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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Guest-Post: “Seeing Through Foreign Eyes” by Ekaterina Sedia (Author Week #1)

Seeing Through Foreign Eyes

By Ekaterina Sedia

What is it like, to write in a foreign language? This is the question I get a lot; a better one would be “what is it like to write in English, primarily for the American audience, that doesn’t share your cultural references?” But it is a long, awkward question, and requires a long, awkward answer. And this is what blog posts are for.

In fact, about a year back I wrote one focusing on how broken language meant to signify foreigners (in translated books or books by Western authors about foreign people) works to provide easy exoticism, othering without understanding. This essay is a follow-up to that post. As an immigrant writer, I feel that I’m expected to peddle in exoticism, but couched in terms the American readers are most familiar with. I had editors tell me that I should focus on books that are more me, as they put it. When asked for explanation, they said that I should be writing more about Russia, since it’s my culture (of course, the very same editors do not hesitate to acquire books by Americans writing about foreign cultures).

So it’s an interesting thing: as an immigrant or foreign writer, one is frequently pushed into a certain ethnic or cultural niche; yet, one is also expected to share this cultural niche with American writers. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind Westerners writing about other cultures; I do, however, take issue with their perspective being privileged over that of the natives by the American reading public (as well as with being pushed into a particular niche, but that’s for another day.)

There are plenty of SF books written by foreign writers; yet, when asked about SF taking place in other cultures, most American SF readers will cite Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi. Martin Amis is a frequently cited authority on Stalinism; the list goes on. In movies, we have a Slumdog Millionaire phenomenon: a Bollywood-like movie made by a white Western dude gets tons of critical attention while the source material goes largely ignored. And part of it is certainly the availability of translated sources – but today, many writers from these countries are writing in English (both immigrants and not). So I’m forced to conclude that it’s not the matter of translation availability but of perspective.

Each culture has its own baggage, assumptions, background noise that is so familiar it fades into invisibility. References common to everyone in any given culture that require no explanation – and it is tempting to assume that the rest of the world shares them. Who doesn’t know Nancy Drew or Crisco? So when reading translated literature, for me it is always a small jolt of joy to spot such things, small details that are so obvious to the author that they deserve barely a mention, and could only be guessed at. On the other hand, to a non-native, these things might appear strange and exotic, and the outsider will point them out and question.

In a way, this pointing and questioning mode of storytelling is common in fantasy: after all, we all are familiar with portal stories, where your normal person travels to a strange world and hopefully gets a native guide and will have things explained to them. In a way, American writers writing about foreign cultures provides the same set-up – they point and explain things a native wouldn’t find mention-worthy. They’re a guide who shares the reader’s references, and thus the things they find weird, the reader will too. They nudge conspiratorially, the writer is a reader’s ally, outside of the foreign milieu they are traveling through. If not careful, it results in blatant exotization.

A foreign writer describing their culture, however, is not the same thing at all. Their alliance is to the cultural milieu with which they share their perspective, and the American reader is thus pushed outside of the text; the readers may find themselves alone, and suspect that there are things being said they don’t understand. And it seems as if that’s a turn off to many American readers.

But wait, some of you are possibly (probably) thinking, what about American books translated into foreign languages? And yes, there are a lot. In fact, there are a lot of SF/F books translated from English, and most Hollywood movies do release abroad. In fact, Western cultural influences are so ubiquitous as to become familiar – and inescapable. I will posit that people in other cultures don’t really mind translated works because they are used to being exposed to different perspectives, and thus stepping outside of one’s own head is not a chore – it’s a necessity. It is also my hunch that part of this necessity recently has been reinforced by the Western cultural hegemony – refusing to accept American perspective or ignoring it is not really an option in the current extent of Western cultural colonization.

So as a writer writing for an American audience but possessing a distinctly non-American frame of reference, it is a challenging experience. On one hand, I’m definitely working within the Western milieu, and as such I do acutely realize that the frames of reference and cultural touchstones of myself and my readers do not align; on the other, I’m not entirely sure how to compensate for it, because most of these things are so ingrained as to be invisible. I have no idea how to fix that; more importantly, I’m not sure if that is something that has to be fixed. I am an immigrant writer, after all, and unlike those who write for a native audience, I have to worry about such things. But there’s much to be gained by reading those who do not try to adjust – that is, books in translation, written for a different audience.

