Got Some Explaining to Do?

Multicultural fiction tends to be full of italicized foreign words and unfamiliar cultural practices. I'm wondering how much of it the author should explain.

Recently, I wrote a story that includes a Muslim character who happens to be a vegetarian. (I've also written a flash piece that includes a  non-Muslim vegetarian son-in-law. Hmmm...can you tell I'm a vegetarian?)

It is somewhat unusual for Muslims to be vegetarians. I am, in fact, the only one I know personally.  In the first story, I wanted to convey the mother's antipathy for her son's (college angst-inspired) dietary choice. I mentioned that she referred to him a dal khor. But because I knew that most readers would be unfamiliar with the term, I translated it in the text like this:

                      "He did not mention the plastic containers filled with curried meats that Nikhat
                       had packed in the freezer before she left, or that his wife referred to Farhan as
                       a dal khor, a lentil eater, behind his back."

I trust readers to understand that "lentil eater" means vegetarian. But I don't know how many people will understand that it is an insult aimed at South Asians implying that only poor, rural people eat lentils. I also don't know how many people will understand why vegetarianism would be offensive to this mother--that her condemnation takes place in the context of the conflict between Muslims and Hindus in South Asia.  Hindus are often vegetarians and Muslims eat halal meat.  For her son to adopt what she sees as a Hindu dietary practice is, in her mind, unacceptable.

Does it matter if all of that is lost on some  readers?  Is it enough to know that the mother is unhappy with her son's choice? I'm not sure. In this case, I think it would disrupt the narrative to flesh it out more fully. But I do acknowledge that something--some shade of deeper meaning, some insight into the characters' history/world view--is lost by not knowing exactly what the mother means.

A lot can be gleaned from context. Still, I just finished a  novel by an Indian writer who included a glossary of terms at the end of her book, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it's probably helpful. On the other, it's almost like needing a footnote. (Secretly,  I would love to footnote some of my work.) 

But isn't it my job to write fiction that doesn't need footnotes?

Or is it okay if different readers access the narrative on different levels?

So Not Her Fault

I'm a terrible speller. Embarrassing admission for a writer, I know.  My brother, who happens to be an architect, apparently inherited the good spelling genes. He is the kind of person who comes up with the 100-point, triple word score Scrabble words. Frequently. He is also the one who, during my turn, will say things like, "Shouldn't you be better at this?"

I think the spelling problem comes from the fact that I am very phonetic. And the English language, often, is not. When I was eleven I finished a book and announced to my family that I loved the main character's name and planned to use it for my future daughter. My mom asked what the name was. I said, "Fobe."  With more incredulity than was perhaps called for, she said, "Fobe?"  I said, "Yes, Fobe," and showed her the book. 

It was, of course, Phoebe.  Fee Bee. (Imagine the fun we all had when one of my best friends in college was  named Phoebe.  My entire family still calls her Fobe.)

My mother is visiting, and yesterday she and my ten-year-old daughter were playing Trivial Pursuit.  I overheard my daughter ask my mother to name the "73 year old family parakeet who died after a 100 foot fall in  1978." There was a lengthy discussion as my mother tried to make sense of the question.

My mother:  A parakeet?

My daughter:  Yes.

My mother: Who fell a hundred feet.

My daughter:  Yes.

My mother:  And was 73 years old?  Do they get that old?

My daughter: (shrugs)

My mother:  It must have belonged to a famous family.

And so on.

Finally, my mother makes a random guess.  My daughter says, "Nope. It was Karl Wallenda."

My mother:  What? (takes card) (laughs)

Me:  What?

My mother:  It doesn't say "parakeet." It says patriarch."  Seventy-three year old patriarch."

Of course.  My little Mini-Me. I couldn't love her more.

Telling Secrets

Recently, I watched the indie film "Mooz-lum," written and directed by Qasim Basir. It is the coming of age story of a Muslim American college freshman, set against his strict upbringing (told in flashbacks) and the events of 9/11. The film is compelling, although not exactly subtle. For me, the characters weren't as nuanced as they could have been--the good Muslims were really good and the bad non-Muslims were really bad. 

(Of course, then I thought about a spectacularly warm and generous Muslim woman I know who founded a community service organization, and about Glenn Beck. Possibly, I thought, possibly Mr. Basir has a point.)

