More on the writer as teacher

I’ve often wondered, debated, and meditated about the role of the writer who writes about “different” locales, nationalities, and sexualities. The first question is always: different from what? Normative, mainstream, larger society? In the cases of queer and/or hyphenated American writers, this would be straight, White America.

What responsibility does such a writer have to the reader who doesn’t know much about the writer’s background, world, people? Do some writers write specifically because they don’t see a wider societal representation or mirror to their concerns and obsessions? Is all writing a cooperative, and therefore educating, undertaking?

There are many views and strong beliefs about this: indeed, possibly as many views as there are writers and readers. Some may think a writer’s only responsibility is to tell a story; or to break readers’ hearts; or to shed light on a criminally overlooked part of history/society/the world; or to entertain; or to only make, create something.

One thing is possibly true across the board: any good writer teaches readers how to read her book; how the world of her book functions; what her characters’ beliefs, actions, and preoccupations are.

So, what about the readers who approaches certain texts because they are intrigued by characters who live lives “different” from their own? Readers who want to learn something about the culture from the foreign-named author on the cover?

Writers simply cannot control what or why or how their readers approach their texts. They can control how they convey their world; whether or not they’ll explain its customs, traditions, foods, etc.; whether their books will include glossaries. Incidentally, it seems the glossary has gone out of style. More and more, I’ve noticed writers either hoping the reader will research words on their own, rely on the reader to deduce meaning from the sentence, or explain the word right then and there for the reader.

Some may argue that publishers today put out books that tell readers what they already know. But what if the reader doesn’t yet know much?

When I taught at Detroit public schools last year, most of the children didn’t know where the Nile, let alone Egypt, was, even though there was a map on the left-hand corner of the black board. It is my belief that geography is the primary school teacher’s responsibility. And yet I know that school budgets are rapidly shrinking, and world geography is absent from most state tests.

And in the gaps left behind after an incomplete education, a reader hungry for knowledge about place is bound to try to satisfy it through reading. Isn’t that, after all, one of the reasons we read about Victorian England, Muslim Andalus, the Roman empire?

A writer’s burden is already too immense to take on the role of educator. I agree with Aleksander Hemon that it is each person’s responsibility to educate himself about the richness and complicated histories of other cultures. If one starts by reading a novel– starts, and continues elsewhere– so be it.

2 thoughts on “More on the writer as teacher

  1. Comes down to a question of ‘who is your audience,’ doesn’t it? We were reading Joyce in our writing group and I noticed how many details of day-to-day life were profoundly foreign and confusing to me – partly because almost a hundred years ago – technology so different – and partly because of Catholicism and Ireland – I was utterly lost. In fact I glommed on to a detail about saving the bread bits from dinner to make pudding, because it was one of the few things I could relate to at all. Bread pudding – I know what that is. You mean they took half-eaten bread from people’s plates to make the pudding? Huh.

    Joyce was writing for who? For other citizens of the early 20th century, who would understand the social mores, the gas taps and public transport, the mechanics of everyday life. Was he writing for non-Catholics? I don’t know.

    I am writing a novel set in Lebanon and New York, and I am pretty clear that because it is in English, and because I am an American, mostly, that my audience is other Americans – Americans who read. I’m not going to explain where Lebanon is in the book (they have to figure that out) and I hope I don’t do too much “explaining” about the civil war – the novel depicts some individual stories from that war. And I find that occasionally I do some 19th century style descriptions – of landscape, buildings, the natural world. Place is very important in this novel.

    I’m just fumbling my way along, and I intend to run the finished draft by a few friends whose judgment I trust. Then we’ll have to see. I’m still a little bruised by the “it’s my culture and I refuse to explain it to you, because you are a racist if you ask me to tell you about it” attitude that I’ve encountered in the Bay area more than once.

    Doesn’t help that I have the soul of a tour guide. I cannot walk down the street without explaining the neighborhood to whatever companion is with me: history, flora and fauna, sociology, economics, etc. If this means that I end up writing a book that makes high literary types sneer, then I’ll live with that… You have to be yourself, even if in my case that means being a bit didactic.

  2. this is something that Junot Diaz discussed in length with us in workshop. I don’t think I gave you my notes–I’ll email you my notes shortly.

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