Friday, December 17, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Finding the Right Words

This week’s featured guest is author Sujata Banerjee Massey, who recently ended her fabulous Rei Shimura mystery series with the tenth and final installment, Shimura Trouble. Along the way, Sujata has collected numerous mystery award nominations, including the Edgar and Anthony, won the Agatha and Macavity awards, traveled often to Japan for research, and saw her books published in 18 countries. She is currently writing a new standalone novel with the working title, The Sleeping Dictionary. It's a historical thriller that tells the story of India's struggle for independence through a young Bengali woman's point of view.

When I was invited to write for this blog, I was delighted. In my opinion, there are not enough books published showing us the world. To wit: when I was getting ready to send out The Salaryman’s Wife, I attended a conference at which a famous mystery editor opined that mysteries in foreign countries don’t sell – except if the location was England! I swallowed hard, because my unpublished manuscript was set in Japan. And what made the situation all the harder was my inner worry that I didn’t have the right to write about Japan.

Yes, I had lived there for two years and had made extended trips to continue research and fact checking. I spoke a little bit of the language. But I could not read kanji characters; I could not understand sophisticated conversation and nonverbal cues; I had not grown up in a household with Japanese traditions. By blood, I was Indian and German. Not Japanese!

What makes someone of another nationality race to capture a different country on paper? I have found myself examining this, years later. In my case, I fell in love with Japan: its proud traditions, modern gadgets, and kind people. All of it gave me the drive to start my first novel whilst living in Hayama, and to finish it four years later in Baltimore.

The young narrator I created for my book was a “foreigner,” so it was possible to explain foods, objects, and rituals without seeming awkward. Much harder was making the Japan-born characters’ speech and actions authentic. The solution turned out to be a rather lengthy one. I started a Japanese immersion class at the Yokohama YMCA, and after building a base of nouns, learning simple conversation patterns, and exploring the many permutations of verbs, I began to learn Japanese idioms. Now my manuscript began to include expressions like “grinding her sesame seeds” (pandering to a someone above you) or Shigata ga nai, “It can’t be helped.” These are the things that made not only the language, but the story, take flight.

I had enough proverbs and idioms to write ten books set in Japan. So I did. But then, something funny happened. Another country came calling: India, specifically the city of Calcutta, my father’s hometown. I had been to India several times since childhood, but never felt brave enough to write about it. Further restricting me was the fact that I didn’t speak an Indian language. I felt like I really needed Bengali for this historical novel set at the end of British rule in India. Finding a Bengali class in Minneapolis was impossible, so I enrolled in a regular daily undergraduate Hindi course at the University of Minnesota, which I dutifully attended for a year. I was soon reading, writing, speaking, and loving this language and its linguistic brother, Urdu. However, to be fond doesn’t mean to know. After the year of study was over, most of what I learned for tests fled my memory, because I wasn’t living in an environment where I would use my newly acquired vocabulary. Anyone out there who studied French in high school may understand the situation.

Researching the backstory 
of the Indian independence
struggle, Sujata sifted through
stacks of old periodicals in the

National Library's Newspaper
Reading Room in Kolkata.
So, my India book is almost done. I can understand Hindi better than before, but not hold a real conversation. However, I have also retained some sense of word order, grammar, and word choices that helped with dialog. There are also many varieties of English spoken by Indians that fascinate, from educated, old-fashioned British school English to the pidgin-style language of servants to their masters. And of course, there are metaphors and similes and proverbs that translate quite interestingly. For Bengalis, the mark of a thief is overwhelming respect. If someone’s terrified, her hands jump into her stomach, and if things really get bad, it’s like pouring ghee on the fire. Bang!

As I work on this new book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I still think about the long-ago editor’s comment about foreign-set books being underachievers. In hindsight, I feel that the sorry situation has arisen because of the American education system. Most U.S.-born people cannot identify foreign countries or their leaders, let alone speak a second language. Without ever having learned words in another tongue, it is difficult to imagine another kind of place. It’s intimidating to buy a book that is about something foreign: will I really like a book about a detective in Botswana, a journalist in Sweden, or an art dealer in Italy?

By painstakingly working to make a foreign language come alive, we can perhaps reach that reader.


