We pretty much assume that everyone sees things the way we do. Generally, we write from our own perspective. In the old writing mantra, we write what we know. It's when others read our work that the beauty of a different perspective is realized.
My writers’ group—women who are White, Indian, beginning writers, professional writers, avid readers—would read drafts of my novels and mark points in the story, saying “I don’t really get this.” Had I not written it well enough to be understood, or was it a cultural point that wasn’t clear? Revising for better understanding was easy. It was the cultural references that were harder. Would the non-Black reader or the non-Korean reader need a little bit more information? Or even, in the case of my novel Mourning Calm, was there something for which a non-biracial reader might need a footnote? How do you explain being Black or a Korean perspective? How much explanation was required, and how much should be left to the reader to figure out?
It's an important decision to be made, particularly when your book will sit on the “diverse” shelf. I’ve read books that got bogged down trying to explain every cultural nuance by describing foods foreign to the American palate or by putting in footnotes on the etymology of foreign phrases or explanations of a regional turn of phrase. It slows the story down. It makes a novel feel like a historical text. It goes against the often-stated rule of writing – show, don’t tell.
Look at books by British authors. There is always some cultural norm, regional detail, or colloquialism that as an American reader, I just don’t get. British writers never explain how Vegemite tastes or what exactly “shagging” includes. On this side of the ocean, White American authors also don’t explain such things as southern traditions and typical American fare. As a Black woman, some of those references may elude me. Do those authors assume that everyone sees things the same way they do? Or do they even give it a thought? There’s a certain privilege to being the dominant culture in literature.
I decided at a certain point that I wasn’t going to explain everything. Partly because I don’t know what someone else might not understand about my perspective. Partly because, as a person of color, I shouldn’t have to. It’s exhausting trying to figure out what someone outside of your culture might need to know to understand you. We read books featuring animals and rabbits, vampires and wizards, and can figure it out. Surely, we can read about people of color without substantial appendices.
In the end, it comes to this. I know everyone doesn’t see the world the way I do, but whether Black or Korean, woman or man, we read to expand our world. Even when reading fiction, there’s a lot to stretch your thinking. There’s space to learn about other people and cultures. My to-read pile is stacked with books by and about people from around the world. And all the work of understanding the story cannot be put on the author. Sometimes, it’s the reader who has to make the effort to see through another’s eyes.
Frances Frost is the author of Mourning Calm and Life in Spades. Frances was born in Seoul, S. Korea and has lived in 7 states across the United States. Follow her on Twitter @FrancesFrost and on Facebook as Frances Frost – Author. For more information and her blog, go to www.FrancesFrost.com.