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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

My nightmare (satirical) projection for the future of the university

In his Guardian article on the encroachment of artificial intelligence into university essay writing, Jeff Sparrow suggests—with faint hope—that tackling the AI challenge might ‘spur us to recognise genuine knowledge’.

As I leave higher education this month after a forty-year run, I despair of the kind of scenario mentioned by Sparrow, where an AI-generated essay could be marked by an AI assessment program, bypassing learning and knowledge altogether. This scenario fails at least two of the five challenges that Luciano Floridi poses for AI in his Full-on robot writing’: the artificial intelligence challenge facing universities (1), i.e. that ‘we should make AI’s stupidity work for human intelligence’ and that ‘we should make AI make us more human’.

I fervently hope that scholars like Floridi and Professor Dagmar Monett (2) will help avert the potential damage to higher education by a misplaced faith in the ‘I’ part of AI.

My way of blowing off intellectual steam is through writing fiction, and it’s no coincidence that my latest novel The True History of Jude includes a satirical swipe at an industry that I am about to exit. I leave with deep worries for the future—the role of AI in academic writing being one of them.

The book combines a coming-of-age-tale, a time-shifting love story, and a reimagining of a Thomas Hardy novel—all embedded in a dystopian setting. And as a fantasy, it gave me the power to project a set of contemporary themes to their potential extremes: I predicted a climate-ravaged and depopulated Australia leased to the world community for uranium mining, a corporatised global authoritarian system controlled by an Australian royal dynasty, and the destruction of artistic creativity under the crushing conformity of an information monopoly. And of course there’s a university.

Could it happen?

When I was studying Russian in the USSR in 1974, could I have imagined the fall of the Soviet empire? When we basked in the Australian summer of 2019, could we have imagined a pandemic that would upend the world?

In my version of the future, the Australian monarchy is the world’s first virtual state, having excised itself from its own territory(3). The Palace operates from leased premises at Oxford University. Across the city is the exiled campus of an Australian university (you’ll have to buy the book to find which one). It’s from here that the elderly Professor Susan Bridehead writes fawning hagiographies of the Australian royals, and teaches history to their offspring and aristocratic cronies whose royal stipends make it unnecessary for them to get jobs. The students return year after year to take the same courses, some even passing away from old age during lectures. Cosplay is a campus obsession: This year’s theme is Medieval, and Susan has to ask all the ladies wearing tall wimples to sit at the back to avoid blocking the lecture hall sightlines.

And last but definitely not least, under the ‘Standardised Study for Success Strategy’, students are obliged to produce their essays with the university’s in-house AI text generator. All grades are randomly generated.

It’s satire of course, but I’m certain that many academics will identify the threads I’ve pulled to weave scenarios such as: The banning of paper and handwriting; proscription of works of fiction; the training of professionals not at the university but in online polytechnics run by a consortium of three global consulting companies.

Could it happen? Could our current students imagine the kind of degree I took in the UK in the seventies? No internet, no credit point system, no fees, no assignment mills, no student surveys.

And all run by humans.

Notes

1. Floridi, Luciano, Ultraintelligent Machines, Singularity, and Other Sci-fi Distractions about AI (September 18, 2022). Lavoro, Diritti, Europa – https://www.lavorodirittieuropa.it/, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4222347

2. Prof Monett tweets at @dmonett a well-informed commentary on the hype surrounding AI.

3. The Australian Parliament excised the mainland from Australia’s migration zone in 2013.

© 2022 Stuart Campbell

“Book Review: The True History of Jude” Reviewed by Erica Ball

The story of a rebellious woman and the power of our stories, even in a world where truth is not welcome 

The True History of Jude is an epistolary novel about a bleak dystopian future in which the geopolitical structure of the world has drastically changed. Due to massive environmental upheaval caused by climate change, many countries, including Australia, face grave uncertainty about the future of their cities and the people who live in them.  

When a pivotal moment strikes in the form of a tsunami, a complex political plan years in the making is triggered and the fates of millions are rewritten in an instant.  