Seeing through someone els’s eyes is valuable. Expecting that things will be explained to you in terms you can understand without trying even a little is just a tad entitled. Only the dominant groups have no need of understanding others; the rest adapt, because understanding the dominant group and being able to relate to it is a matter of survival. On the international level, it translates into the fact that most Americans only speak one language; after all, most everyone else speaks English (or at least is expected to.)

So the issue with books set in foreign cultures, I think, that even though many SF/F readers call for more perspectives and diversity, they don’t really want that. They want someone familiar to show them some exotic stuff without actually challenging the readers’ assumptions or values. But really, if you want to experience a different perspective and a different mindset, read a book in translation. Sure, it takes a bit of work; but the most rewarding reading, at least to me, is the kind where my perspectives and assumptions are challenged – often in subtle ways, when I realize that the values that infuse a book are not necessarily obvious to me. And I hope that if there’s a demand, maybe there will be more translated books here in the US, so that the readers can see foreign places through those foreign eyes, and get to know these places in their own words, not just those of cultural outsiders.

 

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February 3, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

19 Comments

  1. Fantastic post, Ekaterina. Thank you for it.

    Comment by Amal El-Mohtar | February 3, 2011

  2. I find that I value both kinds of stories, the clashing or merging of American and the exotic as well as purer forms of cultural stories, for different reasons. Much of my reading is for escapism and I continue to find the world has many interesting facets that fiction allows me to immerse myself in. However as an American I can, perhaps, connect better with a “normal” (socio-culturally speaking) person like me encountering the exotic. There is less immersion and escapism in the latter, almost as if instead of “becoming” someone else, I’m just listening to someone else’s story.

    The translated books I’ve read (among them part of Lavie’s Apex World SF book, Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Plevin and Amberville by Tim Davys) remain among my all time favorites.

    Comment by Michele Lee | February 3, 2011

  3. Thank you for the wonderful post, Kathy :)

    Semi-tangentially, another post got me thinking last night & today about the extent to which we (I) mean “white American” when we (I) say “American” perspective. Anyway, now I’m wondering how the greater visibility of American POC in SF/F will affect the visibility of international perspectives over the next few years…

    Comment by Shweta Narayan | February 3, 2011

    • Absolutely, and yet there’s benefit to recognizing a ‘national’ perspective, if you will. Cultures always appear to be more homogenous from the outside, true, but there’s also an issue of shared national identity (and often associated privilege). American culture is not homogenous, and yet an American passport does offer a certain set of associated cultural baggage/benefits.

      Comment by Fishmonkey | February 3, 2011

      • Oh definitely. My comment is very much an agreement + thinking out loud about one nuance. Taking just American SF/F as a culture, the optimistic side of me is now wondering how much that culture is in flux right now, and hoping that this is an awesome time to get people to collectively push past their boundaries — which is very much in keeping with what you’re saying :)

        Comment by Shweta Narayan | February 3, 2011

  4. I haven’t realized until recently how privileged I am compared to other POC fen because I grew up immersed in Bengali culture, with a rich Bengali language sf literature at that. Whatever else you say about the French, at least they are willing to read works in translation, compared to the know-nothingism of Anglo-American culture. The irony is having a hegemonic common language could be used towards the good by having translations from multiple cultures accessible to other non-western cultures through this common medium – though ideally all cultures would have translations from all other cultures in their own languages.

    Comment by Sajia Sultana | February 3, 2011

    • It’s a great point about common language! And yet, when I look for works in languages I don’t read, I usually wait for my next trip to Moscow, because the selection of translated texts is so much better than in the US.

      Comment by Fishmonkey | February 3, 2011

  5. Well, some American writers seem to brush aside readers outside USA – you do not matter, you are not the target audience!

    But is it true any more? With buying online the readership of English language fiction outside of USA cannot be as small as the writers/ publishers seem to think.

    Comment by Nipernaadi | February 3, 2011

    • This is an excellent point; yet, I do wonder how does one acknowledge these readers — it’s impossible to adjust one’s frames of reference to fit every culture. So it seems that the usual nudge-nudging and “OMG look at those people” would have to cease, right? There are no more closed doors behind which to ridicule others?

