Is it dangerous not to fulfill reader’s expectations?
A social media conversation I had with Dean Mayes about reader’s expectations – in his case a man writing romance –made me think about my latest release and the unrealistic expectations my setting and plot may be creating for prospective readers.
Jennifer S. Alderson (image credit Fototeam.nl)
My latest novel, Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery, is set in the Asmat region of Papua in the 1962 – when it was a colony of the Netherlands known as Dutch New Guinea. For virtually everyone who knows about the Asmat, headhunting is the first thing that comes to mind. Though it is true, this is only one aspect of their intricate culture.
While conducting research for an exhibition of Asmat art in the Tropenmuseum, I read many first-hand accounts written by missionaries, explorers and anthropologists working in the region when it was still a colony. The area was known as a sort Wild West – untamed wilderness and people whose spiritual beliefs were vastly different than western ones. Though several of these travel diaries describe the ferocity of tribal skirmishes and headhunting raids, what stayed with me most were the constant references to the Asmat’s shyness. These striped, feathered, bone-wearing headhunters were shy? It seemed hard to fathom, based on the usual descriptions I come across of the Asmat and the island of Papua New Guinea in general.
In my novel, you won’t find descriptions of headhunting raids or cannibalism. This wasn’t a conscious decision to be politically correct or anything like that. When I began writing Rituals of the Dead, the idea of these fierce warriors being shy kept flitting to the forefront of my thoughts. Perhaps I over compensated by not including a single passage about these practices, but they are not essential to my story. There was no reason to include such information in my book, except sensationalism. Or perhaps, to stay true to readers expectations and assumptions about the region.
I hope my portrayal of the Asmat in the early 1960s is not off-putting, and that readers come away with a broader view of the Asmat, colonial relations and the work of missionaries in the region.
I am truly curious to see how readers react to the story and my descriptions!
Authors, do you think it is dangerous to not fulfill reader’s expectations? Readers, do you enjoy reading books that challenge your assumptions about other cultures and countries?
Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently lives in Amsterdam (the Netherlands). Her love of travel, art, and culture inspires her ongoing mystery series, the Adventures of Zelda Richardson. Her background in journalism, multimedia development, and art history enriches her novels. When not writing, she can be found in a museum, biking around Amsterdam, or enjoying a coffee along the canal while planning her next research trip.
In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda gets entangled with a gang of smugglers whose Thai leader believes she’s stolen his diamonds. The Lover’s Portrait is a suspenseful “whodunit?” about Nazi-looted artwork that transports readers to wartime and present-day Amsterdam. Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Rituals of the Dead, a thrilling artifact mystery set in Dutch New Guinea (Papua) and the Netherlands.
The Lover’s Portrait was Chill With A Book’s January 2018 Book of the Month and won the Silver Cup in Rosie’s Book Review Team 2017 Awards, Mystery category. It also won a Chill With A Book Readers’ Award, Readers’ Favorite 5 star medal, was one of The Displaced Nation magazine’s Top 36 Expat Fiction Picks of 2016, and came in at 14 in BookLife’s 2016 Prize for Fiction in the Mystery category. The Lover’s Portrait was also one of Women Writers, Women’s Books magazine’s Recommended Reads for April 2017.
Her travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand. It was also awarded a Readers’ Favorite 5 star medal.
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