Here is another thought that came out of the lecture the other night. The man who was speaking was complaining that 80% or more of the books in the local libraries are translated from sources outside of the local culture.
He of course had some vested interest in this as an author, but he did have a point. If the people of the culture never read the writers, they cannot get published, and their voice, that unique voice of that experience of being human is lost. I have heard reverse commentary about Canadian/American/British reading habits. By far the VAST majority of what I read was written in English, and comes from an English speaking culture, for me, primarily Canadian and American followed by British.
It must induce some sort of cultural tunnel vision, an introversion that can only lead to limited knowledge and understanding making us riper for miscommunication. Many of the great books that I have read set in other cultures were written by Americans or Brits...for instance Snowflower and the Secret Fan which was a great book set in China, written by - I believe - an American.
The Kite Runner is an excellent book written from outside Western culture, though it was written in English, and I believe that he lives in the US. Still, I think it probably comes from outside my normal reading routes, though clearly heavily influenced having gone through the publishing mill there.
This also raises the excellent question of voice in writing. Does the fact that a writer brings to life characters from cultures not their own, or times not their own preclude the possibility that they are speaking with a valid voice? Can it actually be a valid expression of the human experience?
That's a huge topic...
Web based reading does provide much easier access to writing from other cultures, but here's the rub, how many of us actually read much text from outside their own culture? There is still, of course, the language issue, requiring us to read what we are able to read, but how many of us regularly read writers who are from outside of our culture? I have to admit as I look down my favourites list, the vast majority of it is written by North Americans, or other ex-British colonies - an interesting comment in and of itself.
Really very very little. Something maybe I should look at. I regularly read a Dane and a Frenchman (living in Toronto, so I am not really stretching THAT much here). After that, there are a bunch of ex-pats, some sailors, and edubloggers - almost all N. American. Do I do this to reinforce my own opinions and positions? To stay where it is comfy? Is it just laziness?
Hmm, this begs my comment that reading web based material is more international, and provides a wider range of outlook and opinion. Doesn't seem to be working so well for me.
I must not be looking hard enough.
Is it important though to read from a world view point outside of your own? Youngest and I are currently reading a book called Ten Things I Hate about Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah who also wrote Does My Head Look Big in This?. Both of these books are written from the perspective of teenage girls growing up Muslim Lebanese in Australia. Given the cover blurb, the author is speaking with the voice of experience.
These are great books, they look at the world from a perspective of the outsider, or self-perceived outsiders, which makes them universal for the kids that read it. Both of the girls in the two books are struggling with their identity in the grind of growing up. Their issues are made more acute by their perceived dual identity...one girl fiercely and fearfully embraces it, and decides to wear her hijab to school, the other hides her identity fiercely for fear of reprisal.
These are typical issues facing teens, sharpened by the current political climate and cultural misunderstandings these girls face...and they are an excellent read for seeing into the world from another set of eyes, Lebanese Muslim Aussi eyes.
I think I am answering my own question; in drawing too fine a line around who the author is, and what experiences they have we run the risk of muddling whether we are reading literature or someones diary. Both have value, but I think that it is possible to speak universally from wherever you are, if you have the skill.
By the same token, I think it takes a rare person to be able to express this clearly, and reading the opinions and insights of those who come from different cultures and societies is vastly important.
I think that great writers of any background, working in any language, can speak to us all. I think that they also have a tremendous amount to offer their readers by opening a window into their experience of being a human.
Celebrate our diversity while touching each other through our unified human experience.