Article: Writing cultures: insider vs. outsider

So, I came back from Vietnam recently; and one of the things that happened was sitting on the sofa and trying to explain stuff to the BF–and seeing how it all came together (or not) for him. That in turn made me think of an exercise I’ve attempted several times now, which is writing stories set in France for the benefit of an Anglophone audience–and of how this didn’t quite pan out the way I’d thought it would.

It’s a very different exercise from writing in a culture not related to me, such as the Aztecs (I’ll leave aside China, which is a little more problematic for me because China gave so much to Vietnam). And this set me thinking about the different approaches to writing a culture.

To simplify matters, let’s assign letters (yup, engineer at work). Suppose we have two cultures in presence. I’ll call the first one “A” (Americans, for instance). It’s your target audience. The second one is “B”, the one you’re attempting to write about (say, Chinese, Vietnamese, French…).

If you’re a member of B, then there are a number of things that are going to be way easier for you. The small things–you’re not going to oversweat, say, what time people of B usually get up at and what they have for breakfast, because you know. The big things: your outlook on life is likely to be typical of B already. You’re not going to contaminate the narration by, say, having a Vietnamese shouting at or striking his mother (pretty much unthinkable in Confucian ideology), or thinking that good French students go to university (we don’t. It’s rather complicated, but we have a two-tier higher education system, where only the worst students go into the state universities. The best ones go into “Grandes Ecoles”, the great schools of business, engineering and literature).
There are a number of things that are going to be harder, though. For you, pretty much anything belonging to B is natural, which means that you’ll likely spend less time describing it or even mentioning it at all. When a French character of mine goes home after work, I’m not going to make a big deal of their buying bread at the bakery, because for me it’s perfectly natural. I’m going to be tempted to skip the bakery description, too, because I assume my reader will know what I’m talking about.
Of course, the problem is that maybe they won’t. Maybe they come from a place where they don’t sell bread. Maybe a French bakery–with a long counter displaying cakes and viennoiseries under glass panes, and a cash register behind which you’ll find the different kinds of bread from baguettes to loafs–isn’t a sight that’s familiar to my reader at all. What I subconsciously assume is natural to A might not be at all: it might be slightly different, it might be counter-intuitive. I don’t describe the streets of Paris, but the truth is that they’re not the same as those of Los Angeles.
It’s what I’d tend to call the “insider” point of view: the flavour of the narration is pretty much bang to rights, but it can end up feeling pretty hard to relate to for a member of A, because you’ll likely end up leaving out the details that might have made sense to A (not to mention that the attitudes of the characters will be those of B, and that A might find them hard to relate to without explanations. It’s not easy to understand why the French are so obsessed with their two-tier education system unless you’ve been there). And I think that’s why people sometimes have trouble relating to “insider” stories–because they tend not to be formulated in the frame of reference to which the people of A used.

On the contrary, if you’re a member of A writing about B is going to have to learn things the hard way, by researching the culture–and speaking as someone who has a moderate amount of experience in the subject, this could be one of those things that take years before you can be anything like remotely proficient in culture B. But the sad truth is that no matter how many years you spend researching B, you’re always going to make mistakes. Even after all that research, you’ll get some of the little details wrong: the food, the daily habits. You’ll have some of your culture creeping into mindsets (because those tend to revert pretty quickly to your default pattern unless you’re really careful about what you’re doing. I know I always have the temptation to be an advocate for women’s rights in my historical fiction, even though I know that the idea of equality between genders didn’t make its way into popular culture until, at best, the tail end of the 19th century.
You’re going to have one huge advantage over a member of B writing about B, though: you’re already part of the target audience. You know, or can pretty easily find, what members of A will find odd or non-intuitive about B. At worst, this can degenerate into exoticism, where you use B for a touch of local colour and not much else; at best, it makes you able to find the bits of B that will speak to your audience, and make those bits stand out. You have a common frame of mind with your audience, which makes you able to easily reach out to it. Also, you’ve just spent some time (months to years) learning about B–and you’ve already gone through all the hassle of understanding the parts that didn’t seem to make sense at first. You know what is striking or unfamiliar, and you will usually think of describing those in your fiction.
This is what I’d tend to call the “outsider” writing: a lot of the time, the narration will be familiar while the mindset will be anything from completely wrong to slightly off, but this will have a much more palpable flavour, at least at first read.

