Almost every interview I have done as an author has presented me with some variation of this question: 'What is it like, being a writer from another culture?'. It's a tricky question and there are no straightforward answers. What is culture? Writers of fiction use a more flexible vocabulary than scientists, so let me reassure any sociologists who are reading that I will use the word 'culture' very loosely to talk about the filters through which we absorb information and the frameworks we use to understand the world. It is not limited to nationality, although nationality certainly plays a part, as do several other aspects that make up an individual's identity.
Culture resembles light. It is only invisible in a vacuum (the deep darkness of space), and it reveals itself by illuminating whatever it touches (the brightness of dust motes in a ray of sunlight). Most authors write in a vacuum, immersed in the familiar, the commonplace, drenched in culture so pervasive that it can only be noticed when it is bouncing off foreign objects. Words are the medium, and so language is the first foreign object illuminated. I'm always fascinated at the editing process between American English, British English, and Caribbean English. The American publishers convert my spelling; the British publishers check my grammar, and some words and phrases I avoid completely because the likelihood of misunderstanding is too great. I write imaginary worlds with their own dialect and slang, which makes editing even more interesting.
But that is the easy part. We know there are different kinds of Standard English. We know that a character's voice can be ungrammatical or downright incomprehensible. The real surprise comes from the things we don't know are different. The significance of a particular surname or manner of dress is lost in translation. The explanation might be too complicated for a footnote but too subtle for an appendix. A particular style or structure of storytelling may be common in one culture, but seen as chaotic or bizarre in another. There's a safeness to a story that begins, progresses and ends as expected, and it can be hard -as a writer and as a reader - to resist the temptation to conform to the easily-marketed templates.
It may be a challenge, but it is a necessary challenge when real-world cultures risk being reduced to that dangerous single story Chimamanda Adichie warned us about. Stereotypes are easy to write and easy to digest, however irritating they may be to the people they are meant to represent.
Yet there is evidence that readers do appreciate complexity. They enjoy fictional atlases, invented languages and complicated family trees in worlds that never existed. Why should the wide range of our world's cultures be any different? Stereotypes are dangerous. We do not connect with two-dimensional characters, not in a novel and not in life. We expand our empathy by learning to understand and identify with real people, and literature plays an important role in that process.
Perhaps stereotypes are too common, or real-world complexity too rare, but readers often require a specific context and content before they can recognise the presence of another culture. I am a West Indian writer, no matter what I write. The culture is in my phrasing, my brand of humor, the personalities of my characters and the philosophy that underpins my stories. There are no palm trees, but occasionally there is a carnival. There is little dialect, but sometimes there is a beach. You know about the beaches. You know about carnival. Now look carefully for what you do not know. You will find it in those moments of story that make you pause, or even stumble. That is where the culture is, bouncing off foreign objects that you never knew were there.
Culture is like light, but even when everything is brightly lit, vision is selective and memory even more so. As you sit on the train, steadfastly examining your faint reflection in the opposite window, would you fail to notice Mrs. Brown crying in her seat in the corner and carelessly forget her when your stop is called? Would you trust a hero if he looked like a sidekick? Would you fear a predator if he looked like your friend? If a phrase or a character makes you pause, or a story makes you uncomfortable, do you stop and look more closely or put the book down?
I am a writer from an Other culture, but what does that mean - a closed and clearly-labelled box or an open window? I choose the latter, but I am not the only one who has to choose. Every writer is foreign to someone and every culture is strange. The story is in the journey from each to each; our challenge is to see clearly, and to shine brightly.
Karen Lord is the author of the book Redemption in Indigo.