The Immigrant Novelist at Work in London
Today’s piece is from guest blogger, Misha Rai
Dear Mum and Dad, something unexpected has happened, I wrote in an email on the second day of June from my desk at the Greenwich house I was sharing with another writer and a theater friend in London this past summer. A few days ago we went to see the Shakespearean play Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe. We were running late as usual. So late, we thought, that we had to run all the way from Waterloo tube station without really stopping until we were ensconced firmly amongst other audience members as groundlings in the Globe’s yard. I think we might even have continued to jog on the spot, just outside the iron wrought black gate facing the Thames river, for the two minutes it took the volunteers to check the validity of our tickets and let us in, because we were afraid that stopping our hurried motion would somehow lead to us missing the frisson of watching a Shakespearean performance begin at the Globe, a kind of magical beginning that seemed to both consume and create co-conspirators of its audience. If Antony and Cleopatra came anywhere close to evoking the maelstrom of emotions the production of Titus Andronicus had created within us, a few weeks ago, we knew we’d go home more than satisfied. The beginning of the latter play had been unexpectedly explosive with makeshift chariots hurling in, from the doors marked exit, carrying actors brandishing real whips that lashed out at any audience member who got in the way as though we were all simply Roman subjects crowding a town square. More than forty percent of that play had been carried out amongst the groundlings, the cheap standing seats that we always buy, with actors bursting upon us from under the stage already full steam in monologue or dialogue, other actors still hiding amongst us in plain sight only to reveal their presence by hissing in our ears—move bitch—to deliver more dialogue pushing us left or right or whichever way suited them, and some others still died amongst us and were pushed off the stage as a storm of black and red confetti hailed down and stayed in our hair long after we had left the theater.
Dad, I wish you had been here to see Titus Andronicus in its blood-splattered glory so we could see the play again through each other’s eyes. I wonder how you would have reacted to our reactions because until that evening, witnessing what has often been considered Shakespeare’s first tragedy, I wouldn’t have believed I could experience both a halcyon haze and an intense thrumming of blood that pounded so hard against my skin that I could barely breathe. And long after the high-octane revenge tragedy, between the Romans and the Goths, had been carried out to a conclusion I stayed in that state whilst the river Thames seemed to flow past me and the jostling crowds on the streets and the tube home thinned and somehow I was back in the house already in my pajamas getting ready to go to bed. All of us seemed to be going through something similar although we didn’t actually speak about what we were feeling that evening or discuss the play until the next day with some lucidity. I wonder Dad, if you with your unquenchable passion for theater and experience with the medium would have also been prey to a similar stupor or would you have cited some previous production, you’d been to, from which something had been borrowed or influenced on the performance we witnessed thus rendering us from whatever state we were in to conduct a critical postmortem.
Anyways, as it turned out the production of Antony and Cleopatra hadn’t started by the time we came through even though seven minutes had lapsed into the performance time. As we edged our way through crevices left by the packed bodies of the other audience members, so we could stand either closer to the stage or avail better viewing positions, all I could think about was how excited I was that we hadn’t missed anything and how much I needed for something to work out the way it was supposed to on that day. I had been having a frustrating few afternoons at the British Library with research for the novel going nowhere. I felt stressed out because we were due to return stateside soon and only a tenth of my research questions seemed to have been answered. Also, I had just discovered, in those days, that I was incapable of moving on to the next chapter or subject area if I was unsatisfied with whatever I was working on in the moment. I know, mum, I know I should try to be more flexible. But I was also in a panic because no matter how meticulously planned the whole month had been—writing in the mornings at the Kahaila Café off Shoreditch in Brick Lane, afternoons spent researching in the reading rooms at the British Library, theater in the evenings (as much of it as I could manage, an obsession for which Dad’s to blame), and bed by 11:30 every night—I was still appallingly behind on the work I was meant to accomplish. (I did set a word limit everyday, dad, but because I only ever seemed to be revising previous work and writing one new paragraph the progress I was making seemed fruitless.) On top of that I was slowly becoming convinced that the fellowship that had enabled me to spend a month in London would have better served someone else who either knew what they were doing or were simply more prolific. Edwidge Danticat’s words, from her essay, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, ricocheted in my head all the time
Some of us think we are accidents of literacy. I do. We think we are people who might not have been able to go to school at all, who might never have learned to read or write. We think we are children of people who have lived in the shadows too long. We sometimes even think that we are like ancient Egyptians, whose gods of death demanded documentation of worthiness and acceptance before allowing them entry into the next world.
