|The Future of Literary Studies|
Not long ago I had a conversation with an esteemed colleague of mine and ours about the poet A.K. Ramanujan, born in India in 1929, for many years a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, an expert on and translator of South Indian literatures, who published before his death in 1993 several volumes of poetry in English. My colleague was considering which of Ramanujan’s poems to teach in a course on Postcolonial literature.
He read some lines he liked:
And another (which I freely excerpt)
Yet like grandfather
I bathe before the village crow
The dry chlorine water
My only Ganges
The naked Chicago bulb
A cousin of the Vedic sun . . .
Composed as I am, like others,
Of elements on certain well-known lists
father’s seed and mother’s egg
gathering earth, air, fire, mostly
water, into a mulberry mass . . . .
add uncle’s eleven fingers
making shadow-plays of rajas . . . .
add the lepers of Madurai
male, female, married,
with children. . . .
I pass through them
as they pass through me
taking and leaving
affections, seeds, skeletons. . . .
even as I add,
I lose, decompose,
into my elements . . . .1
Yes, I said to my colleague, I like those. I’ll probably use both of them next semester, as well.
You’re teaching Ramanujan? he asked. In what course?
Asian American literature, I replied.
That’s ridiculous, said my colleague, looking up from his task, which was wiping sweet potatoes off the baby’s chin. That’s not Asian American literature. Ramanujan is not an Asian American.
He warmed to the subject. If he’s an Asian American, he said, brandishing the orange-stained cloth, so am I. And, he went on, indicating the baby with the very same cloth, so is he.
Several knotty issues became here entwined. Well, they might have. Actually, I have to admit that my colleague did not actually make this final point, about the baby. Moreover, the baby in question was probably not even born when this conversation took place. Still, as I was writing this it occurred to me that it would be useful if he had made the point, and that he might have made it in reference to the earlier baby, so I made it for him. Anyway, my thinking was, it was bound to come up sooner or later, so I might as well address it here and now.
First of all, I began, releasing one or another child from his seat and from this conversation, the term “Asian American” now generally extends beyond people from East Asia to those from South Asia as well. Americans from the Indian subcontinent themselves generally claim the term Asian American or its variant, South Asian American, and, as you know, ethnic terminology lately tends to arise from those it describes. Maybe “Asian American” has acquired an absurdly wide range of reference, but I think that’s ok; it’s a category in progress. And so others may soon claim it as well, including Americans from West Asia: Iranian Americans, Afghan Americans, and so on. You may well be one soon, I said, especially if you want to be.
He gave a bemused chuckle and mumbled, “West Asian American,” seeming to try out the syllables in his mouth. But you miss part of the point, he said. It doesn’t make sense to treat Ramanujan’s poems as ethnic American poems. They’re eminently postcolonial. He began to catalogue the postcoloniality of the oeuvre: it’s all about cultural and linguistic hybridity, about the ironies of in-betweenness, double vision, unhomeliness, about mediation between Western and non-Western forms of perception, experience, and language.
Yes, yes, I agreed, wholeheartedly. That’s what makes him such a nice fit with the rest of my Asian American syllabus.
Perhaps, I went on, we need another set of terms, and I began talking about Bharati Mukherjee, another American writer from India, but parenthetically one who prefers not to be called an ethnic writer or a postcolonial writer or an Indian, a South Asian, an Asian American, or even a woman writer; she, Mukherjee insists, is a writer plain and simple. I, however, do call her a South Asian American woman writer, perhaps out of deference to majority opinion, or perhaps because I am trapped in an essentialist paradigm. But anyway, my point about Mukherjee derives from her 1988 New York Times Book Review essay, “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists,”2 in which she rejects the minimalist fiction in vogue in the 1970s and early 80s, as dangerously “nativist”: minimalism, she argues, “speaks in whispers to the initiated,” “as though . . .designed to keep out anyone with too much story to tell.”
