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.