One hundred years into this new world order we find Susan Bridehead, an eminent historian. We learn about her through letters to a friend in America she calls Alex. She has been tasked with writing the history of her country from its inception after the tsunami, but her history must be approved at the highest levels, and so it must match the official version of events. Basically, it must not tell the truth.  

At the age of seventy, Sue is experiencing worrying symptoms and is convinced her body is in decline. Perhaps this is why she dares to defy the law and begin to write what she calls a “true history,” namely the story of her prior life in the lawless lands back in Australia. Curiously she tells the story through the eyes of someone she knew there, Jude, rather than her own.  

Because of this, the reader is never really sure how much of Sue’s story is actually true. Everything we see is in either a letter to Alex or Sue’s version of events as she thinks they might have seemed through the eyes of Jude. Add to this the fact that memories are often unreliable in and of themselves, and the whole book is given an eerie dreamlike feeling. It really does make the mind go in circles.  

Fittingly, the elements of Jude and Sue’s backstory—the setting, people, and challenges to cover basic necessities—are visceral, but similarly dreamlike and even at times nightmarish. Their story takes place among the people left behind on the devastated Australian continent. They are complex and imperfect people trying to make any kind of life for themselves and make any kind of sense of this horrifyingly imperfect world.  

They must navigate a society in which the systems that are supposed to be in place need to be reinvented and completely rebuilt. After the collapse, everything needs to be figured out again: language, religion, economy, currency, power, goods, labor, basic know-how, and craftsmanship. And every one of these is open to being corrupted or perverted by the wrong person. Every community is left to its own devices and so evolves in its own way. 

It is striking how different people react to the same events in drastically different ways.  

Though very accessible to any genre reader, this book is highly recommended to those interested in near-future stories with chillingly possible trajectories. The political and social issues depicted are thought-provoking, and thus it would be excellent for book clubs that enjoy serious discussions. 

In many ways, it is a thought experiment with a terrifying premise: What would happen if the greatest powers in the world—those of government, military, and corporations were to join forces or be joined under a single will? As such, it is a look at how change can come gradually or in a single cataclysmic event. Of how freedoms can be slowly whittled away even if it’s obvious what is happening because no one has any idea what to do about it. Is there even anything to do about it, once such forces are at work?

Thank you for your interest in my latest novel, available here on Amazon (Kindle and paperback), Apple, Kobo, and other vendors – Stuart Campbell.

The Sunset Assassin gets a cover makeover

I’ve just updated the cover for The Sunset Assassin using an image licensed by Shutterstock. Instead of editing the image with a graphics program, I used Shutterstock’s built-in editor, which is terrific for simple jobs involving a single image.

I’ve used a consistent format for all of the Siranoush Trilogy novels: A bleached sepia image of the city where the novel is set (Cairo, Valletta and Sydney) with the title in a russet serif font, and a dark sans serif font for the author and the text at the foot of the cover.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

Sydney, New Year’s Day, 1978. While the beaches teem and the cold beers flow, a clandestine syndicate is planning to overthrow the Australian government. They’ve commissioned dodgy businessman Kerry Rich to detonate a bomb at the Opera House on Anzac Day. He’s passed the job on to Pierre Farag, a reluctant British sleeper agent dumped in Australia. But Pierre and his wife Zouzou want out — out of Sydney and out of doing other people’s dirty jobs. Meanwhile investigative journalist Liz Lanzoni has got a sniff of the bomb plot and sees the chance to break the story of the decade. As the day of the blast looms the operation unravels, and Pierre, Zouzou, Liz and Kerry find themselves on the run to a hideout in the northern tropics of Queensland. Soaked in the hedonism and corruption of late seventies Sydney, The Sunset Assassin traces the fine line between loyalty and betrayal.

Let me know what you think of the cover. And check out my books here.

5-star reviews for The True History of Jude

I usually write psychological thrillers and espionage stories, but I stuck my neck out with this book. I resisted advice to make it fit a genre. I wrestled with the text for six years.

Now the feedback is coming in, and I’m delighted with the positive things people are saying.

I think its the best book I’ve written.

Is it a dystopian thriller, a time-shift romance, or coming of age story? You be the judge.

