Does your writing transcend culture?

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I thought I was a global person but it turns out I’m not …

My novel As the Heart Bones Break is making its debut globally at Singapore Writer’s Festival in November. Well, almost globally. Singapore based international publisher Marshall Cavendish has the rights to everywhere except North America.

I’m a global Asian. Jennifer’s Asian-American. The book, written in the 2nd person, is about a conflicted Vietnamese man and what happens when his American Vietnamese wife discovers he’s been a Viet Cong agent all-along. Jennifer, based in New York, thought that it should be represented in North America by a US publisher, and so she’s been marketing it separately there.

Well, we’ve been getting feedback. Interesting feedback

I’ve just discovered what I didn’t know that I didn’t know!

Here are the pre-release comments I’ve been getting from Asian and Asian-American writers –

——

“Audrey Chin’s expert weaving of this many-layered tale admirably illuminates Vietnam’s complex history. It gives insight into the web of divided loyalties and allegiances, both political and emotional, that blighted the lives of so many people in the fight for independence. This is an absorbing and enlightening book, and a tour de force in storytelling.” Meira Chand, author of 8 novels including Oprah Recommended and IMPAC long-listed A Different Sky (Random House, 2011)

——

“Very promising. Audrey Chin has a storytelling flair and a voice.” Andrew X. Pham, author of Kiriyama Prize winning Catfish and Mandala (Picador 1999) and The Eaves of Heaven (Broadway Books, 2009)

——

“A mesmerizing tale that explores the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, the past and present, and America and Vietnam.” Wendy Lee, author of Happy Family (Grove Press, Black Cat, 2008)

——

“A lyrical journey of self-discovery and identity, Audrey Chin has written a powerhouse of a novel that forces the reader to feel every beat of its thumping heart.” Sung J. Woo, author of Everything Asian (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010)

——

Enough to make one’s head swell a little, no?

But then I started getting comments from my non-Asian readers in North America…

Intriguing story, they said. Nice writing, they said. But… But… But… They just couldn’t get around the 2nd person point of view I was using for the narration.

Here’s a paragraph written in 2nd POV, describing the protagonist stepping off the sidelines and committing himself to the war:

——

“In the moment, though, all you apprehended was that no one was what they seemed — neither policemen nor villa owners. Not a seemingly benevolent Oldest Brother-in-Law. Perhaps not even an admired English tutor or a much looked up to sixth brother or a blood-father. And like them, you too had to create shades of yourself to survive.

You had witnessed a killing and you had taken a life. Whether you liked it or not, you had stained your hands. You had stepped off the sidelines and joined the war.”

——

Apparently all the “you’s” in the narrative were too directive. In America, a greater emotional distance may be needed between the reader and the story, to allow that American reader to make his or her own decisions to relate to the protagonist.

It is true that people in different cultures have different needs for body distance. Asians, especially those in crowded countries like China and Vietnam, I’ve noticed require much less body distance between themselves than Americans. And New Yorkers require a much larger “safe arms length” than Californians.

Now, I’ve learnt, that’s also true of the distance between a narrator in a novel and a reader!

But isn’t a writers’ creation sacrosanct?

What should a writer do? Should she say, “This is my art, be damned!” or should she listen to her readers?

I’m going to say it depends. For me, it’s the story that counts.

I married a Vietnamese boat person whose blood father was indeed an anti-French Viet Minh and whose adopted father was a Chief Clerk on the other side. Married into the Vietnamese diaspora for over 30 years I have come face to face with the conflicts within families in civil wars. Ideology and national interest often intruded into family relationships and hearts, at the expense of all the humans involved.

This is a “truth” in my novel that needs to be told because there are far too many real-life stories out there now about countries getting into civil wars they shouldn’t and interfering in lives they know little or nothing about.
So… to hell with my artistic integrity or whatever!

The Marshall Cavendish endition is coming out in November in 2nd person point of view. But, if I need to change to 1st or 3rd for a better reception in North American, I’m not going to balk at it.

After all, shouldn’t a writer listen to her readers? What’s the point of writing for publication if I’m not read?

So, here’s the same paragraph in 1st person:

——

“In the moment, though, all I apprehended was that no one was what they seemed — neither policemen nor villa owners. Not a seemingly benevolent Oldest Brother-in-Law. Perhaps not even an admired English tutor or a much looked up to sixth brother or a blood-father. And like them, I too had to create shades of myself to survive.

I had witnessed a killing and I had taken a life. Whether I liked it or not, I had stained my hands. I had stepped off the sidelines and joined the war.”

——

Does the point of view shift make a difference? Or does it not matter at all? Let me know, please …. Leave a comment.