“There is a blind spot in American writing,” Mukherjee writes; “While American fiction was sunk in a decade of minimalism, an epic was washing up on its shores.” This epic arises from an immigration wave more massive than any this country has seen, a wave largely from the third or postcolonial world, made possible by the shift in U.S. immigration policy in 1965. Mukherjee describes the new immigrant America that minimalism misses: “Characters in this world have the density of 19th-century presences; like creations out of Balzac and Dickens . . . . They have all shed past lives and languages, and have traveled half the world in every direction to come here and begin again. They’re bursting with stories, too many to begin telling.” But where in American fiction does one find their stories? she asks, and in imagination she hangs on the wall of the U.S courthouse where she and a crowd of others recently became citizens, a poster that reads: “WELCOME MAXIMALISTS. HELLO, EXPANSIONISTS.” For not only white American writers but even the newcomers themselves have failed to write this epic, victims, apparently of what Mukherjee calls “the great temptation, even the enemy, of the ex-colonial, once-third-world author”: that is, the rejection of the cultural category of “immigration” in favor of “expatriation.”
It’s easy to see the attraction of expatriation, Mukherjee admits, for “In literary terms, being an immigrant is very déclassé. There’s a lowgrade ashcan realism implied in the very material. The exiles (or their even haughtier cousin, the God-help-us! émigré) come wrapped in a cloak of mystery and world-weariness. By refusing to play the game of immigration, they certify to the world . . . the purity of their pain and their moral superiority,” becoming “permanent scolds” (and here she invokes V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Milan Kundera), whose prose becomes “increasingly mannered and self-referential,” and who “can end up . . . talking only to [themselves] and [their] biographer[s].”
So, Mukherjee informs younger ex-third world writers, although “[t]hird-world material will never be harshly received,” but rather will be celebrated by “faintly condescend[ing]” classmates and editors, “your material is dead.” “Let it die, I want to shout. We’re all here, and now, and whatever we were raised with is in us already. . . . in our eyes and ears and . . . brains. . . .Turn your attention to this scene, which has never been in greater need of new perspectives. See your models in this tradition, in the minority voices, the immigrant voices, the second-generation Jews and Italians and Irish and French-Canadians. We are in their tradition.”
Putting aside the odd, flag-waving Americanism here, which casts the third world as dead material, and America as the center of the here and now, and which chooses European Americans only as literary ancestors, I want to think about Mukherjee’s two attitudes toward migration, toward nationality, toward being here. Beyond the question of which is fuller of virtue, or more life or death-affirming, perhaps “immigration” and “expatriation” are the categories about which my colleague and I were really speaking, as we wrangled with the definitions of two current fields: postcolonial literature and Asian American or more broadly ethnic literature. Maybe a postcolonial writer in America is one who conducts him or herself like a perpetual expatriate, rather than an immigrant, continuing to write about the old country, perhaps in the old language, resisting “assimilation.”
But then again maybe what Mukherjee is talking about is simply class—for immigrant writing in her account is low class while expatriate literature is preoccupied with former affluence; or in other terms, immigrant writing perhaps is that which looks forward to an American rise to status or recognition, and expatriate writing, that which looks backward toward an integrated cultural identity or status forever lost in a third-world youth.
This break-down of the differences accounts well for the immigrant world of her 1988 collection The Middleman and Other Stories, reviewed in the same issue of the Book Review, a shrewd and wonderfully comic group of stories in which the contemporary U.S. is the stage for the collision of the most unlikely pairings of third-world migrants, all of them struggling for a foothold in America, all of them on the make, in pursuit of money, romance, adventure, willingly tossing away a lifetime of stories for a connection with possibilities.
But Mukherjee’s immigrant/expatriate divide, marking out a forward versus a backward glance, does not actually help us much with Ramanujan, who tends to compare this from the West to that from the East, to “pass through” things “as they pass through [him],” to add up his elements and decompose himself again, with a curiosity and a skeptical wit that counter both nostalgia and desire.
