Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Writing Regional Fiction for an International Audience

Today we have a wonderful guest post from  novelist, reviewer and editor, Magdalena Ball
Writing Regional Fiction for an International Audience


Magdalena Ball

Regional fiction, as the name might suggest, is fiction that is comprised of characters and a settle that is indicative of a particular region.  It doesn't have to but often contains dialects, lots of rich setting details, and issues that are often particular to that region.  For example, in my novel Black Cow, the characters are quintessentially Australian, speaking with Australian slang, live and work in Australian places.  The Australian landscape is a critical component of both the story and the character development, driving the story forward as they reconnect to nature and the landscape, which is full of the smells, sights, and sounds of the Australian bush.

The communities in which these characters participate and the rituals that they are involved in, from sporting activities, school events, through to the rituals associated with their work environment will all be recognisable to Australians, and perhaps potentially exotic to those who aren't familiar with Australia or the world of upper class Sydney and/or rural Tasmania.  So it certainly fits the regional perspective, as do similar regional novels such as Kate Chopin's The Awakening, with its Southern US setting and themes, or Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B Flat, which is set securely in a Welsh village in the 1950s just to take two examples that spring to mind.

For me, writing as an expat American in an Australian environment for a global audience can raise issues around regional versus international writing, at least in my own mind.  Do I use a vernacular? Do I follow the linguistic conventions of the story's setting, changing, like a chamelion, to suit my characters and their environment? Or should I stick to the conventions of the country I'm writing in and about? What if, as in the new novel I'm working on, my characters move between not only countries and nationalities, but through time and space? These are questions which have no single answer, and need to be determined, like the narrative voice, as part of each novel's characteristics.

In Black Cow, as in the novels cited above, I decided to stick with local colour and regional perspectives that certainly will ring bells with readers that share the setting and situations of my characters.  However, as with The Awakening and The Earth Hums in B Flat, Black Cow has been written for, and targeted at an international audience.  The reason why this works is that the underlying themes of Black Cow and other globally focused but regionally situated novels are universal.

Readers are, in the main, a flexible, intelligent bunch, and can quickly pick up idiom, local political sensibilities, linguistic nuance, word play and unique culture, and will still find work resonates with them if it has, at heart, timeless classical themes such as the way we come to terms with our creative selves, love, loss, and the development of character arc.  Take universal themes and couple them with regionally focused, well detailed high quality literature and you create something local and unique that wlil appeal to almost any reader. 

In a similar vein, high quality historical fiction doesn't only appeal to readers from the particular period of history in which it is set.  Classic literature from any place and time in our collective history can be read by a modern reader who will still empathise with the internal struggles that the characters deal with even, as with Shakespeare and Chaucer, there are dramatic linguistic and cultural differences.  Readers of science fiction can travel through time and space and still fully understand and enjoy the timeless perspectives and emotional dramas that each character has to undergo, even if those characters aren't human.  This timelessness cuts across regions, across time, across politics, and across cultures to pick up threads that can appeal to readers all over the world.

Of course it's not usually appropriate to assume a Western memetic interpretation when reading regional fiction. it's just those distinctive colours and local consciousnesses that make regional fiction so enjoyable. Embracing the different is also part of the pleasure of reading regional literature.  But without a collaborative understanding that picks up on what is universal to all people, without a literary perspective which is broad in its developments, regional literature becomes limited. By incorporating what are very broad humanistic concerns, regional literature can be a platform for the best kind of fiction, a fiction rich with unique voices, distinctive settings, and recognisably specific spaces that still speaks to all readers in an international way.  

Magdalena Ball is the author of the newly released novel Black Cow.

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