Fundamental Attribution Error: On Writing "Culture"

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stumbled upon this rad street art a week or so ago. Check out the artist's other work at their website.

Time to trade lenses.

Last year, I was in a writing class where I wrote a short story submission that included an elderly Bengali woman character who talked in circles. When the story went up for critique, most of my (all white) classmates did not understand why the woman would not answer the other characters' questions directly and kept going off on tangents. I had to quickly explain that sometimes older people -- and particularly in my experience with older Bengali people -- talk around the subject rather than speaking directly to particular topics, especially when they are emotional or challenging ones. I explained that why the younger character continued to listen to her was because she was used to not interrupting elders while they were speaking, even if their stories did not make sense.

My classmates decided to attribute this all to culture.

Although this probably sounded like a reasonable perception to them since I was describing two characters that did not share the same cultural background as much of the class, I can't tell you how frustrated it made me. Surely, I thought, they have experienced or read about an older person in their lives that did not make cohesive sense before. And if it were poor writing, they would have given me some constructive feedback. But the way they nodded their heads and passed it off as a quirk of the Bengali people just made me fume. Perhaps it was just the way I wanted to write interaction between those two characters -- I don't think that you would think the same thing of a white author, or even a published author of any race who you couldn't ask directly about their technique. This was a time when I took for granted the perception of my classmates, all well-meaning, to see my work on its own rather than as a function of me as an author.

It's been a recurring question in my writing: how much is too much explanation? Do people need to know what every word means? What do I leave for them to figure out on their own? But I think this is all part of the same query of perception. I tried to take a step back from it.

We do this a lot with the written word, I realize -- try to attribute the author's life experiences to why and how they write -- but I think it happens more often with authors of color and women authors. It would have been much more helpful if they had told me that this type of dialogue worked or didn't work for them, and left it there, rather than going in to discuss it as some example of the circular nature of Bengali "culture." But, at the same time, it would also have been more helpful if I had managed my expectations of how others might perceive my work; no one comes to a piece of work with a clean slate and no expectations. If I were published, I wouldn't have the chance to defend or explain. I would have to make it so that they can't say that it was all about culture (write distinct characters, etc.).

Being the creator and the reader of my own work sometimes clouds me from how others will "get" or "not get" what I'm writing. But if books are little windows into other worlds, then do we have to write in a way that everyone will understand? Like I said, it's time to trade lenses. Let's have the readers do some work.