. The other thing you can do is walk over to your bookshelf and look at your bookshelf and categorize the patterns that you normally read in, specifically, since we’re talking about life experience and lenses, specifically the kinds of authors. Their background. So I did this and discovered that despite all of my feminist rhetoric, I was tending to read mostly men. And tending to read mostly white American men. So I spent a year in which I said, “Okay. I’m not going to read white American men.” Specifically, I’m not going to read white Americans. I’m not going to read American fiction for a year. That was the box. Because I had already experimented with not reading… Not reading white people. Some of my best friends are white people, but…
[Mary] I still identified that pattern and spent a year reading fiction from people who were from Europe, from Asia, from Africa, from Australia, and people who were not white. The things that I discovered about my own defaults have made me a significantly better writer. Because you don’t realize the defaults that you have until you start reading fiction by people who do not come with the same set of defaults. So it’s a long project. You’re still allowed to buy books by other people, but I just want you to put off reading them for a year. Part of the reason is the first month that you’re doing this is about deprogramming your brain, and learning to read outside of that box.
[Howard] The first book will be a real hurdle and be really tricky. But this doesn’t start to pay off until book three.
[Mary] Three, six… Three or four was when I started to realize what was happening to my brain. It’s very useful. No matter which box you find yourself in.
[Dan] Awesome. This has been Neurological Hacking Excuses.
[Dan] You are out of excuses, now go write.