Does your writing transcend culture?
I thought I was a global person but it turns out I’m not …
My novel As the Heart Bones Break is making its debut globally at Singapore Writer’s Festival in November. Well, almost globally. Singapore based international publisher Marshall Cavendish has the rights to everywhere except North America.
I’m a global Asian. Jennifer’s Asian-American. The book, written in the 2nd person, is about a conflicted Vietnamese man and what happens when his American Vietnamese wife discovers he’s been a Viet Cong agent all-along. Jennifer, based in New York, thought that it should be represented in North America by a US publisher, and so she’s been marketing it separately there.
Well, we’ve been getting feedback. Interesting feedback
I’ve just discovered what I didn’t know that I didn’t know!
Here are the pre-release comments I’ve been getting from Asian and Asian-American writers –
“Audrey Chin’s expert weaving of this many-layered tale admirably illuminates Vietnam’s complex history. It gives insight into the web of divided loyalties and allegiances, both political and emotional, that blighted the lives of so many people in the fight for independence. This is an absorbing and enlightening book, and a tour de force in storytelling.” Meira Chand, author of 8 novels including Oprah Recommended and IMPAC long-listed A Different Sky (Random House, 2011)
“Very promising. Audrey Chin has a storytelling flair and a voice.” Andrew X. Pham, author of Kiriyama Prize winning Catfish and Mandala (Picador 1999) and The Eaves of Heaven (Broadway Books, 2009)
“A mesmerizing tale that explores the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, the past and present, and America and Vietnam.” Wendy Lee, author of Happy Family (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2008)
“A lyrical journey of self-discovery and identity, Audrey Chin has written a powerhouse of a novel that forces the reader to feel every beat of its thumping heart.” Sung J. Woo, author of Everything Asian (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010)
Enough to make one’s head swell a little, no?
But then I started getting comments from my non-Asian readers in North America…
Intriguing story, they said. Nice writing, they said. But… But… But… They just couldn’t get around the 2nd person point of view I was using for the narration.
Here’s a paragraph written in 2nd POV, describing the protagonist stepping off the sidelines and committing himself to the war:
“In the moment, though, all you apprehended was that no one was what they seemed — neither policemen nor villa owners. Not a seemingly benevolent Oldest Brother-in-Law. Perhaps not even an admired English tutor or a much looked up to sixth brother or a blood-father. And like them, you too had to create shades of yourself to survive.
You had witnessed a killing and you had taken a life. Whether you liked it or not, you had stained your hands. You had stepped off the sidelines and joined the war.”
Apparently all the “you’s” in the narrative were too directive. In America, a greater emotional distance may be needed between the reader and the story, to allow that American reader to make his or her own decisions to relate to the protagonist.
It is true that people in different cultures have different needs for body distance. Asians, especially those in crowded countries like China and Vietnam, I’ve noticed require much less body distance between themselves than Americans. And New Yorkers require a much larger “safe arms length” than Californians.
Now, I’ve learnt, that’s also true of the distance between a narrator in a novel and a reader!
But isn’t a writers’ creation sacrosanct?
What should a writer do? Should she say, “This is my art, be damned!” or should she listen to her readers?
I’m going to say it depends. For me, it’s the story that counts.
I married a Vietnamese boat person whose blood father was indeed an anti-French Viet Minh and whose adopted father was a Chief Clerk on the other side. Married into the Vietnamese diaspora for over 30 years I have come face to face with the conflicts within families in civil wars. Ideology and national interest often intruded into family relationships and hearts, at the expense of all the humans involved.
This is a “truth” in my novel that needs to be told because there are far too many real-life stories out there now about countries getting into civil wars they shouldn’t and interfering in lives they know little or nothing about. So… to hell with my artistic integrity or whatever!
The Marshall Cavendish endition is coming out in November in 2nd person point of view. But, if I need to change to 1st or 3rd for a better reception in North American, I’m not going to balk at it.
After all, shouldn’t a writer listen to her readers? What’s the point of writing for publication if I’m not read?
So, here’s the same paragraph in 1st person:
“In the moment, though, all I apprehended was that no one was what they seemed — neither policemen nor villa owners. Not a seemingly benevolent Oldest Brother-in-Law. Perhaps not even an admired English tutor or a much looked up to sixth brother or a blood-father. And like them, I too had to create shades of myself to survive.
I had witnessed a killing and I had taken a life. Whether I liked it or not, I had stained my hands. I had stepped off the sidelines and joined the war.”