And come to think of it, neither “immigrant” nor “expatriate” accounts for a group of novels that began to be published soon after Mukherjee wrote this piece, such as Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990),3 a novel on my Asian American syllabus, and one that feels extremely American though set almost entirely in the Philippines. Narrated by a daughter of the upper classes who, like Hagedorn, was born in the Philippines and later emigrates to the U.S., Dogeaters casts a backward glance that is not merely nostalgic, as Mukherjee has it, but also deeply parodic, engaged in a wicked social and political satire of the Marcos era, as in its hallucinatory renderings of the erotic dreams of a character called “the President’s wife.” Moreover, there is plenty of ashcan realism in the plot of Joey the drug-addicted male prostitute and his sordid Manila street life. Perhaps it’s the nervy energy of the book that recalls Mukherjee’s idea of American immigrant fiction more than her notion of the expatriate; or perhaps it’s the book’s preoccupation with all things American: movies, pop stars, fashion, junk food, shopping malls—key elements of Hagedorn’s portrayal of the Filipino condition, the plague of having been colonized in all but name by the U.S. The point is that any number of immigrant American writers from postcolonial countries have been contributing to U.S. literature texts about other homelands, and these have all the vitality of the most vibrant “ethnic” American texts one could name. Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, a novel about Jamaica, comes to mind here, as do Julia Alvarez’s novels of the Dominican Republic, and many others.
So perhaps we simply need a new category of postcolonial American writers. Many “postcolonial” writers, of course, do not live or write in the postcolony, but rather, in the European metropole, or here in the United States. In Caribbean letters, for example, exile is endemic, called by some a generative condition of the literature, even while a sad indicator of the paucity of literary opportunity and institutions in the islands. Perhaps if Caribbean writers who settle here keep writing about home, and not about immigrant communities in Toronto or Brooklyn, we can call them postcolonial Americans. But then why does a writer like Jamaica Kincaid, whose novels and stories continue to concern themselves with her native island of Antigua—not to say one particular resident of the island of Antigua—her mother, seem to be generally treated as an immigrant American writer? Is it because of her longtime association with the New Yorker magazine? Derek Walcott has resided in Boston for at least a quarter of a century, and he’ll never be an ethnic American, nor will Kamau Brathwaite, no matter how long he teaches in New York. But the young writer Edwidge Danticat, author of harrowing novels about life in Haiti, is being celebrated as a rising Caribbean-American novelist.
Could the difference in this random sample have something to do with gender, or gender combined with race? Does the category of American women writers of color have such a magnetic hold on us nowadays that it draws into its sphere anyone who comes close to filling the bill, no matter her country of origin, or her forward or backward glance? Or could the difference be a matter of age at time of arrival—those who come as children grow up to write ethnic American fiction, while those who arrive already grown can only and forever write of their postcoloniality?
Or perhaps the difference is a matter of fiction versus poetry, and here I turn in my anecdotal imagination to my colleague, to ask whether there might be something about poetry, as opposed to fiction, that resists immigration, and persists in that other imaginative state, whether it be called postcoloniality or expatriation. But I find him rushing out the door to a meeting, or maybe six or seven meetings, and he shouts something about the lingering Romantic association of poetry and poets with their nations, and then again about the work of metaphor, which always speaks of two things at once, carrying meaning across great distances.
And these seem plausible leads until I remember Mukherjee’s list of expatriate novelists: Naipaul, Rushdie, Kundera, who make their homes in the perpetuation of every distance.
Perhaps the crucial factor is simply erudition. Perhaps a Ramanujan or a Brathwaite or a Nabokov can never immigrate; perhaps beyond a certain level of education one is forever unfit to pass the cultural citizenship examination of a new homeland. Or does it just come down to sensibility, in which case all literary categorization, especially the politically or historically inspired, is a hopeless sham?
No, I don’t let it all collapse that far. Rather, I think that the fact that none of these terms seems fully adequate—neither ethnic American nor postcolonial, neither immigrant nor expatriate, simply means that American literature is a changing terrain, and our terms haven’t caught up with it. On this terrain the ethnic and the postcolonial are paths that now cross, and many texts might be well discussed and described using either or both terms. If I call writers of Indian or Caribbean or African descent new American ethnics, perhaps I colonize them all over, but I also acknowledge that these postcolonials force us to rethink our definition of American ethnicity. Ethnic America today cannot be understood apart from the hybrid cultural heritage of Europe’s centuries-long, violent embrace of the conquerable world.
A similar recognition has led to a recent “paradigm shift” in Asian American literary and cultural critique, one that accords with new directions in American studies in general. The national focus, with its emphasis on identity politics and cultural nationalism, has given way to a reading of Asian American experience and cultural production within a transnational, diasporic historical matrix.
