The OF Blog: Can a gabacho understand non-gabacho writings?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Can a gabacho understand non-gabacho writings?

Before I begin, yes, I know I use a potentially very offensive term in my title, but there is a reason for it, one that hopefully will become clearer over the course of this essay.  It isn't commonly used outside of a couple of countries, for various reasons, but for the purposes of this essay, gabacho is much more suitable than the milder gringo.  In addition, it captures a certain harsh, aggressive tone that I feel reflects some of the undercurrents I've detected recently in certain SF debates, most recently with the uproar over that meandering, poorly-argued, and ignorant article of Norman Spinrad's that I already devoted enough space to back on Thursday.

This article is in part (but only in part) inspired by some of the more, umm..."passionate" commentaries deriding what Spinrad wrote.  While I certainly understand and to a large degree agree with those who thought his comment implying that a Caucasian (as if this term isn't as ridiculous for this discussion as "white" is) writer, Mike Resnick, would have been just as suited to write a story set in/about Africa (itself a nebulous concept that fractures into components just as readily as the "South" does, especially when viewed from the eyes of someone who's had long-term exposure to what transpires in said region) as would have the late African-American writer, Octavia Butler, was rather ridiculous (damn, this is an unwieldy sentence), I found some of the tone behind some of the comments (many of them were fine) to be rather troubling.

There was this automatic sense that non-native writers couldn't "get it right."  That their stories would lack a sense of "authenticity."  That (and this is reading between the lines and risking complete misinterpretations of what these authors thought) such writers shouldn't try.  How could one grasp "the Other" without being viewed as being "the Other?", or so it seemed the unstated reasoning went.  The opinion that I read which went the farthest in this direction was the Publishers Weekly column that Rose Fox penned called "A Whiff of Colonialism."

I agreed with many of her comments about the Spinrad column.  But there was one bit toward the end, which I'll quote below, which set off internal alarm bells for me:

I do agree with Charles Tan that Spinrad has some decent advice for those “First World writers”, but I think he errs greatly in considering them his only audience–even given the probable demographics of Asimov’s readers–and thereby excusing himself from researching or writing about anything of relevance to a more diverse group. At the end of the piece, Spinrad glibly suggests doing lots of research; while this is generally sound, it’s not a very compelling recommendation from someone who has clearly done none of his own. And while Jeff VanderMeer gives Spinrad kudos for raising the “interesting” notion that “understanding other cultures is a way of deepening your self and your writing”, I get the same whiff of colonialism from that notion–and from VanderMeer applauding it in Spinrad, one white Western writer to another–that Spinrad rightly detected in Arthur Clarke’s work. If you go exploring in another culture only as a way of improving yourself and your work, that’s blatantly appropriative.
 When I read that, I thought almost immediately of a little discussion I blogged about back in December, where some Brazilian writers/critics/fans questioned whether or not I, a foreigner who wasn't a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese or who had spent a great deal of time immersed in Brazilian culture, could probably understand and assess what I read in the anthology that I later reviewed.  With my pale skin (which is rare on my dad's side of the family, as there is a more heavy admixture of Cherokee ancestry there), doubtless in some parts of Mexico, I'd be a gabacho, in other parts of Central America, a güero, and in still other parts of Latin America (itself a wonderfully diverse region, as I've discovered over the past eight years) a mere gringo or Anglo. 

Some natives might even, hypothetically, question, similar to what Fox does in the quoted passage above, if my desire to broaden my multicultural awareness and to learn how to think in more than just my native English might ultimately be a "whiff of colonialism."  I certainly hope that isn't what she was stating or even implying in that quoted passage, but the very negative connotations given to "appropriative" behavior is almost insulting to me and perhaps it is to others who have embraced elements of other cultures over the course of their lifetimes.

Clint Harris sums it up very succinctly:  We all have cultural histories of being the colonizer and the colonized.  No culture is "pure" and appropriation is a multi-way, multi-path development.  I am not Latino, but I am not wholly Southern (which really isn't a monolithic entity, despite the superimposed expectations of some both within and outside that former CSA-delineated region) anymore, either.  Perspectives have changed.  Some due to reading, others due to interacting almost daily for years with people who speak several languages and dialects within those languages.  Likely, some of what I've said and thought has influenced those closest to me who are not from my native region nor who share my multi-ethnic heritage.  Same is probably true for millions of others.

