1. Morwen Edhelwen
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    Morwen Edhelwen Member

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    Do you have to have lived in a culture to convincingly portray it?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Morwen Edhelwen, Jun 23, 2012.

    Does anyone here think you have to have lived in a culture to portray it convincingly from the first-person POV of a native of the culture? I can't go and live in the culture I want to portray right now because of a number of factors, such as a lack of time, but I'm doing research to make it sure it feels accurate to people who are from that culture (I hope) and to people who know it intimately.
     
  2. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    I don't think POV is relevant because whichever you choose needs to be authentic. If anything, first person allows some latitude because the narrator might be unreliable or mistaken. I read an interview with Jim Grant aka Lee Child in which he was asked if he had been to all the locations he takes his characters to, and he said no and basically Google was his friend. But he lives in the US as his character does so not quite the same thing.

    My view is you could do it but a lot of research would be necessary, as you point out.
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think there would be a lot less writing out there if writers thought they had to live in a culture in order to portray it. You can get by on research and audacity, I think, in most cases. I think a good rule of thumb, though, would be that the less you know about the culture, the less detail you should include about it. Don't claim knowledge you don't have or you'll fall on your face. If you don't know a detail, leave it out rather than make something up.

    You're writing something based on The Desert Song, aren't you? I strongly doubt the authors of that operetta spent any time in Morocco among the Riffs. They didn't let that stop them, did they?
     
  4. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    This business where writers have to get down in the dirt to be considered authentic must have started with modernists particularly the likes of Hemingway, in my opinion. The Romantics never carried on like this, and post-modern fiction didn't bother with it too much either. Serious writing still clings on to that modernist hangover though.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i'll have to be the voice of dissent here, i guess...

    in the first place, there's a vast difference between the 'book' for a romantic operetta and a novel... plus, hammerstein, harbach and mandel wrote the libretto and lyrics back in the 20s, for a much less sophisticated audience than today's historical novel readership...

    in today's climate of easily-obtained knowledge about just about everything, of course it's not that hard to get info on any culture and its people... but if you're writing about an existing one, the members of which could well become readers of what you write, then doing so with no personal knowledge of them will more often lead to caricaturization, rather than accuracy in re how your characters act and feel and thus be ridiculed by them and by others who've actually been there...

    this is especially true if you plan to write in first person, as a member of that culture...

    i've lived among the hopi tribe in arizona and the indigenous chamorro of the northern pacific islands of tinian and saipan, as well as peoples of many other cultures in many other parts of the world, so from being among them, getting to know them and observe them first-hand, i would be able to write about them fairly convincingly... but had i not actually been there, i'd have had no clue to how they act and feel and think about the world and their part in it, how they live among each other and interact with 'outsiders' and so much more that goes into making people what they are...

    imagination and research can only take a writer so far...
     
  6. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, I think the idea of having to live in a culture or even have to have visited the place where one's story takes place is the last remnants of that old "write what you know" thing - and I see as little reason for strict adherence to this version as I do the other. Especially in this day and age when people can do research about and contact people living in just about any part of the world. JMHO
     
  7. thetyper
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    thetyper Member

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    Personally I wouldn't write about a foreign culture unless I had some first-hand knowledge of it. The Lee Child example is different because he writes formula fiction set in a country where he lives, so if he wants a character to hide down an alley in Denver or Seattle it's just a quick spin on Google Streetview and he's away. But this is not the same as writing about the Maghreb or Australian Aborigines, etc., with no first-hand knowledge of them. I know I could write the Lee Child stuff with nothing more than Google but I would not attempt a serious book set in a foreign culture unless I had first-hand experience. Just my view.
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    This so rarely happens, I hardly know how to deal with it but I must respectfully disagree with mammamaia.

    Most of your readership is not going to be intimately familiar with the culture about which you are writing, but you must assume some will be. Therefor, you must make every effort to be as accurate as possible and faithful to the people and culture. This does not necessarily mean you must have taken up residence in a particular place to write faithfully about its culture. It does, of course, demand a higher level of research and reading.

    Much like mamma, I have traveled extensively and lived in a great many places so my persepective may be a bit skewed and, too, I am a copious researcher, even about places I have been and lived and, because I detest reading inaccuracies in others' works, I tend to be even more stringent in my own work. I can hardly castigate someone else for a faux pas if I am guilty of the same crime, can I?

    So, no, I don't think you need to have lived someplace in order to write about it, however; you must be certain of your environs before you write. Even little things, like the local nickname for a place or thing, or lack thereof, can be telling.
    Are you ready for the research and reading?
     
  9. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You might be able to offer an interpretation of a culture that seems convincing to those who know nothing about it, but it would not fool anyone else who really knew said culture. Also, it might well end up being transparently 'off' to readers who looked for interesting detail.
     
  10. lallylello
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    lallylello Member

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    I agree with the wordsmith, you don't need to have been there but you do need to do the research and you do need to be careful. I read an article on BBC News today about the oldest clove tree. The journalist described the Spice islands, where the tree is, in a few sentences - a mere quick sketch really - but you knew he'd been there from the way he was talking. Now that I've read that, I could use a lot of those same details and trick the reader of my Indonesian story into thinking I'd been there too. What I probably wouldn't do, though, is make things up, just in case I got them wrong. So you're limited to the details you can find out from your research. If you've actually been there, you might be braver and let your imagination run wild.
     

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