Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

One problematic literary trope over the centuries involves “first world” characters spending time in “third world” countries and having much bigger roles than the residents, who often serve as little more than “colorful” background.

It can be frustrating seeing white Americans or white Europeans star in those novels, get fleshed out more three-dimensionally than the people they’re amid, and too often act in patronizing or even racist ways toward the visited countries’ citizens — although novels of the past few decades, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible, are thankfully likelier to take a critical view of, or satirize, this alleged “superiority.”

That said, some “first world in the third world” novels can of course still be damn good, and some of their European or American protagonists are decent people who at least treat the residents somewhat respectfully.

I thought about this subject the past few days while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — an often-compelling, emotional, melancholy novel containing wonderfully rich prose. But dampening my pleasure a bit was the white-people-in-Mexico thing (with several “first world” bases covered by Lowry’s major characters: mopey alcoholic Geoffrey from England, his adventurous half-brother Hugh from England, former film actress/Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne from the United States, and film director Jacques from France). Still, one can acknowledge that the 1947-published/1930s-set book was “of its time” and that Lowry (pictured above) gave some Mexican characters, such as physician Arturo Diaz Vigil, secondary roles a bit beyond the bare minimum.

There’s also the American-south-of-the-border trope in such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, featuring Texas teen John Grady Cole and his dramatic experiences in Mexico; James Michener’s Mexico, in which American journalist Norman Clay at least has some Hispanic blood; and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, starring the rather nutso U.S. dad Allie Fox who yanks his family from Massachusetts to Honduras. All excellent books, but…

American or European characters in Africa? We have nasty Georgia evangelical Nathan Price, in the aforementioned The Poisonwood Bible, dragging his wife and four daughters to what was then the Belgian Congo to try to arrogantly convert the populace to Christianity; troubled New York couple Kit and Port enduring some disquieting experiences in North Africa in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; three Englishmen traveling to East Africa to meet the imposing 2,000-plus-year-old (white) title character in H. Rider Haggard’s mesmerizing She; and that voyage along the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that would inspire the movie Apocalypse Now (in which the setting was transferred to Vietnam). On the part-fictional (?) memoir front, there’s Out of Africa by Danish author Karen Blixen.

Asian countries such as China and Japan are obviously now among the planet’s most developed nations, and China is a superpower, but those places used to be considered “third world” by the West. So, novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (set in 1920s Hong Kong and China) and James Clavell’s Shogun (circa-1600 Japan) fit this blog post’s theme. Both of those compelling books have English protagonists.

Of course, many African and Latin American countries are also more industrialized today than at the time books such as She (1886) and Heart of Darkness (1902) were published.

Any “first world in the third world” novels you’d like to mention? And you’re of course welcome to discuss this blog post’s general theme. 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which eases up on the satire for a week to take a positive look at various things in my town — is here.

95 thoughts on “Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

  1. Elliott by Tyler W. Simms. Accounts a man from the Northwest seeking escape in P. V. MX after his fiancé commits suicide. His account is blurred with desperate antics of distraction and sex and drugs. The locals, at least the parts when Elliott is in Mexico, are described but very objectively. Currently it is an unfinished work. It can be read as a group of shorts or from start to finish as a novella. The prologue hints at where the story is headed as a completed work. The goal is a novel. A lot of parts are very graphic and seedy and profane. But I am writing the damn thing because it has substance and controversy and tragedy and it comes from the things that I know and have experienced in my life. I hope you will give it a chance. Skip the prologue if you don’t jive with it. But I doubt you will regret reading any of it. I have been newly challenged by this post of yours in my character elaboration. And narrow exposure of the culture around this protagonist. Perhaps… cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The perspective is realistic because this how it is. Take the Shakespearean Caliban for instance- he is treated as a tertiary b-grade creature in his own home. Only because he is different.
    The same for the non-whites in A Passage to India

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    • Thank you for the comment, Shyamini! If I’m understanding your point correctly, it is indeed (unfortunately) realistic the way some authors depict “first world” characters in “third world” settings — mostly ignoring the locals, and so on. At least that’s the case with many such novels written decades or even centuries ago.

