Authors who have lived in an exotic country for long years
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Not just a year with the Peace Corps.
Dalrymple first went to Delhi on 26 January 1984.7 Dalrymple has lived in India on and off since 1989 and spends most of the year at his Mehrauli farmhouse in the outskirts of Delhi,8 but summers in London and Edinburgh. His wife Olivia is an artist and comes from a family with long-standing connections to India. (Wikipedia)
Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller - one of her several outstanding memoirs of growing up in Rhodesia/Malawi. River Town by Peter Hessler - one of his several memoirs about life in China. Nowadays China probably may not be considered "exotic" but when Hessler was there in the Peace Corps as an English teacher, the more rural inland sections of China certainly could be viewed as exotic.
Arthur C. Clarke lived in Ceylon for a good long while, preceding his death in 2008.
We have an author in Poland, Marcin Kydryński, who loves Africa and has been there so frequently that he has spent around 10 years of his life on this continent. I imagine he must be known everywhere, in Kenya, Liberia, Sudan, Tanzania, on deserts he has crossed. Normally works at a radio station compiling exotic music. Also a photographer. Books: Chwila przed zmierzchem, Biel, album Pod słońce.
There's so little exoticism left.
I wonder about aid workers, they rather don't write books.
Hmmm. The dictionary definition of exotic is "originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country".
So surely the point is (or should be) 'an author who lives far from their place of origin' (not ours, as readers)?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria, but lived for many years in the exotic-to-her country of the United States. Americanah is from a similar perspective, of an immigrant to this strange and foreign land.
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but moved to the exotic-to-her USA at ten. Homegoing is also excellent.
I see Rushdie has already been mentioned.
(If what you want is "A white author from North America or Europe who has lived somewhere primarily inhabited by non-white people", perhaps you should say as much, rather than using terminology that is either unclear or insulting.)
"Exotic" is a relativistic term defined by the user's subjective point of view. I do not think people were confused by its use here. Nor do I think that it should be regarded as "insulting."
At a minimum it's good form to acknowledge from the get-go in an international forum (or making any sort of declaration in the public at large--how big is the internet?) the presence of many diverse "subjective" point of views when one is apt to introduce one's own in tones that make it sound absolute. Implying that "aid workers" in "exotic" countries would share the OP's parochial Eurocentric outlook doesn't help. (There are non-European and non-white aid workers--possibly more, depending on what categories of aid are considered.)
"Exotic" has a hoary orientalist pedigree--whites at the centre of the universe, everyone else in zoos at the margins to be ogled probed described exploited explained mystified moaned over etc. It's probably better left to use in technical sciences than discussions of literature.
Yes, as I tried to imply with my suggestions. However, the OP specifically says that what they are looking for "Asia, Africa, Latin America" - foreign from a specific point of view.
LolaWasler summarizes the problematic nature of "exotic" well, so I won't repeat her point. I will say that most if not all people will view being described as "exotic" as insulting if not dehumanizing. I'd use "exotic" to refer to a non-native species of plants or animals in a particular ecosystem, but never to a person, culture, or country, which privileges my perspective over theirs - and since I'm a white American, there's already more than enough of that privileging they have to deal with without exacerbating it by lazy use of term that's easily avoided.
Africans like to describe their trees, rivers, markets, villas, which are specific, familiar to them, yet special. Special for them and special for whites.
I am the one interested in Africa, Asia, I've met some real Africans and Asians. I would say that they defend well their space and don't need or want the help of whites. They are just very independent.
When you say things such as "Africans like . . .", or "real Africans and Asians" (as if there are fake ones?), that's a problem. Because you are, first of all, assuming that all Africans or all Asians are alike. What is worse, you are suggesting a kinship simply because people are from the same continent, seemingly forgetting the great mix of ethnicities, countries, tribes within those continents.
It is as absurd to ascribe a viewpoint to all Africans or all Asians as it would be to ascribe one to all Europeans.
RE: >17 asurbanipal: In case you haven't noticed, there are a lot of white folks in Africa.
I don't think our OP uses English as their first language (he/she's in Poland, I think?), so the semantics are bound to become a bit lost. Reading between the lines, I don't think he means to be disrespectful.
I know from experience with my rudimentary French, if I want to be understood I can probably only compose one way of saying the idea I'm conveying, and it's gonna sound like whatever it sounds like.
You are not helping your case.
There is nothing wrong with being interested in reading books by non-Africans who have spent time in Africa, or non-Asians who have spent time in Asia. The problem was with the phrasing of your request.
