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.

The Cultural Essay: What is “culture” anyway?

This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately.

This semester, I’ve taken on several projects which have necessitated a lot of self exploration. Through this exploration, I’ve been forced to come face to face with questions concerning identity. As a biracial woman, I’ve found myself either occupying multiple, seemingly conflicting, cultures, or completely culture-less. Until I realized, do I even really know what culture is?

Merriam-Webster offers six definitions of the word “culture” (many of them containing sub-definitions). Most intriguing when considering what this word might mean for us as writers thinking about the cultural essay is:

a :  the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

b :  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time popular culture Southern culture

c :  the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization a corporate culture focused on the bottom line

d :  the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

By this definition, culture has many forms. For example, I may belong to vegan culture, to liberal arts college culture, to undergrad creative writing major culture, as much as I do to deeper seeded cultures. While, of course, cultures that are based in racial or geographic sharing are richer, having had years to cultivate and being informed by layers upon layers of complex history, these smaller now cultures have a richness of their own, and still inform our lives the way they can inform our writing.

If you’re like me, you may be sighing with relief, I do have a culture.  This is a common concern particularly for those who identify as white. While I do not identify as white, I grew up in a majority-white town, in an all-white family. So, culturally, I’m pretty white. But what does that mean? How many times have we heard “white people have no culture?” I won’t attempt to unpack that statement, because there is a lot there. I just want to point out that culture need not only be identified by race, so if you’re feeling culture-less, you’re not.

Now that we’re one step closer to understanding what culture might mean, how do we write about the cultures to which we belong, how do we turn them into an essay? This is where things get complicated… I think we already are. The small cultures to which we belong are the things that make us unique, that give us something to write about. For example, I belong to small town culture, more specifically small town Western New York culture, and this was the backbone of my piece “High Speed.” I also belong to a culture of college students who know how to cook, and this informed my piece “Tastes Like Darkness.” Yet, these were not cultural essays.

The cultural essay is defined as “a writer’s intellectual and emotional engagement with a certain aspect or artifact of a particular culture, which involves the writer’s first-hand experiences, thoughts, and insights. 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.

As Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg claim in The Fourth Genre (2nd ed.), ‘Including this personal voice in cultural criticism surrenders some of the authority–or the pretense of authority–generally found in academic writing, but substitutes for it the authority of apparent candor or personal honesty” (xxv), the voice that expresses the writer’s candid opinion on the cultural issue is what divides the subgenre from the academic critique.'”

So, what seems to truly define the cultural essay is less the culture that informs it, but more the voice of the collective, the sense of community promised by this voice. We saw this in Gloria Anzaldúa’s “La Conciencia de la Mestiza,” the way the “I” was used only sparingly in the piece.

Without undermining the importance of writing on and about larger cultures (those based on ethnicity, nationality, etc.), I think it’s particularly important for us, as writers in the age of Trump, to harness and channel the collective voice in our writing, seeing if we can’t explore our own emotional engagement with an aspect of our own particular cultures. Jess’s writing prompt this week asked us to do so, and while I found it really difficult to get started, it became one of the most rewarding writing exercises this semester.

The Relevance of Lyric Journalism

 

The difference between lyric journalism and journalism is a component that allows for lyric journalism to be contemplative about the “bigger picture” and come to some kind of conclusion about the components of life. For example, it’s the difference between saying that the Romanticism Movement was was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.” (thanks Wikipedia) and saying that it was the time where extreme fondness over one’s country and appreciation towards the land it inhabited was born. This in turn complemented other ideas circulating around the time, such as manifest destiny and transcendentalism. Can you tell I’m a fan of Romanticism? 🙂

Then the question arises of how someone can deliver a news story without embellishing it to some extent. Is it possible for someone to give an unbiased definition or fact, without them losing the impact that the story was meant to convey? My answer is that in the political climate that we live in today, with such polarized news sources and thoughts of news becoming fake or an  “alternative fact”, one has to be very careful. If one is meaning to come to a central conclusion or idea, as many examples of lyric journalism do, they must have equal representation of both sides of the coin. Romanticism sadly can’t play a part in this, because it would favor one side. 🙁

Another obstacle that faces lyric journalism is that of whether or not the idea that is being pulled out is the idea that was intended to be emphasized.