See vendor links here.

My nightmare (satirical) projection for the future of the university

‘At my first lecture this year, I had to ask all the ladies wearing tall wimples to sit at the back,’ writes Professor Susan Bridehead in my genre-defying novel The True History of Jude.

The book combines a coming-of-age-tale, a time-shifting love story, and a reimagining of a Thomas Hardy novel—all embedded in a dystopian setting.

And as a fantasy, it gave me the power to project a set of contemporary themes to their potential extremes: I predicted a climate-ravaged and depopulated Australia leased to the world community for uranium mining, a corporatised global authoritarian system controlled by an Australian royal dynasty, and the destruction of artistic creativity under the crushing conformity of an information monopoly.

Could it happen?

When I was studying Russian in the USSR in 1974, could I have imagined the fall of the Soviet empire? When we basked in the Australian summer of 2019, could we have imagined a pandemic that would upend the world?

Back to the wimples: The Australian monarchy is the world’s first virtual state, having excised itself from its own territory*. The Palace operates from leased premises at Oxford University. Across the city is the exiled campus of my alma mater The University of Sydney. It’s from here that the elderly Susan writes fawning hagiographies of the Australian royals and teaches history to their offspring and aristocratic cronies whose royal stipends make it unnecessary for them to get jobs. The students return year after year to take the same courses, some even passing away from old age during lectures. Cosplay is a campus obsession: This year’s theme is Medieval, thus the tall wimples blocking the lecture hall sightlines.

It’s satire of course, but I’m certain that many academics will identify the threads I’ve pulled to weave scenarios like these: The banning of paper and handwriting so that all student work is created and archived online; the obligatory use of AI text generators to write assignments that result in randomly generated grades; works of fiction proscribed; professionals trained not at the university but in online polytechnics run by a consortium of three global consulting companies.

I’ve spent decades of my professional life helping create Australia’s higher education system. What I observe today is a quantum leap away from the undergraduate degree I took in the UK in the seventies—no internet, no credit point system, no fees, no student support service, no assignment mills, no student surveys, no casual lecturers. My future scenario for the university in The True History of Jude may seem outlandish, but the threads are clear to see today.

*The Australian Parliament excised the mainland from Australia’s migration zone in 2013.

Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell

To check out The True History of Jude and my other books click here.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

Free Kindle download – last chance 27-29 September 2022

I’m offering a final free download of The True History of Jude on Kindle 27-29 September.

From 1 October, I’ll be widening my retail platforms to include Smashwords, Apple, Kobo and others. Jude will still be on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Here’s what people have been saying about my latest novel:

When I started reading “the true history of Jude”, I was completely taken aback. The back cover describes it as “a dystopian thriller” and that is exactly what it proved to be. To say that I enjoyed it, is an understatement. It is completely different from all your other writing.. But different in an engrossing way. The style of writing, the characters, the structure of the book are really terrific. Much of the book is in the style of letters (forbidden) between two principal characters and it is through the letters the story emerges. Although the book has no resemblance to “The Time Travellers Wife”, it left me with the same feeling I had on completion of that novel. The feeling can only be described as sitting back, putting the book down and going “Wow, that was an amazing story.” I admire the way you imagined the future and the repercussions of several events that precipitated that dystopia. I’ll leave it to other readers to discover what happened. Stuart, it’s a great book. I loved it.

Check my books out here!

Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction

Introduction

I’m an academic linguist turned novelist, and my academic training has been tangled with my creative practice ever since I tried to write fiction.

This article began out of curiosity. After I completed a trilogy bristling with Arabic speakers, it occurred to me that I’d achieved the technical effects of making them sound foreign virtually on autopilot. I started drafting a blog post trying to analyse the techniques I’d used to create foreignness.

Around the same time, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s fiendishly challenging The Crossing with its swathes of untranslated Spanish dialogue. McCarthy brought me up with a start: His treatment of foreignness was a universe away from my own.

I had to look more widely. I put my blog post aside.

