Today’s guest is Gabriel Valjan, author of the Roma Series from Winter Goose Publishing; (Turning To Stone, Book 4 of the Roma Series, was released just last month). Gabriel says that in his travels, he came to appreciate and enjoy Italy’s diversity, and the Roma Series presents an authentic representation of contemporary Italy. He writes:
Writers transmit perceptions, real or imagined. Writers convey their time, for better or worse. In our shared language, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison are very different writers, though they both took the measure of racism and slavery. To step outside our language and culture requires special consideration and writers should act like archaeologists; they should respect what is unearthed and interpret differences with humility. Readers should also understand that every writer’s imagination is a foreign country. Time and effort, patience and trust are required. Through words, a writer creates experiences and, through the world created between the pages, readers can discover a diversity of perspectives that are, at times, individual yet communal because of a common bond: our humanity.
Import Foreign Cultures Into Your Fiction
I disagree with the advice that writers should write what they know. In fact, every good story requires a con. Fiction writers are like criminals without the crime, luring readers into conflict with characters they like, hate, or distrust. As artists of the written word, we are always pulling off the literary heist by deception and illusion. The stakes are simply higher when a writer decides to venture into unfamiliar territory.
Donald Maass devoted a chapter to Time and Place in Writing the Breakout Novel. He discusses world building, a technique familiar to sci-fi and fantasy authors, though writers of historical fiction also build worlds when they recreate history. If you have not read the chapter, Patricia C. Wrede offers a checklist for sci-fi and fantasy authors.
Importing foreign culture into your fiction is another form of world building, regardless of genre. It’s risky, but if done well, your world becomes a seamless reality. English-speaking readers long familiar with UK authors don’t experience cultural dissonance because there’s a common language. Aside from issues of orthography and slang (Brighton Rock or Clockwork Orange anyone?) readers know that our relatives across the pond prefer tea to coffee and that football is a completely different sport. Within the U.S. there are other cultures that demand attention but are not alien. Readers of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries don’t blink when they hear African-American slang or see Easy’s perspective on institutional racism. In addition to a rich immigrant past, America’s changing demographic has encouraged publishers to translate Latin American writers, such as Isabel Allende, Paulo Coelho, and Gabriel García Márquez. The catalog keeps growing.
Aside from this catalog, literature in translation for English-speaking readers has had, traditionally, limited shelf space devoted to French, German, and Russian classics. But publishers today have been introducing English-speaking readers to a wider range of cultures and perspectives. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy reacquainted readers with noir – an American literary genre – with a Scandinavian twist.
As to American writers, unless they’ve been an expatriate, a foreign correspondent, or had a unique experience (Shōgun’s James Clavell was in a Japanese POW camp) few writers have made the leap across the cultural divide. Yet writing foreign culture into your fiction doesn’t require citizenship papers. It only requires resourcefulness and imagination.
I don’t believe in hard and fast rules, so I’ll make suggestions, some of which you may find helpful.
- Stereotypes? We don’t need no stinkin’ stereotypes!
Remember Sheriff JW Pepper on holiday in Thailand in The Man With The Golden Gun? An American in Paris who wears the loud Hawaiian shirt, speaks with a Texan accent, and throws a hissy fit because nobody speaks English and his burrito is not authentic Mexican food is an obvious and insulting caricature. So imagine how a foreigner would feel if he or she were to read your creation in translation and see his countrymen portrayed in equally broad terms. Not all Italians are Tony Soprano or Joey Tribbiani, and not all French people are snooty, or started smoking Gauloises in the crib. Having your plot center around iconic tourist spots is another form of stereotyping. Just as there is more to America than the Statue of Liberty, so there is more to Rome than the Coliseum and The Vatican.
- It is what you say and how you say it.
Using foreign expressions does not guarantee authenticity. Readers can suspend disbelief even if you translate everything your characters say into English. If you do use a foreign expression, then attach significance to it for the sake of character development or to advance the plot. And have a native speaker verify what your characters say for context and accuracy. Let context enable the reader to infer the meaning. Words your foreign characters employ do matter, as do their gestures. The flick of the hand under the chin is a vulgar expression here, but in Italy it is simply impolite, used only among people you know to mean ‘Meh, I don’t care.’
[pullquote]We say ‘Break a leg’ in theatre, whereas Italians say, ‘In bocca al lupo,’ or, ‘Into the wolf’s mouth.’ The response is a tad sinister: ‘Crepi il lupo!’ ‘May the wolf croak!’[/pullquote]
- Try a little empathy.
Like life, differences are points of celebration and conflict. Alter your perspective. Start with daily experiences, with what you take for granted. Americans are used to hearing ‘God Bless America’ at the end of every political speech, but to most Europeans that closure sounds bizarre, especially for a country that claims separation of Church and State. Cultural traditions around authority, body language, fashion, meals, marriage, and death are fertile subjects for exploration. Example? We wear black for mourning, whereas Asian cultures wear white. One last example — though we love it, cappuccino after dinner is considered toxic to digestion to most Italians.
- It’s as easy as ABC.
Read in translation — publishers today have hired some of the world’s best translators working. Watch foreign films. Travel. Attempt a foreign language. Every language is a treasure. This video, for example, shows regional differences in Spanish vocabulary and accent (warning: some racy language). A foreigner can watch Breaking Bad and be simultaneously amazed at Walter’s ingenuity and appalled at his situation (though they know it happens, the idea of financial ruin from medical bills confounds most Europeans). We can watch Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo to understand just how byzantine Italian politics really is, and how the British import, the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood would have had a formidable opponent in the late Giulio Andreotti.
Writing culture into your fiction is a rich experience on multiple levels and far from impossible. As food feeds the body, diverse perspectives challenge the mind and emotions, so writing culture into our creative fiction enriches our understanding of each other.
What cultures are woven into your fiction? Have you held back from attempting to write a foreign culture into your work? Why?
As a reader, do you enjoy learning about other cultures in novels? Share some of your favorite titles in comments.