An example of making a story more than what it was would be the scandal in 2015 with Brian Williams being suspended for embellishing his story, so as to make it seem more interesting to listeners:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/nbc-news-finds-brian-williams-embellished-at-least-11-times/2015/04/25/467e7c74-eafb-11e4-9767-6276fc9b0ada_story.html?utm_term=.5dd8b3abb22f

I find myself guilty of this, as I focus on only one thread of a story, so as to not bore anyone or create a general, sweeping narrative. In this way, a braided essay might do more to  encapsulate the entire story in terms of writing style. I think that as students interested in the creative non-fiction craft, we should be especially careful in making sure that whatever we intend on saying in our lyric journalism essays are also doing justice to what actually happened. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk addresses this in her speech, as she warns viewers about the dangers of a single story, and how it impacted her development as a child. She speaks of reading European children’s books in her homeland in Africa and noticing their tendency to not include diversity in the cultures they portrayed. (If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so! –>  https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story )

So to tie in all of the things I’ve thrown around, lyric journalism is a way to turn a news story into something of an introspective informative essay. But one should be careful not to embellish the story so as to make it sound better, and to not fall into the trap of a “single story”, and do more to include more holistic aspects of the subject matter. With lyric journalism, we have the power to reiterate a story, but in a way that can capture the reader’s attention.

 

“In the Defense of Facts” and Lyric Journalism

The term “lyric journalism” is a rather fresh term in the world of creative non-fiction, and like other subgenres, carries with it controversy regarding what comprises “fact” and “fiction.” Creator of the term, Peter Trachtenberg, is an associate professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, and is dedicated to instructing his students on how to detect the difference between true and false stories in all genres of writing and communication, including creative nonfiction, fiction, and even politics and the media. Trachtenberg defines lyric journalism as, “work that combines hard research and reporting with a fluid, associative narrative.” Lyric journalism embodies a fusion of facts, as found in traditional public essays, and story, as found in more descriptive, personal narratives.

Knowing this, how much liberty does lyric journalism allow a writer when addressing fact? In other words, how does the lyric essay handle the role of fact?

To tackle this question, I turned to criticism of the work of John D’Agata and his work itself, including a reading for this week, excerpts from his piece “2003,” which directly speaks on the lyric essay. The controversy surrounding D’Agata’s work can be seen quite plainly in the article “In Defense of Facts” by William Deresiewicz, which asserts D’Agata “misrepresents what the essay is and does, [and] falsifies its history.”

To D’Agata, the lyric essay is the push we need to exit postmodernism, and is what happens when “an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” He introduces an intriguing argument that the true role of creative nonfiction should be to focus not on the “knowing”—not on being simply “a delivery system for facts” as it has been in the past—but to focus on the “unknowing”—“in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). In D’Agata’s definition of the lyric essay, the emphasis is placed on blank space, on what the writer doesn’t know, as opposed to what they do. D’Agata questions truth; “what, we ask, is a fact these days? What’s a lie, for that matter? What constitutes an ‘essay’…”

D’Agata’s perspective, which seems to turn our commonly-accepted definitions of what creative nonfiction does, receives flak from critics. The role of the basal nonfiction essay is not to simply relay and preserve fact, as D’Agata asserts, but to develop an argument, critics say. The argument can find support in fact, can rely on it, but can also turn to other forms of backing, such as “anecdote, introspection, or cultural interpretation…what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform,” according to Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz further argues that the genre of nonfiction is much more flexible, broad, and limitless than D’Agata is allowing for in his definition.

Deresiewicz also takes offense in D’Agata’s claim to the definition of an essay–far from the traditional sense–and argues that readers should be warned of the falsity of the lyric essay prior to reading, so that they are aware what they are reading is not an essay, but a trading in of “fact, argument, and assertion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). Accordingly, the fact that the word “essay” is in the title of the subgenre itself is a problem.

However, it seems as though both D’Agata and Deresiewicz are arguing broadly a similar point—creative nonfiction is capable of taking on many forms and serving many purposes, and is, yes, limitless. It can embody D’Agata’s lyric style that reaches into the depths of our unknown thoughts, or lean more towards Deresiewicz’s argument-based narrative, or any combination there between. The controversy comes, then, in the role of creative nonfiction–not its physical appearance or definition–and therefore, the concept of truth.

Citations:

D’Agata, John. The next American Essay. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2003. Print.
Deresiewicz, William. “In Defense of Facts.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10
Dec. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
“Peter Trachtenberg.” Peter Trachtenberg | Writing. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

Braiding Identity and “A Short Essay on Being”

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the braided essay is “broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one ‘thread’ to another.”

I find this definition limiting, especially due to the fact that our primary reading from Stephen Church, and a new piece I’ve read, “A Short Essay on Being” by Jenny Boully, do not fit into this form. Both of these essays do not attempt to spatially remove themselves from other parts of the narrative on the page: rather, this happens in the prose. In Boully’s essay especially, the braiding happens not only in different paragraphs but also throughout sentences, due to the almost stream-of-consciousness pacing of the piece.

Like the narrator’s identity, this braided work is a hodge-podge of confusions and contemplations on identity, and is as complex as the abstract concept itself. This “Short Essay on Being” seems to tell us that being is not as simple as it sounds, especially when you are a minority in the United States where prying people try not only to coax you to reveal where you’re “from,” but also try to tell you about your identity after they’ve heard the answer they wanted.