The framework

I made a fresh start with an article called How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction, where I used examples from Philip Kerr, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway to develop a framework of propositions about how authors create foreign characters in fiction. In summary, what I proposed was:

Foreignising is manifested in voice—that of narrator, author or character.

The purpose of foreignising varies according to voice.

Foreignising techniques include:

  • Foreigner talk
  • Untranslated terms and dialogue
  • Definitions, including: Explicit definitions, Implied definitions

With a set of propositions to hand, I was in a position to return to my trilogy. and to further develop the framework.

The Siranoush Trilogy

The trilogy comprises a series of stand-alone novels, Cairo Mon AmourBury me in Valletta and The Sunset Assassin, set in Egypt, Malta and Australia respectively between 1973 and 1978. Each novel is written from alternating points of view of the key protagonist Pierre Farag and several others, all in close third person. This allowed me to foreignise the protagonists’ inner thoughts as well as their dialogue. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with Pierre rather than bringing in the other characters.

Pierre is a half-Armenian and half-Coptic private detective from Cairo. He is inadvertently entangled in an espionage plot during the Yom Kippur War, which launches him on a chain of perilous scrapes across the world, ending on a crocodile farm in remote northern Australia. I portray him as an Arabic speaker since I know quite a lot about Arabic (my Armenian is so poor that I remained silent on that dimension of Pierre’s linguistic world).

Dialogue, inner thoughts, and a hall of mirrors

Foreignising dialogue is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the mental tricks the reader has to unconsciously perform: If the character is supposed to be speaking in a foreign language, the author naturally composes the dialogue in English, but may choose to play some tricks to make it sound Arabic-flavoured, Russian-flavoured, etc. But if the character is speaking in English, the writer might tweak it with some foreigner talk using nonstandard grammar, odd vocabulary choices or even spelling out an accent.

The fragile notion of ‘inner thoughts’ throws up its own exquisite dilemmas. I frame Pierre’s thoughts for the reader in English, but I tacitly ask you to suspend disbelief and assume they occur mainly in Arabic. But it gets more tricky: I’m asking you to assume those thoughts rattle around his head in perfectly formed Arabic sentences that happen to look like perfectly formed English sentences on the page*.

A hall of mirrors, indeed.

Voice

Based on the proposed framework, I firstly foreignise Pierre as character, typically through his manner of speech; and when he holds the current point of view, I foreignise him as  author, typically through his inner thoughts.

Character

Pierre is pedantically precise in his multilingual skills and restrained in his emotions—a man ‘closed in on himself’, who thinks carefully before he speaks. I often foreignise him by placing tripwires in his English competence. For example, in The Sunset Assasin, he travels to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill to interpret for a Syrian in a court case. But he is told on his arrival that the gentleman has “karked it overnight”.

“Oh dear,” Pierre said, disguising his puzzlement. Perhaps the police sergeant meant the Syrian had changed his plea. “Should I have a word with him nevertheless?”

I’m careful not make Pierre into a caricature through foreigner talk. The ‘bad Arab’ trope is so deeply entrenched in novels and films that I absolutely refuse to propagate it (see further discussion here) .But I justified a drop of foreigner talk in these examples from minor characters in Cairo Mon Amour, the first of which attempts to portray Russian being spoken badly by an Arabic-speaking Soviet Embassy driver:

“Comrade boss. Why Russian lady all go home?”

And in the second case, which depends purely on accent, an Arabic-speaking waitress repeats a customer’s order made in English:

“Tea wiz milk shocolate kek.”

Author

The locus of author is where the hard work of foreignising goes on in The Siranoush Trilogy. Here is Pierre in Cairo Mon Amour on the last ship to leave Alexandria at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He hasn’t had much to do with Americans, and he is shocked at the behaviour of the fleeing US diplomatic staff:

Braying like donkeys, [the Americans] complained that they “only ever sailed in fucking first-class” or “wouldn’t stand for a fucking starboard cabin.” The very air was thick with the ugly English word. It was as if a race of civilised beings had reverted to savagery. The women, Pierre thought, were even more vulgar than the men.

