Got Some Explaining to Do?
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?