You’re writing something – anything.
Who is doing the reading or listening?
I’m asking you.
Your answer to this may be offhand – Well, whoever happens to pick up or download my story.
But even this seemingly simple answer has consequences.
In addressing an extremely generalised audience, you will still make guesses about what they are likely to know and what they are likely to want explained.
This brings us back to the question of stories, like beers, existing in either local or export versions.
Let’s imagine a story by a writer from Ghana. She wants to have her main person get across Accra, and her person has no car. So she writes –
The mate tell him the tro tro full but he anyway cram on in back.
(This time I decided to have a go at something more specific. I’ve done more research into Ghana than Jamaica. If it’s a bit cringey, I’m sorry. But I need to do it to make this point.)
Now, unless you have some local knowledge of Accra, this local version of that moment is going to have confused you – as one of those generalised readers.
You probably worked out the basics of what happened. Someone told someone a something with a front and a back was full, but he managed to cram himself into the back of the something.
It’s very unlikely you’ve been able to form a visual image of a tro tro, though you may – in this context – have rightly assumed it’s a vehicle for transporting groups of people, probably on the road.
Tro tros are minibuses, usually painted white, that operate as shared taxis. The mate is the conductor, in the back, who shouts out the destination and collects the fares.
An export version of the same moment would run more explainingly –
The mate, leaning out of the minivan’s side door, shouted to him that all the seats inside the tro tro were full, but he insisted on climbing in and the other passengers somehow found room for him toward the back.
I’ve tried to make the cultural translation and footnoting as unobtrusive as possible, but it’s still there.
A writer from Accra, writing in English, has to ask themselves – sometimes with almost every other sentence – who their reader is?
Is their reader someone who might have sat next to them in the tro tro, or are they someone in another country who has no idea what a tro tro is?
We’ll examine the local/export question a little more, in relation to science fiction. For now it’s enough to say that it’s not only Ghanaian novelists who have to think about this.
You have to think about it whenever you start a new story. How much cultural footnoting are you going to give your reader? Are you going to avoid footnoting altogether, write things as you would say them to a local, and let the reader catch up as best they can? Or are you going to make sure your reader never misses a step, and can always visualise your tro tros?
The worst thing to do is waver between local and export versions of your voice – shifting from one to the other halfway through a sentence (as you flinch in doubt or swell in confidence), and then shifting back again before the end.
Even a single implied footnote is a lapse for the local voice; every single opaque, ungetable thing is a lapse for the export voice.
Reader, I carried him
Many stories and novels gain a doubleness, or tripleness, by being addressed to an implied listener inside the text who isn’t the generalised reader we are when we open the book.
Narrator/speaker —> implied listener/reader —> real reader.
In a diary form, this implied reader can be the narrator themselves – and we may be very moved to imagine an older version of them coming across what their younger self had recorded in despair or hope. It can also be a reader whose life is being changed by the words they read and the things they learn. They may be destroyed by the revelations, at the exact same time we (reading for entertainment) are delighted.
In an epistolary novel, each letter could be addressed to a different reader, every time. But that’s unlikely. More common is when a small number of addressees recur, and we learn to know them. In this case, we see how the narrator writes differently to each of her addressees, we will get a real sense of a someone who is believably inconsistent.
A narrator may also address a person in the text who is sitting at their knee, listening to their wisdom. Somehow what they say, moment by moment, has been recorded and turned into printed text (but that issue is most likely never raised). In this form of narration, the speaker may even describe the reactions of their listener – thus projecting them onto the reader. ‘I see you are smiling at that. You won’t be for long’ and ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’.
Or a narrator may address someone dead, or someone completely imagined.
Most commonly, though, the narrator addresses an unspecified, uninvolved-in-the-world-of-the-book, generalised readership.
They speak to us, whoever and wherever we are.
But before they do this, they still make a decision about what we’re likely to know and what we’re going to need help with.
Last time I mentioned that it’s not just who the narrator is that you need to know, it’s who they are addressing.
If you make that addressee someone figured inside the story, that may simplify things for you.
Auntie So-and-So might swear and mention someone’s sexual motives when talking to her brother, but she would never do so when speaking to her niece.
Can you see why this is so essential for point of view? Point of view isn’t objective – it’s a way of seeing events as given to someone else, even someone generalised.
Who is this someone, and what do or don’t they know?
However, when someone chooses to tell a particular story also has a huge effect on how they tell that story.
Which is where we’ll go next.