Conjuring the Other: Writing Fiction about a Foreign Culture

After seventeen years of graduate historical study and research, I guess I wanted a change. Perhaps what I really wanted was the freedom to discover my own truths. To do so, I turned from the study of history to the writing of fiction. And since I had been studying medieval Chinese history, I turned to writing medieval Chinese historical fiction; specifically, the period of the early Tang dynasty (7th & 8th centuries C.E.). Yet, in making this transition, I faced an unforeseen problem: how does a Western fiction writer deal with a non-Western culture so far removed in both time and space? Dealing with non-Western culture as an academic, I could resort to “academese” - where footnote after footnote and citation after citation can be employed to explain the author’s meaning. But there are two immediate problems with this form of culture bridging: 1. the reader has to wade through the scholar’s “academese,” and 2. the reader immediately forgets it all after the test. As I used to tell my creative writing students:

A fiction writer doesn’t have the luxury of academic authors where their readers in the same field of study are required to read what’s written, no matter how badly written. Not so for the poor fiction writer, that audience can toss the book as soon as it gets boring – no tests here!

As a novelist writing about medieval China, I can’t stop the story and give you a lecture on the status of poetry in Tang culture pointing out that it could literally make or break a person’s career at Court. And here is where that old, clichéd writer’s rule remains true: show, don’t tell.

The non-fiction writer might spend a few pages on telling you the role of poetry in Tang culture and the importance of the written character in Chinese history and culture, how it was the very glue that held China and its empire together for thousands of  years – and, as an acacdemic, I can just keep on going and going.

Switch back into fiction: but what’s happened to my protagonist, Li Bo, in my first novel (Dream of the Dragon Pool), as we leave him reading an inscription on some strange tomb, on some strange mountain, with all that strange mist swirling around him. You would have closed the book at that point if I had launched into exposition on the role of poetry in his world.

The novelist can’t linger and expect the story to keep flowing for the reader. So how do we write that? After my graduate studies in the mid-80s, I took up a long, slow, and painful path away from explaining everything. Exposition is the main illness of academically trained fiction writers. As academics, we are taught the use of “code” or technical words – academese – to embody ideas and explanations for other ideas and concepts. Inside the ivory tower, they “tell” and don’t “show.”

What I am learning in fiction writing, every time I return to Tang China, is that I have to embody these concepts, these bits and pieces of Tang culture, thought, and attitude, and express them in a language that resonates clearly within the culture of English. So, hopefully, I show you what Li Bo was able to do with his poetry and how devastated he is once he loses that power – and there it is, poetry and power, political power, life-giving power equated. Once you see that, you understand how powerful the poetic voice was in Tang society – you don’t need a lecture.

I guess what it comes down to is that Chan (Japanese: Zen) saying that understanding enlightenment is like sipping tea: as much as I explain how hot and how fragrant the tea is, you will only truly understand once you taste it – in essence, that Reality is beyond words, it can only be experienced. Guess that puts us writers out of business. But I’m not worried for in fact the Chan school was one of the most prolific producers of written texts that aimed to point beyond written texts and logical explanations to the essence of experience!

What helped in my case was that I had the good fortune to live in the lands once occupied by the Tang dynasty and especially among the people who were their cultural descendents. By being exposed to their language, their ways of thought, and participating in their social interactions, my fiction writer’s education was helped immeasurably. Yet, with all of that education and living experience, there was still the necessity to express all those experiences in English.

A number of years ago, I joined my first writers group. I was mixed in with short story writers and poets – and none of them was deeply acquainted with the Chinese tradition. At first, I was a curiosity: a history scholar writing fantasies about swordsmen/women in China, ancient China! There were a lot of things that I had taken for granted in my writing, things I figured “everyone knew.” Ha! How naïve!

Just one basic example will serve - character names. I discovered that Western readers easily get lost in all the Wu’s, Wang’s, Hu’s, and Li’s that populate aChinabased story. Some Western writers will translate the names. For example, my Chinese given name (An-bo), a transliteration of the sound of “Albert,” when translated means, “Peaceful Uncle.” So rather than writing:

An-bo said, “This is very ridiculous.”

We’d end up with:

Peaceful Uncle said, “This is even more ridiculous.”

I don’t like translated names. It reminds me of translating Albert into its Anglo-Saxon meaning: “All Bright.” Too weird for these ears, just like “Peaceful Uncle.” The solution? Pick a name in the foreign culture that is not too difficult to pronounce, like Li Bo – but then his parents did that for me – and attach that name to a fully developed character, one that the reader recognizes the second that the character appears in the scene. Then it doesn’t matter what you name them.

Further, I give my characters an epithet or title. For example, in Dream of the Dragon Pool, my character, Luo Jhu-yun; the emperor’s grand shamaness. I think I only refer to her once by her full name – a name that admittedly most Westerner’s might find difficult to remember – the rest of the time she is known as “shamaness Luo,” or just “the shamaness.” And, another character, the “Albino Assassin” is only referred to by that epithet.

As for describing the physical environment, as you can see by the bicycling part of my website, I loved riding around Taiwan, especially in the mountains. I have deep feelings about Chinese landscapes and, hopefully, there is a sense of authenticity in my descriptions. And places that I haven’t been to in China, I research so I know the weather, the earth, the flora and fauna of the region that my characters travel through. For the trip through the Three Gorges that Li Bo takes, I had a 12th century travel diary of a Chinese official who took the same trip. There are no 8th century travel diaries of that route in existence. But a 12th century description is much more accurate to Li Bo’s time than what you’ll find if you make that trip today.

And accuracy is another aspect of my fiction. My stories are set in a medieval China that is as accurate as my skill and knowledge permit me to make it. These settings are not “a China that might have been” or a China that I completely dreamed up. Further, the historical situations that are the starting point of the story are those that arose in the course of Chinese history. As far as, we know, Li Bo was sentenced to a death exile up the Yangtze River toward Burma for treason. This was after his initial sentence of death was commuted through the intervention of his high ranking friends. And by the time he reached the Mount Wu region, the exile sentence was commuted. It’s said his trip involved visiting and drinking with old friends – I, perhaps, have changed the nature of those “friends.”

My most recent novel, Listening to Rain, deals with a main protagonist, the Shaolin monk Tanzong, who, while historical, is even less well documented – we have a medieval Shaolin stone stele referring to him in the context of his assistance to the Tang emperor Li Shihmin. We don’t even know what he specifically did to earn that bit of note. Of course, that presents an opportunity for the historical fiction writer!

It has been my experience that when conjuring the “other,” as a fiction writer of a foreign culture, the author needs to combine the skills of both nonfiction and fiction writing - know the culture and know the writer’s craft.


Note: I must thank Octavia Randolph who, in 2007, asked me to first record my thoughts on this subject for her website (Anglo-Saxons and Vikings). This is an updated version of that original piece.