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      • Elo.
        Actually I meant your writing is realistic. You pointed out the lacunas. ‘First World’ characters need to be blended in their ‘third world ‘ contexts,but the writers glorify their character traits to show how ‘different ‘ they are.
        I took the instance of Caliban from The Tempest as Caliban, despite being the Prince,if not owner if the uskand,is ill-treated as the other- the ugly. It does reveal the colonial arrogance of Shakespeare as he insults Caliban for being different.

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        • Sorry I misunderstood, Shyamini, and thank you.

          Yes, it helps, if authors are going to do the “first world in the third world” thing, to at least have their characters blend in/interact somewhat equally with the people in the visited countries. Of the books I mentioned in my post, “Shogun” probably does that best.

          Although I haven’t read or seen “The Tempest,” it sounds like a great example of this subject!

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  3. Well Dave, we don’t need to look further..Welcome to the richest Country of the world which now has become a Third World Country..

    Life has too many distractions, my reading is slow..I am still into John Grisham`s ” A Time for Mercy”. What a story teller he is., and still number one in NYT best sellers. Initially the courtroom and legal matters bores me. Now it is picking up and I have about 75 pages left.
    I should be able to finish it today and start the latest Lee Child`s book, still sitting on my table.

    .it will take decades to get the dignity back to America! After what self serving Trump has managed to do to America with his cronies and nepotism family.
    Coming week will be critical.

    But hoping this too shall pass.

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    • Thank you, bebe! I agree — in some ways, the U.S. has become like a stereotypical “third world” country: the poverty, the economic inequality, the problematic health-care system, the corruption, the autocratic ruler (Trump), etc. And you’re right that it will take a long time for the U.S. to regain some of its reputation post-Trump.

      Glad you’re (mostly) enjoying the Grisham book, and good luck with the latest Reacher novel! My wife bought me “The Sentinel” for Christmas; I hope to get to it in a few weeks after finishing some library books I borrowed. Currently reading and liking Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments,” the 2019 sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi bebe,

      Try not to be too disheartened by what Trump and his followers have done. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but here in Oz, we were pretty happy to see the way that Biden won in November. Of course, it was a pretty painful Tuesday and Wednesday, and then we had our fingers crossed that he’d win just a few extra votes to crawl across the line, but suddenly he leapt ahead in big states like Georgia and it became obvious that although there are still too many Trump supporters, they are definitely just the loud and obnoxious minority. Of course, I have been told that I’m basing all this on fake news, but it’s the only news I’ve got so it seems the reasonable conclusion to make.

      I think in the next month or two, it will almost be like Trump who. And while I definitely don’t wish badness to Biden, I think the U.S will have a 47th president by the end of 2021 and with her grace and intelligence and compassion, all the bigots will have no choice but to crawl back into the holes that they’ve been encouraged to come out of over the last four years.

      John Grisham is a terrific writer. I”m currently reading Dying Declaration by Randy Singer and written on the front is “Every bit as enjoyable as John Grisham” which is a heck of an endorsement, and it’s (almost) true. I’m very much enjoying it.

      Sue xx

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      • Good afternoon from here Susan, love your positivity as always.
        Hope you are doing well, here with COVID-19 in full swings , so some of us are trying to be super careful as much as we could.

        Finally i finished John Grisham`s ” A time for Mercy “, Grisham is some story teller.

        Now Trump since last two days is threatning very honest officials with criminal intentions , putting their whole family in danger .
        This is an American President who is supposted to protect us.

        In two weeks some of us are holding our breath until then and hoping you are right.
        ❤ ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’ — Dave Astor on Literature | By the Mighty Mumford

  5. Though he is best known for his short stories, half-Irish, half Greek Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) merits a mention, as he is the opposite of so many of the novelist-travelers listed above, and mentioned by others. Wherever he wandered, he immersed himself in his adopted locality, in ways unique to himself, and wrote some of the first acounts of cultural life in each of his new surroundings. He also introduced American readers to several important contemporary French writers, translating de Mauppesant, Gautier, Loti, France, de Nerval and others.