The essay moves in between narratives of the own narrator’s understanding of her Thai identity, which is frequently compared to her knowledge of pot Thai. The piece starts off with the etymology of the English word, “pad,” and Boully spells out for us that: “A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start.” Her grad school friend corrects her pronunciation of “pot Thai” to “pad Thai,” and the Thai-raised narrator “thanked her for correcting me,” as is the Thai way.

We don’t learn until later in the essay that the reason the narrator pronounces pot Thai in this way is because for her, “The quick and sharp way that you say ‘fried’ in Thai is more like ‘pot’ when spoken quickly in English than ‘pad.’” Yet, as seen through various threads in the essay, friends and strangers are constantly trying to explain to her the right way the right way to be Thai, and the right way to pronounce her own culture’s food.

This piece is braided because it works with the complex and messy trappings of the narrator’s identity: one that is constantly fluctuating between what she knows about her identity and what others are telling her, juxtaposed between insider and outsider narratives, like the comparison of a Chicagoan Thai shop owner to the grad school friends that speak of Thai tourist traps as if they understand the culture. The essay moves between the foods and the flavors of her and her mother’s home cooking, to the syrupy, artificially-crafted food narratives of “Thai” restaurants in Brooklyn and the oft-feigned dietary needs of grad school friends. Like the narrator, the essay lives in many different worlds, but coexists formally in one experience.

“A Short Essay on Being” shows us how form can, truly, be an extension of content. The way that this experience is formalized in one piece, with multiple threads running into each other with varying levels of pacing, sentence structure, and mood, shows how we ought to not limit the ways that we envision a braided narrative. Like our lives, a multifaceted narrative on identity shouldn’t constrict itself to the limitations of “sections” and purposeful “white space.” In Boully’s essay, the squashing together of a dozen narratives about a narrator’s life, some of them her own and some of them from others, shows an identity crafted from the inside and outside. It gives us insight on the sublime nature of our complex and human identities, and just how blurry an “identity” can be.

Expression VS Exploitation: Mommie Dearest and Its Impact

Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of the late Academy Award-winning actress Joan Crawford, published a memoir about her experience growing up with a woman she portrayed to be emotionally and physically abusive. She published the book a year after her mother died, and three years later an amped-up, overdramatic movie based on the memoir would be released, permanently going hand and hand with Joan Crawford’s reputation just after she was no longer allowed to defend herself.

While the claims Christina Crawford makes against her mother can only be validated by members of the household, two of her adopted siblings have protested against the book’s contents. One of the aforementioned siblings, Cathy LaLonde, went so far as to sue over what she deemed to be blatantly false statements that Christina Crawford had made whilst promoting a new edition of her book.

The issue that I personally take with Mommie Dearest is that it is written with such clear contempt, in a tone that is meant to make the reader want to delve further and further into this hidden Hollywood scandal. Christina Crawford did not show this book to her mother, which is not necessarily required, but in order for a narrator to be reliable, in my opinion, they need to have a certain amount of respect for people whose private moments they will be using in order to further their narrative. The narrator doesn’t need to have forgiven the antagonistic person upon writing the piece, however they ought not delve into the territory of completely slandering a person; nuances are more realistic and more believable and should be included, even if it makes an antagonistic character seem sympathetic when the narrator still hasn’t forgiven them.

A more in-depth look at more incidents involving accuracy among the Crawford family as well as the result of a 1999 court case that Cathy LaLonde filed against Christina Crawford can be found here.

Memoir As Truth-Telling: Orange is the New Black

We’re all aware of the popular Netflix drama, Orange is the New Black, but how many people were interested in the real memoir by Piper Kerman, which the series is based on?  If you look at the book’s sales after the show aired, you can see that Kerman did well for herself telling the stories of “Litchfield”‘s inmates.  The show itself has been lauded for its representation of women from all different cultures, backgrounds, and circumstances and the steps which led them to incarceration.  However, the representation of one particular inmate–Kerman/Chapman’s lover and the reason for her downfall, Alex Vause–has led her real-life persona to write her own version of what happened.

Cleary Wolters, Alex Vause’s inspiration and the alleged lockup lover of Kerman/Chapman, claims that in reality, she and Kerman never had sex in prison.  She also claims that her real-life experience is vastly different than what is portrayed in the Netflix series, so much so that she decided to write Out of Orange: A Memoir to clear up some misconceptions about her involvement in Kerman’s narrative.

According to Wolters, she and Kerman were only ever in the same facility for five weeks, when they were brought together to testify against someone else involved in their case.  In the Vanity Fair article, she says “‘We were ghosts of the humans we had once been, milling about amongst hundreds of other human ghosts, shackled and chained, prodded through transport centers at gunpoint, moved through holding facilities.'”  She also claims that, when the two were shackled together on the flight to the hearing, “Kerman refused to even speak to her.”

