Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About
 
 

Home

How to Show Culture Subtly July 14, 2019

This month I've been spending more time on Twitter, and through it I've found out how weak I am to peer influence. I've bought lipsticks because pretty women posted selfies wearing them. I've sought out movies because people referenced them in memes and animated GIFs. And thanks to gushing reviews, my "To Be Read" pile has sprouted with surprising rapidity, like the flowering weeds in our yard after the summer rains.

Unfortunately, I've been disappointed by several titles Twitter loves to death. The premises are exciting, and the writing is often lovely, but the books consistently share a quality that makes me give up less than fifty pages in: they preach.

Tweets that generate thousands of "likes" and "retweets" fall into two categories: (1) snarky quips that incite rage over controversies, or (2) mini sermons flavored with emojis and profanity. Every day Twitter tells me such-and-such identity is "valid," half the words in the English dictionary are "fucking offensive," and so-and-so people have no reason to feel guilty about something innocuous because they don't owe anyone a goddamn thing.

It's not surprising, then, that the books Twitter recommends have traits similar to the mini sermons with twenty thousand hearts. The novels scream morals in readers' faces like those Bible-waving lay preachers standing on street corners near college campuses. Social media does not reward subtlety; it rewards books with pithy quotes easily copy/pasted into a 280-character post.

When writing a book, you're not limited to 280 characters. You get a half million of them! You can use as many as you need to share a message, and do it in a way that will touch people and stick with them long after they put the book down. There's no point in writing an 80,000-word book if your message can be conveyed in a couple of straightforward sentences.

For example, a women's fiction novel I attempted to read last week set out to teach people about Chinese food and social norms, from the perspective of a woman who goes home to her Chinatown neighborhood after the death of her mother. Okay, awesome.

But instead of the heartwarming and relateable read I thought the novel would be, I got Chinese Culture 101 for Business Travelers.

Page 10:

I should visit my neighbors after my time away, but...my grief justified dismissing these cultural expectations.

Page 13:

Filial piety was sacred in my culture, and my mother had died while I was three thousand miles away.

Page 14:

The tug-of-war to pay the bill was a common cultural occurrence. [...] The performance of paying the bill demonstrated the traits of generosity and hospitality so prized by our culture.

Here I stopped reading. I could explain why using shorthand Twitter-speak like "self-othering," but this is my blog, and I can type as many characters as I want to explain more fully.

Telling about culture is unnatural.

Have you ever attended an obligatory family get-together and thought to yourself, "Dang it, now I have to uphold American cultural expectations by eating one of Aunt Martha's soggy pies"?

I assume not. That's not the way people within a culture think. It's the way people outside a culture think when they're trying very hard to fit in.

A person in the heroine's shoes, recently bereaved and coming home for the first time in years, wouldn't think, "My grief justifies dismissing Asian cultural expectations." She'd think, "If I don't pay my respects to the neighbors, those grannies will gossip about what a rude and unfilial daughter I am. But I really can't handle acting nice and brave right now, when all I want to do is hide under the covers and pretend Mama will wake me up tomorrow."

Telling alienates readers.

As I wrote long ago in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," showing engages readers with the story. Explaining complex concepts or emotions point-blank doesn't give readers the opportunity to fully empathize with your main character.

Worse, this particular type of telling encourages readers to view the main character as someone alien. The Chinese Culture 101 tidbits highlight that the heroine is different from the reader—a member of an exotic tribe so bizarre, the author must explain their actions in detail to us culturally myopic Westerners.

Simplistic telling perpetuates stereotypes.

After stopping at page fourteen, I checked Goodreads reviews to see if anyone else had a negative reaction to the over-explanation of "my culture." One or two did, but overall people didn't notice or comment on it. Some even adopted the same language as the author, with insulting results. For example...

The heroine left home seven years ago, having committed the worst sin in her culture, the sin of not respecting her mother's wishes.

Yes, filial piety is very important to a lot of Chinese people. But filial piety doesn't mean "blind, unquestioning obedience." It means showing respect to your parents and caring for them as they age, and doing your best to be an upstanding person who doesn't disgrace the family. Most Chinese parents aren't controlling Tiger Moms who exile children for failing to fulfill their every wish. Refusing to go to medical school is hardly the "worst sin in Chinese culture."

