Writing in Other Cultures

As synchronicity would have it, I’m in the process of the second pass at a novel I’m titling Chasing the Setting Sun. It’s a follow-up to See the PEBA on $25 a Day, and it’s set in Japan—a place I’ve never been. Here I am yesterday, the day after I start in earnest on it, when Jim Hines posts this piece, titled “Using Asian Cultures as Props.”

Then, to further the synchronicity, my friend and collaborator John Bodin linked to it in another Facebook discussion regarding inclusion.

If you read Jim’s well-done post, I suggest you read the comments section, too. As can be expected under this kind of heading, the conversation within is quite deep and full of nuance. I particularly liked Mary Anne Mohanraj’s response—but then I tend to think she pretty much always knows what she’s talking about, so there’s no surprise there.

I think this kind of thing is remarkably intriguing. I am, once again quite obviously, a white male. I like to think of myself as being pretty inclusionary in my way of thinking—though I admit as rapidly as anyone (I suppose) that sometimes my natural state of obviousness teams up with the blind spots we all get about how life goes for us to mean it can take me a cycle or two to see things properly. This makes me quite dangerous, I suppose.

And this topic is particularly important to me today—meaning I’m thinking about it deeply today—because in this second pass, I’m working very hard to deal with cultural gaps I have in my own persona. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Japanese man, or a Japanese woman. I don’t know what it’s like to actually live in Tokyo, or even to travel there. But I do care to get it right—or at least as right as I can get it from the points of view of my characters. I think this is the primary obligation writers have when they are writing the other. As a creator, I think you have to actually care about getting our art “right” (which, of course, begets the much more slippery question of “what is right?”).

It’s deeper than that, of course.

This doesn’t mean an author is beyond criticism for errors. Heck, it doesn’t even mean that an author is beyond criticism when they get it “right.” Maybe the problem is their definition of “right,” after all.

But I like to start simple, and the simple statement is that I think it’s important to be cognizant of cultures we write in, and to actually care about tending to them well.

And now, I’m off to rewrite a chapter wherein my protagonist meets a man from a different culture in a bar.

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