    Abandoned by his family, he arrived in the US on a one-way ticket at the tender age of 19, ostensibly to live with relatives in Cincinatti. But he was given $5 upon arrival, and sent away. Eventually, Hearn became a writer for a newspaper there, and thanks to his wide range of interests, we are the beneficiaries today of the only contemporary accounts of mid-19th century Black musicians and songs he gathered on the river.

    Hearn moved to New Orleans, a town he called ‘a dead bride crowned with orange flowers’.and there, as well as his various journalistic doings, he compiled a book of Creole proverbs and another of Creole recipes. He also wrote a great many local color pieces for the paper, and is credited for having begun the yet-thriving school of writers who have made much of the legends and peculiarities of that city.

    From New Orleans, Hearn moved to the West Indies as a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, and wrote a “Youma, the Story of a West Indian Slave.”

    His last stop in a lifetime of travel was post-feudal Japan. There he wrote “Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan”, and compiled Japanese ghost stories in “Kwaidon” and “In Ghostly Japan”, as well as many other works.concerning Japanese culture, such as “Japanese Lyrics” and “A Japanese Miscellany”.

    Lafcadio Hearn was a sort of half-in, half-out sort of first-worlder, as he was saddled with an ancestry and a personal history dubious to the race-conscious, and an early life of privation and abandonment, which may have done much to sharpen his acute sensitivity to the lives of the under-classes and the racially excluded wherever he went, as well as to vanishing traditions throughout the dawn of the modern world.

    Interested? Here’s a complete bio:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lafcadio_Hearn

    HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Absolutely relevant to this discussion, and absolutely fascinating. What an eye-opening life Lafcadio Hearn had, and I loved your eloquent summary/description of it. I also found the Wikipedia entry about him very interesting.

      Happy New Year to you, too!

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      • The bio sketch should not detract from what’s most important: that the man was intensely curious, and an original thinker, who, when he put pen to paper, could make wonderful things out of wherever he went.

        Hearn’s Japanese ghost story “Hoichi the Earless”, his book of ghost stories “Kwaidan”, was my introduction to Japan’s classic saga, “The Tale of the Heike”, and concerns a bling biwa player, Koichi, who is summoned to sing at a remote and ruined noble house nightly, to sing the tale in its ballad form, a task requiring many hours. He returns to his monastery exhausted, yet returns to sing for his noble patrons, who never tire of hearing the tale, or of making lamentations. Curious, another monk follows him, and discovers to his horror, that Hoichi has been signing for ghosts– the sorrowful ravaged ghosts of the defeated Heike clan.

        I have since read the Tale in an excellent condensed version, and have dipped in and out of a more lengthy translation at various points. It turns out that blind biwa players were the standard conveyors of the Tale, and sang it for patrons before tradition changed, and portions of the saga were dramatized, becoming the stuff of kabuki drama. But the complete, and best source of the text that remains to us is a transcription of the singing of one of the last of these blind biwa players, out of which these subsequent dramatic presentations are derived.

        Hearn is a fascinating read no matter his topics, and has left us stirring and vivid accounts of murder, life on the Mississippi post-Civil War, old New Orleans in all its tawdry splendor, etc., as well as his musings, gatherings of traditional tales and observations of Japan.

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        • He does sound like an amazing original, a very talented man, and quite open-minded for his time. I now have him on my to-read list, in case my local library has any of his work. Very intriguing to read your description of some of what he wrote in Japan, and what other reading that led you to. Thank you, jhNY!

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  6. Some time ago I made my through the top 50 Aussie books. One of the first ones was Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously. Set in Indonesia in the 1960s, I was looking forward to visiting both a time and place and that I’d not been to before. Sadly, most of the characters were ugly white guys, and the only locals who featured in the novel were carrying the bags.