I can't blame one novel for planting reductive generalizations about East Asian peoples in American heads, but the writing didn't help by making blanket statements like, "Filial piety is sacred in my culture." Repeatedly telling readers about "our culture" implies the author of this book speaks for all one and a half billion people who identify as Chinese. Some Western readers will take her at her word and come away with freshly reinforced stereotypes.

How to Show Culture

If you want to teach about a culture through fiction, you don't have to spell everything out. Readers will glean what's going on from the behavior and dialogue of your characters.

Let's take the example of the bill-paying tug-of-war. (Which is not exclusive to Chinese culture, by the way. We ain't got nothin' on Persian taarof, for example.)

To show the tug-of-war, it's sufficient to portray two characters fighting over who will pay the bill. This book already did that before the explanatory paragraph about virtues "so prized by our culture." (Shortened below.)

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu cleared his throat. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She reached into her purse for her wallet.

"I refuse to allow you to pay. Put your wallet away, Celia."

"Please, I insist."

If you're concerned people will think these characters are behaving that way due to individual personalities instead of cultural norms, you can make it clear this is a performance through actions embedded in the scene.

"I'll pay the bill," Celia said.

Mr. Wu raised his hands to reject her offer, in the expected show of humility. "No, Celia. Don't worry about the bill."

"Business is business. We all need to make a living." She placed her credit card in Mr. Wu's hands.

"I refuse to allow you to pay," Mr. Wu said, making a half-hearted attempt to give the card back to Celia.

Celia smiled generously. "Please, I insist."

Conclusion

Heavy-handed explanations of culture do a disservice to everyone: the members of that culture, by reducing them to exotic stereotypes; your readers, by patronizing them; and yourself, by diluting the effect of your message. Any cultural norms you need to communicate, you can show through natural actions and dialogue, rather than tell in awkward infodumps.

The Difference Between Racist Jokes and Inclusive Humor May 6, 2019

In March, thanks to a freak snow storm that buried Central Oregon for a solid week, I finished writing Lizzie Bennet's Diary. The project isn't fully finished because I'm in the process of distributing the paperback and eBook through Lulu. While the technical and business parts of me have loose ends to tie up, the creative part of me has already moved on.

My next project is a former project, in a way. I'm now rewriting a novel I first drafted about six years ago, Kagemusha. And by "rewrite," I don't mean I'm making minor tweaks to the existing novel. I mean I'm scrapping the whole dang thing. I'm taking the same basic premise and writing an entirely different book.

In July 2016, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Writing Without Fear."

Kagemusha has a fatal flaw: I was so determined to be lighthearted and funny that I shied away from any complex emotion. I left the characters and their relationships deliberately underdeveloped because I was afraid of making the story "too serious." I deleted whole chapter outlines and filled the gaps with time skips to avoid any sticky topics.

I first conceived of Kagemusha in my mid-twenties, before I was a fully formed adult. I was still living in my college apartment and struggling to launch my career in libraries. My life was like freshly mixed Jello, liquid and lumpy. Looking at it you'd worry, "Can this really gel into something solid?"

Now I'm in my early thirties, and my life has set up nicely. I have a stable full-time job and a house. I'm comfortable enough to afford costly hobbies like sewing, flute, and piano.

"Growing up" has had a complicated effect on how I write. On one hand, writing blog posts like this one is harder than it used to be. I'm more cautious about what I say. My students or coworkers might find this blog, so I filter myself to avoid saying anything too controversial or upsetting.

On the other hand, when it comes to writing fiction, I'm no longer afraid of sticky topics. In fact, I love writing melodrama. Bring on the tears! I need more conflict!

My mid-twenties attempt at Kagemusha was essentially a sitcom. It was highly episodic, with only a pinch of plot to glue the chapters together. The outline I have now is heftier, with a central theme of the tensions between individual identity, cultural identity, and public persona.

The project is also riskier. The hero of the story is now Iranian-American, and the heroine is Chinese-American. Their racial identities are core components of the new plot. The clash between Western and Eastern cultures fuels much of the drama and the humor.

