Dispatches | July 17, 2013
From a Small, Big Place: Cultures, Complexities, and Writing in a Globalized World
Today’s post comes from Misha Rai and Jonathan Bellot.
This post stems from a place of rage.
Of having being misunderstood.
Over time, our rage at being mislabelled as a particular kind of writer or academic annealed into something quieter. But something no less troubling–a distinct feeling of discomfort that bled into the question of our identity: one, as both an international student and transnational writer, who were we writing for or who were we expected to write for? second, who were we within the constructs of the cultural assumptions of our cohorts? This then morphed into a higher and more practical concern: as PhD students and as future teachers in Western academic institutions, how would we deal with situations like the ones we had faced? These concerns followed us around. We read Jamaica Kincaid. They seemed to be in too many places at once. We read Salman Rushdie. We subjected our friends and partners to our discomfort. We read Rabindranath Tagore. We read Kwame Anthony Appiah. We read W.B. Yeats. We read Taiye Selasi. We read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We read Kamau Brathwaite. And then we read Audre Lorde and she said to us, what is most important to someone must be spoken, must be made from silence into words.
When you aren’t really from the place you’re living in, you become “the Other” to the others around you. You feel the pea under the mattress more acutely. You feel more sensitive than most other writers, more discriminated against, and this isn’t just a feeling. We aren’t all just the same in a writing community to begin with. But it’s easy to feel as if we, as international and transnational writers, really are not the same, and many times this is because there is too great a tendency for writers like us to be placed into simple little boxes–absurd, exotic, authentic, fabulist–when the reality is that defining anyone, but especially defining persons from varied backgrounds, is no simple task:
Misha: What makes you a transnational writer?
Jonathan: Firstly, you would have to define terms: to be “transnational” is, at simplest, to have connections to more than one nation, to make the borders between nations and nation-states more tenuous. In my case, the majority of my family is from the Commonwealth of Dominica. While I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have lived in Dominica since I turned nine. I then went back to the U. S. for university education. Putting travel aside, my background means I’ve always felt connected to more than one place, that I have a foot in more than one door–though I think one foot is much more through the Caribbean door. My writing has always come more from Dominica than anywhere else, from the many histories–British, French, Amerindian, African, and more–that make up the island, even as my sense of identity has never been a thing I can define with ease. What about you?
Misha: Like you I think it’s important to first make a distinction between the international writer and the transnational writer. The transnational writer can be an international writer but an international writer is not necessarily transnational. Some international writers are deeply nationalistic and their identity is embedded in their work about nation. Also, an international writer in our context is simply someone who is writing from much more clearly defined national borders than a transnational writer. Or a writer who is writing within a writing community that is not situated within their nation state.
Jonathan: Would you consider yourself both an international and transnational writer?
Misha: Yes. Unlike you though, I was born and brought up in one country, India, but the circumstance of my upbringing made me more likely to adopt a more transnational consciousness. I was sent to boarding school at the age of 5 with people from varying backgrounds, regions, and countries. We were forced to homogenize and thus none of us practiced the religions we were born to and everyone spoke English. It was that or try to understand 15 different dialects and 5 different languages. Once I left, at the age of 15, however, this homogenization set me apart from my larger cultural and regional connections. (In fact, I believe I have trans-regional issues too.) I think this laid the foundation for the fractured identity I find myself with today. I’ve found myself perpetually running away. To the UK for graduate school. To Belgium. To Italy. To Peru. To Bolivia. To the U.S. I find my identity constituting and then fracturing apart and then reconstituting. The only constant I’ve noticed, so far, is in my writing and that is with the presence of South-East Asian characters.
Jonathan: Don’t you ever feel boxed-in because people are tempted to try to fit you into a simple category, wide-ranging as your identity is?
To oversimplify–to say Julio is from Latin-America, so he must write magical realism (a la how Julian Barnes parodies the genre in Flaubert’s Parrot)–is to commit a fatal error. The novelist Taiye Selasi coined the term Afropolitan for just such oversimplifications in an essay from 2005, “Bye-Bye Barbar.” An Afropolitan, Selasi writes–a designation connected to her own background–is someone connected to Africa but not simply African; “We are Afropolitans,” she writes, “not citizens, but Africans of the world.” To be Afropolitan–or to be Caripolitan, Indopolitan, or anything else one may be–is to know “that nothing is neatly black or white; that to ‘be’ anything is a matter of being sure of who you are uniquely” and to understand that “what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness [or Caribbean or the changing Indian consciousness] is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing…alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity….” Even if Julio does write magical realism–and one half of us has been known to–it is essentializing to assume anything from him is magical realism.
Misha: Since you write magical realism, does that bring up an issue of audience?
