Expressing a Culture in the Context of Another Culture

(Similar to Chloe, I had trouble finding information about the cultural essay – all there seems to be is a short blurb on personal cultural criticism that Chloe used in her blog post already. But I think she did a great job exploring the meaning of culture and the importance of the aspect of collectiveness in the cultural essay: “Compared with a personal essay, a personal cultural criticism sheds light on specific cultural issues that are loaded with more collective features of a cultural or sub-cultural group instead of the mere idiosyncratic bearing on the writer himself.”)

We mentioned in class that the Spanish used in La conciencia de la Mestiza is purposely alienating to readers who have no Spanish foundation, and purposely inclusive to readers who have more knowledge in Spanish. Here, the essay is exposing certain readers’ inability to fully understand the writer by making the reader feel his/her lacking of understanding. It exposes whether the reader cares enough to translate certain parts of the essay in order to understand better, or whether the reader cares enough to even read the essay.

As for the reader who knows more Spanish, the reader is automatically connected to the writer in a deeper way. There is something special about reading bits of your mother tongue among a foreign language – it is finding the familiar in a foreign land, the often-forgotten minority in the majority. A candle is more illuminating in a dark room, just like words from a mother tongue are more precious and special in a sea of words from a language that is so mainstream yet inadequate in expressing one’s identity.

The special thing about presenting one culture within another culture. It is a learning process for both the writer and the reader; the need for understanding goes both ways. Writing about Hong Kong in English is very much different from writing about Hong Kong in Chinese. Something that is old to me becomes something new to others, and sometimes even to myself – often times I gain new perspectives on my home culture when I need to present it in a language that is associated with a different culture, or when I need to cater my descriptions of home to an audience from a different culture. For example, if I compare a Hong Kong dessert with a Twinkie, that would obviously be catering to Americans, and in the process I learn to look at a dessert from home through another cultural lens too.

If all creative works aim to present a new perspective on various issues and aspects of life, then cultural essays aim to present a new perspective on certain cultural values/beliefs through the narrator’s relationship with a culture. New light is shed on the narrator’s culture and any other cultures explored in the essay. By highlighting cultural traits and traditions, the reader learns how different and/or similar their culture(s) is/are with the culture(s) of the writer, and learns to see another culture in the “other’s” eyes. I would expect that the writer has special authority in guiding the reader through issues in the essay, because the writer is (usually) familiar with the culture he/she writes about. This would be different from unreliable narrators – there seems to be a need for a reliable narrator in cultural essays, so that the critique of culture is clear and convincing, and so that the “other” culture isn’t more unaccessible than it was before the reader started reading the essay.

Being someone who has been exposed to so many cultures (Hong Kong, China, Scotland, USA, and more during travels), it’s hard to not see most of my essays as somewhat cultural essays. I feel a constant need to show people that there are sides of me they do not know. I don’t necessarily expect them to understand those parts of me, but I want them to acknowledge the existence those parts of identity and their inability to understand them.  So I am thankful for cultural essays that remind people that there is so much more than your skin color, place of birth, accent, favorite foods, fashion style, etc., but rather the conversation all those things have with one another and with different people’s experiences and values, how the representation of a certain culture is unique depending on which culture the writer is catering to.

Structure Matters

“Where is the line between art and literature/creative nonfiction?”

All literature is art, but not all art is in the form of literature.

All creative nonfiction is art, but not all creative nonfiction has to be in the form of literature. A painting of a historical event could be considered creative nonfiction but not literature.

Bechdel’s Fun Home happens to be a piece of art, literature, and creative nonfiction all at the same time. Art implies an aesthetic aspect, and Fun Home is definitely aesthetic by both its graphics and its language and literary devices. Bechdel’s graphics and story-telling is able to touch the reader on an emotional level and convey meanings that are so much more than on-the-surface and informative. Motifs, metaphors, satire, humor, the structure of the story, and the vulnerability that drips through in the story all make the reader’s experience an artistic one. Continue reading

Rant on Absolute Truth

The more I think about it, the more I do not comprehend how some people can believe that there is no absolute truth.

There are subjective truths–beliefs that hold true to any individual.

There are objective truths–things or events we can observe (excluding our interpretation of these things or events).

Subjective truths can be lies. Or maybe to some people, there are only subjective lies.

But then, if you believe that there are only subjective truths and no absolute truth, isn’t that belief in itself an attempt to state an absolute truth?

Someone must be wrong, someone must be right. Continue reading

Proof and Nonfiction

To be honest, after reading Lauren Slater’s Lying, I don’t think there will be another piece of self-called creative nonfiction work that I will consider fiction just because the author adjusts the way he/she presents his/her information to convey a truth they believe in. I mean, if Slater got away with what she did and still have Lying be considered a memoir, then why can’t D’Agata’s work be considered nonfiction? Moreover, unlike Slater, D’Agata points out most, if not all, pieces of reality that he adjusted––that in itself is nonfiction, isn’t it? If Slater got away with leaving the line between metaphors and reality blurry, then how is it fair that we call D’Agata’s piece of work fiction when he reveals what we call “factual truth” after telling us his story?