  1. I love your Rei Shimura books, so I'm looking forward to your new book set in India!

    I hope publishers agree with you that there should be even more books published showing the world outside of the US. My agent hasn't yet sold my first mystery about an Indian-American historian who travels the world, but I'm hopeful -- and also realistic, working on the next one :)

    p.s. With only one Indian parent, I don't speak any Indian languages either, but the research is incredibly fascinating -- like those proverbs you mentioned.

  2. Sujata, thanks so much for blogging with us today and writing such an amazing post! We are thrilled to have you here.

    I feel like you are talking directly to me with this post because I am also writing a series set in a culture that is not my own and sometimes wonder what on earth qualifies me to do that. (And I like to play with Persian idioms, too.) Do you have any advice on dealing with the doubts?

    I'm looking forward to reading your new book when it comes out. It sounds fascinating! Novels with international themes and settings are windows into the hearts and minds of people in other parts of the world and help us understand each other better. So I hope you will continue to explore the world in your books!

  3. Sujata, you only proved those naysayers wrong. Your Rei Shimura series started an exciting new genre and started to fill that huge void on the bookshelves. I loved learning about Japan through you, and I can hardly wait to read your next novel. You continue to inspire me!

  4. Dear Sujata,
    Really enjoyed your blog post. You bring up some really good points regarding interpreting and representing different cultures in writing. I am an Indian who grew up in Minnesota and often had to explain my culture. As a poet, I still encounter that from time to time. However, I feel the literary world has become much flatter, thanks to writers like you. I look forward to reading your new book and thank you for your Rei Shimura series.

  5. Interesting blog. I'm always drawn to authors writing about countries and characters beyond their own. That type of storytelling just seems more challenging then writing about what you already know.
    I have not read any of your books, but look forward to reading them soon.

  6. Hi Sujata, I love the Rei Shimura series too! I remember hearing the same thing from an editor after I'd set an early mystery in the Dominican Republic--it's still in the drawer. Luckily you weren't discouraged! can't wait to read the new book...

  7. Very insightful blog - looking forward to reading your books and enjoying the fruits of your very hard work!

  8. Hi Sujata,

    Thank you for your efforts in bringing us the Rei Shimura series! Your quest for authenticity is deeply appreciated. Looking forward to reading your next book soon!

  9. Really enjoyed your blog post. I enjoy stories written with such attention to detail. Readng books such as yours are not only a delight, I find I learn about other places and cultures without realizing it. Thanks!

  10. Hi Sujata! I really enjoyed your blog post and look forward to reading your mysteries! They sound intriguing! I totally agree about the lack in our education system to provide the opportunity for children to learn a second or third language when they are young - so frustrating! I tried to have my daughter take classes before school when they were offered but they were only available for a year or two. Anyway - good for you for taking the time to learn as an adult and provide authentic depiction of a culture in your stories! Brava!

  11. Hi Sujata! Thank you for such an interesting post! Like Heidi, I felt like you were talking directly to me. My books are about foreigners on adventures in South America. When you mentioned your MC was a foreigner, and therefore could explain the foods, sights, etc that made total sense. It gives the reader a perfect insight. Your book set in India sounds wonderful.

  12. An interesting post. I haven't read your books, but after this, they're on my list! I, too, am struggling with writing about a culture that isn't my own--Italy. Although I've lived here for more than ten years, I continue to learn things about the culture. My sleuth knows the language from an old fashioned perspective and doesn't always "get" idiomatic expressions (as in the story in the Guppy anthology), and that adds a level to her character. I have to work to make the native characters authentic, but my love for the country keeps me at it. Thanks for a great post.

  13. Sujata, thank you for such a wonderful post. I couldn’t agree with you more – we need more books that tell us about countries we never visited and cultures we’re not familiar with. Novels set in foreign places are my favorite because I get to know the country without ever leaving my room. With books, I travel to places I would not be able to ever see otherwise – from a Geisha house in Japan to a Turkish harem. And, speaking of Japan, I traveled it with an absolutely special guide book – The Memoirs of a Geisha. Although the events of the book had taken place over half a century ago, certain landmarks didn’t change – a river, a city district, a plaza. I was so excited to see Japan after having read so much about it. The more we would read about other cultures, the more we would understand them, and once we truly do, the wars will cease.

  14. Really interesting post! I look forward to reading your books, Sujata. :)