Cultural Writing: Why the Author Matters

I am a huge fan of writings from other cultures, whether written in English or translated into English from the original language. My favorite cultural literature is Asian; the cultural history is extraordinary and unique in every category (family, fashion, women’s rights, etc.), and the style of writing is very distinctive, even if translated into English. In fact, the writing style is so distinctive that I can always tell whether Asian literature is written by an Asian author or not. When someone from another culture writes an Asian novel, it’s easy to hear the lack of authenticity in the writing style even if the author has heavily studied Asian literature and culture.

A good example of this is Lisa See’s writings. Although See is Chinese-American, she is an American writer, and this can clearly be heard in books like Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. While these books are enjoyable, they are not the same kind of enjoyable as true Asian literature. The style leans more towards American; historical references are peppered throughout on purpose even when they don’t fit to give the effect of an Asian writer (they end up sticking out too much); and descriptions are stiffly studded with references to Asian-specific things that don’t always fit or are over explained (peonies, the color red, good fortune, etc.).

All in all, writings from one culture’s perspective should be written by that culture in order for it to be authentic. While this seems redundant, it has yet to be accepted by those who still try to write in another culture’s voice. Here are some excellent examples of cultural writings which hit the mark:

– Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
– Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon
– Pa Chin’s Family

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