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Genre classification and Lying

When an author admits to exaggerating and lying in her own memoir, can his or her memoir still be considered nonfiction? In the book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Slater talks about her own emotions and thoughts throughout the whole book, so for me there is no doubt that Lying is classified as creative nonfiction/memoir. Blaming Slater for not giving the reader factual truth would be like blaming your worst enemy for writing bad things about you in his/her diary. Yes, it would be morally wrong (in my opinion) to curse someone even in one’s personal diary, but few people would actually blame the writer for saying negative things about the person he or she hates (unless you knew the people involved perhaps, but that is irrelevant to my point). Readers should simply not expect Slater to give them factual truth, especially when Slater constantly reminds us to be cautious in what we take in as fact throughout the book Continue reading

The Able Disabled

I’ve just finished reading the Huffington Post article Virginia To Compensate Victims of Forced Sterilization. This particular paragraph stirred up the most emotions in me:

“The Virginia eugenics law was upheld in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the majority, famously declared: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (paragraph 16)

disabled (adj.)
(of a person) having a physical or mental condition that limits movements, senses, or activities (Google)

It sickens me that people would think people with “disabilities” are any less than people without “disabilities”. What right do you have to look down on people who are overcoming obstacles in their daily lives that you never have to go through? Besides, the truth is, we all have “disabilities”, and many of us have much moremonalisaducklips serious problems than those whom we label “disabled”. For me, the girl who is obsessed with taking 999 selfies every day is more blind than a person with eyes that cannot see. Her mental condition (self-centeredness, vanity) limits her senses of true beauty and her ability to love herself and others despite their appearance. People who cannot view “disabled people” as people of value have more “disabilities” in their thinking than all those people they look down upon. Continue reading

Diaries and Mirrors

It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film, like some primitive organism that somehow nourishes itself by devouring itself, growing as it diminishes. … It’s a little like looking into a mirror and trying to see what you look like when you’re not really looking at your own reflection. –Ross McElwee

The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators’ use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling states; the antilinearity; the simultaneous bypassing and stalking of artifice-making machinery; the absolute seriousness, phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices. –David Shields, Reality Hunger

The line between field report and self-portrait is constantly stepped over again and again in Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. McElwee’s life experiences becomes the audience’s entertainment, his own thoughts narrating the story for us. One would expect a documentary that strives for objectivity and reporting accurate facts at first glance of the title Sherman’s March. But McElwee surprises his audience by making the documentary almost a personal diary, by openly sharing his struggles, his parents’ expectations and the pressure they put on him, and his feelings towards the women he sees along his journey.

And yet Ross describes the experience similar to “looking into a mirror and trying to see what you look like when you’re not really looking at your own reflection”. Although he turns the camera on himself during the whole movie, he becomes alienated with himself. Filming self becomes more haunting than filming others, because one suddenly becomes the audience of himself too. And suddenly, the idea of self becomes uncanny.

It’s a unique experience watching McElwee create what he does not expect to create. How often do we create something totally different from what we intended? I know that’s happened to me a couple of times. When I write down my thoughts, I’m still in the process of processing my own thoughts, so as I write I’m still discovering new ideas that I didn’t know I had in my mind. I wonder whether this is the same with McElwee’s filming experience, whether he felt as if he were “looking into a mirror and trying to see what [he looked] like when [he wasn’t] really looking at [his] own reflection” because he saw so many things he did not recognize. “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film” indicates how McElwee’s filming shaped his life while simultaneously his life was shaping the film. Is he the potter or the clay? This blur between self and the object of the filmmaking seems to be what makes McElwee’s movie so intriguing.

 

Chasing Truth

(In the spirit of Valentines Day…)

“What’s the most important thing in a relationship?”

Many people would agree that the answer is trust, or honesty. Interestingly, the same answer could be given when “relationship” refers to the relationship between an author and his audience. If we did not believe in what the author is saying, why even bother to read or listen to what he has to say? This does not only go with nonfiction, I speak for fiction works too. By “believing in the author” I don’t mean believing that the author is telling facts or giving us an unbiased reality. What I mean is that the audience believes that the author is being honest, that the author has a message he believes in that he wants to convey.

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#sellingoutortellingtruth?

I find it right for Didion to deny that she is a “camera eye”. To me, she is more like Instagram. In fact, all authors of creative nonfiction are in one way or another photo-editing apps. The camera can fix its lens upon the same scene, yet by adding a filter, adjusting colors and contrast, blurring and sharpening certain parts of the photo, maybe even cropping out some parts…the same original photo suddenly has a ton of different possible outcomes, leading the viewer to interpret the photo in vastly different ways.The writer edits the photo according to what they believe and the message they desire to convey. Literary devices act as the different functions in the application; irony might be Brannan, metaphors might be Mayfair, the hashtags and heightened contrast and saturation may act as more obvious hints to Didion’s main thoughts about her topic of writing…and she shares her view with the world by “posting” it.

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