Those of you blissfully insulated from social media likely read the paragraph above and thought, "Cool." Those of you who lurk in the Twitterverse might have sucked air through your teeth and thought, "Oh dear. Are you sure you want to do that?"

Progress vs. Hysteria

Every month or two I read about a new controversy in the publishing world over authors who write about cultures other than their own. In March, the controversy was about Kosoko Jackson's A Place for Wolves. The New York Times discussed the incident in the article, "Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture." Jackson, a gay black man who had previously worked as a sensitivity reader for publishers, wrote a novel set in Kosovo during the '90s civil war. One of the villains was an Albanian Muslim. According to the YA corner of Twitter, writing such a villain equated to "shitting on genocide victims." Jackson pulled the book from publication.

Then this week the NYT ran another piece titled, "She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish." The article details the Goodreads kerfuffle, subsequent cancellation, and later resurrection of Amelie Wen Zhao's Blood Heir. The YA novel is about a world where "a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite." Netizens who hadn't yet read the book deemed it insufficiently sensitive on the issue of slavery, because real oppressed peoples don't have magic powers.

Much genuine racism and sexism can be found in published novels. I see it all the time and also get upset about it, as you can see from my previous posts like "Faux Diversity in Fiction," Faux Strength in Female Characters," and "Sex Isn't a Story, Intelligence Isn't Cute, and Culture Isn't Character." But extreme cases like these, in which people whip themselves up in a frenzy over microscopic hints of insensitivity, raise the questions: Where is the line between progress and hysteria? What's the difference between a portrayal of an Albanian Muslim villain that merits moral outrage, and a harmless portrayal undeserving of the punitive reaction on social media?

I can say what the difference is not: intention. Most harmful stories and jokes aren't told out of malice, but out of carelessness. People are unaware of their biases and don't realize a joke can be terribly hurtful.

The difference is also not necessarily in how positive or negative the portrayal is. Yes, many xenophobic writers have crafted books and movie scripts starring blond, blue-eyed heroes fighting mustachioed villains with heavy German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern accents. So when we see a character of an oppressed group cast as a villain, it's easy to jump to the conclusion the author must be racist.

But it's possible to write a complex villain that happens to have a certain ethnic identity without throwing shade on his or her entire group. It's also possible (and common) to write a seemingly benign character that unintentionally reinforces stereotypes. Think of the funny gay sidekick in a rom-com whose one and only character trait is "flamboyant." Or the cool black best friend who starts every sentence with "Girrrl" and has no apparent life of her own.

Racism vs. Humor: Examples

In December of my freshman year of college, the girls in my dorm gathered in the common room to watch A Christmas Story. A clean kids' movie with heartwarming morals, right? Until you get to the scene in which the waiters at the Chinese restaurant sing, "Deck the harr with bough of horry! Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra!".

The girls around me cracked up at the scene. I wasn't offended, but I was puzzled. I couldn't understand what they all found so funny. A girl with curly blond hair explained to me, the only half-Chinese person in the room, "It's because Chinese people can't say the 'L' sound."

There are two reasons this scene is racist, not funny. First, the "humor" relies on painting Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, too different and dumb to ever fit in with us true Americans.

Second, Mandarin has the "L" sound! Bruce Lee? Lucy Liu? Do these names ring any berr?

The "L" sound is used at the beginnings of Chinese syllables, not at the ends. (See: Table of Initial-Final Combinations). So it can be difficult for Mandarin-speakers who learn English later in life to pronounce words like "hall" and "bell." But "holly" and "fa la la" are easy peasy.

Other Asian languages use an alveolar tap halfway between "L" and "R," like Korean; or they don't use the "L" sound at all, like Japanese. So the gag works...if you toss all East Asian people into one perpetual foreigner pot and assume they're the same. That's pretty much the definition of racism.

Now here's another video I saw in college with stereotypes of Asian people: "Shit Asian Moms Say." While I scratched my head at the restaurant scene in A Christmas Story, in my early twenties I found this off-color skit side-splittingly funny.

What's the difference? Both videos show ridiculous caricatures of Chinese people. So why would I find one offensive and the other humorous?

Racism divides. Humor unites.