What struck me most about "Mooz-lum," was the portrayal of the bad Muslim character, a  teacher at the Islamic school the boy's father forced him to attend. And by forced I mean that his parents got divorced over it.  This teacher beat the boy savagely for talking to a girl and for sneaking out to trick or treat. And by beat, I mean lashed. A lot.

It wasn't the lack of nuance in that  (despicable) character that struck me, but the fact that  Mr. Basir, who has admitted that the film is partly autobiographical  rendered such a portrayal at all. He was asked about that choice in an interview on NPR.  About why, in a political climate that often demonizes Muslims, he went there.

Mr. Basir's response?  He wanted to tell an honest story.

There are people who would disagree, who think that to air a community's dirty laundry is to work a treason against that community. Or those who think that it can be told, but just, please, not right now.

Those people probably wouldn't like the novel I'm currently querying.  Which, by the way, I think of as a positive portrayal of a couple of strong, modern Muslim American women. Unlike many media depictions, they are actors in their lives and not victims.

Still, I got some not entirely unexpected feedback. "It's like you're telling secrets," one person said in response to Chapter 11. And even though I understood the comment--the chapter includes a scene at a mosque where some conservative people chastise one of my characters--all I could think is wait until you get to Chapter 44.

I understand the impulse to prevent piling on and the fear that people will only focus the bad, and ignore the good. I get that.  But to pen something that only shows the good--in a person or a community or a country--is not a novel.  It's propaganda.

And who wants to read that?

Sometimes the Best Books Are Hard to Live With

I'm not going to blog. I'm not going to blog. I'M NOT GOING TO BLOG.

Except, this.

It is, I think, impossible to read a book like Mudbound and not say something about it to as many people as humanly possible. Even though I couldn't talk for a long time after I finished it, and not just because I was sobbing. There was also the anger. At the friend who recommended it. At the other friend who didn't warn me strongly enough. At the author for subjecting me to it.

At the knowledge that so much of it was so very far from fiction.

I don't usually contact writers. Oh, sure, there was that impulsive little email to Rick Reilly, formerly of Sports Illustrated, currently of ESPN. (I think.) He used to write a column on the last page of SI that pretended to be about sports but was really about the human condition, about the best, most generous parts of ourselves. I would take my husband's issue, skip over pictures of basketball players in improbable flight or women in impossibly small swimsuits,  flip to the back, and read. And get choked up. Eventually, I wrote to Mr. Reilly to tell him that this feminist, vegetarian, mother, lawyer, writer, girly-girl non-sports reader bought her own fricking subscription when her husband's expired, just so she could read his column.

And then there was the comment for Alexander Chee, author of Edinburghleft on his mind-blowing  blog Koreanish. A small note to say I'm still haunted by Fee. (I will never forget Fee's observation that the survivor gets to tell the story. It was the first time I was forced to consider whether it's a good thing to get to tell the story.)

Which brings us to the outrageously talented Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound. Here is what I wrote in a recent email (redacted to avoid spoilers):

Dear Ms. Jordan,
I am, of course, late to the game with Mudbound, having just finished it a few weeks ago, even though it was recommended to me much earlier. I think it was the way my friend said, "I loved it, but there were parts that were hard to read."  Lots of books have parts that are hard to read; I knew she meant something qualitatively different with your book.
Your writing is beautiful and your story is compelling. But when I put the book down, I burst into tears and called my friend to tell her that she should have warned me.  She said that she did.  I said, no, what I meant is that she shouldn't have let me read it at all, because I didn't know how to live with it.
I am the white mother of an adopted African American son. I studied African American history at Smith College and Civil Rights at Georgetown Law School. I know something about the history of race in this country and still, you brought it home again and again and again. People need to read your book. I needed to read your book, even though I had so much to mourn when I finished.  XXXXX.   I could mourn what happened to XXXXX  for the rest of my life.
All I am trying to say is that your book moved me more than any book I can remember reading in a long time. And I just wanted to thank you for writing it.
She sent a lovely reply in which she mentioned work on a new, related novel that filled me with hope  and anticipation and which I will read in one sitting when it comes out, no matter what.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you haven't read Mudbound you should.

 For what it's worth, I sort of think you have to.