Writer from an OTHER culture

by Nalini Haynes

I live cross-culturally.  Every day.  Being a writer from an OTHER culture, I’m struggling to come to terms with how to write.

The Huff Post published a guest blog from Karen Lord about being a writer from an Other culture, or writing cross-culturally.  Apparently every time Karen is interviewed, she’s asked the same question: ‘What is it like, being a writer from another culture?’ This question reveals the ignorance of the interviewers.  Karen is a writer from her culture, not from another culture.  Is Karen writing for herself, for readers from her culture or for readers from other cultures?  It seems to me the best authors write books they would enjoy reading, which means Karen is not ‘a writer from another culture’ until she is in an actively cross-cultural situation as an author.  Even then, who is ‘from another culture’ is a matter of perspective: is it Karen or the others in that situation?

Many people live and work cross-culturally to some extent, more so than Karen’s interviewers appear to realise.  The social worker from a middle class background working with homeless people is working cross-culturally.  The author who calls for libraries to close so people will buy his books instead of borrowing them, is operating cross-culturally, oblivious to his ignorance and the consequences of his desired outcome.  The politician who claims he or she could live comfortably on the dole has never had to struggle below the poverty line; this person is governing cross-culturally.

And I, I live in a visually-oriented society with a vision impairment.  Before I explain what that means for me as a writer, I need to give a short explanation of what that means for me as an individual.  My first school, aged 3, was a school for vision impaired students.  I was taken out of that school at the ripe old age of 5, and haven’t had a shared culture since that time.  The most contact I have with other vision impaired people is a facebook page for albinos and their families.

Enrolling at RMIT a couple of weeks ago, I asked where to get my student card.  The response: ‘See that sign over there?’

Me: No.  <looked at husband, he could see the sign, we were good.>

I walked into Kmart and asked where to find certain goods.  The bag-checker sighed and pointed to a sign, one of MANY.  ‘See that sign over there?’

Me: No.  I can’t read it.  Which sign?  How do I find the section?

Bag-checker: <looks at me like I’m a few roos short of a top paddock> Over that way.

Me: <thinks ‘thanks a FUCKING LOT’, smiles through gritted teeth> thank you.

Bright lights blind me.  Anyone sitting between a window and myself is usually silhouetted, even if normal people can see them.  Unless I’m wearing sunglasses and a hat, when I walk towards the sun I have to squint to make out blocks of light and dark.  I can’t make out details, just blocks of contrast.

I miss so much of what’s going on.  I miss jokes that rely on the visual, I can’t read signs, I need directions given progressively, relying on landmarks.  Directions like ‘see that sign part-way down the corridor’ are not necessarily helpful.  Directions like ‘go straight ahead.  When you come to the second junction in the corridor take a right, if you get to the end of the corridor, you’ve gone too far’; THAT is helpful.

Studying at uni, text books and handouts are in too small font sizes so I have to read electronically.  I <3 RMIT; the Disability Liaison Unit and lecturers are working together to help me get access to everything I need*, but I’d give my eye teeth – hell, I’d give ALL my teeth and wear falsies – to be able to see like normal people and read texts like normal people.

I eat, sleep and breathe writing.  I’m studying writing at uni, I read and review, I’m writing for Dark Matter.  This is all in this cross-cultural context.  To my knowledge I don’t have any readers with my degree of vision impairment.  Writing non-fiction, blogs like this one, is easy.  Writing fiction is a huge challenge.

I’m not writing for myself alone; I’m writing for an audience, especially at university.  It’s possible that no vision-impaired person will ever read my work.  If I use a point of view character who is vision impaired, I’ll be lambasted for writing a Mary Sue.  If I don’t use a point of view character who is vision impaired, HOW THE FUCK DO I WRITE DESCRIPTIONS?

To me, ‘normal’ eyesight is a magical unknown.  If I describe a landscape I have visualised, how much should my characters be able to see?  How much confusion exists for those with normal vision?  I don’t know.

This is writing cross-culturally.

UPDATE: Karen Lord’s response to this article:  ‘A must read.’

*Update: RMIT have denied me large print for months now.

*Update: The conflict with RMIT was resolved; RMIT allowed me to study and provided disability access. In December 2015, I graduated from the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing with all distinctions and high distinctions. During the period of my study at RMIT, RMIT vastly improved their understanding of disability and disability access. I hope RMIT continues the standard of disability access given to me in 2015 for future vision-impaired students.