Friday, October 01, 2010

Can I help you, reader?

A little corner of Twitter fluttered with discussion about the merits of including a glossary in a work of fiction earlier today. It was related to my review of Zoo City, below. There were a fair number of words in Zoo City with which I wasn't familiar - slightly unusual in itself, as I do have a relatively large vocabulary, I guess!

My initial thought was that they were all made up, but Lauren Beukes herself pointed out that they were actually South African slang. She graciously avoided saying so, but I felt guilty of hemisphericist thinking - if I (white, English-speaking, Northern Hemisphere) didn't recognise a word, it must not exist.

Various options were considered to help non-SA readers overcome this. Electronic versions of the book could have mouse-over contextual explanations. A glossary could be added to the book. But upon reflection, the glossary idea was set aside. I think this is a correct choice. There is a place and time for breaking down or stepping through a text, and as was pointed out, there already exist plenty of resources that could help the reader analyse in more detail. But when a person is reading a book, one fundamental thing should be the pace of the read.

For a SA readership, the use of local slang would not interfere with the pace of the book. Non-SA readers have a choice. They could skip the book because they can't cope with the cross-cultural experience. If so, they risk isolating themselves from all cultures other than their own. Or they could accept the book on its own terms, something that represents a voice from another culture ("Framling"), either mentally blipping out the hard bits, and hoping it doesn't interfere too much with the plot, or where necessary accepting a slower read and researching the meaning.

Everything we read is at some cultural distance from us. In the USUK today, we have reached the stage where we accept things like "high school" and "parking lot" as congruent with our own culture, even though it would actually be unusual to refer to things as such in the UK. Other things have become indistinguishable ("shopping mall" with its "food court").

When we read other books, we find ourselves at different cultural distances from our normal lives. How much does the world of Jane Austen, say, or Dostoyevsky, or Ginsberg, really have to do with us? And yet, we become used to inhabiting those mental spaces, even comfortable. It is very unusual, and quite exciting, to have the opportunity to be exposed to something which by occupying a cultural space we've not visited before, really opens our minds to new ideas. It also shows that culture isn't homogeneous - that it's not the case that the whole world aspires to a kind of suburban American dream. I think this was one of the reasons I so enjoyed Beukes' books. To attempt to simplify this with a glossary, flattening the "Framling" ideas into our own cultural grid, would be a retrograde step.

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