In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre reflects on finding his arch-enemy Colonel Dimashqi confined to an iron lung. He inwardly reflects with baroque verbal ornamentation:

… was this an evil dish cooked up from British duplicity and Egyptian bald-faced guile? Oh, the tricks of la perfide Albion.

And here, Pierre experiences a Wimpy Bar for the first time in 1975:

He’d seen the English seated before these Wimpies through the window of the ‘Bars’ where they were purchased: Flat anaemic buns containing a strip of grey meat, next to desiccated yellow potato chips.

Numerous other examples of the author voice occur in the following section, where we turn to foreignising techniques. As we will see, the discussion will elaborate the framework set out in the introduction.

A learnable set of Arabic terms

I chose a small set of Arabic words—initially defined and then left in the original—for the reader to learn through repetition and prompts. Several of these occur through the entire trilogy, e.g. khawaga ‘foreigner’, bawwab ‘doorman’, shabkah ‘network’, sharmouta ‘bitch’. The whole set amounts to about ten words in total, with no more than eighteen instances of a word in any of the books—just enough in my reckoning to garnish the text without overloading the reader. The words bawwab and shabkah, for example, are part of an important plot device: Pierre’s work as a private investigator entails maintaining his ‘network’, which includes Cairo’s doormen, his eyes and ears on the city’s apartment blocks.

Here’s how I embedded an explicit definition into Pierre’s inner thoughts:

He had spent most of the previous evening consulting his shabkah, as Fawzi called it; well, you could call it a ‘network’ if the word adequately described the troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite.

There’s a really smart trick here (I modestly aver): shabkah in line 1 is the signal for us to pretend Pierre is thinking in Arabic; the quote marks around ‘network‘ in line 2 signal that the pretence is briefly lifted.

Sometimes I tutored the reader obliquely with an implied definition, again in those slippery inner thoughts:

And then what if the lawyers discovered that he had been keeping the sharmouta in luxury all this time? How would she bear the shame?

Zouzou Paris, a ‘bitch’? Well, she would say that. Everybody else did.

Let me round off my set of learnable Arabic words with ya’ni, the Arabic conversational filler roughly equivalent to ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, which occurs about a dozen times in Cairo Mon Amour. Here I put it in the mouth of Major Fawzi, a man who relishes his prowess in the English language:

“My dear friend Pierre Farag,” he began, “has persuaded me that your situation presents opportunities for all of us to profit. We have ya’ni put our noggins together in your absence.”

“Noggins?” Bellamy wasn’t sure whether Fawzi’s quaint English was part of a sophisticated act or simply the result of a diet of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

Well-known Arabic expressions

I also added a handful of Arabic expressions like In shaa’ Allah, inserted without translation in the hope that the reader will recognise them without help. Habibi and habibti, as Zouzou and Pierre address one another, fall into this category, occurring consistently untranslated throughout the trilogy.

Crosslinguistic puns

These can be pressed into foreignisation service if you’re lucky enough to find one or two. In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre and his wife Zouzou are involved in a conspiracy involving Stash, a political extremist who poses as a hippy; I have Pierre use the word khunfus (beetle) eleven times to describe Stash. It’s a colloquialism used in Egypt in the seventies, supposedly because hippies were associated with the Beatles. It comes in for some handy wordplay when Stash is found murdered:

“So the khunfus is a police informer,” Zouzou said. “Squashed like a cockroach.”

Cultural motifs

Soon after this remark, Pierre’s wife Zouzou has a glass of karkady, which by now the reader has learned is hibiscus flower tea. She yearns for a glass of this comforting drink at times of stress; the further the couple stray from Cairo, the stronger the yearning. I’d categorise this further as a cultural motif that pervades the trilogy. I had fun in The Sunset Assassin when a Sydney journalist visiting Zouzou mistook karkady for Ribena.

Another such cultural motif was kushari, the hi-carb Cairo street food; I used a kushari stall repeatedly as a meeting point; much more colourful that meeting at the Post Office! The reader’s tuition was delivered by an English speaker through an implied definition:

“As long as I don’t have to eat that horrible kushari stuff. If I have to make a run for it, I don’t want a belly full of lentils and macaroni.”