I've created a long list on Africa and these are the thanks I get. Some strange attack.
There is tension, the tension is in the air, the steam must find an outlet until everything is calm again. Don't create steam.
>16 lorax: The ordinary dictionary definition of "exotic" carries no explicit or implicit dehumanizing, or culturally oppressive connotations. The fact that some people use the term in such a fashion does not mean the word has been taken away from the rest of us. I dislike fascistic diktats when it comes to language. I think some of us are overreacting to an innocent post.
>24 nemoman: I'm not sure whether any reasonable discussion is going to be possible now that the word "fascist" is being thrown around (in my experience, it typically marks the point at which things degenerate into name-calling). Nevertheless, I'll make an attempt: just because a dictionary can't mention all the cultural connotations that may develop over time in connection with particular words, doesn't mean that these connotations don't exist for some speakers (possibly even a large percentage of them). Language is made in people's heads, not on paper.
Nobody here is trying to outlaw the word "exotic". Some people in this thread have tried to point out that describing Africa and Asia as "exotic" (in the dictionary sense of "foreign", if you like) only works for people who are not from Africa or Asia. This is a very Eurocentric (or North America-centric) perspective. If one is interested in learning about parts of the world that aren't Europe, it seems like it might be helpful to recognize this -- at least, if the goal of reading about other parts of the world is to expand one's own perspective.
In addition, because of various historical circumstances such as colonialism, there has often been a power imbalance between Europe and other parts of the world, and one characteristic of this is the attitude that Europeans are the norm and that other peoples are somehow lesser. Emphasizing the strangeness of these other peoples has often been part of this dynamic.
So: you are free to use "exotic" however you want, but please do not be surprised if people with whom you are talking feel that the word carries all sorts of undesirable baggage. Nobody in this thread has been saying: don't read books written by Europeans about their experiences in Africa. They've been saying: I'm really not comfortable with "exotic" here, this is why, maybe you want to think about it as part of your search for books on the topic.
I appreciate the effort, but as you say, once someone has started Godwinating I think it's pointless to argue. nemoman has decided that nuance and context do not exist for him and therefore those of us for whom they do exist must be the height of evil.
asurbanipal, can I ask, dodging your poor choice of words, why it is that you are specifically seeking European and American views of the rest of the world, rather than seeking out books written by people who spent their *entire* lives there, and for whom those places are very much not foreign?
Edited for typo
I'll bet even Icelanders think Iceland is exotic! Volcanoes making new land and new islands in their vicinity while up to their vents in snow -- fire and ice. Even the name is exotic and from the previous, it could just as easily be Fireland. Rejkjavik runs on geothermal power. Where else in the world is that the case that the capital of another nation is geothermal powered? Pretty exotic if you ask me.
Icelanders' language is considered the most difficult language to learn in the western world, if not the entire world. Massive glaciers, Viking history -- I don't care where you're from, THAT's exotic.
Only 300,000+ population, yet it has a burgeoning literary culture, being the most literate country in the world. I always thought there must be something in the water of Great Britain, considering its literary tradition and smallness. But Iceland tops even it. And it's an even tinier island nation. According to Wikipedia, about 10% of the island's population will publish a book in their lifetimes! EXTRAORDINARY!
So, in my opinion, 10% of Icelanders write and live in the most exotic place on Earth -- their homeland.
>21 Cecrow: I don't think it's just a question of semantics or non-native speakers. I think asurbanipal hasn't come into contact with concepts such as patronising exoticism, unreflected racist structures, Orientalism as defined by Said, etc. But perhaps educating is better than berating? Giving links to where they can get up to date with Modern thinking on these issues?
I would expect that a white person living in such a country would be the object of some reverse racism, as just one human in a sea of nationalistic Africans or Asians, led by old anti-imperialist fighters. Would be treated as not much more than a tourist.
Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible (although fiction) is about the experiences of an American missionary family in the Congo and the encounter between two vastly different cultures, so it fits the requested subject-matter fairly well. It also, I think, does an excellent job thematizing some of the issues we've been discussing here.
Jiang Rong's semi-autobiographical Wolf Totem is about a Chinese student from the city who travels to the grasslands of Mongolia and lives with the nomadic people there (an exotic experience for him).
For the original poster: again, can you differentiate "Asia" and "Africa" a bit? These continents are even larger than Europe, and incredibly diverse. Some countries in Africa and Asia have significant numbers of white people who have lived there for multiple generations; some countries recently gained independence and are struggling with problems of inter-ethnic conflict after having been carved up arbitrarily by one empire or another. Others have long unbroken cultural histories and may even have been empirial powers themselves at some point.
