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?


  1. I think it's okay if readers don't understand everything.Not everyone gets the same thing from a book with theme and symbolism and things like that, perhaps this is the same kind of thing.

    A glossary is interesting. I've never seen that in a book before.

  2. Cath, I get what you are saying but I worry that this is more like some readers not having all the facts. If that makes sense.

  3. I think the seed of the feeling is what's crucial to plant in the reader's mind, not the specifics. I love the passage you quoted and can really feel the antipathy of the mother for her son's choice. You're absolutely right that it would deviate too much from the narrative to explain any further.

    I understand the dilemma and completely get what you're saying, though. You want to relay all the layers and subtleties to your readers. But I think the cost to the pacing and flow of the scene might be greater than any small insights gained.

    It's situations like this where we can envy non-fiction writers! :)

    (Sorry I'm so late to this!! I've been so utterly behind lately. Bah.)

  4. I do think there is a way to inform the reader without 'explaining'. If it begins to feel like you are explaining then it loses the feel of fiction. On the other hand, you can put into the fiction somehow, via dialogue or some other creative way, then the reader gets more of an understanding of that distant culture by proxy. But like Sarah said, the seed of feeling is the most important focus.

  5. Sarah, I think you're right. That the seed is important. And you don't want to lose the flow. And certainly, as Cat suggests in her comment, there are ways to work the information in. This started as a small point in a short story, but the family there has become part of my next novel (think Venn Diagram! ;) ) and so it could be flushed out more, there. But for this specific paragraph, that was as much as there was going to be.

    This all has me thinking about how this post concerns itself with the non-Indian/Pakistani and/or non-Muslim reader. Of course, much of multicultural fiction is consumed by non-minority Americans. But also maybe it is nice, too, when someone from the written-about community gets to have that deeper meaning. Like when Aniket noticed the sitting on the couch thing. Maybe that's okay.

    Thanks, as always, for your preternaturally thoughtful comments. Sorry it took me so long to reply. Tough weekend.

  6. Cat, exactly! I have read books that "lose the feel of fiction"--what a great way to put it. It should be seamless. In fact, I think it has to be.

    Thanks for commenting, and sorry, also, for taking so long to reply!

  7. When I first read your paragraph, I thought it was totally fine. Then, when I read your expanded discussion of the topic, I found it to be really interesting. That's almost always my criterion for deciding whether or not I should include something in a story. If it's interesting, I try to get it in. Once you make that decision, I do think Cat's comment is important. The challenge involves figuring out how to present the information in a way that doesn't disrupt the fiction. It may be that if you expanded on this, it would stick out. Then, expanding on other sections might make it blend in more. Proust explains so much of these nuances. He does it so consistently that the flow comes back, but it's a different flow.

  8. Davin, my first thought was, oh yeah, I'll just do what Proust does. :)

    But seriously, I like your "is it interesting" test. I do think this is, as well, but in the short story Farhan is a minor character and his relationship with his mother is not fleshed out. It's mentioned just to further show that Nikhat is difficult. BUT because I'm pillaging the story for a novel, I do think it will be easier to expand on it.

    Thanks for your input. I appreciate it, especially given your own multicultural fiction.

  9. I am cracking up at the "I'll just do what Proust does" remark. :-) Easy Peasy, right?

    I think, although I could be wrong, you weren't really concerned about this actual sentence, but the idea in general. I think Domey and Catvibe have it just about right. If it's interesting and significant, find a way to work it in.

    I do NOT think you should need a glossary to read a novel. Then what is the point of including the foreign words? Just to give it authenticity? If you can't get a good enough idea from context, it just seems showy. Or something.

  10. The way it is written, to me, is obvious there is tension going on without understanding the nuances of what "lentil eater" really means.

    However, I saw one time in a book (and I wish I could remember which one it was), the author had put an afterword in. It wasn't a glossary like you mentioned, more of an explanation of some of the subtle culture things that he didn't want people to miss if they cared. It was a nice "take it or leave it" section. The book worked with or without the section, but was really wonderful for the readers who wanted to go deeper.

    I thought it was a nice touch.

  11. You know who, I get what you are saying. I think the reason for the foreign words is that sometimes there isn't an English word that means the exact same thing. Take a gharara for instance. It's a formal, usually heavy silk outfit with wide legs that flare out at the skirt, giving it the appearance of a full skirt and a hip-length shirt. It is standard Pakistani bridal wear. When one appears in my fiction, I first refer to it by its name, often with some description of color, etc. and later alternate with "outfit" or "dress."

    I also often use the names of food, again with a description, although I will use things like "spiced meats" or "curried vegetables."

    So I do see why writers use the exact term--for accuracy--but I also think there has to be some description. Even just a hint.

  12. Wendy, I like the idea of that. Something there that people can access if they want, but which isn't necessary for understanding the story.

    I wonder what will happen when e-books become more interactive. If this might become moot. If you don't understand a term or concept, I bet there will be links and descriptions and pictures available by a simple click. Then the challenge will be to not rely on such devices but still tell an accessible story that could stand alone.

    Thanks for visiting!

  13. I am ok with not getting it all. Precisely because I don't want to lose the energy of fiction and the momentum/pacing. I feel like readers will "absorb" some by osmosis being in the environment.

    I wrote a book called Freudian Slip, which can be read as romantic comedy. There is also enough religious discussion in there, PHYSICS, and philosophy, characters who are Sikhs and characters who know what the uncertainty principle is . . . that I think a religious scholar could debate elements. Single lines with hints of huge Biblical discussions and Buddhist philosophy. But all that is just the immersion liquid and the story is what is front and center, and if the average reader doesn't get a single reference, I don't know that it matters. But I got fan mail from people who got EVERY reference and were excited to discuss it.

    None of us can control what our readers bring to the table, and I'm not sure we have to write so expansively to reach all of them for everything.

  14. Erica, first of all, you know that Freudian Slip is on the iPad in my to be read "pile," right? And now, with your comment here, I'm going to have to get to it asap!

    Somehow, your comment is liberating. You're abolutely right--we cannot control for what Every Possible Reader might bring to a novel or get from it. I may want everyone to have perfect information, but that's just the control freak in me.

    Let it be. ;)

  15. JA:
    So cool that you are going to read it. :-)


  16. Erica, awesome first chapter!! Now I have to move it up in my e-stack!! :)