Unique Arabic words and phrases

Items occurring only once or twice in the trilogy were popped in with a definition when I felt I needed to remind the reader that the language in use is Arabic; I’m obsessively careful to know who is supposed to be speaking what in any piece of dialogue. This example is the sole instance of masri where I used an editorial definition to explain the meaning, and to confirm that Pierre is thinking in Arabic:

If anyone had bothered to ask him, “What are you?” he’d have said “masri”, ‘Egyptian’.

And in the next case, we have some brinkmanship between two Arabic-speaking British diplomats, this time with the implied definition tactic applied to a unique Arabic phrase:

“You’ve got some nerve. Bloody nerve, I’d call it. I don’t know why I don’t take you outside, point at you and yell gasus isra’ili.”

“Perhaps I am an Israeli spy, Don. Walk out the door and give it a try.”

And the following implied definition of a unique word occurred when Pierre’s nemesis Dimashqi asks Pierre’s forgiveness as he lies gasping in an iron lung. I have Pierre implicitly define bashar in his inner thoughts after the stricken Dimashqi utters the word in dialogue:

“I can offer a token of expiation.”

“There is no need. You have my forgiveness.”

“But still, we live in this material world. We are bashar, with debts to pay and accounts to be settled.”

Bashar– human? The man had lived the life of a devil. What kind of token could stand in expiation?

And here’s another tactic—a repeat definition of a unique expression, when the English version is uttered immediately after the Arabic phrase:

Allah yarhamuh.” The woman looked away, and then said, “I had a son too.”

“He died?”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

Allah yarhamuh, God bless his memory,” Lucy said.

Translated and repurposed Arabic proverbs

I threw in two of these for exotic effect:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?”

To quote the note background notes to Cairo Mon Amour, the ‘breeze around their turbans’ remark is my modification of an Egyptian proverb in J.L. Burckhardt’s Arabic Proverbs, (Curzon Press, 1994, p.3). The translation of the original reads, ‘If the turbans complain of a slight wind, what must be the state of the inner drawers?’

The second is my modification of another of Burckhardt’s proverbs. In the original (p. 114), ‘The owl has become a poetess’. I refashion this as:

“So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes.”

I should add that Johann Ludwig Burckhardt died in 1817, so I’m not sure that the originals would be recognised in contemporary Egypt. But that’s not the point; the repurposed versions are an Orientalist-inspired strategy to add exotic flavour to the text.

Let me add one more related device, the translated foreign simile, an example being ‘as confused as an ant’. I think this works in foreignising the text simply because English does not use this simile.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I haven’t set out to establish an exciting new academic subdiscipline that will bridge linguistics and fiction writing; I learned long ago that they don’t march in step, but they do have interesting encounters from time to time.

While I was writing this article, I was conscious that I had focussed solely on writing in English. I’d love to hear from linguists or authors about how languages other than English create foreigners. Let’s start a conversation.

I’d also love to hear more generally from other linguists who write fiction: Right now I’m the sole example I know!

*I should make it clear that the notion of ‘inner thoughts’ discussed here is not underpinned by psychological theories about inner speech proposed by scholars such as Vygotsky.

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You can find details of my novels here.

Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Campbell

How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction

Introducing the concept of foreignising in fiction

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a Basque man asks an American on a bus, ‘Where you go now? While the effect of foreignness is clear, how many readers would wonder how or why Hemingway achieved the effect? Very few, I think.

Except people like me. As a fiction author who happens to be an academic linguist, I’m interested in the techniques used to create foreign characters, foreign cultural milieux, locations, and mindsets. In this article I try to tease out the principles behind what I’ll call foreignising in fiction. In a subsequent article I’ll explore my own writing practice by analysing the foreignising techniques in my Siranoush Trilogy.

The article is organised around four questions:

  • What theories or principles of foreignising in fiction are available?
  • What is the purpose of foreignising in fiction?
  • What foreignising techniques do authors use?
  • What advice does my analysis suggest to authors?