Is there a specific reason you want to read about the experiences of Europeans in Africa and Asia rather than books by natives of these countries?
This Polish author lived in Libya for 10 years before the recent war:
>25 spiphany: The term "fascistic" is defined, inter alia, as "having intolerant views or practices." I properly used it in objecting to the lack of tolerance by some of the use of the term "exotic" in the op. Ironically, you appear to be intolerant of the use of the word "fascistic." In any event, I was not calling anybody a fascist; however, others have called the use of "exotic" as lazy, demeaning, oppressive ... .
I'd recommend Culture and imperialism even before Orientalism, although it's a little longer. It was a real eye opener for me--and the OP's whole slant is very familiar, as emblematic (still) of Eastern/Southern and an older generation of Western Europe. (I suspect they are older than me, but would not be surprised if they were my age; I'd be surprised--and chagrined--if they turned out to be younger!)
Then again, it's entirely possible that the nationalism and the patronising colonialist outlook emerging between this and some other of their threads are something consciously espoused, and that wouldn't be surprising in the least either, alas.
>36 nemoman: I don't see either making an observation or disagreeing with someone as the same thing as being intolerant. I'm sorry you feel that way, however. I don't think any further comments from me on this would be productive.
>30 anglemark: I've been trying to remember what all I read at university -- I had a couple of literature professors who worked heavily within a cultural studies framework. Homi K. Bhabha strikes me as rather inaccessible for the casual reader, from what I recall. Dipesh Chakrabarty is capable of being less jargony, although he's never an easy writer (and I'm not sure I've actually read his stuff on Provincializing Europe...hmm, I may need to rectify that).
>37 LolaWalser: Eastern Europe is also in the rather ambiguous situation of being at the threshold between "West" and "East". Consequently it has frequently been considered exotic and foreign itself, and (with the exception of Russia), these countries have also been colonial subjects rather than colonizers. I suspect that makes the identity politics that are currently happening an even more tangled and sensitive affair.
Actually, this reminds me: Illja Trojanow might be interesting for the original poster -- he is originally from Bulgaria but now lives and works in Germany/Austria, and he's travelled a lot in Africa and India, as well as living in Kenya for several years as a child. I can recommend his historical novel The Collector of Worlds (about Sir Thomas Burton); I haven't read any of his travel writing.
>29 lorax: I've read and was deeply impressed by Smilla's Sense of Snow, aka Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. Angels of the Universe by Einar Már Guðmundsson has received a lot of attention (and a movie, too, I think). Two authors of this year's Nobel list of eligibles were Jón Kalman Stefánsson and Sjón, but I don't know anything about their books.
Consequently it has frequently been considered exotic and foreign itself, and (with the exception of Russia), these countries have also been colonial subjects rather than colonizers.
Ha, yes--synchronicity city, just the other day I came upon yet another example of this concerning Poles specifically in an old Conrad Veidt movie in which the Prussians have great fun mocking and outwitting a wildly exoticised Polish prince. The way they look at him (internally justified, of course, by him being an over-the-top silly boor and coward) is no different to the terms familiar from the gigantic trove of supercilious British writings on Africans and other unfortunates.
>38 spiphany: No. Look. It is simple. The op used "exotic" as a relatavistic synonym for "foreign." He was needlessly criticized for doing so even though he was correct. The use of the term was called lazy, oppressive, demeaning ... . There was even an arrogant assumption that he should educate himself because maybe English was not his first language. There is a difference between reasoned disagreement, and intolerance. That line was overstepped here. I am sorry that you take disagreement personally. Meanwhile, I believe the op is owed an apology. If you are not big enough to do so, I understand.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith is an author who lives in Sana'a, the fairy-tale exotic (for white Europeans and Americans) capital of Yemen, in a high medieval mud "skyscraper".
Has the OP responded yet to questions about why he wants the American/European perspective on the rest of the world, rather than, say, a Nigerian's view of Nigeria? (Or, for that matter, a Nigerian's view of Japan.)
There's no shame in learning. None of us were born understanding these things, those who are privileged in various ways are also bound to ignore the ways privilege both protects and blinds them, meaning it takes WORK to get it, and even so understanding is never perfect and finished.
In my town in Poland, 99% of people are white. America was never in this situation.