Jonathan: Sometimes. Throw in some references to the present-day–anime, cell phones, all things we actually have back home–and some people will not only wonder how my story can contain them but how a magical-realist story can take place in what they think of as the present-day: how there can be people putting up videos of soucouyants and duppies on YouTube. Not all of my work can be classified as magical realism, which is already a difficult term because it suggests something about what is “realism” and what is not. Nonetheless, coming from the Caribbean, people seem to expect me to write magical realism, and even a decidedly realistic story might therefore be classified by such persons as “magical,” even if no such “magic” exists in it. This might be in part because the term is associated strongly with Latin-America, which some people confuse on a whole with the Caribbean (though parts of the coast are Caribbean, and Garcia Marquez calls his work “Caribbean”). A story can be “marvelous” as Alejo Carpentier defined the term without being “magical realism.”
Misha: Of course. The same persons may also be simply calling something magical realism or absurd or authentic (especially when the story is a cultural minefield) when they come upon in writing an act, a situation, a place, a person, a reaction that is wholly removed from their reality. Right now I think there is a real problem in the way critical thinking amongst writing students functions. There is a belief that if one identifies and labels all kinds of writing (which is a worthwhile endeavour) then one must be well-versed in understanding the craft of writing. This belief is where we fail to acknowledge that which is the Other. (I know I’ve been guilty of this too.) When faced with the unfamiliar we could simply admit that the writing in front of us is unboxable and invite the writer to identify and engage with us about what they are trying to accomplish. But more often than not this will not happen and within a writing group someone will raise the default question: who are you writing for? I know it is naive to assume that we don’t think about audience when we write but it’s also naive to assume that you can only write with an audience in mind. Tagore was read by Yeats and I don’t think he was thinking of an Irishman when he wrote. But the question remains, who is my audience? Your audience? Am I writing for Indians alone? For the erstwhile and present British colonies?
Jonathan: How would we deal with these problems as teachers ourselves?
Not all work can be responded to in the same way–that would be its own kind of irresponsibility. We should never merely be rigid, even in our rage. Writers have a long history of trying to understand other writers and cultures–albeit with varying degrees of success. To write The Last Mughal, for instance, a seminal history of the last days of the Mughal Empire, the writer and historian William Dalrymple went to the National Archives of India with Mahmood Farooqui and and Bruce Wannell to go through the 20,000 then-nearly-unused documents–now known as the Mutiny Papers–about Delhi by Indians from 1857 so that Delhi in that fateful year, in Dalrymple’s words from his introduction to the text, could “be seen for the first time from a properly Indian perspective, and not just from the British sources through which to date it has usually been viewed.” The Last Mughal, then, becomes an example of a text that is important because it fills in gaps in perspectives–it does not resort to the kind of historical solipsism so dangerous in perpetuating what Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie has elsewhere called “the single story”–and it could only have done so because of the effort Dalrymple and his colleagues expended on trying to complicate the British perspectives on this period in Indian and British colonial history.
Misha: Do you think this is the kind of work ethic we should be inculcating in our students?
Jonathan: Yes. Of course, we can’t expect our students to have the same resources or time. But even a simple Google search can be a way of showing respect to another writer’s work when giving them feedback, of showing ambition to understand something.. And this ambition applies to how we should approach responding to stories that are foreign to us, too. The effort is critical, even if we make mistakes.
The mistakes can sometimes be even more important. Ezra Pound, for instance, among his many infamies, is remembered for his extraordinary and creative failures at translating Chinese, due in part to the equally inventive and inaccurate theories of Ernest Fenollosa that Pound imbibed in the early 20th century. Yet Pound’s misreadings still reflect an effort to understand something utterly foreign to him. And the inventiveness of his translations has found support even among a number of Chinese critics and writers, including a group known as the Misty Poets, who, after the Cultural Revolution but before the Tiananmen Square protests, turned to Pound’s “translations” as a way to celebrate new academic freedoms and to create a vital new school of Chinese poetry. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats famously befriended the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, bringing through Yeats’ championing of Tagore’s work a wide audience to a collection of Tagore’s poetry, Gitanjali, that Tagore might not otherwise have received. Yeats’ treatment of him in London similarly improved Tagore’s image of British and Indian relations. As future teachers, though, we must find a way to convey to our students that while both writers tried to understand each other, they often resorted to simplifications and exoticism. Yeats reduced the history of Bengal to an “unbroken” civilization in which “poetry and religion are the same thing” in a typical display of what Edward Said called Orientalism, and Tagore could similarly describe Yeats in 1914 as “reveal[ing] the soul of Ireland through his individual soul.” Their friendship deepened Yeats’ interest in Indian literature and Tagore’s appreciation for Irish, yet the exoticizing mysticism clear in their descriptions of each other is a sign of what we must avoid.
Jonathan: We live–for the most part–in an age of globalization, where it is easier than ever to have cross-cultural contact without leaving one place. So, do we still need to teach our students the significance of cross-cultural bonds like that of Yeats and Tagore?
Misha: Absolutely. I think we need to encourage them to realize the opportunities of working in proximity with someone whose view of the world is different and provide them with tools to understand how these interactions can deepen their own work. Frankly, being around other writers that come from similar backgrounds or continually do the same thing may not always contribute to a writer’s growth as much. Since I am a writer with experiences tied to many places, I often wonder what my work would be like if I was back home writing exclusively amongst other Indians. In India though, we don’t possess communities that foster writing in the same kind of structured environment as they do here and without these places a writer from India would be less likely to be collaborating with a writer from Dominica, which makes these environments a haven for writers.
