It is the week preceding the Lunar New Year, and what better way to commemorate it than talk about the Chinese, and while we’re at it the Malays, Laotians, Germans and Eskimos too? Since the Lunar New Year and other such cultural festivals are about celebrating cultural heritage, let’s have a look at literature that do just that. And in fact, majority of literary products out there, be it books or film, have a strong theme of culture and heritage, especially the non-American/European ones. Or maybe they’re just the ones that are lain out for us and publicised as foreign books. You don’t see commercial stuff like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo going around harping about how it’s Swedish, but you wouldn’t deny that “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Ogawa Yoko, one of the selected novels for Read! Singapore last year, was marketed by the National Library Board for its look into Japanese society.
After this lengthy preamble, let’s actually talk about them. I have read a few such foreign-culture books in my time. Some were good, like Midnight’s Children and The Shadow of the Wind, while others were bad. Bad ones would be things like The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (it is quite an accessible book, but purely because the story was too simple I felt it didn’t have a point) and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (which interestingly was originally published in French). Balzac has an awesome tale but I dislike it because, well, the ending sucked. I felt like it could have been written better. I must say it has been years since I read either of those novels, and my opinion may well change upon a second reading. But I, like most humans, hate changing my mind, so I probably won’t be re-reading those books anytime soon.
Most people shy away from such books exemplifying “foreign-ness”. They feel that stories might turn out boring, and the authors are usually unknown and nobody loves reading realistic genre texts anyway. But I feel that reading such books adds meaning to the idea of literature. Such books are usually top picks for Literature texts in school, and if you’re not a Lit student it may be your only foray into educational literature without all the analysis and “critical reading”. And such choices aren’t as bad as one might initially think. Think of it as fantasy, except the setting — which is probably just as distant from you as fantastical realms are — really exists and you can visit it anytime if you find yourself loving the book after reading it. And trust me, foreign authors that are brought into the international market have to be on par with local authors, or even better.
But for those who aren’t familiar or cosy with meeting new cultures, film is a safer way to go. Foreign films like Bollywood are renowned worldwide, and even people who don’t know or like anything about India have to admit the scenery looks smashing in there. Of course, foreign films are not like Hollywood, which is just as American as fast food. Instant action, fast pacing throughout, lots of sex and violence and condiments thrown in, sleek actors. But don’t just swallow your movies. Savour them, like you would a slow and methodically prepared French cuisine or a sincere and appreciative Chinese dish. And you may just get more nutrients from them than you normally would.