    Dave, I’m not sure if this completely fits your topic, but it’s taken me all week to come up with it, so this measly offering is the best I can do.

    Completely unrelated, I’m also about to start Vanity Fair for the first time, and I’m so excited!

    Happy New Year to you and all the commenters here. Hopefully 2021 comes with fewer dramas than 2020. Though there was some good news in November, so 2020 wasn’t all bad 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! From your description of “The Year of Living Dangerously,” it sounds like it fits this topic perfectly! “…the only locals who featured in the novel were carrying the bags” — that line does sadly sum up a lot of “first world in the third world” fiction.

      Hope you enjoy “Vanity Fair”! Yikes — I haven’t read that book since college.

      Happy New Year to you, too! Yes, 2021 has to be better than 2020 — though there were a few silver linings here and there during the past few months.

      Like

  7. I enjoy reading your posts and especially the comments with great novels mentioned. My first thought is The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick (read way back in high school) which actually exposed this attitude rather than exploited it. Lately I’ve touted Lawrence Osborne’s novels, and you’ve now actually explained why they fit this theme. I highly recommend his novels for this very reason; they expose socioeconomic disparities between mostly affluent, reprobate and/or fugitive Western tourists and ‘foreign’ locals always with totally unpredictable results. Of the four I’ve read, one takes place in Morocco, one in Macau, one in Bangkok, and another on a Greek island. His novels are slow burn, psychologically labyrinthine dramas drenched in local atmosphere which fill and thrill you to the bone 🙂

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I’ve also been greatly enjoying the comments — including yours! The one above is very well said and descriptive.

      I haven’t read “The Ugly American,” but I can tell from the title alone that it speaks a lot of truth. Not a reference to all Americans, of course, but a reference to too many and to a certain attitude. I just looked up the book on Wikipedia, and it was very interesting to read about it.

      You’ve more than convinced me to give Lawrence Osborne’s work a try! Now on my list. (I currently have seven novels borrowed from my local library, but I’ll get back there sometime in January or February. 🙂 )

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      • Sweet! I think you’ll enjoy his writing. Our library was last to offer curbside, last to reopen and first to close again. A brief respite of about 3 months. ☹️ Fortunately one of my sons has been my courier for over a year due to other circumstances. (I was knocked down and my leg run over by a car, walking home from the library last November.) I borrowed his own copy of “The Ballad of a Small Player” and then read “The Glass Kingdom” when library reopened.

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  8. Just thought I’d throw in a mention of Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” trilogy, which features a twist on this theme, as it includes the story of an African-American family trying to flee Jim Crow by going on a mission trip to Africa. They end up being somewhat disillusioned with their mission, but also disillusioned by some of the aspects of the local culture they found when they tried to rediscover their roots.

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    • Thank you, Elena! That’s a great angle on this topic — people of color from the “first world” visiting or moving to “third world” countries to try to get away from blatant racism and feel a little more comfortable. It might end up being a good thing, or not, or mixed, as you note.

      In trying to think of another example of this, I came up with Terry McMillan’s “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” about an African-American woman visiting Jamaica. Not the best example; Stella is quite affluent and in Jamaica for vacation.

      W.E.B. Du Bois (an occasional novelist in addition to all the other great work he did during his long life) lived his last two years in Ghana.

      I appreciate the excellent, well-stated comment!

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  9. Thanks for the author recommendation. I’m familiar with the title but have never read. I’ll now add this!

    I’ve only read a couple of novels about South Africa or by South African authors. One that I recall is by JM Coetzee although I can’t remember the title. Yes, a very troubled history indeed.

    I meant to mention earlier ‘Robinson Crusoe’ as a ‘first world character’ who fits your theme. As a side note the real life inspiration behind Crusoe – Alexander Selkirk – perhaps had an even more fantastical life than his fictional counterpart.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re welcome, Sarah! The frequent commenter here “bebe” recommended “The God of Small Things” several years ago, and I’m glad she did. 🙂

      I also haven’t read many novels about South Africa and/or by South African authors. One by Nadine Gordimer and one by Alan Paton.