For Arjun Appadurai,
The United States, always in its self-perception a land of immigrants, finds itself awash in . . . global diasporas, no longer a closed space for the melting pot to work its magic but yet another diasporic switching point to which people come to seek their fortunes though no longer content to leave their homelands behind. (803)4As migration becomes circular, global, diasporic, American ethnics belong not so much to immigrant communities as, in Appadurai’s terms, to new, “delocalized” “transnation[s]” (804).
But if one tries to picture a delocalized transnation, certain hard facts get in the way. One can imagine, for example, five or six urban blocks festooned with signs in Korean, thronged with immigrants from Korea, leading their American-born children into Korean grocery stories or travel agencies or internet salons where they can email the family back home. But it’s hard to keep out of one’s line of sight the Indian-owned electronics shop at the end of the block, or the Salvadorans leading their American-born children in for a bargain, and so on. What a focus on the diasporic nature of the newest ethnic American populations misses is the heady interethnic mix that they find here.
Indeed, my mention of American-born children, even as it remind me not to drop a thread of the conversation that began this discussion, also causes me to reflect that it’s been a long time since I’ve read the sort of conventional ethnic novel that centers upon tensions between immigrants and their incomprehensible, Americanized children. Instead, I’m finding novels that step outside the ethnic household to see what it is like to walk with one’s particular ethnic or national heritage into the arena of the contemporary American multiculture.
This is the second new paradigm I want to set before you: I think of it as the interethnic axis of ethnic literature. For I believe that our ethnic literatures, while rooted in narratives of tradition and memory, increasingly seek to engage the heterogeneity of American culture, to elaborate ethnic identities that are at home in multiplicity. Recent fiction tends to render an embeddedness in multiplicity notably distinct from the stark tension between immigrant subjectivity and a generalized Americanness, which for so long characterized ethnic literature.
I don’t mean to suggest that we are about to lose the need for the terms that name our distinct ethnic fields: Latino literature, African American, Asian American, Jewish American, and Native American literature, and so on. These categories correspond to vital literary histories as well as to lived histories and cultural experiences that, for some time to come, will shape the pages of contemporary texts. But I think we can continue to honor ethnicity, which has been a crucial, powerful generator of stories to live by and a strategic identity marker for marginalized people, even while conceiving of American literature as a space of experimentation with cross-ethnic contact, influence, affiliation, theft, and so on.
In three Asian American novels of the 1990s that I’ve been studying, the interethnic impulse is at work on the levels of plot and character, linguistic texture and narrative mode, and engagement with literary precursors: in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995),5 the Korean American hero lives out his minoritized existence as a spy, a chameleon American, whose daily work is to take on new identities; the book shows affiliations with African American novels of the mid-twentieth century; in Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (1997)6, the teenaged Chinese-American heroine converts to the Judaism of her suburban New York neighbors, bringing the Chinese American novel into a hilarious hybrid with the tales of Jewish America; and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997)7 cultivates a multicultural sublime, crossing a parody of American multicultural correctness with the traditions of L.A. disaster fiction and the Latin American magic realist novel.
The thread of affiliation to African American literature and culture is a particularly complex and interesting development, which actually shows up in all three of these novels, more prominently than has ever been the case in Asian American tradition. But I want to note, too, that recent African American literature itself has developed a new sort of attention to cross-ethnic dynamics, distinct from the longtime preoccupation with the “color line.” Recent prose memoirs that search into interracial family histories probe beyond the conventional fascination with the predicament of the mulatto to think about cross-racial relationships, about the ordinary, the near-invisible, the familial interraciality of our culture, and one might say the same of a novel like Morrison’s Paradise, and even, going back a few decades, to 1970s and 80s slavery novels like Butler’s Kindred and Johnson’s Oxherding Tale.
