Friday, April 13, 2012

Cross-cultural Connections in our Reading

I first read Kara Dalkey's Little Sister in college. As I discussed in my last post, I grew up on a farm, in an area of rural western Illinois that had very little diversity. You could say that my ignorance on diversity issues was pretty high, notwithstanding my desire to be Japanese in the fourth grade. But in college, I had a lot of roommates from different cultures--over the years, roughly twenty women from a variety of other countries, including Laos, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Belgium, Japan, and the UK. (I feel like I'm forgetting someone.) I also roomed with several African American and Asian American women. (I had a LOT of roommates in college and grad school.) So their influence on me as friends started seeping into the books I looked for.

I had a habit of walking through the college bookstore and wandering through the YA section on my way to various classes or the library, and one day this book stood out to me. I am a fantasy buff, and up until that point I don't know that I'd read any fantasy books set in a world based on an Asian culture rather than medieval European.

From the Goodreads description:
As a girl in the Japanese imperial court of the 1200s, Mitsuko is shielded from reality. But when her brother-in-law is murdered, and her family taken away by a warlord, she summons the courage to venture into the netherworld. The spirit of Mitsuko's beloved sister, still devastated by the loss of her husband, wanders between Life and Death. In order to bring her sister back, Mitsuko, with the help of Goranu, a shape-shifter, must battle the merciless spirits--to the death.

Goranu, in particular, was a character who stood out to me as something I'd never encountered in fantasy before, a tengu from Japanese folklore (it may just have been that I hadn't found the right books yet, but this was my experience). I loved the descriptions of life at court and the layering of kimonos, the poems the nobles would send to each other, and the lush worldbuilding, but even more, I loved Mitsuko's bravery and determination to save her sister. I didn't need to be Japanese to empathize with that sisterly bond.

It might not be the most accurate depiction of life in the Heian period of Japan, and the Japanese language use is definitely not always the most accurate--now that I've been an anime and manga fan for years, the misspelling within the first few pages of "monogatari" is a little painful, and "Mama-chan" rings weirdly--but even so, it was an important read for me. I connected cross-culturally, and it was an epiphany to me that this could happen not only in real life but in books, which over the years has gotten me thinking about how books can also start that process of real-life cross-cultural connections, too, for people who might not be as lucky as me to know so many people from around the world.

Little Sister helped me to think differently about where the inspiration for a fantasy world could come from, a consideration which would later inspire me to look for diversity in the books I acquire. Nowadays, I have the specific mission of featuring diverse characters and settings in the fantasy and science fiction I publish, and I'm grateful for books like Little Sister for showing me the true possibilities of fantasy, and for people like those roommates for teaching me to see their perspective. If it wasn't for those experiences, I might not have eventually published books like Cat Girl's Day Off, Tankborn, and the forthcoming Summer of the Mariposas by Morris Award nominee and Pura Belpre winner Guadalupe Garcia McCall (I'd share that cover with you here, but it's not *quite* ready to show yet--but soon... :) ). And I think the more we look to make those cross-cultural connections in our reading, the more we'll look for them in real life, too.


  1. This makes me wonder if the cross cultural nature is sometimes bungled when a translation occurs. Was it first published in Japanese? I know that, for instance, Harry Potter has an American continuity editor so that words such as "jumper" become "sweater" here in the states.

    Still - several things struck me about the mispelled words - does it portend other cultural inaccuracies and - worse, then mislead a young reader for whom this is the first (or closest) exposure they have to the culture?

    I never mind if people of another culture write outside of their own. I only worry when they find themselves fascinated by the material then don't do the research to get it right.

    The story behind the rewriting of Memoirs of a Geisha, for example, is fascinating - that the author wrote a book that was far from the truth, and only when he lived in the culture for a while did he rewrite a final draft that was more resonant. Still - one can never truly know what goes on behind closed doors in a culture that doesn't easily invite strangers in - even here in the states.

    But yes - we need more books like this - written by people who have lived on the "inside" or whose culture is owned by them.

  2. It was not written in original Japanese, and like I said, looking at it now from a perspective of looking for cultural accuracy, it doesn't really measure up as it should. But it was a book that changed how I saw fantasy, and for that it made a difference at that point in the late 90s. I should have added: and I'm now, as an editor, looking for books like this that are written by people who know the culture better, either as an insider or as a "guest" of the culture (see Nisi Shawl's discussion of the differences between Invaders, Tourists, and Guests--or, see it if the article was still up! I wonder what happened--I hope it hasn't disappeared, because her "Appropriate Cultural Appropriation" is pretty much a touchstone in writing cross-culturally).