I wasn’t meant to be here, I thought. I wasn’t meant to be here. I was only ever meant to become the repeating shadow of a lineage of women who had lived restricted lives with little choice in the matter with more gumption and dignity than I could have managed. Whose only measure of intelligence was ever acknowledged by pointing out the good sense and reticence they displayed in their public dealings where family honour was ruled supreme. And, I am aware mum that some of these women led happy and fulfilled lives. Some even choose that life now. And whilst scholarships to various schools helped me walk away from what I would have been forced to endure, from what I didn’t want, I still feel scraps of confidence made solid beneath my feet scythed a lot of times in the new life I am trying to build. I wasn’t meant to be here, is what I have thought repeatedly. I think everyone thinks that too.
And on that particular day, when I thought all I had to look forward to was Antony and Cleopatra with it’s promise to give my evening a sort of enjoyable and predictable pattern even if the beginning of that pattern was simply the start time of the performance, every file I had ordered in the Asian and African reading rooms had been denied to me. Either they had been transferred to another library or destroyed in a fire or lost in a move or simply lost—no explanation provided. Other than cursing my own incompetence at carrying out research, because my earlier forays into the cyber world of the British Library had taught me that I was not naturally gifted when it came to conjugating the right keywords that opened the doors to the specific recorded history I was looking for, I was also beginning to suspect a conspiracy amongst the establishment and the librarians to keep certain documents away from me. It didn’t matter that I had found other meticulously kept records that condemned the British for their actions in India and in Southeast Asia as a whole or that there were other writers and scholars quite satisfied with the breadth of information provided at the library or that the librarians were always very helpful, I was convinced that there were nefarious reasons for keeping me from reading up on the “question on the safeguarding of the interests of Indian soldiers on field service abroad” or looking at the “request for supply of ghi (ghee) for Indian soldiers in hospital” or rifling through a request for “permission to nurse Indian soldiers during WWI.” I bet the request was denied! I thought, even before wondering who did nurse the Indian soldiers during WWI, who wanted to nurse them, who was in a position to even put in that request and how could I get my hands on this information regardless of the status quo of the files. Sitting in my corner of the Asian and African reading room, in the British Library, that afternoon I had cultivated a very Gollum-like gloom around me, sucking on strands of my hair, seething with indignation, completely ignoring other files that had come up during my search. I clicked to order them more out of irritation than anything else and then didn’t bother to retrieve those files from the help desk. They would still be there tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that because one can hold on to a file for three days if the file has not been examined by the person who ordered it. I was going to send these files back anyways, I thought.
And yes, mum, I am aware of what a waste of time and manpower that was.
A man dressed in contemporary western clothes walked onto the stage and the crowded Globe theatre fell silent. By this time over ten minutes had lapsed, or so it seemed to me, and there was still no sign that the performance would begin anytime soon. Since there was no microphone on stage the man had to begin multiple times finally projecting his voice loudly enough to be heard. He told us that Clive Wood, the actor cast as Antony, would be unable to perform. I don’t remember if he gave a reason for why Clive Wood would be unavailable because my brain had already begun exploding. Of course this would happen! To me! I thought. Because really I was the center of the universe and anything to perpetuate the persecution complex I sometimes harbored. And as you are aware, he continued, the Globe doesn’t have understudies. Right! I thought, stamping my foot on the floor. (I do that from time to time.) Now a murmur ran through the audience—no understudy meant no performance—before settling into a quiet pall. But, he said, but we don’t want you to go home disappointed. Some of you may have travelled a long way to come see this play. So this is what we propose to do. A close friend of mine (at the time I didn’t catch the friend’s name) who was recently been in seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, earlier this summer, has agreed to step in and perform the role of Antony. He will, though, be reading from a script but we hope you will appreciate what he is doing and support him. And having delivered his message the man hesitated before turning around and striding off the stage.