Obviously, for a member of A looking for an “authentic” [1] narration about B, neither insider nor outsider are really satisfying: the first lack the details/character empathy that will make them feel included in the conversation between author and reader; and the second, while much easier to get into, is ultimately rather frustrating because it’s likely to be off.

I guess the best way to be authentic would be to merge both approaches, but it’s hard–I haven’t found many books that pulled this off satisfactorily (in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to think of a single one. If you know one, please chime in). It requires you to be equally proficient in both A and B, in order to both know about B and the bits of B will appeal to A. And then we move into a whole new category of problems, the main one being separating A and B in the author’s mind (same thing for a member of B who’s been living in A for a while, and is now writing about B).

In the meantime, you’re left with those–and I guess both have their merits and their flaws. I don’t have an easy solution to this (and I certainly don’t advocate that everyone should stick to writing what they know, which makes it all too easy to keep minds closed to other ways of life and other cultures). But it certainly brings up an interesting set of problems.

What do you think? Am I just stating the obvious? Have I got it completely wrong? Are there any approaches I left out, or anything else worth pointing out?

[1]It’s not the point of this post, but I think we can argue for a long while about what “authentic” means. It’s nowhere as clear-cut as it seems, especially in the light of today’s world where you can find very distinct subcultures everywhere (if you take Asians, Asian-Americans and Asians living in Asia will have a lot in common, but also a lot of differences. And the culture of, say, my grandparents is no longer the culture of twenty-something Vietnamese, even though they both live in the same country).
When do you start being authentic–is it only when you write about the little bit of subculture that you happen to be a part of? Is it when you write about your own country of origins? What if you’re a first or second-generation immigrant, or a mixed-race? It’s a thorny subject, and it’s likely to get thornier as the world shrinks on itself and people move effortlessly across boundaries.


  1. It’s interesting to think about it from the point of view of what would never happen – hitting your mother in your example. This feels like a quick, effective way to emphasise difference, and could make for very strong encounters based on false assumptions.

    I would think about why you want to do this and what you are trying to achieve. A reader traveling with the ‘Outsider’ into a culture is an armchair traveller in fiction as much as with non-fiction travel writers, and that could be a large part of the narrative in itself. Writing stories set in a different culture has different structures and focus – there’s no Outsider point of view within the narrative (I’m thinking No.1 Ladies Detective Agency as a good example here.)
    It’s also going to be important to decide what prominence this needs to have in your story, whether these things are vital for the story you are telling or, at the other end if importance, if it’s just local colour.

    I also think it’s more important to decide what you yourself want to achieve rather than wonder if what you are doing will please a particular audience. Obviously there are qualifications to this statement whatever you’re writing, but if you can build the ambience, the moods and colours to your own satisfaction then I think you should be content.

    I’m an addict of old-style autobiography, which can be full of relevlation and insight. My favourites are Arthur Grimble’s ‘A Pattern of Islands,’ Beryl Markham’s ‘West with the Night’, ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ by Heinrich Harrer, and ‘Night Falls in Ardnamurchan’ by Alasdair Maclean. This last for me is remarkable as Maclean goes through his own emotional struggles.
    Oh, and Grog Call, by Greg French

  2. I’ve actually found writing a culture different from mine to be easier.

    I am Singaporean Chinese, which is probably some kind of majority in the Chinese diaspora (we number several million). I’m studying in the UK at the moment, and some of my friends are BBC (British-born Chinese). But some of what I consider to be utterly Chinese, they wouldn’t see the same way. Same goes for the mainland Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Australian or American-born Chinese, Canadian etc.

    So if I wrote something set in mainland China, for instance, I would effectively be merging both approaches.

    I have tried, and I think it’s actually worse because you think you’re right, but you’re probably wrong.

  3. Some things are better left unsaid, this isn’t one of them. Good stuff, thanks.

  4. 1) This post is close related to another of yours : “Writing in a foreign language, or why I find it hard to discuss SF in French”, about mental compartimentalisations as a possible response above fruitless of litteral translations (exemple, from english to SF in French). The “insider” point of view could be transfert from A to B by logical and informative explanations? is there a mathematical formula to solve this conflict? an informatic program build to? It seems that if one follows on this road, one could fall into the Wittgenstein linguistic dilemas (from logical forms shared between all humans … to a mystical jump for a supra-communication channel).

