Tuesday, July 29, 2014


After sushi with author-friend S---

Third Culture Literature and Point of View

What, my friend S--- asked, about empathy in third culture literature?  Is it distinctive?

It must be, surely, for Third Culture Kids benefit from knowing about cultural difference early in their lives. They know that what is frowned upon in one place may be encouraged in another (for instance the issue of asking a friend or distant relative for money: very uncomfortable for an American, normal and acceptable for a Ghanaian). TCKs are especially adroit at seeing all points of view.  Does their fiction writing reflect this?

1) Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries (Catton: TCK via Canada/ NZ). (I am on page 382 of 832: I am an expert.  ha).  There are 12 men in a room at the start of the novel and it seems we may get some portion of the same complex and interlocking story about one night (14 January, 1866) from each of them.   It seems that Anna Wetherell's perspective might provide the synthesis.  Definitely many different voices get to speak here (there is much dialogue),  narration changes hands from character to character and the novel seems to have an omniscient narrator who refers to him/herself with a royal "we" : "rather than transcribe this sentimental exchange, we choose to talk above it, and instead describe in better detail . . ." (295).   One of the men (Moody) says this most TCK thing: "I contend there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths--and pertinence, you must agree, is a matter of perspective" (282).

(In Catton's other novel , The Rehearsal, the conceit of acting is explored--more on the TCK chameleon in another post--but here too we see different perspectives on the same thing.  A girl has a relationship with her teacher.   We see one set of high-school-aged students confess their opinions to their saxophone teacher, but we also see students of the nearby drama college interpret the story for stage).

2) At the other extreme, Ian McEwan's Saturday (McEwan: British Military Brat via Libya and Singapore).  All of this happens from the perspective of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, and the whole novel focuses on a single day.  Like The Luminaries, the component parts of a single day's drama are taken apart, assessed, discussed and thought through.  Thus though we are in Perowne's perspective the whole time, he is exploring as many different points of view about his day and its events as he can.  He spends a lot of time looking in mirrors too, I think (I need to go back and look for page numbers), and looking out of windows: these provide perspectives on himself and different vantage points on the world around him.

3)  What's better for splitting a single point of view than mental illness?  Consider John Wray's Lowboy.  (Wray: TCK and Cross Culture Kid or CCK, via Austria and the USA).  Lowboy/William is schizophrenic, so is his mother Violet/Yda and the policeman searching for William struggles with the fact that his father renamed him Ali when his birth name was Rufus.  Each of the main characters expresses at least two perspectives.

4)  A nice segue from Lowboy is DBC Pierre's Ludmila's Broken English (bio in preceding post).  Here we have Siamese twins (two consciousnesses presenting contradictory accounts of events), separated as adults.  We follow their alarming, yet successful, quest to buy a wife from a small, war-torn, Republic (formerly part of the USSR).

But, is this multiplicity of View Point typical to ALL contemporary literature?  Not quite.  Perhaps everyone is interested in Point of View, but I see other writers handling it quite differently.  (How valid is my random sampling, you ask?  Hmn.  Yes.  That is a good question.  Nonetheless, here are my thoughts.)

1)  Dan Rhodes' (Britain) Marry Me is a compilation of very (very) short stories, all about relationships (primarily heterosexual).  Many perspectives.  Unlike Catton, or McEwan these perspectives reflect on a thematically similar scenario but not exactly the same event.

2) Like McEwan, Wilma Stockenstrom's (South Africa.  Trans J. M. Coetzee)  Expedition to the Baobab Tree inhabits one perspective.   However, this one individual thinks widely, beautifully, dreamily about a broad range of historical event and personal experience.  A swath of time, all from one view.

3) In That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott (Australian, CCK white and aboriginal) occupies an amorphous universal perspective and creates a dreamtime or creation myth which includes the arrival of white settlers.  In some senses, this is completely opposite to what happens in the TCL works I list above: here all perspectives are shown to be one.  Ultimately there is only one perspective.

4) And what about mental illness?  In I. J. Kay's Mountains of the Moon we have another mentally ill protagonist, and she (like Wray's Lowboy) has a mentally ill mother.  Her identity is markedly unstable (she has many different names over the course of the novel), but she presents a single point of view at each juncture, not several perspectives on the same moment.  She says "All these years and we never arsts, where we come from or who we is" (287). That line alone makes Kay's protagonist different from the TCL ones who seem to be examining and re-examining everything from as many perspectives as possible with the hope of answering exactly those questions.

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