You can see a pattern in the comments of the two YouTube videos. On A Christmas Story, the comments are generally along the lines of, "Best scene in the movie! Humorless millennial SJWs ruin everything!" People recognize that the scene is racist, yet they defiantly insist it's funny anyway. And if you don't agree, "Know some humor or get outta my country."

In contrast, the comments on "Shit Asian Moms Say" are from Asian viewers writing that a particular part of the video hit home. "Honestly this is my Korean/Japanese/Filipino mom ALL THE TIME!"

People from other cultures chime in and say, "This is just like my Mexican mom too, lol." Or, "Same as an Indian, but instead of East Asian languages it's all Hindi." The video isn't just for Asians; it resonates with people everywhere.

So one video divides people and encourages cruelty to "outsiders," while the other brings people from different backgrounds together to laugh about their shared experiences. One is factually incorrect, while the other prompts people to write, "I'm Chinese and this could not be more true!"

Racism generalizes and promotes lies. Humor is complex and truthful.

I wrote in 2014 that truth is the backbone of comedy. The restaurant scene lacks authenticity, while the viral YouTube video has it in spades.

Has anyone in the audience of A Christmas Story ever listened to a group of Asian carolers sing "Fa ra ra"? No, because it doesn't happen.

Has anyone in the audience of "Shit Asian Moms Say" ever been on the receiving end of an angry tirade that ended when the telephone rang, and Mom switched instantly to her dulcet public voice? Absolutely.

Racism alienates groups as "others." Humor embraces groups as "us."

A Christmas Story was made by a Hollywood studio in the early 1980s, based on a book by a humorist who grew up in Indiana in the 1920s and '30s. The scene frames the Asian waiters from a distance as one homogeneous group in Manchurian costumes. The audience is expected to identify not with them, but with the white family in the background gaping open-mouthed at these alien curiosities.

"Shit Asian Moms Say" was made by an Asian-American man and his friends in the early 2010s. His exaggerated portrayal of his Taiwanese mother is based on personal experience, and it comes out of love. The video portrays a complicated character who's comically strict and frank, but also nurturing, friendly, and affectionate. The audience is expected to identify with the Asian actor doing the impersonation and think, "Man, we had the same childhood!"

Professional comedians of all races mine their own lives for material. Gabriel Iglesius impersonates Mexican men and women running taco stands in his stand-up programs. Trevor Noah jokes about life in South Africa, where traffic lights are mere "suggestions." Hasan Minhaj shapes routines around his relationship with his immigrant Muslim Indian parents. Yoo Byung Jae ruminates on the absurd social niceties of life in South Korea, Mel Brooks makes movies featuring "Druish Princesses," and so on.

This list might give you the impression that only people from within a culture are qualified to joke or write about it. I believe everyone should be "allowed" to write about any group of people, but only those very familiar with a culture can do it well.

These comedians have been immersed in their cultures since birth, so they've had daily opportunities to notice the truths that can be spun into comic gold. If writers from other cultures want to do the same, they have to work very hard.

Writing Sensitively While Pushing Boundaries

I can't start my life over as an Iranian-American, but I can do everything in my power to immerse myself in the culture. I can read all the Persian books and blogs I can find, watch all the movies from filmmakers in Iran that I can get my hands on (which is sadly few, even for a librarian), and talk to people with first-hand experiences.

I can also make sure my characters are characters, not caricatures. Racist portrayals frame characters around their ethnic identities first and their personalities second (or not at all). Respectful portrayals imbue every character with complexity and realism, regardless of race.

My ultimate goal in rewriting Kagemusha is to create a novel that people of all races will recognize themselves in. I hope Persian and Chinese readers will be delighted to see themselves represented in print. It would be the ultimate compliment for someone to say, "This is so my life!"

"Complex" Does Not Equal "Unlikeable" April 21, 2019

A while ago someone asked in a writing forum I visit occasionally, "What would you like to see more of in romance novels?" In reply I repeated, in summary, what I wrote here last January: I want to see more complex female characters. I'm tired of the same old gorgeous, angelic virgins with mile-long legs and no flaws other than "adorkable" clumsiness and low self-esteem.

I didn't imagine this would be a controversial opinion. Every writer would prefer interesting characters over boring archetypes, right?