    More than choising a linguistic-logical approach I prefered the theory of neuroplasticity. It’s used to treat brains damaged by cerebro-vascular accidents, congenital malformations, acquired brain injuries, memory and learning troubles, etc. Since long time ago, difficulties to get a well-rehabilitated behavior has been explained throught psychological, social or/and organic components (prescribing by consequence, oral, social or/ and drug therapies). But neuroplasticity research has shown that in fact, effective answers aren’t find by focusing on “why” but “how” the brain face up to it. Thus, an important discovery : if the brain have not access to its normal synaptic process, it will built a neuronal shortcut or a new neuronal network … provided that ancient behavior ways of functionality are prevented to work as always.

    2) By the other hand, the “outsider” point of view, based in a common frame of mind, is only totally possible between “authentic” both author and readers. But what it means to be authentic? This sociological approach, find its answers in concepts as multiculturalism, transculturalism an so on. Its problematic, what’s identity for currently migrations? What it means to be, for exemple, FRICM? (a born french-man with rusian ancestors, who received israelite citizenship in jerusalem, then married with a colombian woman and is living in Morocco with children born in Rabat).

    Perhaps the mythe of tower of babel could explain this endless laberynth. I can’t. Otherwise, this sociological approch is linked to political worries about bounderies and citizen rights (a current discussion in france about “La identité Nationale” shows it). About difficulties to find a framework to conflict solutions or multi-cultural markets. About english or french employees working as expats in china. About how identify who is or not one of ours.

    Here I take again the neuroplasticity approche by the last phrase I did : “it (the brain) will built a neuronal shortcut or a new neuronal network … provided that ancient behavior ways of functionality are prevented to work as always.” This “work as always” is related to identities and to a commonly feeling called “nostalgy”. You shared with us in the last post “cultural dissonances” about the gap between your expectations, your family cooking entourage and your experience in vietnam. And also the gap between your experience as inhabitant in paris (with all that bread culture) and that of a reader out of this frame. Perhaps, this gap will never be filled.

    I think SF is an effort to break down it. More than search for a return to original roots, it looks to how transform our circumstances, codes, identities into new ways of thinking. If you wrote “Servant of the Underworld “, I think that it has been written not as an historical text but as an aztec fantasy tale. You took in to account some data of this culture as context but the content is a new world. Otherwise, An aztec archeologist or any chiapas guerrilleros could take this tale as anathema.

    Anyway, your concept of mental compartimentalisations or my neuroplasticity approach, both of them try to explain howto more than why. That’s the matter.

    3) The best way to be authentic would be to merge both approaches ? a synthesis of outsider-insider? It’s logical, scientific but …. it seems so social-democratic, neither black or white but gray. Neither subjective nor objective. I only want to end with a book of Ernesto Sabato, a well-known argentin writter, “El escritor y sus fantasmas” (The writer and his Ghosts, or, L’écrivain et ses fantômes) about the objectivity of Kafka :

    “It would be worth exploring this phenomenon, in which a kind of cold objectivity of expression, which at times reminds the scientific report, however, is the revelation of subjectivism as extreme as that of dreams. Another effective contrast : (he) describes his irrational and scary world with a consistent and clear language”

  5. Dave: agreed it really helps to think of it in terms of taboos because taboos tend to be quite revealing of a society.
    I’m a little leery of the “Outsider” point of view in the culture, simply because 99% of the time the outsider is white and American–and it’s fine if your target is white and American, but speaking rather selfishly as a Frenchwoman, this doesn’t speak much more to me than if the outsider were some other colour of skin (I understand the need for an entry point, but the entry point has to be in the culture “A”, ie the target audience). I agree it’s a valid stategy and that you definitely have to think about how much of the “foreign” culture you need in your fiction, but I guess I feel like there are too many Outsider stories already.
    But unlike you, I tend to prefer stories about people already in the culture and work out the “rules” for myself, rather than reading stories about cultural discoveries. I think it’s a very personal thing and grows as much out of my upbringing as of my personal tastes.

  6. Emily: wow, fascinating stuff, thanks very much for sharing! I hadn’t thought about the problem, but it does make sense when speaking about a very big cultural entity like China (and it must indeed be rather frustrating to have the feeling you’re almost right but know that you’re not).

