At long last, today I finished A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a 1993 Pulitzer winner by Robert Olen Butler. It’s a collection of short stories, and though quite short, it took me almost a week to read it because I fell in the habit of reading just one or two stories every night before bed. All of the stories are told from the point of view of a Vietnamese person—almost all born in Vietnam, although at least one is the American-born child of Vietnamese parents—now living in Louisiana, which I was unaware had a large Vietnamese population.
The stories were all very good—Butler’s prose has a lyrical quality, which worked well with the various first-person narratives. The stories have a collective theme of culture differences between Vietnam and the United States. I was quite impressed that each story had a different voice, in keeping with the different narrators, but still held similarities to each other, reflecting the Vietnamese culture, traditions, and values.
Recognizing that Butler was not a Vietnamese name, I did a little more biographical digging than I normally do for leisure reading. Turns out that Butler served in the Vietnam War for two years, during which he developed a great affinity for the Vietnamese, and was a professor of creative writing when AGSfaSM was published.
Now, given that I have absolutely no experience or qualifications whatsoever to put forth an opinion on this, I found myself wondering at the possibility of writing from the point of view of a foreign culture. I mean, obviously most narrators are going to be different from their authors, but I think it’s significantly more difficult to adopt a completely different cultural outlook in your writing. As I read, I found myself wondering: Are these accurate representations of Vietnamese people? How did Butler use his own experiences with Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans in his writing? How would someone who is Vietnamese and currently living in Louisiana interpret these stories?
Please note that I in no way mean to discredit Butler’s writing; as I stated previously, I have absolutely no credibility in this line of questioning. I merely believe that these questions are inevitable for the average reader.
What do you think? How does a writer establish credibility when writing from a foreign perspective? What books have you read that raised similar questions?