I’ve never tasted a Twinkie. I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen one in the crumb, but I could perfectly describe to you its mythic longevity, its size and shape, as well as its cloying cream filling. I can do this because of its outsized presence in popular American media, appearing in a multitude of films such as Ghostbusters (1984), Zombieland (2009), and Mortal Engines (2018). It has entrenched itself as part of the mainstream and created a mythology all of its own.
I should probably add that I have never lived in America.
The thing about the mainstream is that it is constantly telling itself about itself. It is how the mainstream maintains itself, how it re-enforces that mythology. The mainstream can be functionally defined as the culture that tells you about itself the most.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that explaining things doesn’t have to be for the benefit of outsiders. Despite commonalities, there is no singular experience of being marginalised. The idea and the expectation that there should be one experience, that it can be reduced to a single, consumable package, is part of how the mainstream commodifies marginalisation. Thus even as certain shared knowledge and cultural touchstones do indeed bind us together, to expect that they be unified and never require explanation due to the monolithic nature of our communities is itself a problematic one. Not all exposition is done to make our marginalised cultures or identities more accessible—more consumable; it can be done to affirm and validate those you who share your culture. It can be done to create the groundwork for further reinvention in fantastical works.
This is not to say there aren’t numerous instances where an offered explanation serves to Other and exoticise. There’s an excellent episode titled “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” from the podcast Code Switch that explores how the explanatory comma breaks the flow of a joke or an interview, how it centres the stubbornly ignorant mainstream and can serve to further make those from marginalised backgrounds feel like they aren’t the audience of a piece.
But whilst it is true that knowledge can be assumed when writing about the mainstream in a way it cannot be when writing about marginalised cultures, it is also true that the mainstream is composed of media that exists to reinforce that knowledge. Daily life in the mainstream is replete with that improbable “as you know” exposition we as writers so fear. Repetition is how society creates and maintains norms.
Christmas movies with their fantastical festive flourishes or Doctor Who Christmas specials are not made for the Scrooges of the world to convert them to the cause of winter joy. Nor is their target demographic non-Christian foreigners who have never heard of Christmas before. Christmas media is made for people who already love Christmas and want to be validated by being shown the traditions, to have it explained to them again.
In the same way, weddings contain within them what can only described as lectures on the subject of marriage and monogamy. Every wedding I’ve been to begins with the officiant stating the definition of marriage (usually legal, but I’ve also been to handfastings), and then at each step they explain the tradition of vows and symbolism of rings.
And as you know, dearly beloved, none of this is done with the assumption that the couple or the audience is ignorant of the traditions surrounding marriage.
This defining of marriage and romantic love continues as the wedding speeches often contain advice and anecdotes. Conflicting ideals around marriage may be seen in the way a parent emphasises tax benefits when a best friend teases about children.
As you know, Bob, exposition is one of the trickiest parts of writing.
The most commonly repeated writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” is borrowed from screenwriting and for all its seeming intuitiveness or usefulness to beginners, the act of writing is inevitably going to contain “telling.” The distinction is easy to draw in a script when what is visualised on screen (or on stage) is materially different to dialogue spoken by an actor (or worse yet, scrolling text that needs to be read by the audience). But it can feel fuzzier when dealing with a novel or short story because everything is simply text.
Many have written on how this rule against “telling” enforces the idea that cultures and symbols should all be self-explanatory, that it doesn’t allow space for writers from marginalised cultures and racial backgrounds to provide additional context and history. “Showing” relies on the ability to draw on a pre-existing network of iconography and tropes that have established by other works and broader culture. If the iconography of your culture is unknown to the reader, then there is simply no option to draw upon it.
The blood-drenched woman in a white dress and veil appearing often on film posters such as [Rec]3:Génesis (2012) can be meaningful in a single image because the audience already knows that a big white dress means bride. Despite being set in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones uses this shorthand as Anakin and Padmé marry in a wordless sequence, using her white dress and lace veil as cinematic shorthand for bride.
Childhood picnics on concrete cannot help but feel sad and barren because concrete is already heavy with those meanings. The rose is already potent with symbolism, but most Anglophone readers would probably not know what to make of the peony.
For a more elaborate example, let me tell you about my late grandmother.
To “show” the relationship I have with her, I can write of how my family and I visit her grave every Christmas Day to bring flowers, polish her portrait on the marble gravestone and take turns to bow thrice as relatives gossip. I could describe to you her marble gravestone, engraved in gold with the names of her children and grandchildren (well, the ones from the sons, the ones from the daughters don’t count; but I am listed there) as well as quote from John 11:25 (in Chinese): “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Very often the act of visiting a grave in mainstream American media (even Hong Kong media) is all about loss and remembrance. The trope is about people who just can’t let go, who have unfinished business with the dead, something they can’t put down. But that’s not really us.
Some might assume all this is textbook ritual, that every family in Hong Kong would do this on Christmas Day, but it also isn’t that. This isn’t a ritual that you can just look up. If you tried, you may even conclude that I didn’t do my research properly because my family are doing it “wrong” because we don’t follow the seemingly singular script found in guides of Chinese culture written for tourists. That is to say, what we do is Hong Kong’s Anglicanism and Chinese ancestor worship filtered through my family’s own idiosyncratic beliefs, something of a compromise between siblings as my missionary grandmother was not exactly successful when it came to converting her own family.
I tell you all this partly because I find a catharsis in explaining it to you. In the documentation and description of this, I feel like I’ve anchored some transient part of myself in a permanent record. That it can be not only witnessed, but understood.
There is a demand for writers from marginalised cultures and identities to perform those marginalisations for the consumption of the mainstream, to proselytise and represent. Goodreads is littered with well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning reviews exclaiming their disappointment at not having “learnt more” about such-and-such a culture, or that the identities felt somehow extraneous or redundant to the story being told. And I cannot stress enough how I am not advocating for that performance. I am not trying to sound like my uncles and aunts earnestly advising me to write a “book with more Chinese culture in it” next.