Apparently not.

The problem with complex female characters is that they're too risky. Readers won't care about them enough to keep reading about them.

A heroine has to be beautiful to make it believable that the hero would be interested in her.

She has to be nice and generous so readers will root for her, and not just be jealous of her.

She has to be clumsy or insecure or something to give her dimension, but not so much that she's unlikeable.

My first reaction to this reply was disbelief. I couldn't believe that a fellow writer in the twenty-first century would say, in perfect seriousness, that a woman must be physically attractive or no man could possibly love her, and she must be super duper nice or other women will be "jealous" of her, and her personality must be as bland as a plain piece of Wonderbread or she'll be "unlikeable." That's the sort of attitude parodied on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, not an attitude I was aware still existed in real life!

Once my brain reluctantly accepted the fact that the comment was real, I responded like this.

The assertion that a heroine must be a perfect model of lovely, inoffensive, childlike femininity to be "likeable" bothers me most of all, because nobody could make the same argument about male characters.

Mr. Rochester is the opposite of handsome. Does that mean it's unbelievable when Jane Eyre falls for him?

Sherlock Holmes is a Grade A Jerk without a generous bone in his body. Does that mean readers don't root for him?

Have you ever read a novel featuring a male protagonist whose biggest flaw is that he regularly trips over his own two feet and falls into the arms of beautiful women?

I can't dispute that protagonists must be likeable, or most people won't want to read about them. However, that Victorian definition of what makes a woman "likeable" is insulting. That commenter is basically arguing that likeable female characters are pretty dolls, not human beings.

Not only is the assertion insulting, it's factually incorrect. Readers love complex heroines, when they encounter them.

  • Betsy Taylor, heroine of the comedic Undead series by MaryJanice Davidson, is arrogant, flippant, and unapologetically superficial. The popular series has 14 titles to date.
  • Hermione Granger is a bossy know-it-all and a self-righteous tattle-tale. Her name regularly tops lists of "best female protagonists of all time" on the Internet.
  • Scarlet O'Hara is vain, spoiled, and manipulative. More than eighty years after the first publication of Gone with the Wind, the classic novel still enjoys strong sales today.

The list above contains only three bullet points because I couldn't come up with many more. When I think back on all of the stories I've read recently, not a single heroine makes the list.

In the last published novel I read, a contemporary romance that frankly should have been filed under pornography, the heroine was a buttoned-up workaholic in Silicon Valley who preferred math equations to her parents' country club parties. Though she believed she could never experience a romantic relationship because she wasn't "normal" like her confident cougar rivals, the escort she hired fell desperately in love with her luscious bottom and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

In the one before that, a historical mystery, the heroine was an old-fashioned small-town girl in the Big Apple who preferred books over dinner parties. Though she believed she could never get married because she wasn't pretty like the glamorous models in her dorm, the cute chef at the jazz club fell desperately in love with her alluring eyes and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

And in the Wattpad novel I finished before that, a contemporary teen drama, the heroine was a nerdy high-school senior who preferred studying over beach parties. Though she believed she could never get a boyfriend because she wasn't sexy like her scantily clad BFFs, the hot playboy next door fell desperately in love with her mile-long legs and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

If I think far, far back, I can add Rachel from Girl on the Train, Amelia from The Black Hour, and Naledi from A Princess in Theory to the list of complex heroines. That's all. Every other heroine was a variation of a sweet, pretty doll whose shy modesty sends hunky men into mad frenzies of lust.

Readers want wish fulfillment. I get it. I too enjoy my escapist K-dramas with the same "good girl"/"cool guy" dynamic. But I also expect more from writers today. I expect heroines to be flawed people who grow and learn through the events of the plot.

If a heroine learns anything at all in most books, it's how to value herself and all her great qualities. This is a fine moral, but it seems to be the only moral you see in every novel aimed at women and girls.

Why? Do writers and publishers believe female readers can't handle any lesson more substantial than, "Believe in yourself, because you're perfect just the way you are"? That women only like pink, glittery, sugar-sweet Cinderella stories, and they'll throw tantrums if a book makes them think?

As shown by Scarlet O'Hara, this is not the case.