      Comment by Fishmonkey | February 3, 2011

  6. even though many SF/F readers call for more perspectives and diversity, they don’t really want that. They want someone familiar to show them some exotic stuff without actually challenging the readers’ assumptions or values.

    Oh, this is so very true. But there must be some segment of the SFF public that really IS looking for a change in perspective, and I don’t think it is a bad thing to write with the assumption that this segment exists and is willing to walk out on a limb with you.

    Comment by Barry King | February 3, 2011

    • I assume so. And I do think that it is possible for people to recognize their initial discomfort in the face of a different perspective and push past it; and I think the desire to do so can be cultivated.

      Comment by Fishmonkey | February 3, 2011

  7. I love this post so, so, so much, Kathy. I’ve often wondered about this one-way phenomenon of intellectual colonization, and how white American authors are given kudos for telling stories in other cultures, while writers of those cultures go ignored. I don’t know what to do about it, either.

    I would love to see more stories from other places translated into English and sold in the North American market. It would be a wonderful breath of fresh air.

    Comment by Shveta Thakrar | February 4, 2011

  8. That’s a great post, thank you.

    Comment by Aliette de Bodard | February 4, 2011

  9. In my opinion, this ‘making it palatable for Americans’ is what makes a lot of SF boring and offputting – I read speculative fiction to get an insight into other cultures… that is, other cultures *other* than America, of which I get quite enough.

    If you cannot trust the writer to not just have thrown random details at the page, why are you reading the book? (And in that respect I trust writers who are familiar with more than one culture more than monocultural writers.) And if everything makes sense, but not to me, that just means I need to spend more time thinking about it; considering _why_ I’m having averse reaction to an order of the world that is right and proper *to the people who live it*.

    Comment by green_knight | February 4, 2011

  10. I agree wholly that there needs to be more than just the US perspective in spec fic. Even as someone in Britain, a lot of the cultural references are lost on me (for example, I have no idea how to read a baseball score screen thing and so any drama it’s meant to impart is entirely lost on me).

    It’s a good point you make about the invisible cultural baggage and assumptions. Is there a way to explain the nuances of a non-US culture to a US audience without exoticising it?

    Comment by Dylan Fox | February 4, 2011

  11. I’m currently working on a short story in which the non-American characters speak in three languages (which is not uncommon for people in this particular country) while not providing the conspiratorial translations for any readers who don’t understand the foreign words and phrases. Personally, as an American who has been an expatriate these past nine years, I have lived my life seeing through foreign eyes, making sense of cultures that were initially unfamiliar to me, but that I have worked to understand. If I can do it, my readers can make that journey too.

    Comment by JDsg | February 4, 2011

  12. Very, very thought-provoking piece. My audience is also primarily English-speaking, but, not being based in the US, I haven’t been tagged with the immigrant label (although an Estonian Press actually requested that I send them a collection of stories set in third-world locations, so that they could get the author’s perspective).

    I’ve actually found that there is a global community of expats or former expats who don’t think locally (I call them globalized people, as opposed to the localized people who assume that their assumptions are correct and eternal), but can adjust to their interlocutor, but I don’t think they’re a large enough group to constitute a profitable audience.

    Probably the best example of an immigrant writer getting it exactly right is Nabokov, with his mix of an outsider’s fascination and an insider’s experience – but not everyone canlive in every country long enough to get to this point.

    I’m rambling, but as I said, there’s a lot to think about here.

    Comment by Gustavo | February 4, 2011

  13. “Even though many SF/F readers call for more perspectives and diversity, they don’t really want that. They want someone familiar to show them some exotic stuff without actually challenging the readers’ assumptions or values.”

    Exactly.

    My submission to a well-known SF workshop had scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other. The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellas. Yet they insisted that “only gay people talk like this.” They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience.

    Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=1811

    Comment by Athena Andreadis | February 5, 2011

  14. I’m hoping to do a translation of Mexican science fiction stories through my micro-press (Innsmouth Free Press) next year in part because I think English-speakers have not read anything like it and it’s a challenging perspective which they might enjoy. Though Latin American writing is commonly associated with magic realism, much of the science fiction work (and the other genre stuff, like detecetives stories) that has been published is unknown.

    Comment by Silviamg | February 7, 2011


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