I’ve spent my life living between India and the U.S.A. One blog post can’t begin to describe the challenges, privileges, lows, and highs of it all. I can, however, talk about being a bi-cultural writer and writing in various global dialects through one language. I am a weird kind of third-culture kid. I was born in the U.S and finished elementary school there. Then I did middle and high school in India and returned to the U.S for another 8 years where I finished college and my Master’s degree. I’ve since been back to Bangalore, India since 2011.
First, let me tell you about my accent. I code shift – my accent and cultural references can change according to country, and who I’m talking with. I still get teased about it.
Because of my experience, I see English as two very different kinds of languages: Indian English and American English. On the macro level you might think it’s just the accent that’s different, but there are more nuanced differences that are a result of specific cultural backgrounds and responses to very different realities and environments. I admit, it’s easier for me to write for a specific cultural audience. That’s why I’ve been involved with the way I think about writing for a global audience. How do I hold a place in a specific narrative and allow for people from all kinds of backgrounds to find a point of similarity to their own reality? Over the years, I’ve done a lot of relearning and decolonizing. Here are 3 important things I have learnt as a bicultural writer.
Letting Go Of Italicizing Culturally Specific Words
Growing up, I’d read Indian authors italicize or explain very Indian terms in strange ways. I acknowledge that for many non-Indian readers, if I made one reference too many to terms or concepts uniquely Indian, I would risk losing them, and worse, boring them. That said, using western-centric explanations and using italics takes away from the authenticity of the environment. I’d read ‘samosa’ with descriptions like seasoned potato filled pastry, and I’d chuckle. This is not because the description is inaccurate; in fact, it is probably the best way to explain what it is in English to a western audience, but it’s not how people raised in India would think of it.
I found authors who were owning their language with the English they spoke, offering more of a realistic picture of life in such a setting. Many Indians grew up reading British and American books with descriptions of food items we had never tasted in the 80s and 90s, and we had to make do with the names and imagine what they were. In fact, my father had grown up reading Archie Comics in India and assumed pizza to be a sweet dish. When he came to America in the late 70s he was shocked that pizza was savory! We never got explanations and we’re probably all the richer for it. While the world is a lot more globalized now and many readers are more exposed to cross-cultural habits and foods, there are still things that will be very specific to a culture and environment. It’s also the age of the internet where terms and cultural usage are just a Google search away. As long as you are being sensitive to your readers there is no reason to exoticize the culture you are writing from with explanations and italics. This however, is a strong stance to take and I know there are people who disagree, it’s just my evolving opinion of the matter.
Knowing When to Use Culture-specific Idioms and Expressions [Read more…]