      “Robinson Crusoe” fits this theme indeed! Such a memorable novel, though it of course has its problematic aspects with the way the Friday character is depicted and becomes Crusoe’s “servant.” Thank you for mentioning that book! Reminds me that Herman Melville’s “Typee” and “Omoo” novels fit this theme as well. 🙂

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      • I do enjoy reading through the comments – they provide a lot of inspiration.
        I’ve yet to pick up a Herman Melville. ‘Moby Dick’ sits on a shelf – alongside ‘War and Peace’…As you can see I haven’t got a great reference system… 😉

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        • I love reading the comments, too, Sarah. 🙂

          There’s actually some logic to “Moby-Dick” and “War and Peace” being next to each other — two majestic novels published just 16 years apart.

          If you’re looking for a brief sampling of Melville, his “Bartleby, the Scrivener” short story is quite memorable.

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          • Funnily enough I just picked up with a post you did way back in 2016 about ‘Exploring and Explaining Epic Fiction’. Quite the coincidence there. I just need to crack on with one of them.
            I always say that ‘War and Peace’ will be a summer holiday read, but it’s perhaps more suited for the winter!
            I will definitely look for the Melville short story – thank you!

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  10. Hi Dave, following on from Clanmother’s discussion of the ‘lost world’ genre, I’d like to mention ‘The Lost World’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been some years since I read it so I can’t recall specific details but a little help from Google reveals the themes and attitudes you highlight that prevailed at the time. In a similar vein, and written at a similar time, is ‘Prester John’ by John Buchan. Now, I’m sure I’ve read this and I do seem to recall some very troubling ideas within about a journey in South Africa. Based on his own experiences no doubt, but more than that I cannot say. Some delving around on the internet reveals that Buchan certainly divides opinion and whilst it would be reasonable to dismiss him as Imperialist and racist his writing may bear closer inspection and the opposite could be true.
    May I mention, also, a couple of non-fiction additions? When I was at school and Uni we were introduced to Ethnography developed by Bronislaw Malinowski through his research of the Trobriand Islanders. I think most sociology students will be familiar with the methods rather more so than the content. I’m not sure I actually know where to begin when picking this apart as, now, it seems very wrong on so many levels. Fast forward 80 years or so and we have ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ by Åsne Seierstad (perhaps she too studied Malinowski but didn’t read as far as the criticisms…). I found this a very troublesome read as it only seemed to serve in pulling a family apart and displacing a man from his own country – although I appreciate this probably wasn’t her intention when setting out on this assignment. I totally understand the issues around patriarchal oppression but I’m not sure it left the women in this particular family in a better position by ‘enlightening’ them to Western views. Certainly the journalist who authored this demonstrated (in my opinion) a poor lack of judgement as she seemed to withdraw any support from the family on leaving their country. However, I don’t know how this all worked out in the long term, so maybe there is a happy ending?
    This is a really interesting area of discussion and it’s something I’ve given a little thought to in recent weeks. In compiling my Classic 50 list I wanted to include Indian authors, but not Anglo-Indian, as I thought (maybe incorrectly, maybe not?) the content would otherwise be more Imperialist in nature. I certainly would welcome some suggestions about this! Thanks Dave for letting me ramble on!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Sarah, for your great comment that covers so many bases!

      “The Lost World” sounds like an excellent example of this theme. I haven’t read it; my Arthur Conan Doyle experiences have been his Sherlock Holmes novels and stories only.

      As for South Africa — such a fraught, depressing, outrageous, hugely racist history, even before apartheid was formalized. After seeing your comment and doing some googling, it seems like “Prester John” may have been quite the colonialist novel. 😦

      Interesting nonfiction discussion, including your reference to patriarchal oppression that can be awful in the “third world” but of course is all over the “first world” as well.