Before we had time to fully consider what had happened or I could sotto voce begin my complaining the performance began with music infiltrating the air around us and dancing actors the stage. Here is what seems alive in my memory—thunderous applause when the play did begin because unlike me there were many people in the audience gracious enough to accept this change of plans; after all we were still going to get a performance. And then John Light loped onto the stage as Antony in a rather fine brown (leather?) jacket and I screamed. Luckily, the very banshee-like shriek was drowned out by laughter and applause from the audience for some witty dialogue he had delivered. Why the scream? Here is a bit about me that you may have perhaps suspected, mum, dad, but hoped wasn’t true. I am what some people may call a fangirl. And on the days that I would begin to lose steam to follow the schedule I had set out for myself, invariably Fridays and Saturdays, I ended up doing one of two things; lying ramrod stiff under the comforter, pretending to be an Ostrich invisible save for my wriggling feet, trying to erase the memory of all the horridly strung together words and plot points I had worked on during the work week or simply loitering around London. Mostly outside the National Theater or the British Film Institute or the Donmar Warehouse or the Old Vic with the theater friend who was in London looking for a job and go fan girl crazy—facial expressions contorted in silent screams—when we spotted an actor we had been crushing on for months or years as we watched shows on the BBC or the ITV or Channel 4. John Light had been on our list. Beautiful, dark-haired, deep voiced, John Light. Underrated stud Henry Lennox in BBC’s North & South. John Light. Christian in Love in a Cold Climate. John Light. We never spotted him in our travels past the doorsteps of many a theater and so I screamed when he came on stage. But this is not the bit that was so unexpected that I had to write to you about it. Although it was in its own way, wonderfully so. What came after it was the beginning of the unexpected something.
Unlike in Titus Andronicus where the audience had no choice but to become part of the performance because of the way the play was laid out physically in the theater, for this performance of Antony and Cleopatra the audience’s generous complicity was paramount to its success or at least to the play coming off as best as it could because one-half of its leads was missing. One of the two main protagonists, who seemed to be constantly on stage, was using a script to aid his performance often having to pause to find his dialogue or having to improvise (or so it seemed) where lengthy dialogue delivery was concerned all the while trying to act as confidently as he could. The script that occasionally obscured his face as well as the pauses he relied on could have created a barrier of awkward silences between the audience and the actors and would have been a disaster instead with the help of the other actors, especially Eve Best, who was magnificent as Cleopatra, these moments created a wonderful camaraderie between the performers and their audience that electrified the theater. An actor friend of ours who had taken to accompanying us to the theater, and had also performed in a Shakespearean play at the Globe a while ago, told us that traditionally the groundlings would often be in communication with the actors during a performance. Many a repartee would be exchanged as well as running commentary on the success of the various acts in performance. So suddenly it seemed we had been transported back in history, to a time where what seemed like a special occurrence to me had actually been the norm. And in our case a request had been made, to appreciate what the actors were trying to do and support them, which we did and I would like to think we had help channeling the energy of the ghost of audiences that had come before us.