It may be in part that hybrid is in, and that our pop culture stages and restages it in myriad forms; it may be that mobility and diasporic migrancy and intermarriage and suburbanization and other kinds of demographic changes really are reshaping our cultural consciousness. But the nature of our ethnic texts is changing. I think of Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, a novel by a Japanese American about a multiethnic cast of characters in contemporary Los Angeles. One of her characters, Bobby Ngu, is described as “Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown”; for lunch he microwaves take-out Chinese burritos. This lived hybridity is nothing, however, compared to the mixing that ensues, when the very streets of L.A. begin to curve and buckle and all the ethnic radio and TV stations to begin speaking in one another’s languages, not because of an earthquake, but because of a more encompassing natural event: the northward migration of the Tropic of Cancer, all the way from below the Mexican border, to the Los Angeles city limits, dragging with it the massive and of course illegal immigration of the entire culture and history of Latin America. Yamashita’s appropriately magical realist figuration of postcolonial migrancy meets her realist interethnic L.A. with fantastic, absurd, and tragically violent results. I see Tropic of Orange as allegorizing the transformation of ethnic American literature by these two kinds of dilation, so to say: the in-migration of the world and its stories (and story forms), and second, the expansion of the sphere of the ethnic text across ethnic boundaries.
The orange of the novel’s title is the emblem of the boundary-crossing imagination, a fruit which, in its botanical history, has criss-crossed the North-South border several times, and which is carried North to L.A again with the magical migration in the hand of a child, little Sol, who together with his Mexican mother Rafaela is returning to Los Angeles and to the husband and father from whom they have been estranged, the Asian American Bobby Ngu. When Yamashita’s entirely crazy plot finally resolves itself, amidst a prize fight between two titanic superheroes representing the competing values of the North and the South, Sol and his orange are at center stage, as is the reunion of the interethnic lovers, his parents.
It’s a curious fact that all three of the Asian American novels I’ve mentioned include a mixed child, in each case, the horizon of the book’s interethnic vision, the locus of its hopes, of course, and the embodiment of a future that cannot yet articulate its nature. This seems important not least because the literary house of Asian America has not until recently contained a child of the third generation, being well occupied by the first two. That this child is frequently of mixed parentage is something we might have predicted from the goings on in the previous generation of novels. But who is this mixed child going to be? The novels, in fact, don’t know yet; they tend to position children prominently at endings, where they signal resolution and futurity which, from the point of view of the two older generations look clearly comic, but the full meaning of which lies beyond a line past which the grandparents and the parents cannot see.
Will they grow up to be Asian Americans, West Asian Americans, West Asian-East European Jewish Americans, or something else entirely? And what sort of literature will they write? It seems to me, and probably to you, that this will have to be a matter of their own long musing, and their own experimentation. This of course cannot prevent us from loading them up with the materials from which to make their experiments. That’s a pretty solid reason, I think, to safeguard the proud and distinct ethnic literary traditions even as we watch them undergo new waves of change.
While we don’t know what lies ahead, I think we have a luminous sign in all these novelistic children, blessing the ends of novels with their toddler syllables and their interesting names (Mitt, Io, Sol), embodying what is precious and poignant in the changing present. No scene captures this suggestiveness better than the exquisite ending of Native Speaker, with which I’ll end.
The hero and his wife, he Asian American and she European American, teach English to a class of immigrant children in a New York City public school. Their own beloved, mixed-race son is dead, accidentally smothered in a children’s game. His presence and the hope he embodied haunt the scene. The children in the classroom are from all over the world; many of their parents are undocumented; they don’t speak the language well.
As the children prepare to exit the classroom, the teachers press a sunburst name badge to each child’s chest. Henry narrates as his wife, Lelia, writes the names and then “calls out each one as best she can, taking care of every last pitch and accent, and I hear her speaking a dozen lovely and native languages, calling all the difficult names of who we are” (349). Lee’s ending gives us a new image of the ethnic novel, not as a site of compulsory assimilation but as a place of education into heteroglossia. It presents English teachers trying to learn other languages, as best they can, in order to do their job well. And it posits an inclusive “we,” a we chastened by memory, and on its way out the door to a future that is difficult to name, but which looks promising in great part because we know it will be composed of so many difficult names.
1. These lines are from Ramanujan’s poems “Extended Family” and “Elements of Composition,” in The Collected Poems of A.K. Ramanujan. (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995), 169-70, 121-23.
2. The New York Times Book Review, 28 August, 1988, 1.
3. Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990).
4. “The Heart of Whiteness,” Callaloo 16.4 (1993): 796-807, Rptd. from Public Culture 5.3 (Spring 1993).
5. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (New York: Riverhead , 1995).
6. Jen, Gish. Mona in the Promised Land. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1997.
7. Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange (Minneapolis: Coffee House, 1997).
|TEI markup by John Unsworth|