In my last post I commented on how writers can fall into the trap of either misrepresenting or leaving out other cultures and peoples. Here I want to talk about issues that may arise even when Western writers write sincerely about another culture, when they do their research and perhaps even visit the country.
Note: I am generally a coward when it comes to reading works set in India because I’m afraid I will die of some kind of cringe-induced sickness (based on early traumatic memories of reading adventure books by British authors as a kid). This attitude has sometimes been reinforced in adulthood —- for instance I couldn’t get through more than the first few pages of Jan Lars Jensen’s Shiva 3000 or much of Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali because I simply didn’t “recognize” the India they attempted to portray, and there seemed to be, in those beginning pages, some possibility of an abusive and exploitative distortion of reality. I once read a short story by Katherine Maclean in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction which was exploitative in that sense, appropriating the Kali mythos in a manner that I thought had died out with sensationalist British writers of the Raj. These vomit-inducing experiences have made me really cautious about reading SF set in India or about Indians.
Now on to writers who reportedly attempt to write with honesty, who do their research and are sensitive to the complexities of culture. While I celebrate these attempts on their part, and hope there are more and more of them, I do find that their portrayals of Indian and Indians are sometimes a little too weird for me. I will try to explain what I mean by citing a small example.
Some time ago I came across an interesting commentary by Abigail Nussbaum on Ian Macdonald’s novels Brasyl and River of Gods. Nussbaum quotes the following passage from River of Gods.
Parvati Nandha keeps her eye on the ball as it reaches the top of its arc and gravity overcomes velocity and it falls to earth, towards the crowd, a red bindi, a red eye, a red sun. An aerial assault. A missile from Krishan, seeking out the heart. The ball falls and the spectators rise but none before Parvati. She surges up and the ball drops into her upheld right hand. She cries out at the sting, then yells ‘Jai Bharat!,’ mad on the moment. The crowd cheers, she is marooned in sound. ‘Jai Bharat!’ The noise redoubles.
I have to admit I haven’t read River of Gods yet, although it has been on my list for a while. I’ve read a couple of the novellas set in the same world, and those feel to me like an honest attempt to see the world through the gaze of another culture, however fictionalized. But the stories don’t seem “real” to me in an odd way I’m still trying to understand. I think that there is too much dissonance between my own experience of being Indian and the depictions of the characters and settings in the story. It is not so much a question of authenticity, perhaps, as a question of what stands out to the outsider as important or significant, compared to what the insider experiences as important. It’s the emphasis that feels different to me, somehow. This may be inevitable but it is worth noting.
I can’t comment on River of Gods as a whole yet, but a small example of the dissonance to which I refer is right there in the paragraph quoted above. I would never, in a million years, compare a cricket ball to a bindi arcing through the air. The bindi, to me, comes weighted with a certain cultural significance and having worn one many times, I also have a tactile, visual, picture of it as a very much 2-d thing that you usually pencil on to your forehead or stick on, depending on the type of bindi. Hell, I can smell the vermilion powder (very faintly) as I think about it! There’s also the matter of the way Parvati’s last name is spelled in English. Nandha is not how a North Indian would spell the name because the ‘d’ is not an aspirated consonant, although in the South you might use the ‘dh’ to signify that it is a soft ‘d’ and not a hard ‘d.’ I have no idea where Parvati is from, although if she were from the South she might spell her name Parvathi, but I’ll say no more about that, only noting parenthetically that Westerners often mistake aspirated consonants for non-aspirated consonants as in the common mis-spelling of Gandhi: Ghandi (makes me wince even to type it). English does not have aspirated consonants so I can understand the error, but the difference is very clear to a North Indian and can indicate an altogether different word. For these various reasons that paragraph would throw me right out of the story for a bit.