We waited patiently each time John Light lost his place and found it. We clapped encouragingly each time he delivered his dialogue without much delay. We gasped in shock when Eve Best’s Cleopatra took his script away and sashayed around him sexily all the while delivering a salvo of provoking dialogue. Our susurrus of whispered commiseration rose when he looked at us helplessly as his script continued to be held hostage for what seemed an interminably long time. We cheered when Light’s Antony wrested it back from Best’s Cleopatra to answer back her provocation with some of his own (once he found his place in the script, that is). We sighed (audibly) when after sharing a prolonged kiss with Best’s Cleopatra Light’s Antony simply forgot to look for his dialogue and laughed loudly but kindly when he realized he didn’t have any dialogue to deliver after all. During the intermission we looked into the faces of strangers around us that mirrored our own glowing reflections and talked about how wonderful the performances were, how well suited John Light and Eve Best were as Antony and Cleopatra, how Eve Best really shouldn’t have taken John Light’s script from him for that long, how brave John Light was for agreeing to perform, how his nervous yet confident energy was infectious and how the absence of Clive Wood, I thought, had made an evening of passive observation with a monologue in our heads into an act of unexpected communal unity with the best of human traits at display. And when the play finally came to a close the applause that rang out seemed not just for the actors but also for everyone in the audience, to whatever it was within us that was shifting unknowingly through our participation in what I have since called both, a performance of a lifetime and a performance of our own.
The next day when I got to the British Library I went up to the collection desk, in the Asian and African reading room, and gathered the files I had ordered the previous day. This is part of the ritual I have developed. Even before taking off my outer garments to acclimatize my body to the Library’s inner temperature, even before taking two steps at a time to climb up to the reading room, even before looking to see if my favorite seat, under the portrait of some unnamed royalty dressed in green and pearls that reminded me of my grandmother, was vacant I would imagine walking eagerly over to the collection desk and greedily accepting what awaited me hoping that this time as I turned the pages I would simultaneously be ready to decipher and make the necessary connections with the knowledge present in those pages and be worthy of the information I was going to unearth to eventually represent. But it was more than mere ritual that made me walk up to the librarian and present my library card that day. Something had broken through the rigidity I had bound myself in. Never one to manage balance in my life I had, for the duration of this trip, locked myself into a version of partial confinement where unexpected invitations from old school friends were turned down, free concerts were frowned upon, cousins were never called, non-scheduled phone calls were either ignored or abruptly concluded because none of these interactions could possibly contribute to the work I was doing and unbeknownst to me these restrictive acts were also inuring me from living a fully rounded life, a life from which I indirectly drew so much of what I wrote. I had forgotten a golden rule of my writing life: that writing came to me incidentally, it came from places I least expected to find it in, it came from people whose stories I had heard so many times that I found little wonder in them but then found myself fixating on their words or from people whose stories I often misheard, it came from emotions remembered and emotions forgotten only to have them resurface, it came from my family, it came from my friends, it came from loud arguments, it came from a year old copy of the Economist I found in a suitcase mom you sent me, quite simply it came from the world I interacted with. So that day I took the three files the librarian had brought up for me and went to my desk to begin work.
By the end of the day I had made notes from at least six more files, one of which was so tattered that I had to use the tip of my pencil to turn its pages, and two that helped me trace the history of a particular type of dacoit (bandit) and a certain kind of dacoity (banditry) found all over South Asia tracing as far back as 1870. The three files that I had originally ordered, more out of irritation than real zeal for scholarship, had lead me to a treasure trove of other files that helped me create a more coherent origin story for the bamboo stick brandishing dacoits in my novel. In the next week I produced over 43 pages of solid writing for the novel, finished the first draft of a short story and read what came my way in a more open-minded manner. I also made plans to see my friends, went to a jazz concert, called my cousins, and Skyped with the people I had ignored. I wrote a postcard to myself—remember to leave the flat at least once a day and be patient when the family calls—and posted it. In my yellow notebook, under the note—you are failing as a real writer—I wrote—try to keep an open mind. But my epiphany about the importance of a life less rigidly lived and the gifts that come with that, is only part of the reason why I felt I had to write to you mum, dad.