I mention this, because of some of the reactions that some commentators have had (and in other threads over the past few years) to notions that stories set in non-European regions and featuring largely non-European descended characters yet written by European-descended writers have perspectives that are somehow less "real" and "authentic" than those of native writers writing about native concerns.  To that I can only wonder if such polar divisions really reflect what is transpiring.  I know I am grateful that the Bolivian-born writer Edmundo Paz Soldán took on the writing a story set in a fictional, small town, upstate New York city, called Los vivos y los muertos (The Living and the Dead).  This was one the best novels I read in 2009 (I'm ashamed to admit that I forgot to add it to my Best of 2009 lists, only because I was considering it for the overall top fictions and I wrote it down in the wrong place and forgot to check over my notes) in any language.  The way he treats life in fictional Madison, New York and how a group of teens and their families deal with a string of horrific tragedies, from accidents to suicides to murders, is moving.  The town felt "authentic," and as someone who grew up in a small town, I would hope that I would have some notion of what small town life in the US can be like.  Yet despite being a Professor of Latin American Literature at Cornell University for the past several years, Paz Soldán likely would still be viewed as an outsider by many.

There are countless other examples I could cite.  I could point to Alberto Fuguet (even though he did live a little over 10 years in the US) or Jorge Volpi or perhaps Ignacio Padilla, as each of these authors have created credible stories set outside their native countries/cultures.  Yet for me at least, each of them managed to create authentic stories, most of which were set in my native country, while giving a perspective that is different from that of a native.  Juliette Wade does a great job covering this point, so I'll just pause and point readers to this excellent article of hers on "The Myth of the Native Speaker." 

Now back to the title.  Can this gabacho (said term used very ironically here, to say the least) understand non-gabacho writings?  To a degree, yes.  Not just the universals that exist between and within cultures, but also due to our ability to adapt and to learn more than one new trick.  Will there be certain things missed?  Doubtless, but there'll likely also be things gained that a cultural insider/native would not grasp or even considered as being something worth grasping.  I suspect the same holds true for those writers who seek understanding, not just to "better oneself," but also in order to help understand that person across the way who has to stand less than a foot from another and gesticulate rapidly over the course of what may or may not be a calm, polite conversation.  Doing this is not appropriation in the exploitative sense, but rather cultural diffusion.  And that, regardless of point of origin, is something to be treasured, whether it be by an author, a reader, or someone in-between. 


Unknown said...


To be honest, her argument sounds very much like others I've heard in relation to writing about the Other. It's a damned if you do and a damned if you don't attitude and I think you have far more patience for it than I do.

Great post!

Gonzalo B said...

I agree. There's always a degree of cultural specificity that will be difficult to grasp for those who don't belong to the culture itself. Nonetheless, to portray this as an insurmountable obstacle for foreign writers/readers is ridiculous.

I am Chilean and when I read, say, Mexican fiction set in a rural or low-class urban environment there are millions of words and references that simply fly above my head. It's not that I won't get the meaning of most and I believe that being a native Spanish-speaker is certainly an advantage when deciphering them, but the problem is not limited to White people not "getting" the writings of and about this "Other." Likewise, I'm sure that there are numerous cultural idiosyncrasies from other Latin American countries and Spain that I won't be familiar with when reading their authors. Does that disqualify me from reading or commenting on a work even though, technically, I am not a "gabacho" but a "Hispanic" (another vague, blanket term that's only used in America)?

The whole objection against non-native writers is meaningless. As a matter of fact, I'm sure that an American writer born and raised in Texas is far more familiar with Mexican culture than, say, the average Chilean or Argentinean author.

Plus, the fact that a non-native writer won't necessarily get his subject matter 100% right doesn't necessarily lessen the value of his work. I believe a foreign perspective is actually a way to enhance our perception of a given culture. For instance, Knut Hamsun's essays on America, nasty and caricaturesque as they sometimes might be, also contain observations that are very revealing of this country's character.

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