>48 LolaWalser: those who are privileged in various ways are also bound to ignore the ways privilege both protects and blinds them, meaning it takes WORK to get it
The work in itself is its own reward. I never realized how Eurocentric my fondness for travel literature was until I read An African in Greenland (speaking of writers who spend significant amounts of time in foreign --to them-- lands). But having done so, I've never looked at the genre the same way again. Kpomassie's perspective not only opened up a wholly neglected kind of literature, it transformed the way I read even my most favorite writers -- oriented them in a universe that was much more vast than I had realized. How amazing is that?
I remember the 1980s. African, Asian, Latin American countries were already independent, but without the Internet, Facebook, satellite TV they were much more isolated and free of Western influence.
My hometown's like yours, but globally, white people including Europeans and their descendants are a minority.
It's not as if even some long dead European white males didn't "get it" and put it in basically our, "modern", terms--see Montesquieu. If a schoolchild remembers anything from Lettres persanes it will be the insight that being Persian is no more exotic (i.e. displaced from "centre") than being Parisian. Voltaire and before them both, Montaigne, expresses it too.
My own first conscious recognition of this idea came through a story of Pirandello's called (maybe?) Geografia, Geography. I know it's incorrect to call that satori but it had to be something close, a moment of vision blissful and life-changing. For all I know one could get it from staring at a globe atlas.
Seriously, you think that after conquest and colonisation, sometimes lasting centuries, any country could be "free" of their influences? Independence's got little to do with it--all the more as they remained economically tied in all sorts of ways to old masters.
When you look at Facebook profiles of American movie stars, the comments come from Arab, Slav, Latin American countries.
Some mistakes were made, but it's all within the acceptable scope, so I'd like to thank everyone who "loosened up" the situation a little bit. I'm of good hope.
>44 lilithcat: So he finds Asia, Africa and Latin America to be foreign to him. So what? They probably are.
>48 LolaWalser: There is no shame in learning tolerance either. You do not even have to read a book. If the op had implied some sort of cultural inferiority, by his use of the term exotic, I would agree. To imply something improper to his usage, and to suggest he needs education strikes me as arrogant and demeaning.
>46 lorax: I think the first book you read on a country about which you know little has to be written by a foreigner. Most authors write for their fellow-countrymen (and, yes, that term does include all genders) as their primary audience; so they do not explain anything that would be known by the majority of their fellow citizens. Why should they? It would be culturally imperialistic to expect them to pander to the ignorance of a foreign audience! It is the foreign observer, whose primary audience is their fellow-countrymen, who know what differences need to be explained. And the closer the observer's background is to my native culture, the more likely it is that they will identify the issues that I need explained.
Once that basic ground is covered, then I agree that a local writer is likely to give a deeper understanding of their own country. But a fellow-outsider - providing they have lived their long enough to have a genuine understanding - is one's best guide over that initial barrier of ignorance.
>58 Guanhumara: I think the perspective brought to a country by a foreigner may illuminate aspects of the local culture better than someone raised in the culture. Through the eyes of children so to speak. Naipaul in the American South, DeToqueville in America, Stendahl in Italy, ... . It is the writer and her skill that matters, not the order of reading or her nationality.
>58 Guanhumara: I don’t agree, at least regarding the statement that the *first* book one reads about a culture should be written by a foreigner.
That is to say: I think an outsider perspective can be extremely valuable for shedding light on a culture because an outsider is likely to ask questions about things that an insider takes for granted. In fact, a lot of my reading deals with the experience of being an outsider of some kind or another.
However, if someone is looking for a fictional introduction to a country/culture they know little about, I don’t see why a foreigner’s take on it would be necessary, or what would make that inherently more suitable than something written by a native.
The thing is, an outsider always also brings their own perspective, including biases and prejudices, to the table. Yes, they can act as an intermediary between the reader’s culture and the foreign culture. But it also means they are interpreting that culture -- in other words, our reader is dependent on that intermediary to portray the foreign culture without unduly distorting it. This can be particularly risky when there is a power imbalance (when the writer’s culture has historically seen themselves as superior to, or has even oppressed the culture they are writing about, when there are established discourses that “exoticize” -- sorry ,there’s that word again -- the foreign culture). Certainly some writers are capable of portraying a foreign culture with a great deal of understanding, sensitivity, and an open mind. Some writers (even great writers!) are less successful at this for any number of reasons. So how is our naive reader, who knows little about the culture they are reading about, to know which sort of author they have picked up? How are they to know what parts of the writing are portrayals that would feel accurate to someone from that culture, and what parts are not? (Actually the Bill Bryson sort of travelogue, for all its appeal, exemplifies what I feel like are some of more problematic aspects of a certain approach to this process of engaging with the foreign.)