Following the crumbs of dacoit activity all over South Asia I came across an entry, buried amongst the papers of a government clerk in a large provisional town, that makes a passing allusion to a successful businessman in Burma who used to be a schoolteacher in one of the eastern provinces in north India. The reason for his departure from India was listed as private. And then in the margins was written—ran away from home because family expected him to take a third wife since both previous wives had died. Two living sons in India, one from each wife. I must have only looked at those two lines for a few minutes before I remembered the story cousin Neelu tells about your grandfather, dad. She always seems to cackle at the idea that a man would want to run away from marriage regardless of the circumstances. I am not sure what the connection between the dacoits and businessman the clerk mentions is, perhaps he was one of the many they robbed, but I cannot find any other information about him in the few files I have looked at. Dad, do you think this man could be your grandfather? Do you remember any stories about run-ins your grandfather may have had with dacoits? I know that whilst it is very possible dad, that this man may not be your grandfather what are the chances that two men with such similar stories, widowed twice with two sons left behind, may not be the same?
I’m not sure what it means to have found this possible connection with our past or what to do with it other than simply write to you about it and marvel at coming across something that had thus far only existed in the collective storytelling memory of our family but I keep thinking about Danticat’s words—We sometimes even think that we are like ancient Egyptians, whose gods of death demanded documentation of worthiness and acceptance before allowing them entry into the next world—and wonder if this chanced upon information about our possible ancestor coupled with all the other pieces of knowledge and writing that have recently come to me incidentally is an indication that I may finally be able to enter the next world, whatever that world may be, whatever I may make in that world with the words I endeavor to string together in the stories I am desperately trying to tell.
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review. Her nonfiction will appear in the forthcoming issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has been 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. At present she serves as Fiction Editor on The Southeast Review.
Characterizing Prizes by their Limitations: The Future of the Man Booker
Every year the Man Booker award makes a splash in the literary world. The prize proclaims the best in British and Commonwealth literature and by virtue of not being open to American authors (or anyone outside of the Commonwealth) introduces the American public and the rest of the world to novelists they may not have heard of or otherwise have had access to before. Often the choice of nominees will create buzz and sometimes controversy, which invariably opens a conversation about how one type of literature may differ from another–how we do not have one global literature, but rather literatures around the globe. This year the Man Booker created a very different kind of buzz. The committee of the 45-year-old prize announced on September 18th that they would be opening the award to the Americans.
The reaction to the announcement was swift. It ranged, on both sides of the Atlantic, from the manic to the meditative, the seriously concerned to the seriously concerning. A commentary in the L. A. Times, for instance, asserted no less than that the Man Booker prize’s previous exclusion was “redolent of anti-Americanism” and even “a form of protectionism” against American novelists winning. Philip Hensher reported in The Guardian that a London agent, upon hearing the news, remarked, “Well, that’s the end of the Booker, then.” The Canadian columnist Heather Mallick took the announcement as an opportunity to reveal that “A Canadian or British novel is as different from an American novel as asphalt is from cloth,” partly because “Americans don’t speak English. They speak American.” Melvyn Bragg described the move as “rather like a British company being taken over by some worldwide conglomerate.” Jeanette Winterson informed The Telegraph that “f******* management culture” is to blame for this “terrible idea,” an idea she said every other writer she had met agreed was horrendous, and that “The Americans aren’t going to open up the Pulitzer to us…This country is so in thrall to America. We’re such lapdogs to them and that will skew things with the judges.” John Banville, who won the Booker in 2005, seemed frightened: “God help the rest of us,” he told the BBC, “because American fiction is very strong.” By contrast, Carolyn Wood, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers was less theatrical and took the change as a worthy challenge for Canadian novelists. “We punch above our weight,” she said, “and that won’t change because American authors are included.”
