Writing About What You Don’t Know – How far is too far?

I grew up hearing respected book reviewers lament the fact that modern French novels, with a few notable exceptions, were all written by insufferable navel gazers.  Everywhere you turned the confessional style had taken over, every childhood, parent, lover worse than the next, while contemporary American fiction was growing ever more bold, fresh and expansive. I had to agree.

It is one of the reasons why I always shied away from writing stories about my own experience, or even about topics that touched me too personally. The one time I did try to write faithfully about someone close to me, the unanimous verdict of my critique group was that it was too far-fetched, that nobody was like that. So much for therapeutic writing, I thought.  In hindsight the comments were not so much a judgment on the plausibility of my character than on my inability to connect it to a larger symbolic web, to give it what every good character deserves, a fictional depth that is more than the dressed up sum of their idiosyncrasies.

Going to workshops, one piece of advice I heard on writing about autobiographical subjects, while avoiding becoming too narcissistic, is to change the perspective. If you’re a woman, write from a man’s perspective; if you’re young, write from an old person’s point of view. Of course it’s up to the writer to decide how far is too far; it would be inadvisable for a straight writer to adopt a gay character’ perspective, or for an Indian to write from a Pakistani perspective just to keep flinty book reviewers off their scent.

But what if you have a really engaging idea that requires you to write about an unfamiliar subject or from an unfamiliar perspective?

Depending on your ambitions, it doesn’t have to be a great obstacle. Few writers limit themselves to their own experience: subjects and places can be researched, facts can be compiled and illuminated through interviews with experts in order to bring more authenticity to a text. It is not without its challenges, since being too servile to research and data can bog down the most soaring ideas. Nobody likes an info-dump.

Mastering an unfamiliar perspective is a lot trickier. Over the years I have heard many authors’ opinion on this. Some believe writing from an unfamiliar perspective should never be attempted and is bound to do a disservice to the person or community the writer is trying to represent:  because there are things you can’t know if you haven’t lived them, because we tend to fill what we don’t know with approximations at best, caricatures at worst. We’ve all seen examples of teeth-clenching cultural stereotypes, the most disturbing ones further tainted by uneven power relations. For a New-Yorker to stereotype a Californian does not carry the same weight than for them to stereotype a Yemeni.

 

Other authors are fine including restricted foreign perspectives, via secondary or tertiary characters. The most thorough writers will find someone from said culture to read and vet their text. I played the role of such cultural informant once for a novel featuring a French nurse of noble lineage taking care of American soldiers during WWII. How much a 21st century woman without a drop of aristocratic blood, and who actually faints at the sight of it, was able to help with that nurse character is anyone’s guess, but I suppose it was better than nothing.

I think there are 1001 ways to write poorly about a culture or an experience that has not been intimately your own. A text can easily snatch all three Rs: reductive, ridiculous and rude. I don’t believe that abstaining is the only answer, although I do understand the reasons of those who support it.

Great works of fiction have emerged from perspectives that were very much in contrast to the author’s own experience. This pushed them to distill precise and striking insights on religious feelings despite being atheists, on being intersex despite having a typical body, on alien worlds despite having never left Earth…

I also believe that deliberately flawed perspectives have their full place in the literary landscape. The best example I have ever read is the haunting Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. The Guardian describes the book as “the oddest and most audacious of Bellow’s novels, set in Africa, a continent he had yet to visit. The richly detailed customs Bellow devises for the novel’s fictional tribes, partly drawn from the anthropological texts he studied at university, are what make its Africa so magical and funny. […] Praise for the novel’s richness of invention has not always extended to the controversial speech of its African characters. Openly artificial, resembling no real African voice, theirs is the language of “blackface”, described by Bellow’s friend Ralph Ellison as “pseudo-Negro dialect”, “a ritual of exorcism”, and indeed, with his self-obsessed thirst for African mysticism, Bellow’s perpetually simmering character cannot hear any other voice than the distorted echo of what he imagines Africans to be like.

Because too far vs. too close aren’t so much opposite as they are companion problems –moving dots on a spectrum— the only way to find the right distance is to try, and fail, and try again, and fail again, aware that you’ll ruffle a few feathers or just plain upset experts and cultural informants around you. When that happens, let yourself be indignant for a minute because you’re not that kind of person, then take another minute, or a whole night, as much as you need really, to assess what they said, to see it from their perspective. Whether you stick to your idea or let their feedback color it, you’ll be doing what you should as a person and what you must as a writer.

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