I’m not saying that reading literature written by a member of a foreign culture is necessarily easy, and it certainly has its own pitfalls. The reader is not protected from making misinterpretations of their own. But it removes one additional source of possible misunderstandings (i.e., the outsider-interpreter). And I feel like part of the job of a good author is to ask their readers to look at their own culture differently, which has the side effect of being helpful for foreign readers, too.
What I’m saying is: an author writing as an outsider is different in certain non-trivial ways than an author writing as an insider. Both are valuable, but one might read them for different reasons. An outsider author is always also writing about their own culture, the same way that good historical fiction tells us something about the interests and worries of our own era. If I, as a white woman, want to learn about African-American culture and history, I’m probably going to find it more useful to pick up Frederick Douglass, or Toni Morrison, or Ralph Ellison than Mark Twain, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Harper Lee. Twain is a keen observer, and through his character Jim he certainly has insightful things to say about what it meant to be a slave in the American South -- but in the end we learn more about white society and the culture surrounding slavery than we do about the slave experience.
If the op had implied some sort of cultural inferiority, by his use of the term exotic, I would agree. To imply something improper to his usage, and to suggest he needs education strikes me as arrogant and demeaning.
Yes, the OP implied that and more and other, and keeps implying it, consciously or not. You haven't got the first clue about anything a bunch of us here pointed out and don't care to get it (your own opinions clearly being implicated through OP's), but you might begin to, just following what asurbanipal keeps posting. Do you agree, for example, that Africa and South America were pristine and untouched by Western influence in the 1980s? Forget theory and sociology--how does that square with basic history?
As for arrogant and demeaning behaviour, take a look at yourself, calling posters fascistic and screaming intolerance for criticisms of white supremacist biases.
All that, and more: additional complications are created by publishing limitations and politics, influenced by cultural expectations at the same time as they contribute to shaping them. It's amazing anyone could think that what reaches us represents or ever could represent a full and accurate or even a satisfactory picture of some "elsewhere". Outside onlookers from one's own culture can be translators and mediators up to a point, of course, but all of that is irrelevant to the core issue--the tendency to suppress and ignore native voices--which is exactly the problem and what creates problems in the first place!
All the excuses boil down to some variation on "whites do it better" and "I'll trust my white guide over some foreigner any day". It saves one from unpleasant truths or at least the humiliation of hearing them from "those" people.
(The worst is that armchair colonialism continues apace not just through books--who reads books anyway ;)--but in so much film and television where we still regularly see white heroes "out-nativing" natives at being natives--the white man who is so much better not just at "high" civilization but "jungle" living, the white man who is the apex "Red Indian", the white man who should be shogun, shaman, dalai lama etc.)
>62 LolaWalser: Notwithstanding your condescension, I understand the issues you want to discuss; I simply do not see those issues presented by the op. On the other hand, you apparently see them everywhere. No, I do not agree that Africa, Latin America, or Asia were "pristine" in the eighties, whatever meaning or value that expression has. One could argue that Provence was no longer pristine after its Roman colonization. Here, though, we have the op's observation that there are skyscrapers there now. Obviously he is focused on exotic appearances - not the people or culture itself. None of my posts have "screamed." I suggest that when anyone has the slightest polite disagreement with you, you hear screams.
No, that you DON'T understand issues at least six people brought up in this thread is clear from everything you have posted in response so far, including your totally gratuitous insults to spiphany.
I suggest that when anyone has the slightest polite disagreement with you, you hear screams.
I suggest you need to reconsider your notions of "polite".
Bottom line is, either you are interested in what was problematic with asurbanipal's posts or not. If your line is that you see no problem at all, leave the discussion to those who do and are trying to explain it to him.
America accepts immigrants from various countries.
When they come from Mexico, India, Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, when they are Rihanna from Barbados or Nicki Minaj from Trinidad, they bring with them what they were taught at schools: struggle against white colonialists, struggle for independence from Spain, Britain, France, even the US.
But because they come from so many different countries, maybe united whites will be able to remain in power for decades.