Meanwhile, Hensher himself mused that the decision might mark the loss of new voices under the weight of added submissions (though the Booker judges will not be reading more submissions altogether). He also worried that the style of novels submitted will become more and more “American,” as this year’s shortlist’s “superficial multicultural aspect” conceals “a specifically North-American taste,” not least because Jhumpa Lahiri considers herself an American writer and Ruth Ozeki, a dual citizen, was born in Connecticut. “Booker” novels, after all, often tend to draw from the shared historical legacy of the Commonweath, are less likely to be minimalistic, and often resist the urge to simply quickly tell stories the way that dirty-realist or minimalist novels do. Beyond this, the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra interpreted the Booker’s move as “one more sign of the steady erasure of national and historical specificity,” as the novels will, in the worst case scenario, all resemble each other rather than deal with that which is unique to particular cultures and histories; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, for instance, would be impossible without the cultural differences between its Pakistani narrator and the American he is speaking to.
Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the prize in 1989, supported the decision, remarking that it is “sad in a way because of the traditions of the Booker, and I can understand some people feeling a bit miffed, but the world has changed and it no longer makes sense to split up the writing world in this way.” The most visible of the concerned may be Lady Antonia Fraser, historian and wife of the late Harold Pinter, who resigned from the advisory committee of the international version of the prize after hearing the announcement. Jim Crace, whose Harvest is on the current shortlist and who may therefore have the most to lose by speaking out, told the Independent that “‘If you open the Booker prize to all people writing in the English language it would be a fantastic overview of English language literature but it would lose a focus. I’m very fond of the sense of the Commonwealth. There’s something in there that you would lose if you open it up to American authors” and further that “In principle, I should believe in all prizes being open to everyone. But I think prizes need to have their own characters, and sometimes those characters are defined by their limitations.”
And this prize has long been defined by its limitations, created to, in the Foundation’s own words, “promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.” This is a specific geographic designation–and a prize must have some limiting criteria. In the Booker’s case there is also the Booker International, which is open to writers of any nationality and deals with a writer’s body of work, and which has been won by Americans twice: Philip Roth and Lydia Davis. The Man Booker has often given young or unknown writers within the Commonwealth a chance to become well-known and enrich literature with their contributions (like Donal Ryan, whose debut novel was rejected 47 times before becoming longlisted for the Booker this year), and its winners almost always experience great sales bumps; the Pulitzer, open only to Americans, is more likely to go to an already publicized book, and the winner is less guaranteed a boost in sales. Moreover, while there are many prizes open to American writers, there are fewer prizes that allow writers within the Commonwealth a chance to compete against each other, especially since the Commonwealth Prize–once offered to novels–is at present only a short-story prize. While some consider the term “Commonwealth literature” problematic, like Salman Rushdie, there are still literary connections, based on the wide historical legacy of the Commonwealth, that tend to stylistically and thematically link Booker novels, and this literature–which needs a new name, to paraphrase the title of NoViolet Bulawayo’s shortlisted novel–will not be the same with American novels in the mix. Additionally, it is important to remember that the Booker novels create an exchange of ideas and conversation amongst American novelists and critics with regards to what is going on in the rest of the English writing world. The conversation would not be as rich if the same novelist wins the Pulitzer and the Booker; the Booker, like the Pulitzer, creates its own literary currency.
And currency of a different kind, unfortunately, may be the primary motivation behind the Booker’s decision. After all, the chair of the Booker committee, Jonathan Taylor, did not offer a more rational argument in the foundation’s press release for the announcement. Instead, Taylor presented a strange and ungainly analogy. “It is rather,” Taylor said of the prize not including American novels, “as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games. I appreciate,” Taylor added quickly, “this analogy is not entirely appropriate.” And it is inappropriate on more than one level; it suggests, almost underhandedly, that not including American novelists is some form of inadmissible discrimination akin to racism, when a geographically defined prize is anything but this. Taylor might as well have argued that Raymond Carver should retroactively win the Hugo Award–and the power of American publishing houses might not have dissuaded him from that analogy, either.