Comments
15 Responses to “Does your writing transcend culture?”
  1. Wow Audrey this is an amazing post. I am honoured to be reading your book and must admit it did take some time to get use to the second person point of view, however I think it works if the reader persists and yet I understand your wish to reach the masses who are easily distracted. Which ever way you choose I am sure it will be a success because you weave such a potent tale my friend.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Yes Kath, that was the feedback I got; it takes time to get into the 2nd person view. And, of course, books get sold in the first few minutes of browsing.

      We’ll see how it goes my friend;) Books often take on their own lives between the “close file” and “send” and the editors pink pencil at the publishers.

  2. historyagain says:

    When I was reading As the Heart Bones Break, it flowed naturally and it never occurred to me to question the point of view. Your post brought up some interesting questions about writing for a cross-cultural audience, but I don’t think you should change a thing. I pondered whether changing the point of view would change my enjoyment of the story or my understanding or connection to it. I truly believe that you need to stay true to your voice. I immersed myself in Thong’s internal and external dilemma and cared about him genuinely because the point of view rang true. To change the narration to 1st or 3rd pov would seem to lose some of its personal, immediate history. I absolutely think your book needs to stay the way it is. North Americans don’t need everything adjusted to suit them, let them come to the story the way it was meant to be. The ones who will love it, will love it for itself, and not turn away because they were unfamiliar with the 2nd person pov. You aren’t appealing to the masses anyway, you are appealing to the literate, well-informed reader. If you think about your true audience you will realize that your book appeals on all the right levels and flows in a way it never could if you changed it. Just my opinion – Jay Warner

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Thanks so much for your supportive comments Jay. Yes, this cultural “difference” does highlight a big divided in English language readers and the monetary value of the US market. I guess that’s what the current debate about the Man Booker being expanded outside the Commonwealth arena.

  3. I haven’t read Heart Bones yet, although I plan to. I would like to reserve judgement until I have a chance to read it in the second person. I don’t anticipate having a problem with how it is written, because I am a huge respecter of the author’s license to write the way they want to. I think it was “What is the What,” that was written in several different points of view to great effect, and it is one of my favorite books.

  4. hokhanh25 says:

    Audrey–

    Congratulations on what sounds like a magnificent book. I am humbled that you, so accomplished and remarkable, have been visiting my blog! The “you” device is unusual but does have precedent. Bright Lights, Big City immediately comes to mind. In that novel, the repetition of “you” avoids sounding accusatory or, in your words, “directive.” It takes on a tone that vacillates between the casually conversational and the urgent. BLBC was a smash hit when I was a high school kid in the eighties and much of its appeal was because of the novelty of the second person, which was considered “artistic.” So, I wouldn’t discount second person on account of America’s prejudice against the second person. Maybe you should check it out to see how your handling of it differs. Then, go with your instinct!

    Best,

    Khanh

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Thanks for the heads up on Bright Lights Big City Khanh. I’m checking it out. As for reading your blog … What can I say, the writing caught me! Its really good “hooky” writing. And then, maybe, in my 50+ decade, I’m finally missing LA.

  5. Janelle says:

    I haven’t read it yet, Audrey. This makes me even more interested in it, though. I look forward to it.

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Thanks for being interested Janelle. I know how busy you are with the boys and the pig slaughtering. That sounds like an adventure!
      Anyway, I’ll be sending around a 1st POV soon, so you may have a more engaging version to look at.😉

      • Janelle says:

        It’s chicken-butchering this weekend, Audrey. The pigs will have to wait:) Interesting to me, the difference in tolerance of POV style between different cultures. A challenge for you, for sure.

  6. clara54 says:

    Hi Audrey,
    I’ve always assumed that third person POV was the norm for most writers, until I read a book by some great someone in the 80s who recommended 1st person, followed by third person and lastly, 2nd person. In the end, I can only write what feels comfortable for me and keep it moving:)

    You’re a great writer & I’m a big fan!

    • Audrey Chin says:

      Clara, you’re right most books are in 3rd. But I wrote Learning to Fly in 1st. 2nd is rare. I have read books such but they were in Chinese, an English translation of something Spanish, and then an avant garde American book. My publisher in Singapore said it was more “artsy” which she liked. Anyway, I just want to be read… so whatever makes it easier to read. We may end up with 2 different editions. The 2nd person international one and a !st POV for the US.

      Thanks for the encouragement;)

  7. camsa says:

    Audrey, I loved the 1st person POV you sent me. I could not put the book down until I finished. I am now curious with the 2nd POV. Can you send me that version?

    • Audrey Chin says:

      I am thrilled you love it Cam Sa. I know what a discriminating reader you are. This is a big big compliment. Thanks for spending time with it. 2nd POV has been sent to your email😉

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