  7. Aaron: you’re welcome!

  8. Edy: very interesting. I had not heard about neuroplasticity before, but it’s a concept that makes sense (and is very fascinating. I’m intrigued by the resourcefulness of the brain, though not entirely surprised by it). I take it you’re suggesting that by writing SF set in new cultures and new paragdism, we’re trying to put the brain into new pathways–ones that would not be determined by culture/personal history?

    Sadly, in the end, I suspect that the only culture you can ever be authentic to is your own, taken to mean your narrow set of experiences and memories. The moment you set foot outside the boundaries of your own brain, you have to bridge a gap–and the gap gets worse the more you step away from what you know. The moment you start imagining how a character with a given mindset would react to a given situation, you’re starting to filter through your own cognition, and it’s no longer quite accurate.
    To take my Aztec tales as examples (as you rightly point out, they would give archaeologists fits): they are indeed filtered through my own perceptions, through the needs of the narration and through what I characters with a certain mindset would be feeling in situations llike those. I have absolutely no pretence that I’m writing accurate fiction in the sense that Aztec characters back in the 15th century would have thought like this. I have done my research and created the world to the best of my ability, but, as you say, there’s a gap between me and an Aztec that won’t ever be bridged. (the term “accurate fiction’, more than anything, probably summarises the impossiblity at the heart of what we’re crafting, whether it be in SF or in other genres: we are crafting lies that must be plausible, and twisting life into narrations that make sense. Authenticity tends to fly out the window at this point anyway).

  9. As a halfie myself (although Taiwanese, not Viet) I find myself in complete agreement with your thoughts, and similarly at a loss for a solution. Although in terms of satisfying a native perspective, perhaps just getting a trusted few to read your book and point out anything that bothers them would be helpful?

    “Sadly, in the end, I suspect that the only culture you can ever be authentic to is your own, taken to mean your narrow set of experiences and memories. The moment you set foot outside the boundaries of your own brain, you have to bridge a gap–and the gap gets worse the more you step away from what you know.”


    But even as halfies, I think we are not necessarily able to speak authoritatively on both (or either) of our halves. For example, my own mother constantly tells me that I’m not really Chinese and don’t really know what Chinese culture is like. Okay, but my American friends tell me I’m not really American and don’t really know what 100% American culture is like either. So where does that leave me?

    I’m oversimplifying the problem here — and maybe I’m hypersensitive about my identity — but as a writer I find it both enriching and frustrating to have so many cultural perspectives (but none that are 100% “accurate”) to draw from.

  10. The native perspective would definitely be helped by getting a trusted few to read your book (though I’m guessing you’d still have people disagreeing, if only because a culture is not a monolithic bloc). But even then, the core of the story might still be wrong: someone mentioned “headspace” over on my livejournal, and how you could get all the external research wrong but screw that up–and I think it’s the hardest obstacle to leap, the one that’s going to be a bitch to solve.
    And definitely with you on the getting the halves wrong. In my case, more the Vietnamese half than the French half, since my upbringing was more French than Vietnamese, but yeah, there’s still small stuff that I react to in ways that are not 100% French.
    The trouble with halfies is that you can end up being a part of neither of your mother cultures. It’s a bit sad…

  11. quote: “Sadly, in the end, I suspect that the only culture you can ever be authentic to is your own”

    When Heidegger quoted “Return to the homeland” poem shortly after Hölderlin return from Switzerland, it was to point out that real world is pre-builded by language :
    “before morning shines up,
    before noon burns life up,
    I called it in silence …”

    I think that we get a problem when nostalgy born by linking language to any identity (even if it is authentic) and not to future worlds (whatever language spoken).

    Perhaps any clues:
    -A bosnian fiction writer living in the USA, Aleksandar Hemon’s interview “Exile on Any Street” [] about his way to face up with 2 cultures.
    -“Imaginary homelands of writers in exile’s book” points out that double identity writers treat exile not only as a political condition, but also as a new way to understanding the self because each one creates an ideal imaginary land.
    -Stranger at home’s article [] , of Andrey Gristman, try to answer “who gives the right to a foreign poet write in a non-native language?”.

    Exile? yes. Not from mother country (as militant of lost causes) but from reality … to re-built it.

  12. I’m not sure… Wouldn’t you still get feelings for a future world? (after all, it’s made up from stuff that’s found in today’s world, one way or another)

    Thank you very much for the links! There is some truly fascinating stuff here. Will have to ponder some more (though I don’t really think I have a mother country in the sense that is usually meant, when the chips come down).

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