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Marissa Lingen

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Raw seafood, Mary, just imagine! [Sep. 30th, 2014|10:39 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Jo Walton has a blog post about the Decameron and ravioli, A Kind of Rissole, and it got me thinking about how we handle this sort of explanation in fantasy for effect, because Alec and I talk about it in terms of East Asian-inspired fantasy kind of a lot. It especially comes up with names, but I’m going to start with food and go from there.

The translator telling the reader that ravioli was a kind of rissoles, in Jo’s example, was trying not to make the reader trip on ravioli. (Slippery stuff. You could fall and hurt something.) It looks to me like he was trying to reassure his audience that, no, this is not important, this is mildly exotic but not upsetting, go on with this other thing I’m saying. He could have gone the other way. He could have described it in exoticizing detail, describing pasta in as distant a way as possible and then the fillings too, choosing the least familiar possible thing to fill ravioli with rather than going, look, it’s sort of like the thing you know with a starchy thing on the outside and a meat on the inside, right? When I was a little kid in the early ’80s, sushi was not a thing most older middle-class white Midwesterners ate, but oysters on the half-shell were a known thing, at least, a rich person food but a white rich person food, so if you were trying to explain sushi to someone’s white Midwestern great-grandmother, you could say, “It’s like oysters on the half shell, Gran, with a bit of rice,” if you wanted it to sound a little bit familiar, if you wanted her to say, “Oh, right, okay.” Or you could say, “They take tiny bits of carefully cut raw fish and seaweed and try to arrange them to look pretty, and then they eat them with long sticks,” if you wanted to make her go, “They what, I never.”

The same thing happens with names. If you’re trying to tell a story about someone’s daughter and you’re talking about, say, Japan to an 18th century English audience, you can think, oh, hell, well, the important thing is that Yuki was somebody’s daughter; what do people name their daughters? Fine, her name was Mary or Jane or Anne, one of the things people named their daughters. And the audience who needed to hear that ravioli was just like rissoles will think, oh right, it’s just someone’s daughter, carry on. Or you can decide that the important thing is the Flavor of Abroad, and you can carefully phoneticize: her name was Yoo-Kee, that’s what I think I heard! Yoo-Kee, your audience will savor, what a curious sound! how exotic! Or you can take a middle ground and translate. You can say, well, they named their daughter Snow. Snow! says your audience. What a pretty custom. And their other daughter was named Bitterness. Don’t think much of women there, do they? says your audience.

Oh wait. I slipped. That was Mary again.

Things have changed since the eighteenth century and even since the early 1980s; now Yuki is just an ordinary person’s name for most of us, thank heavens, and “oh, eat it, it’s fine, it’s basically like sushi!” is a way to make a food familiar and comfortable. Again, for most of us. For some…not so much. “Everyone” knows ravioli now. But my point is: fantasy authors sometimes want to invoke each of these effects in fantasy settings. The distancing, the familiarizing, the pieces in between. And that’s pretty value-neutral!…except for the assumptions behind what’s distant, what’s familiar, and which components of your audience will find them to go which directions. Writing is communication, and if you have giant chunks of your audience with opposite assumptions about what’s familiar and what’s distancing, that’s a pretty tricky balancing act for something as simple as a name. It’s very easy to overthink, but that’s because it’s a genuinely hard problem, and at a certain point you just have to do what you’re going to do and let it fall out as it may with different groups of readers.

Some of whom might end up thinking a rissole is a lot more similar to ravioli than it actually is, if you’re not careful with how you translate the Decameron.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 12:09 pm (UTC)
This comment has crystallized for me that a future in which three sisters are named Yuki, Mary, and Rissole, or that sort of clustering is a familiar-cozy future, is a way of bringing the future in close for me. That's a way of saying that these people are not alienated and upsetting, some of them name their kids after meatballs because they like the sound of it, but don't we all have a cousin like that?

The distancing effect names are the ones with numbers or letter-designations--if they had been named Yuki 4, Mary IX, and Rissole-Gamma, that's a distancing effect naming scheme in SF.

So it's different genre to genre.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:17 pm (UTC)
This is an awesome little gem of a story, right here.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-01 04:30 pm (UTC)
I would also note the effect that Tolkien calls "mooreeffoc," a word I believe he borrowed from Chesterton: Taking something that is perfectly familiar and distancing it through the manner of description. This is a neat way of commenting on one's own society. I can think of two examples that are quite powerful scenes for me:

In Kipling's "As Easy as A.B.C.," there is a description of the familiar process of voting, told by someone in the mid-21st century to whom the whole business is a barely remembered custom of the barbaric past (and in particular is associated with mob violence against racial minorities). Out of this amazing play, he assured us, would automatically arise a higher, nobler, and kinder world, based‚he demonstrated this with the awful lucidity of the insane—based on the sanctity of the Crowd and the villainy of the single person. . . . I turned bewildered to Takahira, who was nodding solemnly.

In Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (perhaps my favorite science fiction novel), there is a scene where Oelita the Heretic, who has rejected her planet's custom of eating the "low listed" during its recurrent local famines, sees convincing visual images of scenes from Earth's militaryhistory. And she goes outside and falls on her face in the mud before her God orbiting overhead and thanks him for saving her people from a terrible place where people are slaughtered in vast numbers and no one even eats them. The fact that Kingsbury made that totally convincing to me and even moving gave me one of the most purely sfnal pleasures I can recall.

