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.

One outstanding recent example is Will Self’s novel Great Apes (1997), in which the protagonist wakes up after a night of drunken excess to find that London – and the rest of the world – is populated by chimpanzees instead of human beings. He is put straight into a psychiatric hospital, suffering from the strange delusion that he is ‘human’! Reviewers praised the novel for achieving “the rare feat of temporarily altering the reader’s perspective” (The Guardian), for being “a deeply serious…call for us to reconsider the shortcomings of the human world” (The Times) and for “[defamiliarising] the world so thoroughly that we have no choice but to relearn our responses to it”.
Perhaps the most direct representations of cross-cultural and inter-cultural experience are to be found in the growing body of literature emerging from the immigrant and second generation ethnic communities in Britain and North America. North America has traditionally prided itself on being a ‘melting pot’ of ethnicity and culture, and despite the controversy that often surrounds the notion of multiculturalism, the ethnic and cultural mix is more often celebrated than problematised. Indeed, in Canada recently, I was delighted to be told that “We Canadians don’t much like the term multiculturalism – we prefer to talk about Canada as a cultural mosaïc”. The metaphor is well chosen, as it carries the suggestion of multi-faceted pieces all fitting perfectly together to form one harmonious pattern. Novels such as the Korean-American Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995) and the Chinese-American Gish Jen’s Typical American (1991) reflect such mosaïc patterning, and can be read not simply as accounts of culture clash, but as documents of the quest for new kinds of cultural identity – neither ‘typically American’ nor typically Korean or Chinese – but located in what Claire Kramsch (1993) called ‘third places’.
In Britain, too, there is an increasing recognition of the fact that we live in a multi-cultural society – and this is also beginning to be reflected in an emergent inter-cultural literature. One of the best-known examples is Timothy Mo’s novel Sour Sweet (1982), set in a restaurant in London’s Chinatown. More recently Hanif Kureishi (author of the screenplay for My Beautiful Launderette) opens his novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) with this defiant declaration by the half-English, half-Asian narrator:

My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

The novel’s fairly conventional ‘sex and drugs and rock-and-roll’ account of a young man’s coming of age in the London of the 1970s is constantly enriched by the uncertainty announced in these first few lines about the source of Karim’s adolescent angst and confusion – does it stem from the “odd mixture of here and there” or is it simply a matter of “being brought up in the suburbs”?
Like Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal is a British Asian writer who had her first big hit with a screenplay – Bhaji on the Beach (1993) – and has subsequently produced a highly successful novel – Anita and Me (1996). This is another coming-of-age narrative, but a much gentler one – the (adult) narrator, Meena, recalls herself growing up as the nine-year-old daughter of the only Asian family in a Midlands mining village. Syal shrewdly chooses to write with all the advantages of adult hindsight, but without sacrificing the child’s innocent view of the world.
Again, at least for the non-Asian reader, narrative voices such as Mo’s, Kureishi’s and Syal’s offer a reading experience of defamiliarisation, as they make us look afresh at a world that is so familiar to us that we no longer look at or think very much about it. These texts do enable readers to “project themselves into unfamiliar environments…and cultures…[and] to interact with the society in which we live.”

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