#3 Crossing borders – Mike Rands

Julie 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

My generation of South Africans was raised on the mantra that there was no difference between peoples and races. We were told that we should become blind to the colour of a person’s skin, that our blood was all green. We were told that our differences were minor and our similarities great.

This philosophy undoubtedly had an enormous influence on me. So much so that when I started living in Japan as an adult I was quite horrified by the national attitude towards ethnicity and identity. For months my inner monologue was consumed by a passionate rant against the citizens of the country for daring to be so obsessed with themselves and their ethnic and cultural “differentness”.

In Japan the “outside world”, while fascinating to some, represents a real threat, and preservation of Japanese uniqueness is of the utmost importance. Japan tells itself that its citizens are different from those of other nations. South Africa tells itself that despite minor differences, its citizens are the same. They are both essential to the nations’ self-images.

These views are both partially true, partially fabricated.

Emphasising single identities and focusing on ethnic and racial separation is dangerous. It has clearly been responsible for the incitement of hatred and violence throughout human history. In “liberal societies” we are so terrified of anything that resembles racial or cultural intolerance that if arguments stray from the official line, they are fanatically suppressed. Talk of “celebrating our differences” is often superficial, because when real issues like polygamy arise, most aren’t interested in celebrating the other’s perspective. Speaking to people, and reading public forums online – where new South African and world issues are hotly debated – we learn that everybody’s views, even in our supposedly liberal and accepting world, are shaped by these very things we tell ourselves we’re blind to – race, ethnicity, religion.

But the world is a complex place and there is another more positive side to the human story. In a recent lecture Steven Pinker showed that despite what we often tell ourselves, the world is, in fact, getting better. This is most evidenced in the steady decline of violence, measurable over the millennia, centuries, decades and even years. If the modern world always seems bad, this is because our moral reasoning is constantly improving and we’re always looking at the situation through a contemporary lens.

And why is the world improving? The advance of science is well documented, but what Pinker and numerous other theorists argue is that the ability to empathise with others has made a serious and quantifiable difference to the state of humanity. And that ability to empathise with others is largely due to the successes of literature and art.

If ever there was a validation for what writers do, then surely this must be it. I think that artists not only play a role in increasing cross- and inter-cultural empathy, but also aid in constantly raising the moral standards by which we judge ourselves. This means that so long as art keeps doing what it does, it will always remain relevant.

People who attend writing seminars are always told to write what they know. Of course this soon gets boring and any real fiction writers will have to write about things they don’t know. Historical writing can be achieved through research.  Women are said to write better male characters than men write female ones. Either way it’s almost impossible to write a story without characters of both sexes and so this problem has been dealt with for centuries. But what about writing characters from different race groups and cultures? More and more it is happening. But what is the ethic of doing it, or of not doing it?

When I wrote my first novel I was a young person living in Cape Town. Most people I associated with were white. Then I lived in Johannesburg for over two years. I worked producing television shows for black audiences. For a period almost everyone I worked with, interviewed, socialised with was black. And it did change me. Now I live in Japan, and everyone is Japanese. Again, it’s changed me completely. I know that we are not all the same. Cultural and societal expectations, histories, group identities, all these things have major influences on our psyches.

Japan embraces the stories of the West, just as the West eats up Japanese stories. In stories, it seems, there is a new kind of truth. A truth that reveals us as different, yet absolutely recognisable.

But can you write a character from another culture and make him or her so believable that people from that background would not know it was written by an outsider? If we decide to attempt it, we open ourselves up to massive levels of criticism. But if we don’t do it, we allow ourselves to become representatives of “our group”, whatever that group may be. One reviewer of my first novel grouped it with two others in an examination of the white male protagonist. While I suppose it was unavoidable that some would bracket me in that category for that first novel, I certainly don’t want to spend my life as a spokesman for the white male cause. I imagine many writers across borders feel this way. Perhaps, then, as we move forward more writers will continue to write across every line, imaginable and real, and this will be a continuation of the writer’s contribution to society.

2 antwoorde op #3 Crossing borders – Mike Rands

  1. bloukaap het gesê op Julie 30, 2010

    NOU is ek confused

  2. tiah het gesê op Augustus 7, 2010

    Book SA had a post about the Chick-lit debate. A commentator posted this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/04/chick-lit-debate-dj-connell

    DJ Connell changed her name so it was not obvious if she was a man or woman and believes that by doing this, “[gave] readers the choice of buying my book without prejudice.” George Eliot is another classic example of an author who had to hide who she was to get her story judge by the merit of the story and not based on the author’s background. It is a problem, this assumption that fiction must be limited to the author’s life. It does not just hurt authors’ careers, it hurts readers’ choices.

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