Thursday, April 10, 2008

Culture, books and web reading

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 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.


elPadawan said...

It's funny that you write that just as I decided to buy some english classics, thinking I haven't read enough from said other cultures, my reading background and classics being... mostly... french ;)

Beth said...

I try (and we try in our Book Club) to read authors from other countries. It does open up our minds to other cultures and to a better understanding of the world. But sometimes, a poor translation just ruins the book. You know it must have been excellent in the original language but you struggle...
And, yes, The Kite Runner was one of the best.

oreneta said...

elPadawan, so who are some of the great French writers..I'll look for the translation. Please don't say Hugo, I had to read it in French in High school, it didn't improve my experience of his writing...

Beth, I am going to throw it out at you too, you read so much and so well, who have you read that is from outside the usual Anglo sphere, well written and well translated....

dawn said...

Well, that was really deep. I only speak English, so go to those blogs who write in English. I have one German lady on my blog roll, but she writes her blog in German and English. I agree, we tend to find what interests us, often to find agreement, sometimes, it is just out of interest. When I come across a blog where someone's thoughts, lifestyle, choices are so very opposite to mine, and he/she presents these things in a strong, way, I often find it painful or frustrating to read. I am interested in cultural differences and find your blog fascinating because you write in English about where you live, and maybe because you are Canadian and can share my perspective on the differences in the culture. Having said that, within a country, especially one as vast as Canada, there are different cultures brought from other countries as well as within the country. People in Newfoundland have a different culture than those in BC and people in Toronto are different than those in rural Saskatchewan. So, despite not venturing out of English speaking, we can gain some insight into others' cultures in a different way, not quite like immersing ourselves in the culture, but just a sampling.

We have had opportunity in our family to read many books written by Dutch people, and translated to English. There is a large Dutch community a few hours from here and one family has a publishing company and they get the books translated to English and publish them. Piet Prins is an author we enjoy reading and was a journalist during WW11 and was put in a concentration camp. When he got out, he started writing children's books. They are well written and some are about the war in Holland, others are missionaries in other countries. His books are character builders as well and most are for ages 9-99. Here the books are published by Inheritance Publications.

Sorry, didn't mean to do a whole post.

Hilarious Catastrophes said...

I've read a small range of books that I can definitely say have altered my perception of culture, either by the perspective of an outsider looking in (to the British culture), or by literature written in other cultures entirely. Nick Hornby is so popular because he's so so down-to-earth British. But even reading novels written with a scottish, irish or northen/southern viewpoint can be very different in tone.

Novels I've found good based on their range of views/approaches are things like Hideous Kinky, which is a little girls view of her life in 1960's Morocco with her mother and sister. Also anything by Kasuo Ishiguro, particularly his observations of British culture. I have just started reading The Reader by Bernard Scklink, which is obviously a translation from German. I do have a sense that I am missing out on something fundamental to the cultural setting by reading it in English, and wish I could read it in German. Alice :o)

oreneta said...

Dawn, I am going to try and get my hands on some of those books, thanks for the hint. You are so right about differences within a country as well, rural and urban, coastal or inland, tinker or tailor, the list goes on...I LIKE getting long comments, it becomes a conversation that way, don't you think?

Alice, Ohh, books to follow up on here as well, I also love Kazup Ishiguro, though I, despite my UK ties, am also reading it as an outsider looking in...I am hoping to get my Spanish up to the point where I can start reading some of the lit. in Spanish...of course, it would help if I studied more...*sigh*

dawn said...

Yes, I like getting long comments too. I have a catalogue Inheritance Publications gives me every year. They often give me a number of copies as I am always giving them away. The catalogue is in a book by Piet Prins called Scout: The Secret of the Swamp. It is an adventure set during the second world war in the Netherlands. It is a great book to read to kids. My sister has read it to her preschool kids but my kids would love it as teens as well. I can send it to you if you send me your address there. Like I said, I get a few every year and have a couple here. The web site for the company is
I haven't been on the sight but you can check it out if you haven't already been over there. Seriously, I will send a copy of the book (a paperback) with catalogue if you want.