A few weeks ago, I surfed over to The Nervous Breakdown to see whether anybody had commented on a “self-interview” I’d posted. TNB lets writers have a lot of fun with the self-interviews. Some go for versions of stand-up routines, some are serious, and some — like mine — are meant to be read as a mixture of the two. As is customary, I dropped in a story excerpt. Some of my old TNB buddies commented on the self-interview.
Nagovisi — the people I’ve been writing about lately — are out in the web, mostly on Facebook. I have Nagovisi Facebook friends. The Nagovisi (men and women) of course understood the Nagovisi curse I dropped into the interview, and thought it was pretty funny. So did I.
I really liked thinking about how, of all the millions of people who could potentially read what I’d written, there were at most a few hundred people out there on the net who knew what muska loloema meant, and how it was used. And that among all the net denizens of the world, only we shared the joke.
If you don’t count the Nagovisi themselves, there might be a dozen people in the entire world who can speak Nagovisi. My Nagovisi is rusty, and when young Nagovisi on Facebook slip into Nagovisi rather than English or the Melanesian trade language tok pisin, I know I’ve got some work to do. By now I count as one of the pagau (old ones) so the young people are respectful and tolerant of my mistakes. I certainly make them.
There were only some 7,000 Nagovisi when I lived there. They had, as I’ve been saying, their own language. I’m not talking regional dialect. I’m talking distinct language. If I walked an hour to the south of my village, I came into the territory of a people called the Baitsi. There were fewer than 500 Baitsi. They had their own language.
Now think about this for a moment. Five hundred people with their own distinct language. Seven thousand people with theirs. On Bougainville Island, there are (depending on who’s counting) some 14 different language groups. When I was on Bougainville the total population was about 100,000.
Think of a large football stadium. The entire 1970 population of Bougainville could have gone into that stadium and taken seats. And have been speaking more than a dozen distinct languages. The population’s roughly doubled since I was there, so these days they’d need another big stadium.
I remember being in the village in 1969 and hearing on short-wave radio that 100,000 people had showed up at Woodstock. And I remember wondering how I could explain that to my village (10 households; about 80 people).
Scale. Scale is tough. I’m talking small-scale.
In China there are about 850 million Mandarin speakers. All varieties of Chinese, maybe 1.2 billion. Five hundred Baitsi. Seven thousand Nagovisi. Excel or your calculator is going to flip into scientific notation if you attempt 500/850,000,000. The scale difference is so great as to be incomprehensible.
How did China get in here?
While I was over at The Nervous Breakdown, I scrolled through the self-interviews looking for any that interested me, and came on one by a writer named Jack Livings.
Follow the link and read through it. It’s short, interesting, and I’ll wait.
I immediately wrote Jack an email, saying that I was thinking about and grappling with the same sorts of questions he was — questions of license, of appropriation, wariness about giving offense or even being attacked for writing about a place and culture not your own.
Then I read Jack’s excerpt and immediately ordered The Dog for Kindle.
Only one of Jack’s stories (“The Pocketbook”) is told from an outsider’s point of view — in this case, an American student. The same is true of the stories in my book; only one is told by an outsider.
I’m not headed for a story-by-story comparison, which would be pointless, not to mention boring. But I am talking about scale. As in China, as in large. How the hell is anybody supposed to “write about China,” as if it were one thing. Which we all know it’s not. City, rural. Robbers, functionaries, factory workers, city folks in the country, domestic issues, endless skirmishes with authority . . . the classics are all there, but when you read the stories you realize that everything is just slightly different.
This is difficult to pull off. I’ve read plenty of fiction supposedly set in other cultures that — if you took away explicit location and maybe some of the artifacts of everyday life — could be set anywhere in the world. There’s no there there. To me, what this means is that the writer never bothered to peer very deeply into his or her alleged cultural setting.
This isn’t true of the stories in The Dog. You immediately understand that the glassworkers in “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” for example, aren’t in Corning, and their task hasn’t been laid out by the city council. Good-hearted people in the US rush to give blood after disasters, and although there are public appeals it’s still a personal decision. Take your notion (“just go give blood, what’s the big deal”) to the story “Donate!” In outline not too different? Sure. Blood is needed; get people to give blood. Money? Get people to give money. Livings shows us blood and money and disaster relief in cultural and political contexts very different from any an American is likely to know. And yet you’re not going to find the characters incomprehensible.
I was struck by some character similarities. My character Mesiamo (“I Don’t Kill People Anymore”) would have immediately recognized Jack’s Uyghur mob lord Omar (“The Heir”) as a kindred soul, even though my guy operated in a small area of Bougainville and Omar operated in Beijing. Livings gives us Omar walking out with “a small velvet bag filled with his enemies’ gold teeth [chattering] in his pocket”) and I give you a Nagovisi saying, “the mountain men think that Mesiamo has no right to their clan brother Leau’s head . . . I haven’t seen that head since the Japan War, and I don’t know where Mesiamo hides it or even if he still has it.”
It wasn’t necessary for Omar to show anybody those gold teeth, either.
What I got from Jack’s stories was what I think he wanted his readers to get. Sure, they’re well-written, with everything you want in short fiction, but I expected that. What I got was a clear sense that when Jack was in China he paid attention.
There’s no story in which I didn’t have a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment and yet at the same time I wasn’t offered exoticism for its own sake, and I never felt as though I’d lost my way as a reader.
I know just how hard that is to do. The line between writing what amounts to an ethnography, or travel writing (or journalism), and writing fiction about another place is blurry at best. What’s the minimum cultural information the reader needs? How strange is too strange, accurate or not? What about language? You’ve got to render what your characters say and think in English, but they’re not English speakers.
How much can you or should you bend your own English sentences to send the occasional signal that this dialog isn’t happening in Buffalo? If you never break modern American English then your story falls into the “just like us” trap. Livings deals effectively with this in “The Pocketbook,” where he has to switch between an American speaking English and elementary Chinese to a Chinese English-speaker when they’re both trying to deal with non-English speaking Chinese: “English. Speak English. You are tired. I translate.”
I’ve been in the middle of three- and four-language heated exchanges in real life and while writing fiction. In the story “Dog Fights” I had to decide how to render the poorly-spoken tok pisin of a drunken Hungarian doctor talking to drunken, injured Nagovisi and a drunken English speaker. I decided to render all of the Hungarian’s speech as broken English, and everybody else’s as fluent English. (If you want to hear me reading “Dog Fights” and talking to college students about language and power, listen here).
I can tell you that Jack’s way with language is perfect.
One of my reviewers wrote, “There was something that unsettled me about the voices of the characters I met. And then I realized that what was unsettling me was also bringing me into the world of the novel, a world so different from my own.”
Another reviewer referred to “The subtle beauty of a foreign way of life,” and what those reviewers saw is, I think, is what both Livings and I are both trying to show.