There’s also a temptation to over-focus on the cultural details: unfamiliar customs, exotic details, the clothes people wear. The things, in other words, that seem interesting to us as outsiders. But part of establishing point of view is knowing what to omit. (One of the hallmarks of bad historical fiction is describing everyday details with the sociologist’s eye.) We have to be willing to present the readers with vocabulary or details they aren’t prepared to understand when the characters themselves would not explain it.
This is one of many reasons I admire Junot Diaz’s fiction; he never italicizes non-English words. Italicization would make those words doubly foreign or doubly unfamiliar, when actually they’re second nature to the character. To highlight these words would be a betrayal of point of view.
Besides, the reader usually doesn’t need things to be spelled out, highlighted, or explained. I see proof of this in another brilliant Carey moment—here is Kelly, being given the boxing trunks that he’s supposed to wear for his first fight:
Rogers took the silk trunks from my hand and held them against himself but if he were intending to make the garment appear more manly then he failed. He looked a poon.
What is a “poon?” I don’t know for sure, but I do know it’s the perfect word for the occasion. And again, there’s that unexpected sense of recognition, in spite of or maybe because of a colloquialism I don’t completely understand. A moment like this is instantly humanizing; Kelly immediately wins my sympathies.
Moments like these were instructive to me, as I set out to write from the perspective of a poacher (or would-be poacher), the sort of profession that attracts a whole lot of judgment. Reading The Kelly Gang gave me the permission to be looser, more playful with the poacher’s voice, in spite of his grim circumstances. And Carey reminded me that when characters speak with the irreverence that comes naturally to them, they’re brought into sharper relief.
Return for a second to those squatting mice: it almost seems like a throwaway, but this is one of those moments when we can see the narrator’s wit at work. I read a line like this and I think, you may be an Australian outlaw but on the basis of that image alone—of defiant mice with blankets up around their chins—you are my kind of people.
So, in order to move beyond my preconceived notions about a certain character type, I realized I needed to focus on what brought that individual person’s voice to life. I stopped asking the question “What would a poacher be like?” and started thinking about language, especially its capacity for humor and playfulness. I am somewhat fluent in Malayalam, having grown up with that language, but I don’t quite know it well enough to know all the idioms. That was the challenge: trying to write someone who had a facility with the language that went beyond my own. So I thought about my grandmother, and all the strange, wonderful idioms she uses. An example: When something was too salty, she’d exclaim “son of salt!” It seems so strange, but of course American idioms—like “it was raining cats and dogs”—were just as odd to her. So I tried to incorporate the things she used to say to me, and challenged myself to use them in the casual, off-hand way Carey does—“he looked a poon”—without explaining too much. I tried to let idioms grow out of the dialogue and not feel like something I was planting there just to be emphasize regionality. It required a kind of delicacy, like telling a joke without overselling the punch line.