As Others See Us: More on Writing the Other

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.



16 Responses to “As Others See Us: More on Writing the Other”

  1. Eadwacer Says:

    I think the idea expressed in the ‘Slumdog’ review captures much of what you are seeing – which I may paraphrase as: the author is writing to the market, not to the knowledgeable. I remember reading a comment in the introduction to a book, as I recall, from some decades back. They quoted a (now forgotten) pulp-era (SF and other genre) author, who said that readers liked the realism of his stories, except those about the Marine Corps. He was a former Marine, and was presumably writing accurate, contextualized, behavior. The stories that were successful were those where he didn’t know any more than his audiance, and so his writing confirmed their limited knowledge. I have read any number of best sellers about the military, grinding my teeth the whole time, but others liked them.

    So, in most cases, the culture of the Other is a prop, used to provide seeming versimilitude to the mostly US (and secondarily Anglo-) readership of SF.

  2. Dr.Arvind Mishra Says:

    Vandanaji ,
    I quite agree with your view point how bad cultural contexts are depicted in forein works of fiction /sf .I have read River of Gods and in fact did a review for Times of India -you could see it here also-

  3. Jason Erik Lundberg Says:

    This is one of the constant niggling worries that I endure while working on my current novel. It’s set in a Singapore-type island nation, and the main characters are Teochew Chinese, British Iranian, Dutch Indonesian, and an Indian from Orissa. All of them have been transplanted from their home countries, and have a sense of dislocation that seems to unite them, or at least to draw them together.

    However, as is quite obvious if you look at my author photo, I am from none of these cultures or races. I’m frankly terrified that I’m going to offend lots of different people, yet I still want these as my main characters. I’m doing my damnedest to be as culturally accurate and sensitive as possible, but this may be a massive and spectacular literary catastrophe. Which is one reason it’s taking me so damn long to write it.

  4. vsinghsblog Says:

    Sorry, everyone, for the late response to your comments. I’ve been crazily busy.

    Eadwacer, I think you are on to something here, because I am reminded of the disbelief with which some of my Indian stories have been met when I’ve shown them to American writers. Some (not all) people’s responses were basically that the story didn’t feel right to them because it didn’t correspond with their (stereotyped) view of India. That was a weird feeling for me.

    Arvindji, thanks for the visit and the link to your review. I suspect though that much of the apparent disrespect non-Indian writers seem to show by assigning names loosely (like Shiva for a bad guy) comes essentially from a lack of awareness/ sensitivity (and lack of knowledge of the history of maligning and misrepresenting Hinduism (and other aspects of India)by the colonizers) rather than deliberate malice. But we can help by pointing all this out.

    Jason, I already like the polyglot/poly-everything nature of your novel and would urge you to go for it. If I recall correctly, don’t you live in Asia? If you are immersed in a diverse Asian cosmopolitan culture, that will help a great deal. You might also try to pretend (as author) to be from Iran while viewing your Iranian character (for instance) so that you deliberately change your “gaze.” You might also ask people from the cultures represented in your novel to read it. More than one person from each would be good since sometimes we Asians can be overly polite about other people writing about us.

    Good luck with it! I look forward to seeing it in print!

  5. Victoria Janssen Says:

    Really interesting post. Thanks.

  6. Kate Elliott Says:

    These are a pair of really excellent posts. Thank you.

  7. Kate Nepveu Says:

    Thanks for both these posts; I linked them here:

  8. Kurt Kremer Says:

    What Anil said (via Vandana) about ROG (add your own ! afterward to make it a cry)…. I read River of Gods a couple of years ago and, possibly because of the intriguing promotional summary and all the praise, really wanted to like it alot (sort of like really really wanting to really like the next summer blockbuster, but we won’t talk about Abram’s Star Trek here). I respected the author’s ability to tell a complex story against a complex background using a large set of characters (“using” is a key word). But I felt edgy and unhappy afterward, and was annoyed by many of the awkward out of place metaphors slung about like foxtailed cricket balls while the author explored his ability to write about/project into another culture. Maybe Ian M doesn’t think he got it right, and did the best he could and had to get a commercial product out. Or maybe he was so caught up in creating that world that he couldn’t filter properly. Regardless, you don’t always need to be a member of that culture to detect false notes. I only know about India from the excellent curry cart down the street, and even I know what a bindi is, and that, sir, was no bindi. I hope he does know or realizes where his insight went askew/doesn’t exist, doesn’t beat himself up for it (or take accolades), and continues to work at it, using commercial success as a reason to keep going. That’s what we should wish for any writer, ourselves included.

    Clumsy writing, sort of randomly or cleverly plucking metaphors out of a cultural stew and misapplying them (especially cross culturally), makes gaffs easier to detect. If McDonald (or his editor–where is the editor’s role in this!) had been in more control of his prose, he could have inadvertently included important inauthentic details (and may have) that would have been hard for the non-Indian reader to detect. For example, I really like Geoff Ryman’s work set in SE Asia (e.g., Air). It feels right and it may be right (at least I didn’t smell any rakfisk*) , but the writing is good enough to keep me from ever knowing without follow-through. So I either have to use his work to help form my perceptions (and bias) or take is as fiction that may just a good story (or cautionary tale) with no cultural rewards.