      As for authors of India (not Anglo-Indian authors), one I would highly recommend is Arundhati Roy. Her “The God of Small Things” is riveting. Also heartbreaking.

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  11. Hello Dave, we just had a discussion in our family these days about colonialism and what it did to all those cultures, which were considered inferior to our world. We probably arrived at this subject because of the book SHANTARAM, whose story takes place mainly in Bombay. Despite the fact that the main character escaped from an Australian prison – not third world- and arrived in India the reader immediately starts to learn from those people there and in the slum. I, however, would also like to mention Doris Lessing, who wrote “The Grass is singing”. It very clearly showed how white people treated the indigenous in ex Rhodesia. I would also like to mention the American Pearl Bucks, who mainly grew up in China and who, according to me, had much empathy with the Chinese people. I read several of her books and it is “Good Earth” that I kept best in my heart. You have already mentioned Out of Africa and Heart of Darkness, which showed all the brutality of the so developed world. Thank you very much, Dave, for your thought inspiring posts:) All the best Martina

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    • Thank you, Martina, for the kind words and your excellent, wide-ranging comment!

      Pearl S. Buck (among your other great author mentions) is certainly an interesting case in that she had American parents yet mostly grew up in China and lived as an adult there. She thus had a deep knowledge of that country — and, as you noted, much empathy with its people.

      Colonialism was and is such a negative/brutal thing, and two of many depressing examples were definitely in the countries of India and what later became Zimbabwe.

      All the best to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. It occurs to me that it must have made sense for Brits (and other first-world types) who spent some time in “the colonies” to incorporate their views into their fiction. Of course, now many of those attitudes are no longer acceptable. On the other hand, it would be difficult for a first world writer to do a good job of representing the point of view of a person native to a country they had not lived in. That gets into “appropriation of voice” territory. The solution seems to be for writers to read widely and broaden their thinking, and then to write with all kinds of readers in mind.

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    • Thank you, Audrey! Excellent points!

      Many authors of “first world in third world” novels indeed wrote what they knew (as many authors do). It can definitely be hard to be accurate and believable in portraying characters from other countries, including less-developed nations. Still, authors do make certain imaginative leaps — male authors with female protagonists, female authors with male protagonists, white authors with characters of color, authors of color with white characters, etc. — so it can be done, at least to some extent.

      Of the novels I mentioned and was a bit critical of in my post, Clavell’s “Shogun” seemed to make the strongest effort to give the “native” characters meaty/three-dimensional roles, as co-stars or supporting players.

      Great advice in your comment’s last line!

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  13. Excellent post. And very very true. The Painted Veil is indeed one’d mention as you have along with the Mosquito Coast, There’s the Heart of the Matter, Graham Green set very much in the British community on the west coast of Africa. The Last King of Scotland, which –yes is about Idi Amin– but set through the eyes of a white doctor. And The Ginger Tree, which again it’s all about the wife travelling out to joining soon to be military attache hubby in China. At least she does have an affair with a Japanese soldier, which you can guess goes down a treat.

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    • Thank you very much, Shehanne! 🙂 And I appreciate the mentions of several other novels that fit this theme. All sound really interesting, and I particularly enjoyed your description of “The Ginger Tree.” Your Graham Greene mention reminded me that he also wrote “The Power and the Glory” novel about a priest living in Mexico who I think is not Mexican.

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      • Ah great minds LOL. I was thinking of that Greene book too. I wonder if in fairness to these authors, they were of the time and people didn’t travel as they do now, and those who went abroad were there to either dispense their ;great knowledge’ which some of these equally knowledgeable civilisations had none of, ( when I see the film Mutiny on the Bounty I often consider writing a book from the Tahitians point of view,… you know, having them say , ‘here’s these damned walla wallas again, launch the canoes hand me the chief head-dress, cue the women in the grass skirts, let’s just accept their letter from whatever old git king, sits on their throne now with good grace and get them out of there quick as so we can get back to our proper homes again.’ The other reason people were abroad way back was to swarm with army boots and rifles through their country etc, to bring them to the light of their own little empire.
        So it was very much ‘First World’ abroad shall we say? The Ginger Tree is a good story. It was written by a man who was born in Japan BUT again was the son of a missionary from Scotland. Anyway it was interesting how she throws everything to the wind but unfortunately encounters the rigidity of the society her lover comes from.