We must be willing to learn and borrow from a wide range of sources, meaning we must put in the effort. As Kwame Anthony Appiah said in a Mother Jones interview from 2005 about Cosmopolitanism: “Think of the places we think of historically as great centers of civilization—Mogul India, Venice in the Renaissance, Greece in the 5th Century BC, London in the 19th Century—they all borrow; and this is what people do, they borrow, they exchange, that’s how cultures work.” And this works, too, on an individual scale. We are, as Salman Rushdie puts it in “Outside the Whale,” “all irradiated by history…radioactive with history and politics.” To try to make people foreign to us, be they students or colleagues, fit into clean little boxes is to do both them and ourselves a deep disservice. Generalizing is generally no good. Too often, people say we are “authentically” this or our work is “authentic” without any idea what our work is about or even what that term, authenticity–what Rushdie defines as “the respectable child of old-fashioned exoticism”–means, if it means anything. What of those of us who deliberately use “broken” English–like Kamau Brathwaite in “The Dust” or Samuel Selvon in The Lonely Londoners or Gish Jen in “Who’s Irish?”–because this represents our experience of English?
Identity, it should be clear, is hardly a clear, un-rippled pond.
And the ambition to understand this is important, but it is not an ambition that exists everywhere equally. To be ambitious, in many ways, is part of our inheritance as writers from multiple worlds; if we’re serious about opening the many doors that lead to who we are, we need to know the histories that make us up, be they literary, art-historical, musical, geographic, or cultural. Especially in areas outside the standard narratives of Western literary history, you feel a push to know the canonical texts and those that are not canonical, to know everything there is to know, in part because of a problematic suspicion that unless you know all of this you will not be “legitimate” when you enter, say, an American university:
Misha: Do you think this sort of belief that we must know everything is something we should push on our students? Or is it just us, people from smaller, seemingly less important countries (as some people think) who feel this pressure and then perpetuate it?
Jonathan: This pressure is very real. I certainly think this mentality has a greater tendency to appear in you if you come from a certain place; you feel as though, unless you do know everything, you will fit some stereotype of someone from a cultural backwater who cannot possibly know this or that. When you come from a small place, the Haitian writer Marvin Victor said at Cosmopolitan Contexts, a discussion at Florida State University this year that also featured the transnational writers Yoko Tawada and David Bezmozgis, you feel like you need to know everything. As for our students, regardless of how we feel, some of which will inevitably translate into our teaching, we need to inculcate in them why it is important to want to know everything. It is important we know Dostoevsky and Derek Walcott, Anita Desai and Robbe-Grillet.
Misha: Or Marguerite Yourcenar and Mohsin Hamid. No matter where you may come from.
And big places are no different. In a parodic but nonetheless revealing passage from his novel Distant Relations, Carlos Fuentes writes that one of his protagonists “had that quality so characteristic of cultured Latin Americans: the passion to know everything, to read everything, to give no quarter, no pretext, to the European, but also to know well what the European does not know and does not consider his own, the Popol Vuh and Descartes. And, above all, to demonstrate to the European that there is no excuse not to know other cultures.” While it would be essentialism to say that Victor’s or Fuentes’ images of writers from smaller or bigger places are always accurate, the pressure to feel legitimized these passages presuppose is very real.
So what we need is to make our students understand that the work of the Other should be appreciated for its merits, not to be praised or treated gently merely because they come from different backgrounds or because the work involves something the critiquers are not already familiar with. The work shouldn’t be lauded out of political correctness or misunderstood out of laziness. And we need to facilitate this kind of conversation about cultural difference with our students. We do not want our students to think “transnational” is simply itself another box to put someone in, where the conversation then stops. We need to create situations in which we can correct our students if they say that a text isn’t any good because it doesn’t explain a foreign world to them. We need, in other words, to show that we belong here, that our work is written for the audience we choose it to be written for, and that if someone genuinely misunderstands something, fine, but that it is not fine if someone refuses to look up an important word or even simply Google the name of a city or village or sea to see where a story takes place. The world certainly is large–much more than a piece of cosmic lint, as Bill Bryson described an early photograph of one of Pluto’s moons–and complex. But we will grow as our conception of the world grows. And, if we speak up, the maps of the world around us–students, friends, family, colleagues–will grow in their own ways as well, the unknown dragon-guarded islands on our maps of the world suddenly clearer and closer.
Or, as Rushdie puts it in “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist,” an essay collected in Imaginary Homelands: “You see the folly of trying to contain writers inside passports.”
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review. She has been an Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fiction at Florida State University. She is in the process of writing her debut novel.
Jonathan Bellot holds an MFA from Florida State University, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Humanism, Small Axe, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, and in other journals. He is an assistant editor for Transnational Literature. He was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived since the age of nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where he is a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. He is working on his first novel.
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