I'm not sure what point you want to make? Most countries accept immigrants from many different countries. The US is unusual compared to some countries in that it has historically had high numbers of immigrants and has made immigration part of its national self-image. (Plus, decades of being a slave society, in which slaves were key to the economy of multiple states.) This doesn't mean that immigrants have been welcomed. Immigrants tend to come in waves, and each new wave generally faces prejudice and discrimination at first (Irish, Chinese, Mexican, etc. -- by the way: the Irish weren't always considered "white"). Sometimes the hostility is strongest from people in the previous wave of immigrants.
Remember that most immigrants come because they see opportunities in the new country. They may be coming for education; they may be coming to work as laborers. Sometimes they're fleeing violence, poverty, or a dictatorial government. Some may bring with them a deeply considered philosophy about the legacy of colonialism. Some may be more concerned about survival. Or they may not be in a position to discuss their worldview with the white population. (Diversity and integration are not the same thing: I grew up in Colorado, in a white, privileged, college-educated family. Colorado has a large Latino population, but I had more African-, Indian-, and Japanese-American acquaintances -- all very small minorities in the area -- than Latino ones. On the other hand, friends who worked at restaurants sometimes learned Spanish in order to communicate with coworkers.)
Oppression doesn't depend on having the greater numbers. It's about power and influence and money. In parts of the US, whites are already far from being a majority. Yet the power holders in these areas may very well be white.
Prejudice isn't just about race, either. In the absence of skin color differences, humans will find other reasons to define one group as fundamentally different (and hence, lesser), whether this is language, religion (Catholic vs. Protestant), or something else.
>61 spiphany: Certainly a writer who is native to a particular environment is capable of conveying an understanding of it to a foreign audience if they want to. But there is no reason at all that they should. It is an act of incredible hubris for a foreign reader to expect/demand that what they are reading is written for them.
When Americans write, they write for an American readership - they do not bother to explain facts of everyday life that are normal for you, but alien to me. And the same is true for most authors; each writes for their own people.
Your analogy is inexact, but instructive. Neither Mark Twain nor Frederick Douglass are completely foreign to you; as Americans they are addressing an American society that you have familiarity with from your history lessons. Well, my history lessons taught me nothing about American history post 16th century; so before reading either Douglass or Twain (I have read both), I needed to read a foreigner's insight into American lifestyles and attitudes.
To give a parallel example, from a culture that may not be familiar to you: the autobiographies by former serfs Savva Purlevskii and Aleksandr Nikitenko provide powerful and moving testimony about an abusive system, but they don't explain how serfdom worked; they weren't writing for American or British readers, but for a Russian elite who understood perfectly what a master's rights over a serf were. Dostoevsky is not going to be any more helpful (and considerably less sympathetic - his portrayals of serfs often tend to caricature), because he too writes for a Russian audience. First find a foreigner to describe the basics (however imperfectly), then read Purlevskii...
Many of these "exotic" countries were once powerful kingdoms, e.g., Mexico, Cambodia, Mali, Peru, Ethiopia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Iran, so I often think that maybe they are just far past their prime, hence they seem relatively poor, maybe in reality they are just old and experienced, as if "retired".
>67 Guanhumara: Why do you think it is necessarily the author who must explain a culture to their readers? Does not the reader do some of this work themself? Why should it be impossible for a foreigner to enjoy the cultural output of a country without the mediation of some other foreigner?
Why should foreignness be an impassable barrier to understanding the stories someone has to tell? Just because I am not familiar with every single detail of a culture, does this prevent me from being able to identify with what is human in a story -- or from drawing my own conclusions about the cultural norms and rules based on what happens in a book. What is to prevent me from looking up things I do not understand? In many cases, translations include an introduction that provides some of the background information that foreign readers may want or require.
I've read and enjoyed plenty of literature from countries/cultures I know very little about. And yes, I'm sure there are plenty of things I've missed in the process. And certainly there are some books I have left unfinished over the years because I couldn't find an access point to appreciate the writing -- but all of this is equally the case for writing from my own culture.
I don't think that the role of an author of fiction is to explain their culture. But that's because I don't see the purpose of fiction as being primarily informational. If I want to learn about the history of Nigeria I'll read a history book. However, if I want to hear what a Nigerian has to say about the world they live in, what moves and concerns them, what their experiences and stories are, I'll pick up Chinua Achebe or Ben Okri or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I'm not saying, don't read books written by outsiders; I'm questioning why that is necessarily the best or even the only possible introduction to a topic.
