Writing Across Cultures

Writing Across Cultures

At a reading from my collection of short stories last month at a bookstore in Taos, New Mexico, I found myself doing a great deal of explaining at the start. Not that I had decided to appoint myself explainer-in-chief that sunny Saturday afternoon. My reasons were well intentioned. The stories in the collection are set in Delhi, India’s bustling capital city and my audience was mainly made up of New Mexico residents. Because I was keen on setting the stories in context for the audience before reading out from the book, I spent a good 15 minutes on the introduction. I began by sharing a list of figures with the audience so that they would get an idea about the city’s population and imposing size. I also broke down the numbers for them in terms of the income gap between the one percent and the rest of Delhi’s residents. Many stories in the collection explore the stark contrast between the privileged and those living in extreme poverty in contemporary India. I was convinced that the audience, armed with figures, would relate to the stories at a more meaningful level when I got around to reading to them. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

I also took pains to explain the meaning of a handful of Hindi words that make an appearance in the stories in the collection. Foreign language words can be infuriating when you are a part of the audience at a book reading. Unfamiliar sounds leave you stranded. They beg you to interrupt the author and hit the pause button so you can whip out your phone from your pocket and reach out to Google translate for help. Some of the Hindi words in my book were easy enough to explain to the attentive audience; others, loaded as they were with cultural connotations, were harder to translate accurately. The term “saheb” for instance turned out to be a tough one. This word crops up in a story that revolves around a nanny who works for an American couple in Delhi. The young woman addresses her employer as “saheb.” Loosely translated the term means “master.” But the word “master” is a loaded one and I stepped around it gingerly.

All this explaining at the start of the reading made me acutely aware of the challenges involved in writing across cultures. Every writer dreams of reaching out to readers across cultures. We write in the hope that stories seeped in universal human emotions – love, hate, anger, joy, sadness – will cut across barriers and resonate with people everywhere. Readers don’t need handouts from writers about the tangled web relationships weave or the mysterious workings of the human heart before they start turning the pages. A story is a story, no matter which culture it is set in. As long as a work of fiction is well written and engaging, it has the power to draw readers deep into its heart.

No argument there. But it is also true that a certain degree of familiarity with a culture on the reader’s part can help her/him to understand the nuances of a story better. A reader who has a grasp of Japanese history and culture will probably appreciate the symbolism of a story set in Japan more easily than someone who draws a complete blank when it comes to the country’s history and traditions. The connotations of a line of dialogue or a gesture that may escape the latter will not be lost on the former. So does this mean that we writers have little hope of being understood by readers from cultures that are not our own? Should we be tearing out our hair and despairing over the culture divide? Should we tie ourselves into knots trying to explain the nuances of a culture to those who are not familiar with it?

Despair is not a viable option for the writing life. Neither is a surfeit of explanation. It is best to remind ourselves that the writer’s job is to tell the stories that are crying out to be told and to tell them in the best possible way. Forget the culture divide and its discontents. Resist the temptation to offer a barrage of explanations to readers. Write, rewrite, and polish every sentence till it shines. Give characters breathing room. Allow them to evolve at every turn. Stories populated with flesh and blood characters who speak in authentic voices are powerful entities. They are capable of making giant leaps to transcend physical and geographical barriers and reaching out to readers.

Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. She is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins, 2014). Her first novel is in the pipeline. Mokkil’s fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Cha: an Asian Literary Journal, The NorthEast Review, The Missing Slate and Sugar Mule Review.


  1. Wandai Mungoshi says:

    I think that this is a very relevant topic as I have found myself in a similar scenario. Recently I took Creative Writing classes in Newfoundland where I am currently living; and when I began sharing my stories, I found myself in a predicament as I tried to explain Shona words in English to no avail. Some words do not translate in the literal sense. I even had a little glossary at the end, but then in the end I realized that I did not need that glossary, meaning can be drawn without literally translating everything. Great article- I particularly love that “resist the temptation to barrage readers with explanations.”

    • Vineetha Mokkil Vineetha says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Glad to know you found the piece relevant. I completely understand your attempts to explain Shona words to an English speaking audience. As you say, the reader will glean the meaning without literal translations, so there is hope for us writers! Good luck with your writing.

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