I know perfectly well what ravioli are, but I don't have a clue about rissole, though I've seen the word often enough for it to be familiar. Does it seem a bit odd that "ravioli" is a mass noun in English, as if the noodles were a continuous substance, when they look as if they're a plural count noun in Italian—one raviolo, two ravioli, many ravioli? (Merriam-Webster confirms this and says raviolo is a diminutive derived from Latin rapa, turnip—which in English has transferred to a different species of Brassica, though the oil from its seeds is now sold as "canola," because "rape oil" was terrible for marketing. So I guess someone thought those filled noodles looked like turnips, back in the day.)

Thinking about this is making me go all free associative. I'd better hit Post Comment now.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 04:40 pm (UTC)
I have recently had the experience of defamiliarizing myself with a familiar thing through description: I described Homecoming and Homecoming royalty to some British people. Wow, did it look strange by the time I was done. I mean, it was already a little odd, but uff da, what a thing.

I think one of the points I was too tired to make properly is that we sometimes get caught up, as spec fic writers, in the fact that we do this all the time, the distancing and exoticizing of our own stuff. But that it can be done neutrally, or it can be done positively or negatively, and we need to keep an eye on what we're lauding or denigrating, when we're using distancing/exoticizing effects, especially when it's stuff that's been distanced/exoticized consistently for the audience we're writing for.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:14 pm (UTC)
You have absolutely nailed the problem of translation down, too. Do you want a person to experience a thing they're familiar with, but with shades of difference (since this is not, in fact, something they've met before), or do you want them to experience A! Different! Culture! in which case you play it to the hilt as Other. . . but in the process, create a reading experience that's not at all what anyone in the country of origin would have.

You probably know that when Waley translated The Tale of Genji, he included things like devans and chairs and desks, because it was just too alienating (he decided) to go with the screens and mats and clothes-as-bedding and so on. Later translators didn't do that.

I had never thought of explaining sushi in terms of oysters! That's very good. And that's an excellent example of the difference between playing something up for alienness or similarity.

I'm going to point my husband to this post; he'll love it. (He teaches Japanese literature.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 05:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's just it. And if you want to get people used to a different culture actually existing as itself, there have to be steps of familiarization in some sense: they have to know about there being screens and mats, and yet the screens and mats have to get past the OMG SO WEIRD stage for the people who have chairs and desks (and simultaneously on the other end--the screens and mats people have to get used to the chairs and desks people too). You can't just pretend that everybody does it your own way forever. But early on, the idea that those people you haven't met yet aren't so strange really, they're just people: it's a useful idea if your listeners haven't got it already. Which in some cultures and subcultures they really haven't, and even in ours we sometimes need that subconscious button poked.

I find that "oh, it's like [familiar food] with a little bit different gravy" is very useful with some older people. My parents are young, and my grandmother even--she's only 82 and very broad-minded about food for 82. But "gravy" is a very, very safe-making word for elderly white Americans who are less world-travelers than my own grandparents. It is hitting a subconscious "this is safe" button. Someone's gravy might be boring, certainly, or even faintly icky. But it's unlikely to be dangerous. Sauce could be anything. Who knows about sauce! But gravy, now, worst that's going to happen to you is you won't like it much.

By all means, send your husband on over!
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:35 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't have guessed that about gravy! When I was growing up, my WASP mother cooked my Italian father pasta two times a week, and he wasn't big on roasts, so sauces (tomato sauce) were what was ordinary, rather than gravy. But I totally get what you're saying, and I need to remember this for when I'm explaining foods to people.

I pointed him to it on Twitter :-)
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:14 pm (UTC)


(I know what ravioli is, but not rissole. Heh.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 05:15 pm (UTC)

Re: PS

That's where I was, too, until Jo's post.
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[User Picture]From: houseboatonstyx
2014-10-01 10:06 pm (UTC)
Off to the side, another case, current.

Elderly Southern ex-cowboy, ex-military: "Scallops? What do you do with them?"

Me: "Well, anything you'd do with tofu."

Him: "Oh, fine."
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 10:11 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2014-10-02 09:04 pm (UTC)
I like this. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-10-03 06:32 am (UTC)
In Boston the term for potstickers or Chinese dumplings is "Peking ravioli", which I'm convinced came about because a bunch of Chinese immigrants moved in next to a bunch of slightly-more-settled Italian immigrants and tried to explain their food to each other.

I think every culture has something which could reasonably be described as "It's like $ravioli, Mom," for local stuff-in-a-fried-doughy-shell values of $ravioli.
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From: vcmw
2014-10-03 01:27 pm (UTC)
Things-wrapped-in-flat-breads and things-cooked-in-dough-pockets are pretty much some of my favorite foods. I'm generally excited by them whether the flat bread or dough pocket is made of teff or buckwheat or wheat or corn or shredded fried potato or rice flour or what have you. And I like all the fillings. Veggie fillings or meat fillings with ginger or curry or tomato or rosemary or chili. Things in dough things!
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