This week’s Crime Cafe guest post and book giveaway comes from Jame DiBiasio. Click that link to read all about him and the book he’s offering, Bloody Paradise.
I could go on, but I’ll let Jame do the explaining! 🙂
I’m giving away a copy of Bloody Paradise. Trav Mitchell lands on the Thai resort island of Samui with a broken hand, a bag full of cash, and an angry Hong Kong mobster on his tail…
To get your (literary) ticket to beautiful Koh Samui, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org by September 4. And check out my website, www.jamedibiasio.com, for my reviews of thrillers and other notes on the state of crime fiction.
Thank you for that succinct explanation, Jame! 🙂
And now, without further ado, here’s Jame DiBiasio’s guest post!
Writing foreign characters
“I hate that fortune-cookie shit.”
So says a Chinese gangster in the movie “Rush Hour 2” as he knifes a pretentious American criminal fond of spewing faux Confucian wisdom.
When you’re writing about foreign characters and places, you gotta avoid the fortune-cookie shit. Get the details right. For example, did you know that fortune cookies don’t even exist in China? They were invented in America – by a Japanese!
Be aware of being an outsider. This calls for more than respect. It demands humility. You’re never going to know nearly as much as you think you do.
So does this mean writers should stay away from all things foreign? Hell no. The very point to writing literature, including genre literature like thrillers, is to put yourself, and therefore the reader, in someone else’s shoes: to share empathy. Otherwise there’d be no “Bangkok 8” by John Burdett with its Thai cop, no “Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth with its French ministers, no “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews with its Russian honey trap.
Getting into the heads of foreign characters, in their own settings, takes research and time. It requires immersion. You can’t rock up to Tiananmen Square on day two of your vacation and decide you’re ready to write that PLA spy novel.
Some of what you must do is deliberate: reading voraciously, taking the time to check out some out-of-the-way nooks, interviewing experts. But a lot is osmosis. Being on the ground, speaking with local people, slurping noodles around a table, getting drunk with them; bonus points for getting laid.
Immersion plus formal learning develops your ear. Dialogue is a valuable tool, perhaps indispensible, for developing characters. It’s hard to get it right in your native English, let alone when you’re portraying someone with a different accent, a different vocabulary, and a different syntax. It’s easy to sound condescending, or just plain clueless.
In my tropical noir, “Bloody Paradise”, the wordplay among my British characters helps drive the pace and offers a contrast to the Americans’ dialogue. I could only attempt this having spent many nights at the pub with my buddies, er, mates, and years working for a British company.
Otherwise you risk the Dick Van Dyke trap: the actor’s cockney accent in the 1964 Disney film “Mary Poppins” is so notorious in Britain that he actually apologized for it in 2017.
A white American can make a hash of British accents without risking more than derision. Deeper treachery awaits anyone accused of cultural appropriation.
My novel “Gaijin Cowgirl” features nefarious Japanese criminal figures, hostesses, Korean wartime comfort women, rightwing biker gangs, and a scene with, yes, the bad guy eating sushi off the back of a naked woman. All out to kill my hero, a white American woman named Val Benson. Call the P.C. police!
But if there are tropes in my story, they are there to provide the necessary animus in a thriller. I was acutely aware of what I was risking when I wrote “Gaijin Cowgirl”. So first, I did my homework. Second, I made sure to paint a nuanced picture; the novel is as much about American perfidy in Asia as it is about Japanese militarists. Third, and most important, I did my best to imbue all of my characters with equal respect and understanding.
These matters are really a subset of cliché, which stems from laziness, and is an abrogation of the writer’s duty. Fortune cookies are a cliché of Chinese-American culture: enjoy eating them, but leave them out of your Shanghai thriller. I believe Confucius may have said something to that effect.
Jame DiBiasio is the author of BLOODY PARADISE (Water Street Press) and GAIJIN COWGIRL (Crime Wave Press), as well as the non-fiction THE STORY OF ANGKOR (Silkworm Books). Born in the U.S., he has resided in Hong Kong since 1997, where he is a journalist and entrepreneur. Visit him at www.jamedibiasio.com.