Theories or principles of foreignising in fiction—or a lack thereof

My academic instincts told me to check out what others had written on the topic, for example in the field of literary stylistics, but I drew a blank. I did turn up references in the literature of translation studies, where a debate about foreignising versus domestication has bubbled on for decades with scholars wandering over a vast literary landscape to argue for and against a translation reading like a translation or an original text.

So with little help from my academic literature searches, I fell back on a few mentions on authors’ blogs on the lines of ‘try using a sprinkling of foreign words’, and ‘don’t confuse the reader’. An exception was Louise Harnby’s article on the problem of representing foreign accents. Jennifer Sommer’s well referenced piece on incorporating dialect into fiction is on the periphery of foreignising, but offers some good insights on reader acceptability.

It was time to shake out a set of propositions. I drew on a random selection of authors from Agatha Christie to Australia’s Michael Mohammed Ahmad to find out more about foreignising in fiction.

The purpose of foreignising in fiction

One approach to understanding foreignising is through the concept of voice—that complex bundle of stylistic features that make a piece of writing distinct. Voice is often specified as that of narrator, author or character, and I’ve tried to use these as lenses through which to examine foreignising. Each lens, as it turns out, reveals a range of different purposes for foreignising.

Foreignising through character

Perhaps the most famous example of a foreignised character in English literature is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose voice is embellished not just with words and phrases like mon ami and n’est ce pas, but also with an elaborate formality: For example, Poirot comprehends rather than understands. Christie’s purpose is evidently to construct an exotic and instantly recognisable character—brand recognition if you will. But what about the man on Hemingway’s bus? His faulty grammar marks him as a foreignised character, but he appears only once. I suspect he contributes to the setting along with the rocky hills of the Spanish landscape. This tiny sample shows the contribution of vocabulary and grammar to what I’ll call foreigner talk. But what about a foreign accent? Neither Christie nor Hemingway seem to attempt representing a French or Spanish accent through spelling, and my suspicion is that foreign accents tend to be rare in contemporary fiction (unlike in film; see Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for a virtuoso effort). 

Foreignising through narrator

I chose Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe as an example of foreignising through narrator. As autobiographical fiction, the novel offers observations into the everyday lives of a chaotic, sprawling immigrant family in a Sydney suburb with a large Muslim population. The main foreignising technique is for the narrator to insert Arabic expressions into dialogue and exposition, along with English translations. The Tribe is an invitation: Join the family and get a sense of being one of us.

Foreignising through author

Philip Kerr’s March Violets works quite differently. We aren’t invited in; we’re already immersed from the first words. Bernie Gunther is a streetwise, smart-talking Berlin private detective operating in 1936 under the cloud of the Nazi regime. The first-person English text presents Bernie and all his interlocutors as monolingual German-speaking. We observe all Bernie’s external observations and internal thoughts through a magic Germanising lens. The effect is to persuade the reader that they are (almost) experiencing a German text.

Cormac McCarthy’s foreignising approach in The Crossing is quite different from Kerr’s. In pre-war America, Billy Parham journeys into a squalid and violent Mexico. Billy speaks English and Spanish, and McCarthy saturates the text with Spanish words and dialogue, largely untranslated. The experience of reading The Crossing is akin to a language immersion class; skip over what you don’t understand, keep going, absorb what you can. McCarthy’s approach is uncompromising with its sparse punctuation and absent quotation marks: This is Billy Parham’s bilingual consciousness—don’t expect the experience to be easy. How different from Kerr: Let’s make things as easy as possible for us to pretend this is Bernie’s monolingual German consciousness.

Foreignising techniques

Kerr creates a Germanised backdrop by peppering the text with a limited set of untranslated terms like MurattisBerliner MorgenpostThe Alex, Kriminalinspektor, Sipo, and Kripo. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts them as understood; the meanings eventually become clear from the context. This is in sharp contrast to McCarthy’s many untranslated Spanish words—güeritomenudocaídas, etc.—and entire chunks of untranslated dialogue, which cannot always be understood from context. I’ve tried reading McCarthy with a dictionary to hand—a pointless approach; far better to cruise the text, experiencing it on multiple levels of comprehension.

