Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Who Do You Write For?

You know how it is, googling around looking for something else (i.e. after Dreamer Idiot mentioned Vyvyanne Loh, I had to go look for information on her) I stumbled across a page which stopped me in my tracks ...

Yew Leong Lee, Singaporean Fiction Writer and Media Artist, posted up this quotation from Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello on his blog :
The English novel,’ she says, ‘is written in the first place by English people for English people. That is what makes it the English novel. The Russian novel is written by Russians for Russians. But the African novel is not written by Africans for Africans. African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them. Whether they like it or not, they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their readers. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to his investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students. It is too much for one person, it can’t be done, not at the deepest level. That, it seems to me, is the root of your problem. Having to perform your Africanness at the same time as you write.’
The question of course: if you live in this part of the world and write fiction, who do you write for? If you write for an overseas audience, you are constantly having to explain the local context. It's not a problem that British and American writers, for example, have to even consider (unless, of course, they write about subcultures), because through the media we've lived in their headspace for much of our lives. (Hey, sorry about the 'our' creeping in there when I'm a double agent with a foot in both camps.) It seems unfair, but it's a reality ...

Yew Leong talks about his own writing dilemma:
If I were to write about Singapore, the subject matter would make me interpreter, because I can’t fathom writing for Singaporeans and Singaporeans only. (One need only remember how Hwee Hwee Tan kept explicating in Foreign Bodies. Even Vyvyanne Loh had some explaining to do.) So I drop the Singaporeanness of my locale, and write about rootless, peregrinating characters (something anyway I know). For which I get obliquely critiqued by friends who think the only novels worth two cents are those that transcend personal experience to depict national character.
It's a question that every local writer looking for overseas recognition needs to resolve, and Shirley Lim was also saying something along these lines the other day at Silverfish ...

9 comments:

the eternal wanderer said...

Who do I write for is always a question that I began to ponder whenever I sit down and write, be it for my blog or leisure. There is always this niggling doubt whether anyone is going to read this and whether they'll understand or comprehend whatever my thoughts churned out in writing. It drives me bonkers really.

But recently, I've decided to shelve this question as to who I write for and the audience I intend to target. It gives me much freedom to write, as I realised that the writer, first and foremost, writes for himself. To satisfy the egotistical monster within himself and write for his own pleasure, for his own high and his own amusement. Isn't this what we all do usually?

Writers should not really be bothered as to who reads their work, unless they are writing with a specific genre and market in mind. That's how I see it anyways.

lil ms d said...

totally agree with you!

Anna said...

ME TOO! MOI AUSSI! ANCH'IO!

bibliobibuli said...

first write of yourself - yes you must - and eternal wanderer, i'm glad you realise this. becasue first and foremost a write must to their own self be true

butwhen you want an audience for your work?

e.g ms d - you! i loved the little stories on your gongkapas times blog ... the delightful way you mixed malay and english as malay speakers do all the time ... the voice was so real

you were writing for local readers who saw and appreciated it

now if you wanted to put yourself into book form ... would you be able to write like that? you'd certainly reach your local audience who would continue to love you

but you wouldn't, unless you found a way to modify the style and just give a flavour of the language switches ... you'd be forced to compromise for an interantional audience ... you'd have to explain more ...

so i think that when you think about international publication you must see things a little differently ...

lil ms d said...

yes mommy :)

The Great Swifty said...

Holy shit, she's multitalented (like me).

The Great Swifty said...

Crap, the previous was supposed to be posted at the Vyvyane entry. Anyway, as for whom I write for. Personally, I am not a good fan of people trying to hard to write something that's too er, nation/culture-centric? Like, Malaysians writing about Malaysians in Malaysia whilst speaking in Manglish just for the sake of showcasing our nation and culture, because I feel that it's quite alienating, and stereotypical. Kinda like drawing a caricature.

I believe writers should be thinking of telling a GOOD STORY, not just a GOOD MALAYSIAN STORY. And I believe if a GOOD MALAYSIAN STORY cannot work well as a GOOD STORY without its Malaysian-ness, then I don't think it's THAT good after all. Hence why I write fantasy or sci-fi, or that most of my works take place in unspecified locations and time. So that I can focus more on things that I should focus on, the storytelling, the characterization, etc.

I wish I can tell everyone that I am selfless, and I write ONLY for myself, and make movies ONLY for myself. But then, I am not that kind of person. I feel that storytelling (be it via film and writing) is a two-way relationship, and that if you write in a vacuum, it's just too selfish.

Walker said...

Fair point about appealing to a large overseas book markets, and although I'm not sure about some national output, I think some authors are very clich├ęd with their treatment of foreigners. When I pick up an African novel for example, I've come to expect a certain antipathy towards Europe -- Britain in particular. Fine, considering South African history, but you know...tiresome if it really is a marketing device.

(And tee hee, the Google verification word is "bollock".)

bibliobibuli said...

swifty - very well said and i agree with you about what fiction needs to be, but i would like to read fiction that is great and rooted here ...

walker - haha - maybe that was a comment on your post!

agree with you about the clichedness ... south-east asia always has to be exotic with inscrutable oriental types and a mysterious dusky maiden ...