Inside/Outside

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3 December 2010

A very nice young woman came to see me the other day – a Korean student from Seoul, studying at another US college but visiting here for the semester.  She’d read Long for This World and came to the faculty reading (where I read along side my colleagues) a couple of weeks ago.

She was generous and effusive with her praise.  She is completely bilingual and writes fiction herself, in English at the moment.  She had some good thoughts for me about awkward honorifics in Long for This World.  Then she said: “This book should be published in Korea.  Everyone in Korea should read this.”

I laughed, of course.  Tell me about it, I wanted to say.  We tried.  Scribner tried.  Korean publishers did not bite (yet?!).

But the interaction had me thinking about those of us who write stories of cultures with which we have an inside/outside relationship.  A young Indian American woman who loves Jhumpa Lahiri‘s work told me that her parents and their friends don’t care for it.  Last night a friend described Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s stories as firmly set in Pakistan, about Pakistani lives, but very much written “from the outside” (for outsiders).

Currently, I am working on a book that renders characters and worlds of which I am personally completely outside.  Will readers who are inside the culture of the subjects resist/be indifferent to the work as Koreans are to Long for This World?  Of course the reasons for non-publication in Korea must be multiple, and economically-driven in a way I don’t myself grasp.  But all of this makes me think about why we write, why we write about what we write about, who we are in relation to what we write, for whom we write (if anyone)…  You know.  The Big Questions.

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