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        • Thank you for the terrific follow-up comment, Shehanne!

          Very true that many of these authors were “of their time,” and less travel and less worldwide communication can mean less puncturing of intolerance. Which makes it very impressive when at least some novelists of many years ago were relatively open-minded. (Harriet Beecher Stowe would be one U.S.-only example of this with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which I feel is quite anti-racist despite having a mixed reputation.)

          Of course, whatever views people had back then were usually overwhelmed by the lust of “first world” powers that be to exploit “third world” countries for economic reasons — stealing their natural resources and such. 😦

          Your take on “Mutiny on the Bounty” from the Tahitian point of view — genius!

          “The Ginger Tree” author sounds like he had a background that would lead to some ambivalence.

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  14. Oh Dave, another brilliant post that sends my mind scurrying back in time to when I first read King Solomon’s Mines by the English Victorian adventure writer Sir H. Rider Haggard who introduced me to Allan Quatermain. I did some digging and found that this book is one of the first English adventure novels set in Africa. Even more interesting is that this book marked the beginning of the “lost world” literary genre where readers travel to an unknown world. It is a genre that attracts readers even in our time.

    You have given me something to consider this week. Writers generally write from their experiences and are nuanced by their cultural values and perspectives. That means that I must look to other countries and languages to gain a wider perspective. I just finished reading a brilliant book – Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan and translated by Lisa C. Hayden. 2021 will be my opportunity to explore authors from other countries. Always a reading adventure when I come to your place.

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    • Thanks so much, Clanmother! 🙂

      “She” is the only H. Rider Haggard novel I’ve read; I should try “King Solomon’s Mines.” Haggard is not super-well-known these days by name, but, as you note, he was a pioneering writer in his way and his influence is clearly felt in various respects. Heck, I’ve read that Allan Quatermain was a template for Indiana Jones.

      “Writers generally write from their experiences and are nuanced by their cultural values and perspectives” — so true! Undoubtedly a major reason why “first world in third world” novels written by first-world writers usually focus on first-world characters. It can certainly help when authors (and readers) study other cultures enough to have some understanding of them.

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      • I did not know that he was the template for Indiana Jones. I also thought of the Edgar Rice Boroughs and Tarzan. “Men were indeed more foolish and more cruel than the beasts of the jungle! How fortunate was he who lived in the peace and security of the great forest!” Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes

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        • The “Tarzan” books are a GREAT mention, Clanmother! One of the quintessential whites-in-Africa sagas, with the twist of course of Tarzan (in the first Edgar Rice Burroughs book) being raised by apes after his English parents die in Africa. Definitely some complicated racial dynamics in that series. And that’s an excellent quote you found.

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          • What I like most about your blog, Dave, and discussions that follows, is that you feature books and ideas that allow readers to explore the evolution of our cultures via books. One of my most favourite and life-affirming quotes comes from Maya Angelou: ““I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” If we are open with good intentions to seek a more generous way, we will find that our lives are enriched by our persistent call to “do better.”

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  15. I can’t think of any that you haven’t already mentioned. I do remember reading a nonfiction account of a Somerset Maughm trip to China, although I can’t recall the title of the book. The account was so xenophobic and racist I had to write a story and give the attitude to my great-great grandmother, based on one of her “world tour” photos: plump, smug, well-to-do Victorian matron sitting in a studio ricksaw with a barefoot coolie holding the traces. To my great-great grandfather’s credit, at least he looked uncomfortable in the companion photo.