But what I want to show here is that not all explaining, not all “telling” is for the benefit of the mainstream, however much it can feel that way at times. After all, are not our communities defined by shared pre-existing knowledge? We are bound together by the fact that we’ve done our reading and lived our lives and thus already know all of this. We don’t need to be reminded of what mooncakes are or when Mid-Autumn festival is. We all already know, don’t we?
And the thing is, because we aren’t monoliths, we very much don’t always know. There isn’t a unified handbook that we all read about these things and for many, the most “mainstream” version that is documented isn’t the version that we grew up with. Many second-generation immigrants across different cultures in different countries have described how their parents tried to keep them ignorant of their sourceland culture, wanting them to better integrate with the mainstream. Others have relatives who are reluctant to share painful memories, who need to have that knowledge teased out of them.
We don’t all have the same story, the same traditions, nor the same cultural touchstones, despite sometimes sharing a nominal sourceland. The expectation that the experience of marginalistion itself be singular is a fundamental part of the framework that marginalises us.
For me, that diversity deserves documentation.
There are jokes aplenty about how unrealistic it is that characters need to remind each other of missing parents and treasured childhood memories. But as anyone who pays attention to how people speak knows, most of our daily conversations are indeed full of information the other person already knows.
“Telling” in everyday life exists for more than the simple conveying of new information.
When my friends and I discuss our favourite foods, it isn’t so that a list of them can be compiled. Nor is it so that we can engage in ranking them all in some sort of comparative exercise; that all is just the framework in which we discuss food. It is not simply about a greater understanding of our friends’ preferences in flavours and textures or more specifically why they like the foods that they like; it is more simply pleasure to remembering and re-living culinary experiences by describing them. We can’t eat that bowl of perfect ramen again, but we sure can talk about its warming, slurpy glory, the gooey soft-boiled egg and the pink-in-the-middle seared salmon.
This luxuriating in food can be seen in the delightful slice of life episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, as its cast bakes cakes and drinks tea. The minutiae of writing, staging, and performing opera is what gives Mary Gentle’s Black Opera texture and beauty. There are also the extravagant and meticulous descriptions of the characters painting manuscript miniatures in J. V. Jones’ The Barbed Coil, where the frantic and powerful application of pigment is the means through with magic is wielded.
This is not to say that a character’s reminiscing can’t be clunky or awkward-sounding in execution. We phrase things we expect the other person to already know slightly differently to how we would phrase it to strangers. Thoughts and words may scatter and sprawl even as we think we are outlining an argument or planned essay from basics, thinking through emotions and memories we are trying to process.
In many a love letter have I recounted first meetings and how I came to fall in love. Not because I thought my beloved had somehow forgotten these pivotal moments in the intervening years (they were there for most of it, after all), but that there is a pleasure in stringing together those isolated and random events into a narrative, a mythology of us. Shy glances and offhand jokes can become foreshadowing and little coincidences are drawn out to be fateful. In the telling of our story, I create meaning out of life’s chaos.
And all that I do by telling someone a story they already know.
The trope of “As you know, Bob” dialogue comes from science fiction’s golden age, when writers relished at the describing of every detail of their fictitious cultures. There is a desire to namedrop words that allude to the alien and exotic, to detail all the worldbuilding and research that they have done. It is exhausting at times, the feeling that readers are more patient with wholly fictional cultures than with real but marginalised ones.
As a writer of SF/F from a marginalised culture, this is something I have to confront over and over in my own writing. It is very easy to sound awkward when engaging in this sort of exposition, as the example of my family’s Christmas Day tradition aptly shows. And I not only want to witness and record, but also re-mix and re-imagine. I want to build not only fantastical versions of my cultures but fantastical extrapolations and mashups of them. I value not factual, historical accuracy but an emotional resonance. I want to canonise my grandmother’s cooking by making it the Dragon Emperor’s favourite dish, anachronisms be damned.
It is possible to build worlds and evoke things in passing in a way that uses contextual cues to inform the reader, and expect them to simply pick it up. Avatar: The Last Airbender does this with a lot of its cultural imagery. As the audience we are not told the significance of three sticks of incense being burnt together or Zuko and Iroh cutting their hair as they turn their backs on the Fire Nation. The music and framing of these events in the plot cue one into them as important and that is enough meaning for one keep the story rolling. It is also arguably building on the groundwork that has been done by anime, that the target viewership is actually far more familiar with these cultural cues than the “mainstream” would give them credit for.
Still, it remains that the ability to build on already existing groundwork, to evoke the already familiar to the reader is a luxury that a marginalised writer doesn’t always have. Whilst mythical beasts like the unicorn and centaur are commonly understood, marginalised writers are often told their own folklore need that explanatory comma. Such as when Vida Cruz was writing a one-line summary of her story, “Odd and Ugly,” and was told that “kapre” was too obscure a creature to be referenced without explanation.
It isn’t and shouldn’t always be about accuracy, to simply create a facsimile of a real world culture or to share faithfully a memory exactly as it happened. R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is not intended as a historically accurate depiction of Song Dynasty China (even one liberally sprinkled with magic) and to judge it on those terms would be to miss the point completely. By the same token, Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty is not simply a retelling of the Book of Han but with fantastical devices. Science fiction and fantasy has the power to transmute our stories. It can create metaphors, allegories, and parallel worlds, all to better examine and re-examine our histories, our identities, our stories.
And all that relies on being able to not just build on a foundation of shared knowledge but to deviate from the versions of stories people already know and hold to be true.
To tell you things you already know, but a little different.
© 2019 Jeannette Ng