High-context and low-context narratives

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What are high-context narratives and low-context narratives?

There are two ends of the storytelling spectrum: high-context narratives and low-context narratives.

High-context narratives expect the reader to already know what’s going on. Usually, the narrator or author doesn’t explain very much. Only people in the know might pick up on certain clues.

Example 1: “Every weekend the tourists arrive by the busloads from Penang, KL and Singapore. They love the farm-cheap prices and supposedly organic fruit Ah Jie’s family grows. They descend on the all-you-can-makan durian buffet like a monsoon flood.”

—Yap Xiong, “Jiak liu lian.” Published in Arsenika 3, Spring 2018.

In this example, the reader is expected to know (1) the geography of Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia and Singapore, (2) naming and nicknaming conventions to understand “Ah Jie”’s relationship to the narrator, (3) the Malay language, as shown in the phrase “all-you-can-makan” (emphasis added), (4) the Hokkien and Teochew dialects, used in the title, and (4) what kind of fruit a durian is, as well as its cultural significance in Southeast Asia. Just three sentences require a lot of cultural understanding and/or research from the reader.

Example 2: ““右拐就到了,” the attendant says. You look up. His blond hair is as standardized as his Mandarin, as impeccable as his crisp shirt and tie. You’ve just proven your aptitude in English, but hearing Mandarin still puts you at ease in the way only a mother tongue does. You smile at the attendant, murmuring a brief thanks as you make your way down the hall.”

—S. Qiouyi Lu, “Mother Tongues.” Reprinted in Clarkesworld 149, February 2019.

In this example, the reader is expected to (1) recognize that the writing system is Chinese, (2) understand that Chinese orthography has different rules than English spelling that make it difficult to read aloud if the reader doesn’t know all five characters used, and (3) either find a translation for the phrase or piece together the meaning from context clues.

Low-context narratives, on the other hand, expect the reader to know very little. The narrator or author usually explains more about what’s going on, or the main character is new to the world and other characters explain what’s going on. Terms may be explicitly defined.

Example 3

Panel 1: A light-skinned, dark-haired person wearing a CENSO 2017 shirt says, “For your customs and ancestors, do you feel or identify as:…”

Panel 2: Text continues: “Quechua,… Aymara,… Native, or—” Another light-skinned, dark-haired person interrupts: “What do you mean by that?” The census-taker thinks, “Uh, oh.”

Panel 3: The census-taker says, “That’s all the question says, sir.” The interviewed person says, “I—I am a cholo. A chusco I guess, ha ha. I mean, everyone is, right? Me. You. Everyone.” A boxed note in the lower-right corner says, “*Chusco is Spanish for “Mongrel”.”

Panels excerpted from “Mestizo” by Alberto Rayo & Diego Revelo. Published in Electrum: An All-Ages Mixed Race Comics Anthology, April 2019 from Ascend Comics, pg. 12 (print). ISBN 978-0-9981937-2-4.

In this example, although several of the identity terms aren’t explained, they are still italicized to show that they are distinct from the English dialogue. There is also an explicit note defining the term “chusco.”

Example 4: “The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death.”

—P. Djèlí Clark, “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.” Reprinted in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year, Volume Thirteen, edited by Jonathan Strahan, 2019 from Solaris Books, pg. 46 (print). ISBN 978-1-78108-576-9.

In this example, the “Bonny man” is a newcomer to U.S. Christian culture. Most readers of Western fiction written in English are familiar with Africa and Jesus. The humor and subversion in this example stem from Clark’s low-context framing that defines “Africa” and “Jesus” differently from their expected meanings.

You can write high-context narratives, low-context narratives, and everything in between with neopronouns. Because each writer and reader expects something different from a story, there’s no right way to use or introduce neopronouns into a story. Write the story that your heart moves you to write and trust that it will find its reader.

Additionally, neopronouns do not have to be gender-neutral. Our Earth has not assigned neopronouns do specific genders yet, but other worlds might have that option. The real world is only meant to be a model to inspire your art.