    Your use of “alien” resonated: a rich (and insightful) novel set in another culture can be just as rich as a SF novel to the reader who’s not a member of that culture. It’s a bit like the rest of life–looking around you at the unfamiliar (or the things that shouldn’t be familiar) and relishing them. A good SF novel should follow the same rules–we should strive to write about other cultures, real or not, as if they exist around the corner (the universe is flat!) and delicately avoiding those areas we aren’t sure about or aren’t needed, unless we feel they impact the story–and then to get them right (i.e., do others feel that the elements show insight)?

    And, who knows, maybe it was a alt-universe bindi. That’s the get out of jail free card. Isn’t it? At least it didn’t turn into a supernova.

    Shiva 3000 was a bad cartoon in print, not even satire, written by a young author who could wield a pen but had no respect/insight into the culture behind the story (it was crap). Song of Kali just never looked appealing enough to read. (The Amazon review says, basically, Dan Simmons was in Calcutta for only 2.5 days and learned everything he needed to know to write this book! I think I could learn everything I need to know about Dan Simmons book from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, from the sound of it.)

    * Using rakfisk here exposes my own inability to avoid attempts at being clever, regardless of the cost, and also tells you that I am neither SE Asian or Norwegian, although I hope to be able to tell honest stories using elements from those cultures someday. Possibly a detective story about a disillusioned hermaphrodite detective of mixed parentage who methodically takes down a gang led by the monstrous, well connected and aptly named Boss Rakfisk. Hollywood will likely turn it into a tale of a multi-ethnic slumrat and amateur chef with a PhD who battles the forces of a radical splinter group of the Lutheran Church for control of a major but unstable new energy source.

  9. Jason Erik Lundberg Says:

    Not only is the book polyglot and polyracial, but also polysexual, with main characters that are gay, straight and bisexual. The chances to offend people are endless! At this point, I’m going to need quite a few first readers (and I may be emailing you, Vandana, about this).

    I do indeed live in Asia, specifically in Singapore, which has heavily influenced my fictional setting. Though there’s also a lot of the US and Hong Kong in there as well. It’s absolutely helped being able to immerse myself in a place where on a daily basis I hear Malay, Tamil, and many dialects of Chinese in addition to English. The government constantly boasts of the country being a multicultural society, and it’s been an interesting experience to live someplace that hasn’t been homogenized culturally.

  10. Kurt Kremer Says:

    Jason, I just read your comments about your book in progress–please don’t take my joking at the end of my long comment as commentary on your work, which sounds like interesting and challenging work. I was riffing about plot in general and had not read either of your comments before I posted–any overlap is coincidental. Here’s hoping that you finish and the book is published, and that you offend people for the right reasons (small minded vs. open minded).

  11. vsinghsblog Says:

    Hello, all, thanks for the comments and for connecting to this post.

    Kurt, thanks in particular for the mini-review of Shiva 3000. As for the Simmons book and the mostly positive Amazon reviews (which horrified me — how blind some people are to the xenophobic possibilities and to the fact that the book is, after all, fiction — people wrote that after reading the book they never wanted to visit India, or Calcutta, or trust anyone named Gupta (which is a really common name in India)): I have heard about foreigners who come to India who get utterly horrified by the poverty but instead of trying to understand its political/social/historical dimensions simply have a very negative gut reaction/ revulsion. I can see how such a reaction, in the absence of knowledge, information and compassion, might end up as a xenophobic horror novel. What I can’t see is how it won a World Fantasy Award (in 1986). To me that says something about the genre. Sigh.

    Jason, I once spent the night at Singapore airport en route to Delhi but that’s all I’ve seen of it, unfortunately. I think you are in a great place to write the sort of book you describe. And yes, I’ll await your email!

    Now I’m feeling compelled to write a short story about a bindi that is really a supernova…


  12. Kurt Kremer Says:

    When little Bindi Guptura–or Bindi the Destroyer, as the survivors would name her– left the house that morning, with the small sphere of plutonium 239 secreted in her lunchbucket by her mischievous younger brother, she thought only of her pending physics exam in first period and never saw the careening delivery truck packed with explosive driven by a Phalaharini Kali worshipper with ash in his eyes, late for his delivery to the rock quarry.

  13. Pundit Says:

    Thanks to the kinds of endorsements it got, I wondered for many years whether Song of Kali was as bad as it looked, or was just meant as an account of the messed-up mind of a paranoid and bigoted protagonist; then I found distressing indications of Dan Simmons’s view of the Other.

  14. devil's advocate Says:

    Irwin parivaar Juggernaut Yatra

    Bindi flung herself at a sleeping crocodile attaching herself to its forehead with her hands. “This is such fun,” she explained. “When my mom does it she is truly Terri-flying. My brother too is familiar with these guys but he doesn’t do this kind of stuff. He just bobs (He’s just Bob) amongst them.” Yikes!! This ain’t fantasy. Besides, one must leave writing to good writers for the most part.
    Guess I shouldn’t give up my day job in a hurry!

    But seriously those British kid adventure books did always make one cringe whenever they described Indic nuances and feelings in the most distressingly “they really didn’t get it” kind of way.

    Or just maybe colonization got a lot of Indians to start to believe that that was the way to think about their customs.It may not have been a sinister intent but might merely reflect the law of dominance,
    Remember Chinua’s “Things Fall Apart”.

  15. vsinghsblog Says:

    Dear Kurt and Devil’s Advocate, thanks for the wild imaginings! Now I shall be haunted by runaway Bindis until I can think of the story to put them in!

    Pundit, the article is indeed distressing. I am going to have to think some more about it.


  16. Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF | Antariksh Yatra Says:

    […] And a couple of my own earlier musings, here and here. […]

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