Finding Terms to Describe Authors Writing Cross Culturally

Posted in Author / Illustrator Research, I'm Your Neighbor News

What is the appropriate term to use to descibe authors who write cross culturally?

By Delanie Honda (Intern to I’m Your Neighbor)

Difficulties in word choice is not a new thing here at “I’m Your Neighbor.”

Exhibit A: Note that this project uses the terms “new arrivals” and “long-communities.” They are in quotations for a reason. We’ve admitted to ourselves that the terminology is a little awkward, but so are many word choices that are associated with community, ethnicity, culture, and class.

The latest block I’ve run into has come with creating the “Author Research” sections of our book pages. Some of the authors we have chosen as part of our book list write cross-culturally; they do not share the culture that they are writing about. How do we refer to these authors? Are they “outsiders?” “Non-members?” “Invited guests?” What terminology should we use, not only to be correct, but also to reflect the time these authors have put into their research to accurately portray a culture not their own?

I have been scouring several blogs, notably Mitali Perkin’s blog Fire Escape and the CBC Diversity Blog, to see what they and other contributors had to say about the issue of writing cross-culturally and the related vocabulary. On these blogs the only terms I came across were “insider” and “outsider.”

“Insider/outsider” or alternately “member/non-member” make it clear that the author is not part of the group. To me, “insider/outsider” conjures up this image of the misfit, a sad outcast looking through a glass at the group that he/she wants to be part of. They do not belong and everyone around them, including themselves, is aware of it, nor do they seem to be wanted. “Member/non-member” is similar in that it suggests exclusiveness that must somehow be gained in order to be included within the group. However, I like that both of these terms suggest that it is possible to become an “insider” or a “member.”

I found an essay by Nisi Shawl, author of several science fiction novels for young adults, that uses strong terminology. She used the terms “invader,” “tourist,” and “guest” to describe the different levels of cross cultural authors that exist. “Invaders” are of course, the worst of all three categories; those who come uninvited and use aspects of a culture that are convenient for them and disregard that which is not. “Tourists” are better; they are tolerated and if receptive to learning, may after a time may be considered for the status of “guest,” the best and most welcomed form.

I’m hesitant to use any of these terms, not only in the case of offending somebody, but because they don’t seem to adequately describe the complex nature of these authors. As to the term “tourist” I cannot help but imagine that scene from Fight Club where Edward Norton’s character imagines grabbing Marla (played by Helena Bonham Carter), shaking her and shouting “Marla, you big tourist, I NEED this! Now get out!” Needless to say, I won’t be using this term very often.

“Guest” I like, since Shawl says that they must be invited and can create long term relationships. However, guest also suggests a temporary status and also doesn’t have the same option of becoming a permanent resident like insider/outsider and member/non-member do.

I guess I’m hoping for some word that is a cross between “guest” and “insider/outsider'” (gusider? I think not) but I’m not sure such a word exists. Feel free to add to this discussion with any thoughts, comments or suggestions with this tricky issue.


One Comment

  1. What a wonderful post. This is a topic of great concern to me when my book about a character from a different culture (Sudan) than my own (New Hampshire) was about to be published. I had read widely about theories on institutionalized racism and the terms used in Lanie’s post about writing across borders. To me, the U.S. is, at it’s best, a mosaic of cultures. We meet and we touch across borders and we affect and begin to define one another. I’ve worked with people from Vietnam, Cambodia, England, Kenya, Sudan. We are different in vast ways and we are alike in so many ways. I think what artists do is in the realm of imagination. An artist seeks to explore truth and the search could be about the artist’s own family or it could be about the family next door, wherever they may be from. So I see this language for who the writer is within a culture to be less the point than the intention of the art. Is the intention to witness, to explore a truth that could illuminate our contemporary human experience of movement across borders and communities becoming less homogeneous? I’d love to hear what you think??


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