I think the “outsider view” is interesting and important even when it feels weird. It does not always give rise to dissonance, and it sometimes makes me think about India in a way that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. But the “outsider view” shouldn’t exist at the expense of the “insider view” or be given greater weight, or be depicted as the only view. I can’t even argue for (and wouldn’t if I could) any consistent “insider view.” It’s nearly impossible to make generalizations about India, and probably that is true of any sufficiently complex and as-yet-unhomogenized culture. And I certainly can’t speak for a billion people. But it is still possible for an “outsider writer” with the best intentions to be off, wrong, or to emphasize things that most Indian writers wouldn’t. The thing I have the least problem with is the latter. I can generally overlook or forgive it if the story has other strengths. And I can appreciate it when the thing emphasized is a part or aspect of the culture that I’ve ignored or taken for granted, and the “outside view” helps me to suddenly see it.
(Incidentally, since I now straddle both worlds, being an Indian living outside India, I can, in a sense, relate to both views; at least I’ve have acquired a better understanding of where the “outsider” is coming from in their depiction.)
I recently discussed this review with my friend and fellow SF writer Anil Menon, and share below (with his permission) his take on the issue of Westerners writing about India.
With regard to requiring authenticity from writers writing about other cultures:
“Perhaps “insight” is a much more desirable criterion? E. M. Forster’s book had insight, as does Geoff Ryman’s book on Cambodia (The King’s Last Song), Graham Greene’s book on Vietnam (The Quiet American), John Le Carre’s books on Panama (The Tailor of Panama) and Africa (The Constant Gardner). When a book has insight, the Other becomes humanized, whereas when writers strive for authenticity, they tend to stress difference rather than sameness.”
Anil’s reactions to River of Gods, and, in particular, to the quoted paragraph:
“I read River of Gods a long time ago; my memory is that its “Indianness” struck a tinny note. This may be a genuine technical problem. Cultural distance is not uniform across cultures. The idea of Brasil in the outsider’s mind and “real” Brazil is much closer than the idea of India and “real” India. Brazil is a recent culture, forged out of the intermixing of Spanish, African and Native American cultures. India has had 2,500-3,000 years practice at being post-modern. It’s going to take a really shrewd westerner to “get” the context-sensitive, highly relative, not-categoric, language-drunk, mythic character of the Indian worldview. The brief quote from Ian M’s book is pretty revealing. For example, it’s really implausible that Parvati would fall in love with her gardener. Or consider the line:
A missile from Krishan, seeking out the heart.
“Krishna throws a chakra, and it seeks the neck, not the heart. Ian M compares the ball to a “a red bindi, a red eye, a red sun.” Awkward images, all. Red bindi is stability incarnate, the eye is an inauspicious referent, and in India, the sun is a symbol of comfort and regularity, not suddenness and surprise. These are a westerner’s metaphors for a falling cricket ball, not those of an Indian village woman. Imagine how it sounds in Hindi: lal sindoor, lal ankh, lal surya. Weird. Or consider the fact that India has beaten England at cricket in 1971, 1986, and 2002. We were world champions in cricket a few years back. Parvati would be excited that we were winning of course, but surely not for the same reasons as those in Lagaan. His mismatched details speak to a lack of insight about Parvati and her milieu. Of course, this could just be one small unfortunate paragraph.”
(Note: Lagaan is a Bollywood blockbuster cricket movie set in the times of British Occupation).
As far as approaching a foreign culture “seriously and respectfully” as Nussbaum says, I think I would replace that with (or extend that to) “curiosity, open-mindedness and an awareness of the writer’s prejudices, conscious or not, regarding that foreign culture.” Seriousness is not a necessary criterion for me, as I’d be fine with a writer writing about another culture with an informed playfulness — although it would take a certain “inside view” to pull it off. As the very quotable Anil puts it, “fiction is not a wake.”
Lastly I appreciate that it takes courage to write about another culture and to risk being wrong — and I hope that more writers continue to extend themselves in this way. I’ve yet to write about Americans or other Westerners in my stories — but that day will come. I salute these writers for going where few of their compatriots might have ventured before.
Update: I found an interesting explication of the problem of the Western gaze in this review of the movie Slumdog Millionaire by Mukul Kesavan . I plan to see the movie in India this summer and have just finished reading the book it was (loosely) based on, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, that I mostly enjoyed. But that’s a whole other post.
Tags: writing the other