Perhaps my own background is biasing me here; perhaps what you are describing is more representative of the needs of most readers -- I really don't know. I studied comparative literature and philosophy and work as an editor and translator for scholars from all over the world in the disciplines of history and anthropology. I'm used to having to grasp at things that seem very alien or incomprehensible and find a way to make sense of them. I'm also very very aware of how easy it is to introduce preconceptions and interpretations when writing about something -- hence the insistence of all these disciplines in reading primary sources and the original language wherever possible. I'm not trying to minimize the challenges of being confronted by another culture that seems very incomprehensible. These challenges are real, and they're not negligible. And background information does matter (as I constantly have to remind the scholars I work with). But see, for me the challenge has always been kind of the point. I don't have any particular desire to read about the experiences of people just like me. I can recognize that I may not be typical in this, that for some people the strange or difficult to understand may be more off-putting than intriguing.
A good fiction writer conveys incite about his/her native culture in human terms that are universal. That writer also conveys particular cultural information in a way that can be understood, again in terms of universal emotions and illustrations. Books that do a good job of appealing to the universal in human experience by particular illustration of incident rank among the international classics.
Readers from a multitude of particular cultures understand the characters and situations based on the universally recognizable motivations that cause people to behave one way or another. It's an empty pursuit to argue that readers of books with the qualities I've described lack perfect understanding of a particular point of another culture because they don't receive their understanding in the manner and immersion that a native born person does. There are too many valid arguments that can be made that even the native born does not have a perfect understanding of his/her own culture.
What is important in rendering that which is foreign to the recipient who is non-native is that it be done in such a way that the universal when made specific does explain human behavior as it unfolds within the context of the culture portrayed, yet is intellectually attainable by anyone who approaches it.
Such novels are classics in their own culture as well as most all others. Seldom do books that fail to achieve high status in their own culture become classics outside it, for reasons that are obvious. Those failed books fail to offer necessary universal truths of human existence to readers. It is the revelations of commonality that let us understand one another, rather than understanding of all the particulars.
>69 spiphany: Maybe I am influenced by reading too many negative reviews of superb books, by people who found them "ridiculous" or "implausible" simply because the characters did not behave the way that they themselves would have done in that situation. We are all human, but whether we accept it or reject it, our cultural background conditions our responses. To misunderstand an author because of one's own ignorance is an insult; I feel that to expect to coast by on general empathy and 'human interest', accepting that one will miss the subtleties, also does the author a disservice.
I never said that the 'first book' had to be fiction. I myself prefer to read history and anthropology first; but for some regions it is hard to avoid texts with strong political biases. Moreover, many people have no interest in reading such books.
The OP asked for recommendations for fiction about "exotic" (i.e. unfamiliar to him) cultures. And if one's chosen way of learning about unfamiliar cultures is through fiction, then an outsider's eyes are needed for the first glance.
You are right that if a book is in translation, it may have a Translator's Introduction (most modern Russian novels that I've read do not). But familiarity with the language does not imply familiarity with the culture (we both speak English, but that tells you nothing about how much or little I know about America).
I am aware that American publishers have a tendency to demand that texts be Americanized for their readers - i.e. culture specific references replaced with something Americans will recognise - because British author's works are also routinely mangled in this way for their American editions - Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone being an egregious example (a major theme mutilated into something meaningless because the concept isn't familiar enough to American children). I find it insulting when a glass of tea mutates into a cup, or a serf is called a servant; the idea that other cultures should be made 'accessible' by forcing everyone and everything into one homogeneous concept of 'how things should be' deeply offensive. (I quoted British and Russian examples simply because those are cases where I have seen both versions; I know no reason to assume other literatures are treated with more respect.)
But, unless you are content to read literature mangled in this way, or unless translations with literary apparatus come back into fashion - and in both these cases you have the translator acting as the 'outsider eye', superimposing information over the writing of the original author - then you will need some introduction first.
>70 Limelite: There are of course some writers who deliberately write for an international audience, often not in their native language. Sometimes because they come from a small country and want a larger readership, sometimes because what they have to say will be unwelcome in their own country. But just because these writers choose to consciously make their work accessible to foreigners does not mean that we, as readers, have any right to expect this. It is not a prerequisite for great literature that it should be crafted for an international readership.
To be completely uninterested in other cultures, and find other people interesting only insofar as they have attitudes and lifestyle in common with you, is a very blinkered approach that I, for one, would not wish to take.
>71 Guanhumara: But it is a natural consequence of great books that they are written to appeal to the commonality of human experience, not the culturally specific isolated instance of experience. If they don't, it hardly matters what language an author write in. Few if any will read the book, much less remember it as noteworthy.
