One of my writer friends recently received a review of his collection of short stories and although it was a mixed bag (from "part-gripping, part-lackluster" to "Stanford captivates with shocking plot twists and turns") the overall tone was negative. Several of the criticisms with regard to my friend's execution of the stories may well be merited, but I take issue with the reviewer's claim that although the stories are set in Trinidad and Tobago they provide no "insight into Caribbean history and culture". The events could have taken place in Anytown, USA, he claims.
This brings me to the whole question of people's preconceptions. My friend did not attempt to write a travelogue. He did not write his stories to acquaint foreigners with the culture and history of 'the islands'. He wrote about the violent crime that is right now tearing the fabric of his homeland to shreds. According to the reviewer, the stories "tell little of island life". Oh, really? What the reviewer means is that the stories tell little about his preconceptions of island life. In fact, the stories showcase the reality of life on this island right now; violence is an issue that Trinidadians confront every day, and I don't believe the writer should be chastened for omitting titillating cultural soupçons and historical tidbits from his stories.
Our similarities transcend our differences. Our struggles are universal. The reviewer himself says that "Stanford gives much more attention to exploring universal questions: What is right? What is wrong? What is justice?" If these are concerns that Anyone, from Anytown, USA can relate to, what of it? Why is this considered a flaw in the work? An American writer of similar stories would not be rebuked for his laser focus on the central issues. He would not be told to include more cultural and historical elements in his stories.
Criticize the writer's pacing, his prose, his characterization, his use of dialogue or whatever, I say, but please, don't censure him for not writing about limbo dancers drinking rum under coconut trees to pander to the assumed preconceptions of a 'foreign' audience.