Literature that Crosses Cultural Boundaries

“Observers can see a chess game more clearly than the players.” -Chinese proverb


A writer friend posed this question to me the other day: Is it okay to write material beyond your own culture? I think so. The point of fiction is to explore and imagine. We need to be able to capture new perspectives and lives unfamiliar to our own.

Maybe observers can see the “chess game” more clearly; perhaps outsiders will depict different cultures well. Besides, we wouldn’t have the neat novel that is The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, if we scoffed at a book told from a dog’s point-of-view.

And isn’t there a double standard to that question? Caucasian writers tell tales about different cultures all the time:

  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (the perspective of a geisha working in Kyoto)
  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave (many passages “spoken” by a 16 year-old Nigerian)
  • Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings (observations on a Chinese couple through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and beyond)

Ethnic authors also head beyond comfortable territory, but they’re few and far between. A classic example I can think of is Kazuo Ishiguro who’s born in Japan but wrote the wonderful book, The Remains of the Day, which explores the British butler system. (Ishiguro was raised in Britain, though.)

A more recent author, Bill Cheng, has written Southern Cross the Dog, detailing three childhood friends and featuring the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. (Cheng is Chinese-American and never visited Mississippi before writing the novel.) I haven’t read it yet, but I heard it vibrates with a dark Southern Gothic tone.

What do you think about crossing cultural boundaries? Have you read any interesting books that would fit in this category?


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  1. Thank you for bringing this up through your blog, Jessica. I am looking forward to the comments.
    The selection of books you make is an excellent way to show that some writers have indeed crossed cultural and ethnic boundaries with success and respect.

  2. This is a great topic, Jennifer! Your analogy of the chess game makes perfect sense. Writers who write beyond their own culture do so not just because cultural stories are “in”. They do so because they are passionate about the topic. That usually stems from an experience they had with the culture due to a visit, encounter, or personal interest as in the examples you give. Many times I find they know more than I do about my own culture.

    • Jennifer J. Chow says

      Thanks for chiming in, Romelle. Sometime I think writers who look beyond their own culture are more observant because they really have to dig deep and research things.

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