An intriguing story by Susan Barker appeared on the pages of The Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?”. The article relates the authors experiences of a recent book tour she made in China after publishing her book The Incarnations set in modern China. The author is British and she encountered predictable questions such as “How can you write about the Chinese when you aren’t fluent in mandarin?” “How can a Westerner know what it’s like to be Chinese?” “Isn’t your novel just a British opinion of China?” What she met was reader prejudice against writers from another environment. She goes on to compare this to a friend who claimed that women authors could never write authentic male characters.
As a Japanese writer who has struggled to write all his life in English, I am quite familiar with the accusations. And it is not only Eastern prejudice of Westerners. I can vividly remember the brouhaha that followed the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a novel set in an English manor with an English butler as a protagonist written by a “Japanese” writer.
This is all quite familiar ground. Every time a white author writes a tragedy about inner city blacks, or a comedy involving an Hispanic family, you get accusations of writing beyond your borders.
Of course this is just silly non-reasoning. By the same logic, I have no right to write about elves and space aliens because I have never been an elf or a space alien. I would not have the right to write about the mind of murderers because I have never committed murder. There once was a time when women were told that they should not write about men at all. In fact, they were told they shouldn’t write novels because they were writing beyond their borders. These days male writers can be criticized for trespassing into certain areas of the female psyche. Writers have the obligation to research their subject, produce authentic characters, avoid cardboard cliches and edit out lazy stereotypes. But there is no reason a writer needs perform brutal murder in order to win the admission to write about one.
As Barker rightly points out, to say that there is a distinct “Chinese psyche” is to create a fictional stereotype that everyone in the diverse Chinese population must fit. It is the kind of pigeon holing that Barker is being accused of, only in the reverse direction.
When I was a little boy, just returned to Japan after spending half of his short life in the West, foreign visitors marveled at my understanding of both cultures and suggested that I take up a career as a “cultural interpreter” to bridge the understanding between the two peoples. When I was a teenager, I seriously looked for the possibility of such employment. The idea sounds only quaint to me now. I can barely understand the culture of my own children. I find it easier to talk to Americans who are in the same profession as myself than it is to talk to my sister. There is no Japanese culture or American culture when you are dealing with how minds work.
This is not to say that there are no bad depictions out there. I have seen plenty of samurai novels written by Westerners in which the samurais are cowboys dressed in kimono. There is a certain psyche you need to grasp when you are describing an English butler, an inner city drug addict, or a Catholic priest. Some aspects of human existence do fit stereotypes.
Then, after all the work is done, there will always be people who will tell you that you did not get it right. They will ascribe your inability to understand on your race, background and gender. But after a hundred years or so, who will know the difference? We learn about Japan’s past from the logs and letters of foreign travelers because contemporary Japanese did not bother to write down the stuff that they believed to be ordinary. An outside eye is the mirror that allows us to see ourselves. What we see in that mirror has perpetually changed how we see ourselves and how we proceed with our future.
Kurosawa was the least Japanese of the Japanese movie directors. He employed ideas that broke away from traditional Japanese artists. He created an unconventional (and less beautified) view of historic Japan by using the Western viewpoint as a mirror. He was influenced by such foreign writers as Lafcadio Hearn as were many Japanese writers. Today, not only do Westerners see historic Japan through Kurosawa’s views but modern Japanese do as well. These outsider’s eyes were later reflected in other outsider’s eyes until “Japanese psyche” could no longer be recognized as such. But our literally and cinematic traditions are richer for it.
Reader prejudice will persist. Don’t kid yourself about that. People will always tell the writer that they are trespassing over their boundaries. But you don’t have to care. The stuff you get right will become the building blocks of a multicultural society. The writer’s job is to write, not to live, what they are writing.