Making it strange: literature and culture shock

The experience of learning a foreign language inevitably involves an encounter with different cultural contexts and with different ways of conceptualising the world. This can be disturbing or invigorating, depending on our attitude to the foreign culture. Literature often employs deliberate strategies of defamiliarisation that replicate this sense of strangeness, taking us on voyages of discovery or making us look afresh at our everyday surroundings. Genres which typically displace the reader in this way include historical fiction, science fiction and utopian (or dystopian) fantasies. There is also a growing body of literature in English reflecting the immigrant experience and the rich diversity of increasingly multi-cultural societies. This paper explored ways in which such intra-cultural texts can be used in the language classroom to promote greater inter-cultural awareness.

Nick Jones (1990) develops a map of the reading process which is concerned not only with mental processes and representations, but also with cultural contexts, with the traffic between what Jones describes as the ‘culture of production’ and the ‘culture of reception’. According to Jones:

The sense which a reader makes of a given text depends upon the extent of the overlap or correspondence between the culture in which the text was produced, and the culture in which it is encountered…. perceptions may range from a comfortable familiarity of signs and assumptions, to a sense of dislocation and bewilderment.

It is this sense of dislocation and bewilderment that we are likely to experience when we encounter literature which is foreign to us in terms of our own social experience, or which is literally foreign because it is the product of another national culture. Jones goes on to quote a 1989 government report on education:

Reading takes pupils beyond first-hand experience: it enables them to project themselves into unfamiliar environments, times and cultures […] Reading is also one of the means by which we interact with the society in which we live.

This formulation describes the educational value of literature in terms that will be recognisable to most teachers. Literature always holds out the possibility of insight into environments and experiences that do not coincide with our own. The feelings of dislocation and bewilderment described by Jones increase in inverse proportion to our sense of familiarity and identification: when we read, we feel more or less at home in a text – or more or less uprooted.
This brings me back to Craig Raine’s poem and its relationship to minor culture bumps and major culture shocks. It occurs to me that the Russian Formalists’ idea of defamiliarisation might provide us with a whole range of interesting texts which would indirectly prepare learners for the encounter with the cultural Other: fantasy, science fiction, utopian – and dystopian – literature, and closest to the reality of cross-cultural and inter-cultural confrontation, the growing body of writing that deals directly or indirectly with the immigrant and second generation bi-cultural experience. I would like to explore some examples of such defamiliarising texts, and to see what they might have to offer to the intercultural language learner.
In William Kotzwinkle’s satirical novel The Bear Went Over The Mountain (1997) we follow the progress through the New York publishing world of a black bear, who discovers the abandoned manuscript of a novel under a tree in the forest. When he realises that he cannot eat it, he reads the novel and decides that it is not too bad. He ‘borrows’ some clothes from a local store, adapts the name of his favourite food from a jar of “Half-and-half Jam”, calling himself Hal Jam, and heads for New York, where, although he is regarded as rather eccentric, he takes the literary world by storm. Kotzwinkle, like any good satirist or fantasy novelist, follows the Tolstoyan technique of making the familiar seem strange. He describes a supermarket as if he were a bear, never having seen a supermarket before, overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of food on display (especially, of course, the honeys and the jams!). Consequently, we see the supermarket afresh and start to think about it in a way that perhaps we have not done since the first time we entered such a shop.
A more serious example of this strategy of defamiliarisation occurs in Margaret Elphinstone’s post-catastrophe ‘novel of a future’ A Sparrow’s Flight (1989). The novel is set in a future when some unspecified environmental disaster seems to have taken place. There are numerous references to the ‘years of suffering’, the ‘ruined world’ and particularly to the time when ‘the world changed’. Two travellers, Thomas and Naomi, leave the Scottish island where they lead a simple, rural existence, and on the mainland they embark on a quest for the music of the past. Although music and poetry are important in their lives, they have no idea of musical notation, or what many musical instruments even look like. After weeks of searching, they find a large house with what we realise is a music room – but we discover the room, the furniture, the instruments – and the sheet music – through Naomi’s eyes. Initially she is as alien as Craig Raine’s Martian, though eventually, by sheer intellectual persistence, she succeeds in working out what some of these things must have been.
In this example, the strategy is one of utter defamiliarisation – indeed at first, as in the Martian poem, we are not altogether sure what Naomi is seeing. The author gradually lets us have enough hints to make intelligent guesses, and as we recognise one thing, so the next becomes easier to fathom out. It is a very exciting piece of writing, as we are made to share Naomi’s feelings of initial incomprehension and growing excitement as she decodes these mysterious objects and begins to realise their functions.
By choosing to write in a satiric or fantastic mode, writers commit themselves almost inevitably to some kind of defamiliarisation. Imagined worlds – for example, the ones that Alice and Gulliver travel to – always draw on the existing world; futuristic fictions – from H G Wells’ The Time Machine to Frank Herbert’s Dune to William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels – always extrapolate from the present; satire, however wild and grotesque, always stems from current concerns.

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