Two months ago here on WU, I examined the concept of the “ordinary world”, familiar from the plot template of the Hero’s Journey, the early story phase in which the normal state of things is established, the platform from which a protagonist will depart for adventures and to which a protagonist will return when all is accomplished and the world is again set right. We found that the seemingly-humdrum world is, in fact, shot full of tension that presages the story to come.
On the other hand, what about story settings that are far from our own time and/or place? Different cultures, different countries, different periods of history and even made-up times and places, as in fantasy fiction, present another kind of challenge. Such settings need to convey to readers what is dissimilar to our familiar world, while simultaneously making the exotic world understandable and relatable, meaning in some way perfectly ordinary. How can that be accomplished smoothly, without infodump or a deep-end dive into what is bewilderingly new?
In some cases, a straightforward introduction to a different world is a good approach. Jenny Han’s P.S. I Still Love You (2015), is a sequel to her charming YA romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2014), the story of sixteen-year-old Korean-American girl Lara Jean Song, who writes secret love letters to the boys she’s crushing on, letters which she naturally keeps hidden. When the letters are mistakenly (?) posted to their unaware subjects, complications, as they say, ensue.
In P.S. I Still Love You, Lara Jean’s crush on hunky Peter is now widely known, as is a notorious interlude with him in a hot tub on a lightly-supervised school trip. As the novel opens, though, it is New Year’s Day, which entails special traditions in Lara Jean’s Korean culture. Dressed in a hanbok, she participates in one of them:
We get the bowing out of the way first. In Korean culture, you bow to your elders on New Year’s Day and wish them luck in the new year, and in return they give you money. The order goes oldest to youngest, so as the oldest adult, Grandma sits down on the couch first, and Aunt Carrie and Uncle Victor bow first, then Daddy, all the way down the line to Kitty, who is youngest. When it’s Daddy’s turn to sit on the couch and receive his bows, there’s an empty couch cushion next to him as there has been every New Year’s Day since Mommy died. It gives me an achy feeling in my chest to see him sitting there alone, smiling gamely, handing out ten-dollar bills. Grandma catches my eye pointedly and I know she’s thinking the same thing. When it’s my turn to bow, I kneel, hands folded in front of my forehead, and I vow that I will not see Daddy alone on that couch again next year.
Were you caught by surprise? Did the lonely couch cushion next to Lara Jean’s widowed father, and her kneeling before him, hands folded in front of her forehead, tug at your heart strings? Jenny Han knows how to slay us. Lara Jean’s compassionate ache for her father, and the absence of her mother, is something we can instantly relate to. Furthermore, Han is not coy about culture. She presumes that her readers are mostly not Korean-American. Why should she? Why presumptively limit the novel’s appeal? Han just goes for it: “In Korean culture…” What might have been self-conscious instead becomes a winning cultural pride.
What if a novel’s culture is not as charming or easy to like as that? What if a culture is actually a problem and a source of conflict? Angie Thomas’s YA best seller The Hate U Give (2017) is exactly that: a novel about a world of trouble, specifically the world of Black Lives Matter, in which unarmed young African-American men can be gunned down by police without consequence. Thomas cannily situates a sixteen-year-old African-American girl, Starr Carter, between two cultures. On the one hand, Starr lives in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Garden Heights; on the other hand, she attends a luxe private school for the privileged, Williamson Prep.
As the novel opens, Thomas must portray the world of this caught-between-cultures girl, as so we find her at an out-of-control party in Garden Heights with her friend Kenya: [Read more…]