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  16. Without A Map. By Meredith Hall, which is a true story. She didn’t go to the Third World countries with any real heroic mission. She had kind of a nervous break down, and ended up wandering through middle eastern countries, alone and homeless. There was a part in the book where she took shelter in some partially blown up building that was somewhere in Israel or Palestine. Shortly after that, three guys came into that building with guns pointed at her. It’s been a few years since I read that book, so I forgot how she got out of that situation alive.

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    • Thank you, Bia Bella Baker! Sounds like a very intense book. The protagonist you described sounds more sympathetic than some of the more “together” and “successful” protagonists who end up in developing countries.

      It’s interesting that “first world in third world” novels often put their characters in more danger than is the case with real-life people visiting developing countries. Of course, novels tend to be more dramatic than real life.

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    • You’re most welcome– but I do have issue with your take on the book for being what it so obviously is: a fictional account of various foreigners in a foreign land, which for each major character is a place feared and misunderstood in some ways, and embraced and again probably misunderstood in others.

      The added complication of too much drink too long makes any setting secondary to the necessities of the addiction. And the addiction leads to hallucination and paranoia, as well as physical decay. Naturally, what a country looks like through such eyes is a story in itself, but again, secondary to the dictates and progress of alcohol addiction and the inevitable dissolution of marriage and family ties. Yes, of course, there are other voices, but all are secondary to the Consul’s, as his unwinding has ensnared all around him.

      What it isn’t, and makes no attempt to be: an accurate or description of Mexico or Mexicans, except as a sort of nightmare landscape, full of riotous growth and sudden, relentless danger, often in human form.

      Also, I think the sentence ‘wherever you go, there you are’ does much to explain the book. Character flaws and shortcomings will out in sunshine or in shadow, Merry England or Mysterious Mexico. Second chances are subject to the same old personal problems.

      As someone once remarked about “Under the Volcano”, the start is slow like water at the outer edges circling a drain, then faster and faster till the momentum takes all down. Lowry’s well-wrought prose throughout, and the depiction of an all-consuming momentum of things coming apart are what I prize most in the book. And I would argue that he writes a very compelling sort of stream of consciousness, rivaling– though obviously very much in the school of– Joyce.

      Happy you enjoyed what you could, in any case!

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      • Thank you, jhNY! MANY great points, and expressed much more eloquently than I could express.

        Geoffrey’s downfall is riveting, and Malcolm Lowry’s writing about it is mesmerizing. But a reader does want to shake Geoffrey — like Yvonne metaphorically was trying to do when she returned to him — and scream at that ex-consul to stop feeling sorry for himself and stop being self-destructive. But of course he’s beyond that kind of reason.

        I do wonder if a similar story could have been told in a less “exotic” locale — say, all the main characters congregating in Geoffrey’s native England. Why Mexico as a colorful backdrop when no Mexican characters were given even semi-prominent roles? Of course, the Mexican backdrop, whether realistically depicted or not, is compelling and even hallucinatory, as you allude to.

        I’m very glad I read the novel, and hope my blog post didn’t convey otherwise. It’s quite memorable. But I often partially look at things through a lens that’s “political” (for lack of a better word).

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        • The kind of ‘reason’ that frustrated others might wish to imbue in folks as far along in their destructive addictions as Geoffrey is hard to offer, coming at the risk of a relationship, but is nearly never taken, or taken for long.

          As for Mexico as setting, a glance at Lowry’s bio

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malcolm_Lowry

          will show you: he’s drawing heavily on his own life experience (as he is, and brilliantly, when he conveys the mindset, prevarications and misdirections in the arsenal of a problem drinker). I think he was, himself, the real topic of his expertise and interests– fortunately, he writes well enough to make reading him worthwhile.

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          • Yes, it seems “Under the Volcano” has quite a few autobiographical or semi-autobiographical elements given Lowry’s time in Mexico, his own drinking problem, etc. He really did get into the psyche of the alcoholic — the rationales, the excuses, the dependency, the drinking being thought of as more important than human relationships, etc. — in the novel. And Lowry does write REALLY well.

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