In this week’s reading from Joy Castro’s Family Trouble, Castro and other authors of memoir discuss the importance of balancing the truth of your story with the privacy of others, and I think that this issue is one of the most recognizable instances of someone involved in another author’s narrative taking that narrative and re-writing it to fit their truth.  Just as Lorraine López describes her sister’s response to her memoir about their childhood, which is to write her own account of the story, I think that Wolters’ decision to challenge Kerman’s narrative and lay it all out there for the reader to decide is immensely brave.  I’m really interested to read both memoirs side-by-side and gleaning what I can from them.

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Controversy in Memoir

I’ve just read about the controversy surrounding Lena Dunham’s essay collection, “Not That Kind of Girl” which was released in fall of 2014. To outline, Dunham had written in great detail about the personality characteristics and appearance of an assailant in an alleged college sexual assault, named Barry. She wrote of him as Oberlin’s “resident conservative” which proved problematic because there was a prominent conservative named Barry who attended Oberlin at the same time as Dunham. Due to confusion surrounding the status of Barry as a pseudonym, Dunham’s writing on the hot-button topic quickly ballooned, making its way into articles on Breitbart and blog posts on the Washington Post. The blog post was written by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, titled, “Could ‘Barry’ sue Lena Dunham over her memoirs?”

In a BuzzFeed post, Dunham claimed that “Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun,” and shortly afterwards, other authors came to her defense.

Mary Karr, author of both “The Liar’s Club” and “The Art of Memoir” said “The woman can’t do anything without people cashing in on her celebrity by kicking her butt in print. She’s the victim here. I am horrified by the hounds of hell running after her. This is another assault on a feminist who dares to succeed.”


I found myself in somewhat agreement with Karr, mostly on Dunham’s side. While I absolutely do not believe Dunham should face legal action considering the crime she was a victim of is much more heinous, I find myself wondering about the honest reality of the situation. Why wouldn’t she have made a clearly stated pseudonym for the assailant’s character as she had for others in the work? At the end of the day I consider this controversy to be an important, somewhat hair-raising example of what can happen to a memoirist who fails to properly vet their work, either by circulating it to relevant characters beforehand or significantly changing names and details.

Sourced for further reading

Content and Form are Soulmates in the Hermit Crab Essay

“In her essay ‘The Pain Scale,’ Eula Biss uses the form of the pain scale—which attempts to measure one’s pain on a scale of 0 to 10—as a way to structure a highly complex piece that explores not only the nature of pain, but the many different ways we try to measure the immeasurable. In this way, the form itself adds meaning to the piece.” ~ Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, in their textbook “Tell it Slant,” the origin of the term “hermit crab essay”

We’ve all encountered this type of essay: a writer takes some sort of unexpected, often visually appealing form and conjoins it with her own content. When it’s done right, the results are spectacular, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The content itself is freed from conventions that are expected to accompany a piece of creative nonfiction writing, and may explore uncharted areas of thought. The form can add irony, humor, profundity, enhance the meaning of or engage in dialogue with this content.

Over the past few weeks I’m sure we’ve all been observing how challenging it can be to limit what we have to say to two pages, double spaced, Times New Roman, twelve-point font. So just imagine if half of your argument or your story was told, not explicitly, but through some brave new form which allowed you to further organize your explicit content, chop it down to the bare essentials, move from point to point with bold strokes, and all-around get at what you want to say without all the tarrying that we tend to expect from ourselves and others? How much precious space could we save by writing every weekly exercise as a hermit crab essay?

Well here’s the thing, the thing that I’ve been picking up from reading about this structure. You can’t just do it. You can’t just do it just to say you did it, you can’t just do it arbitrarily. There needs to be a purpose, and the match between form and content needs to fit like a glass slipper to really nail this. An essay about the various pain that Eula Biss has felt in her life fits into the form of the pain scale like a glove—they enhance one another’s meaning. Biss can compare her pain to recognizable standards, and the pain scale is provided with examples to clarify each level. If I were to write about my broken dishwasher in the form of a travel brochure, well, I could try my damnedest to make it work but I really don’t see that panning out, do you? There has to be a reason why the form and the content are coming together.

So how does one go about this matchmaking business? “When I teach the hermit crab essay class,” writes Brenda Miller, “we begin by brainstorming the many different forms that exist for us to plunder for our own purposes.” The writer who coined and developed (to some extent) this form of essay would have us begin with the form and find the content to suit it. In doing so, she says, we may find ourselves “using our imaginations, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create.” What do you think? Is it easier to think of a form and work from this foundation, or would you rather start with content that you just know would go perfectly with some innovative new form?