Getting the Cultural Details right
Any author writing about another culture is aware that many ordinary day-to-day rituals and habits often rest on invisible premises that local instinctively share. Unless the writer has become emerged in the culture; attending wedding, funerals, village fairs, schools, police stations, prisons, markets, and private homes, the chances of failing to see a significant detail can be lost. A good example is Karin Muller’s Japanland : A Year in Search of Wa The author is an early 30s documentary filmmaker who spent one year in Japan. The book is the record of her experience.
Publisher’s Weekly said of the book, “A keen listener, Muller lets an ensemble of voices speak, among them a swordmaker and a crab fisherman. She's also a participatory learner, taking on tasks like harvesting rice. The diverse activities and excursions to far-flung places make this a fine travel memoir, but it's the backbone of Muller's voyage that gives her book resonance and richness.”
In other words, though in Japan for a short period, Muller did manage to process an incredible number of obscure details about Japanese life, culture, and history. The cultural error – and a substantial one – is the cover chosen by the publisher shows a woman with the kimono folded right over left. That may not mean much to most Western readers. But only a corpse dressed for burial wears the kimono right over left. For a Japanese reader, the image would have been immediate and direct. The woman on the cover is dead!
If there is a lesson to be learnt, publishers should work with the hard to make certain novels and non-fiction with foreign settings are not sending the wrong message.