Authors exploit definitions in a range of ways. Kerr uses explicit definitions sparingly, eg. D-Zug is explained as ‘the express train’, and KZ as a ‘concentration camp’. McCarthy gives us an occasional helping hand by having Billy paraphrase in English a piece of Spanish dialogue in an internal reflection or a response to a speaker. I call this an implied definition.

Ahmad’s The Tribe is heavy with explicit definitions, in line with the book’s purpose to invite us into an alien world; unlike McCarthy, Ahmad doesn’t want us to misunderstand anything. A basic technique is to define an Arabic word at its first occurrence and then offer it untranslated on the assumption we’ll have learned the meaning. Sometimes a word is left untranslated, e.g. aa-jeen, which is easily understood from context as ‘dough’. Words like yulla and inshallah are presumably familiar to Ahmad’s readership.

Tips for authors

Here are a few tips based on the framework developed here:

  • Decide why you want to foreignise, e.g. to create a memorable character, to enhance a setting, to bring the reader into a foreign consciousness.
  • Determine the appropriate voice to foreignise, e.g. character, narrator, author.
  • Think about the amount of foreignising you expect your readership to tolerate.
  • Choose the techniques will you use, e.g. foreigner talk, untranslated foreign words and phrases, foreign words and phrases with definitions.

If you’ve found this article useful, please let me know. I’d be delighted to receive comments on foreignising in fiction from other authors and linguists.

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Copyright 2022 Stuart Campbell

Stuart Campbell was born in London but has lived most of his adult life in Sydney, Australia. He was formerly a Professor of Linguistics, but has been writing fiction since 2011. His latest novel is The True History of Jude. Find out about his books here.

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My literary remake of Kuranda

There’s something about Kuranda in the far north of Queensland that draws me back every few years. It’s a green jewel of a town up on the Atherton tablelands, peopled by Aboriginal Australians, potters, painters and pie makers. The tiny railway station nestles in a culvert draped in rainforest trees and vines. The miniature St Saviour’s church is built from logs, its delicate stained glass windows recording its history and benefactors.

It’s here that I staged the eccentric romance at the heart of The True History of Jude which reimagines the story of Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Kuranda couldn’t be more different than Hardy’s Christminster (a thinly disguised Oxford), where the naive working-class stonemason Jude travelled to find his cousin Sue and to study theology. My Jude and Sue are part of a remnant population in an Australia wrecked by climate change and abandoned to mineral exploitation. My Jude escapes a government-controlled refugee camp at Orange that has evolved into a matriarchal society with its own creole language; Kuranda is an outlaw community ruled by a patriarchal religious sect. And like Hardy’s Sue, my Sue is married to an old school teacher.

I’ll leave the back story here to focus on my literary remodelling of Kuranda. The BP service station on Coondoo street is now the Blessed Prospect Church where divine singing mixes with the tropical breezes; you can just discern a petrol tanker among a tangle of vines out the front. There’s a train rusting on the railway station tracks, which are boarded over to form the yard of Slab, an odd-job man who employs Jude. He’s the nearest Jude can find to a stonemason, a New Zealander librarian once press-ganged to be trained as a drone operator protecting mine sites in Australia. And there’s the seedy end of town beyond the contemporary Foodworks store, where I located the public latrines and a bar. It’s here where Jude, drunk and despairing, was reunited with his first wife Arabella and his twin daughters Sorry and Anger.

Those familiar with Jude the Obscure will recall the tragedy that took place in the closet-room in Christminster, but I’ll avoid a spoiler for those who aren’t and just mention that I found an excellent location at the Barron Falls lookout.

A friend put me on the spot the other day: Why did you choose Kuranda of all places? I can concoct half a dozen post-hoc rationalisations, but in the end it must have been a mystical intersection of two emotional planes – my inexplicable obsession with Hardy’s novel and my instinctive attraction to Kuranda. The idea just fell into my mind six years ago. And when I sat drinking a coffee in Coondoo Street in June this year, I looked around and knew it was right.

You can find The True History of Jude in ebook and paperback here.