No, to be interested in the commonality of humanity is what drives readers to books -- to learn, as I made clear in previous post -- about the particulars of a culture within the framework of common humanity is what readers yearn toward. A book that illustrates love of ones child; jealously of an unattainable lover; betrayal by one's lifelong friend; society's response to taboo behavior by giving it particular setting, particular detail, and particular characters does not abrogate the requirement that those themes be universally recognized and thus relatable to.
To be interesting, attitudes and lifestyles of the unfamiliar must be made relatable. That is done by making troubles (what really makes a story interesting, you'll recall) recognizable universally. Attitudes and lifestyles may be unfamiliar, but the best writers make them seem understandable, even if not acceptable in our minds. And that is only accomplished by appealing to universal feelings and orientations like the ones cited above.
>72 Limelite: To me spiphany's 'universal terms'--which I understand in a very broad sense--and 'universally recognizable motivations' wouldn't necessarily imply an interest in 'commonality of human experience'. Some of us read fiction for the unique specifics of a person, a place, a way of life. Besides, beyond a few emotions, perceptions, and behaviours that do indeed seem common to all humans what can be assumed to be universal? If I'm going to read a book treating a parent's love of a child or the jealousy of a lover it's because I think that theme will be only incidental, or that it promises to be, whether in style, plot, setting, or mood, fresh, original, not because I've something in common with or even care about the parent or the lover. Plenty of books about family troubles, but I want to read about the unheard-of antics of the Golovlyovs, not the more recognisable problems of those nice Marches in New England. And moreover, to be slightly more on-thread, I was more struck by that collection of stories about a tiny patch in an Indian town than by that collection of John Cheever's because everything in them was new and foreign to me. Forgive me though if I've misunderstood your post; character & plot, never mind relating to them, aren't important to me in a book so that's a factor.
Your first paragraph brought to mind Life a user's manual: To me it's one of the great books of the last century but not only was it not written to appeal to universal human etc., it was written to something like a formula (constraints of a chess game, mathematically determined elements in various lists). Personalities were at most implied and incident was particular and insignificant. The underlying theme, the big reveal, was a speculative one that had nothing to do with humanity at large.
I'm not expressing myself well. I feel that your "specifics" are my "particulars." Absolutely we read books to encounter the unexpected, the novel, the surprising, and the unfamiliar. But we understand them and the strangeness in terms of human commonality.
I don't mean that one reads about love for a child, I mean that we accept books about that theme because we identify with a "particular" in the context of shared human values/culture. I mean that when we encounter characters in books whose love for their child may be expressed in bizarre ways to us, such books succeed when the author puts the bizarre in a context that is universal. Say when a parent gives up a child (why? the answer better be universally comprehensible, not just a sudden whim by the parent). Say when a parent sells a child (why? the author must clarify the motivations so that we get whether they are "good" or "evil.")
The context allows reader to relate to characters in order to reach an understanding of them. In that second example, if the parent's motivation is "good," ex., to save a child from starvation with its impoverished parents, then our sympathies reside with the parent and we want to know more about that person. If, on the other hand, the motivations are "evil" exploitation or greed, then our sympathies reside with the child and we want to know more about that child.
Readers' sympathies, interest, and caring are aroused by feelings of commonality. Regardless of how exotic a setting, a culture, or a plot, if the story lacks any elements of shared human experience (in the large sense of -- say, moral compass), the book is not likely to succeed.
Books about robots work when they interact with humans, or behave according to Assimov's principles, or exhibit human-ness. They wouldn't work if they were only about robots in a robot world with only exotic droid characteristics and nothing relatably human in them. Watership Down may be all about rabbits in the exotic "mind" of rabbity existence, but it is the commonality of shared values that humans possess that makes us understand, sympathize and embrace their well imagined story. Both robots and rabbits must be anthropomorphized in a universally human way to make the exotic comprehensible.
>74 Limelite: You seem to take for granted that you are an author's intended audience, and that a book can only be great if the author explains a character's actions in a way that is understandable to you.
I find it presumptuous to demand that an author addresses a particular audience before you consider them worthy of attention. An author may write for a very different culture than yours (or mine). And if (for example), in that culture, selling a child is a not uncommon event, so that everyone in the intended audience will understand why it was done, why should you expect the author to explain it to you?
I don't believe an author has to addressing me before I would consider them great. I would have missed a lot of excellent writing that way! But it's up to me to first acquaint myself with the culture sufficiently that the protagonists' actions make sense to me.
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