Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Worlds you don't know

I always wait until the last minute to write these columns. In part because I have a backlog of ideas ranging from the use of metaphor to branding to writing techniques to literary reviews. I've lived a long(ish) time, pay attention, have strong opinions, and ain't one bit shy -- which means I can usually pull 300 to 500 words out of thin air with little effort.

But sometimes I get caught up in the world around me, and become overwhelmed with things to write about. Then it becomes an editing, or self-control, issue and I'm not good at either of those. Up until this week I'd had a vague idea I'd write about writing groups, for example, but that plan got derailed by my recent discovery of China. Really. I was just following President Obama and there it was. Quite remarkable. Actually, in anticipation of Obama's visit to Asia I began looking into what the local bloggers and news sources were posting and discovered the Chinese internet and the culture of Netizens.

How did I become fluent enough in Chinese to follow blogs? (I have readers who will tell you I'm only marginally fluent in English.) Through dedication, hard work, and sites like chinaSMACK and ChinaHush that translate hot news stories and blogs on the Chinese web into English for ex-pats and foreigners who might be interested.

As I began exploring, I was struck by how familiar most of the Chinese web is, something that may indicate certain universals. Follow a link to a Chinese-only page, for example, and almost immediately a little pop-up with an image of a pretty girl appears. Even in China local singles are waiting.

At first the similarities disguise the differences, but as I read certain fundamental differences in world view became apparent. A story about a young man graduating from the police academy and -- with his fellow cadets forming an honor guard -- proposing to his fiancée generated hundreds of comments from people outraged because a policeman in uniform had trivialized his duty with personal business. The police commissioner had to weigh in, confirming that the cadets had broken no laws.

I began corresponding with one of the founding translators at chinaSMACK and asked her about the Netizen response to President Obama's town hall meeting in Shanghai. She sent me links to a dozen sites. where every word and action of the President was analyzed debated (the fact that he carries his own umbrella is big). In following them and reading the blogs I came to see a pattern. In a nation where all public media and news sources are controlled, the people assume everything they see is staged and intended to misdirect; they parse every nuance.

What this brought home to me -- in addition to realizing these folks would solve any mystery I wrote by the end of the first chapter -- was how little I understand of cultures outside the western model. I love to create worlds and cultures. I do it all the time in science fiction. But how well can I depict a world that is real but outside my experience? To write a story of modern China, I would need to spend weeks among the Netizens, Not researching their physical world -- that can be done with any good search engine -- but learning how they think, how they see the world.

This is a challenge for any writer who ventures in her fiction beyond the places she's lived and the people she's known. Whether writing a historical or setting a story in a different land, she runs the risk of projecting her own values, her own expectations, her own culture onto her subject. To write authentically about a culture beyond her own, an author must move beyond research. She must immerse herself in her new world and write from the inside out.


Jewel Amethyst said...

You are so right, one has to go beyond research and immerse himself with any new world he writes about. Which is why in my writing I stick to the world I know, or at least think I know. I often go for the multicultural but it usually involves cultures I'm already familiar with. Thank God there are writers like you guys who can create alternate universes for us.

As for Chinese web, I had no idea it was different from any other web. I guess I've learned something new.

Liane Spicer said...

Whoever said write 'what you know' knew what s/he was about. I couldn't begin to try to do otherwise.

Immersion might work, but I don't think a few weeks worth can do the trick; despite the best of intentions you'd be seeing and interpreting the other culture through the lens of your own.