Jim Crace, unpleased with Taylor’s penniless analogy, explained why: “it will mean that fewer up-and-coming Commonwealth writers will get a showing. There’ll be fewer new or small publishing houses. And, third, most importantly in my view, it’s like saying the Commonwealth Games should be open to Americans — because we want it to reflect the best in athletics. The Commonwealth Prize is about celebrating the Commonwealth and the special relationship we have with the ex-colonies — which is part guilt and part warmth — and the Booker Prize isn’t an essential part of that but it is part of that.” And another part that is now playing an important role is the fact that we, as writers, do not live in a writers’ market, but a publishers’ market; the Bookers’ decision, under the guise of beneficent inclusivity and political correctness, only tightens this corporate noose around the necks of many Commonwealth writers. No doubt afraid of the rival Folio Prize (as well as similar prizes like the IMPAC Dublin prize), which is open to writers of any nationality, the Booker wishes to sacrifice its ideals to be the biggest game in town–and this makes literature into a logo, sweeps history under a corporation’s rug.
We posit that the Booker, if persistent in the new guise it sees itself in, will become an interesting commodity for a little while. Its product value will skyrocket as long as its novelty remains, but when the Booker and the Pulitzer begin to award their prizes to the same novels–and, as Hensher noted, “it will be a brave Booker panel in 2014 that doesn’t give the prize to an American novel”–the diversity of quality novels entered into the Booker may not increase but may in fact flatten out and decrease, and with that decrease will follow a draining of the depth of our various cultural conversations. Significant but previously little-known novelists like Jeet Thayil and Keri Hulme would never have had a chance to be nominated for the prize or win the Booker respectively. The former’s novel, Narcopolis, was panned by the Indian critics before U.K. critics recognized its literary merit and the latter’s novel, The Bone People, which won the Booker for 1985, was a novel that had not once been edited before its publication. Hulme’s novel, published by a small publishing house in New Zealand called Spiral, created literary history by being an example of an otherwise unknown novelist having been taken on. Examples like these show the Booker at its best.
The fine print of this new policy also expects all publishers to contribute 5, 000 pounds along with their submission if their submission is shortlisted. And if their submission were to win they would be expected to contribute another 5, 000 pounds. This caveat may not be entirely unreasonable, considering a simple nomination sees sales rising, but the darker side of this new policy is the fact that if your publishing house has not had a winner before, you cannot submit more than one entry and the 5,000-pound fees alone creates a model in which big publishers are favored over smaller ones. In a world of mass-market publicity, there is currency to currency, but the slap in the face the Booker foundation has delivered to smaller publishing houses is also a slap in the face not only to the foundation’s own history but also to–taking case studies like Keri Hulme in particular–literary history, as well.
Are novels then that all follow a less culturally specific model going to be the thing now? Will diversity mean that everything becomes the same? Will writers follow a trend Tim Parks noted in 2010 with Ishiguro–the trend of writing “simply” and with an eye to easy translation for a wide audience, rather than focusing on cultural specificity? Not enough writers have gotten involved in speaking out about this prize–and that is a crime. If the Booker sinks under its new corporate weight, it will be because we let it go without a fight. But maybe, in the end, we writers just need to sit down and write our books. A part of being a writer is the understanding that our visions may never be acclaimed, may never be recognized. But we also need to care about these cultural and literary debates. And part of the reason the Booker is so important is that it can give young, aspiring novelists a way for that vision to be so acclaimed, a vision that the Commonwealth really does, at some level, share. For that opportunity to now be denied by such vast inclusion is a violation of that vision. Maybe we need to create our own prizes to support our own visions. We need to just write the books that we want to write and hope that we, too, will be taken up when others will not touch our work.
But what we cannot do is let this conversation die.
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review. She has been 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. At present she serves as Assistant Fiction Editor on The Southeast Review.
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.
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.