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.