Facial Expressions, Culture, and Stories

During an event at the Newton Free Library last night, I asked the presenter Gareth Hinds (BEOWULF/Candlewick) a question that's been on my mind when it comes to comics:

Me (paraphrased; I sounded more incoherent): "One thing I don't like in manga is when artists use darker skin for evil characters. And there's a certain genre of movie where fat people always get killed first. Big noses, pudgy bodies, slanty eyes -- how do you avoid using the lazy shortcut of stereotypes in portraying character traits to your readers?"

Gareth Hinds (paraphrased; he sounded more eloquent): "I don't have a hard-and-fast rule, but am very aware of that issue. I pick extras for my graphic novels who can communicate the emotions I need for the story with great facial expressions. So in MERCHANT OF VENICE, for example, I didn't draw Shylock with a big nose -- I looked for a model who could sneer really well."
I liked his answer, but now I have another question. People of different races and ethnicities communicate rage, humor, fear, shame adoration, lust, wonder, malice, and other emotions by using slightly different non-verbals. In South Asian markets, North Americans can get confused when a vendor closes his eyes and tilts his head to one side -- which means "okay," not "time for a nap." And trepidation is signified by raising your eyebrows and holding your tongue between your teeth, not opening your mouth wide.

Science Daily reports on the differences between Japanese culture, where the focus tends to be on the eyes, and North American culture, where we concentrate on the mouth:
These cultural differences are even noticeable in computer emoticons, which are used to convey a writer's emotions over email and text messaging. Consistent with the research findings, the Japanese emoticons for happiness and sadness vary in terms of how the eyes are depicted, while American emoticons vary with the direction of the mouth. In the United States the emoticons : ) and : - ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons :( or : - ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.
In RICKSHAW GIRL, when my character Naima is frustrated with a friend, I wrote that she stuck out her tongue. Illustrator Jamie Hogan created a gorgeous full-page spread depicting that action -- one that readers have told me is their favorite in the book. While reviewing the galley before publication, it struck me that sticking out a tongue in Bengali culture might imply regret, not anger. After much internal debate, I decided to keep my doubts to myself and leave the non-verbal as I wrote it. But to this day when I'm reading aloud to a class and get to that part of the story, my authorial conscience flinches.

Here's my question: should writers depict facial expressions or non-verbals in a way that's easily understood by the culture consuming the story, even if it might not be "authentic?"


Elaine said…
...just stumbled onto this site while looking for pict.bks that reflect my ESL students cultures. The question begs considerable thought. My first reaction....let the visuals reflect accurately but insert words that will allow the student listeners/readers to understand that feelings are being concealed. i.e. "While XXxx's face didn't show it, inside she was boiling mad." Understandably this puts constraints on an author. ...just my 2 cents worth. EMB, ESL teacher K-5
Sarah Louise said…
What a wonderful question! I know hand motions are something you have to be careful with, a thumbs up is really rude...somewhere. You stretch my mind.

I had no idea about emoticons.

Big cupcakes,
This is an interesting conundrum. It seems potentially easier when there are visuals, but it has to be dealt with even where there aren't. I'm always torn between writing for those readers who understand the culturally specific body language and those who don't. I don't want to sound like a tour guide to the former but I want to bring the later along with me. I certainly don't want to change culturally specific body language. In my case, the cultural insiders are few in number. In the Inupiaq culture, for example, a quick raising of the eyebrow, means yes. If I am going to use this in a book, I have to cue the reader, first take. But after that, I will assume they have figured it out. Here's how I did it in My Name is Not Easy.

“You boys are from the North, aren’t you?” the priest says, finally, tapping the steering wheel with one finger.

Neither of us says a word. Bunna looks at him and raises his eyebrows real quick. Yes. We’re from the North, his eyebrows say.

It's not perfect. But it is a way.

Important discussion, I think.