Thursday, July 28, 2011

Multicultural Kidlit: A Case for Not Explaining Yourself

To 'splain yourself, or not to 'splain yourself.

Ah, that is the question.

For authors of children's literature commonly called "multicultural", the issue is often one that's front and center.

From agents who say "Oh, I'd like to learn more about that custom/ritual/holiday."

From editors who urge, "Draw out the protagonist's cultural conflict."

From fellow writers who say, "But this passage is so esoteric, isn't it?."

And of course, the job of a writer is to draw a reader into a world - whatever that world's culture, history, time and space - certainly not shut readers out or make readers so preoccupied with what they do not know that they cannot go along for the plot's ride along with the protagonist.

Yet, some of the best 'multicultural' books I've ever read don't always explain. In fact, the authors sometimes don't explain on purpose.

Take Salman Rushdie, whose novels first taught me that Indian expressions, inside jokes and cultural nuances could be sprinkled liberally through a novel without remorse. Rushdie even plays fast and loose with cross-cultural grammar. Indian suffixes like an honorific -ji are added wily-nily:  "Auntie-ji" "Uncle-ji"; alternately, Indian words are given Anglicized endings like "chutney-fication." Indian patterns of speech, like repeating and rhyming a word pop up all over the place: "writing-shiting." Film references and 'insider' jokes abound - some of which I, as an Indian American, catch and some of which I don't. But in the end, it doesn't matter. His worlds are so rich and nuanced that I happily enter them, giving in to the atmosphere, the world-building, the linguistic high-jinks, and of course, the plot's ride.

But what about children's novels? Aren't they held to a different standard? Are the same practices that seem erudite and the signifiers of a global sophisticate just downright unfair in a novel for young people? Don't we need to explain more lest middle grade and teen readers get confused, angry, turned off, or worse still, bored?

I'm not so sure. Take my son, an avid reader 8yo, who, a couple of weeks ago, said to me:

Son: "Mom, that was a huge kwi-wee at the airport yesterday, wasn't it?"

Me: "A what?"

Son: "A long kwi-we. You know, Q-U-E-U-E."

Of course, I had to explain that the word, no matter how it looked, was actually pronounced "cue." To which, he said "well, that's silly."

But beyond that moment of cuteness, my actual point here is that, as a huge Harry Potter fan, my son obviously read the word somewhere in one of J.K. Rowling's books. And although he's never heard it in his day to day life, he was able to pick up the meaning from the context. And more importantly, it didn't bother him. Not. One. Whit.

And what I've learned, at least about my son, is this: If the story is good, he will go. Even if he doesn't pick up on every sign post along the way. (I blogged a while ago about him missing, totally, the few pages about menstruation in Lisa Yee's delightful Millicent Min Girl Genius. Did I stress about those pages, unnecessarily? Yes. Did it bother my son not to get what Yee was talking about there? Nope, not at all. It remains one of his all time favorite books.)

I just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor's delightful, imaginative and magical Akata Witch, which is set  firmly in the soil, context and often, language of Nigeria. Yet, Okorafor skillfully makes plenty of room for the non-Nigerian reader by creating characters who are themselves "in between." - one American boy and one Nigerian girl who was raised in the U.S. before returning to Nigeria again. (she's in between in other fascinating ways too, but I'll let you read the book to find out) 

There were pieces of culture and context that I loved learning about - but there were plenty of things I'm sure I didn't catch. Only, I was so occupied following the characters and exciting plot, that I honestly didn't notice. Instead, I felt pulled in - as if I was wading through the river of Okorafor's imagination - and it didn't really matter if I didn't know the river's name, I got the other side (and felt the rush and wet and pull of the water) just the same.

Explaining too little or too much is of course a fine balancing act. I'm sure each reader's tolerance for "not getting something" is a little different. And I'm definitely sure that our cultural tolerance for being "outsiders" to another's cultural nuances has changed drastically over time. But ultimately, good novels aren't anthropological treatises on far away cultures - they are doorways into characters' lives and stories. And like Alice down her rabbit hole, readers don't always have to understand every spectacular sight in a new place to appreciate the journey.

What are your favorite novels that introduced you to new worlds? Did they 'splain, or just let you dive into, as Rushdie would say, their stream of stories?


  1. Like you son, I also stumbled on a word with "q" as part of it - mine was Anti-Kay (antique).

    In this day and age, my vote is draw the child into the story and don't do a lot of explaining. If something isn't clear in the book and the child wants to know, and the parent can't explain, look it up on the Internet.

  2. Dune. It's not a real-culture non-explainer, but the fact that the futuristic, galactic difference was never addressed and just ploughed through enthused me enormously when I first read it in my teens.

    Akata Witch just went on my reading list.

  3. @Beverly - thanks for your comment! (Anti-Kay, a classic). I also like your point about just looking things up.

    @Claire - absolutely! put Akata Witch on your list - it was imaginative, wild, lovely! I'm actually going to go get her grown up novel "Who fears Death" out of the library today!

  4. I am presently reading a book about "chanakya, the king". Initially I was tempted to research to understand the line of track better. But instead I let the story reveal itself to me. And I loved it better this way. :) I like it when they "let the reader dive into it" :) the story is better that way. :)

  5. thanks for the comment and the visit Srinidhi! I do think it's a different kind of attitude toward reading when we as readers don't think we should (or can) immediately understand each and every nuance - particularly about an environment not our own