Friday, May 07, 2004

Question for discussion: marketing and exoticization

Yesterday's post was too long -- only very patient visitors probably read the whole thing.

So let me try an experiment and just pose it as a question: what do you make of the way postcolonial literature is read, honored, packaged, criticized, etc., in Europe and North America? Is it all exoticized, or is it just a problem with some writers? Why is it that more female writers get named as purveyors of exoticism than male writers? Is there a difference in style or subject matter between writers who write about South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, from abroad and those who write from 'home'?

Finally, what do you make of the over-abundance of awards for postcolonial (especially South Asian) writers?

It might help the discussion if people refrained from simply trashing all postcolonial literature. Maybe balance negatives with positives (i.e., name some authors you like, or a model of writing/reading/marketing that you would prefer).

This experiment might or might not work... end of semester... beautiful day ahead... Maybe no one is online. Still, I'm curious to hear some new voices (I know you're out there).

[Select comments on this post]

Question for discussion: marketing and exoticization


On : 5/7/2004 10:43:02 AM James (www) said:

Well, I did read your last post (it wasn't that long!). I think your reasons #3 and #4 seem to be the problem, for me at least. Actually, I find it a bit offensive to read the fictions from these writers/regions only through a political lens--it seems to devalue the actual creativity and artistry of these writers. I haven't necessarily read a lot of "postcolonial" literature, but some that I have read (Rushdie and Kincaid come to mind) I have liked very much partially because I learned about the politics and culture of their respective regions, but mostly because they are good writers and I appreciated their novels/stories on the same level I'd appreciate any other (i.e., aesthetically, narrative, character development, etc.).

I think your caution about "hybridity" is crucial. I've done more film studies work than literature, but it is similar in theories about "exilic cinema" (see H. Naficy for example). The biggest problem I have with this is in the attempt to causually link certain formal techniques in the name of hybridity as reflective of progressive thinking, resisting the hegemonic West, etc. An example would be a "discontinuous" editing style as marking diasporic filmmaking and representing the "discontinuous" experience of the artist in exile. Well, perhaps, but it's an *artistic* technique used by many different kinds of artists to do many different kinds of things. There's nothing necessarily exilic about it. Additionally, it necessarily sees the filmmaker not as an individual artist, but as "representive" of her culture, nation, etc. It seems unfair that a, say, Indian writer must speak for the politics/culture of her region whereas a white, American writer can speak as an individual and explore whatever ideas, philosophies, stories that he wants without that burden.

And of course to engage in this type of theorizing there must be the monolithic, hegemonic "norm" to "resist"--and this norm is too often uncritically set up in a bit of a straw man fashion. In film, it is Classical Hollywood cinema that is the "norm" to "resist," though classical cinema itself was quite heterogeneous and, further, was always in dialog with other national cinemas (European at least). A not small number of filmmakers (not just directors, but cinematographers, etc) working in Hollywood were European exiles. So, on the one hand, you can explore ways they "resisted" the dominant system in their art, but on the other, it is negligent to ignore how much they influenced/created the very "norm" that they are now being set up against.

In my eyes, it is important to treat the work of writers/filmmakers from any nation on the same level. Of course, there will be different artistic traditions and political/cultural histories that will necessarily influence the work. However, we should allow each artist to have an "individual" voice and not presume that that voice speaks always must speak for their entire nation all the time.


On : 5/7/2004 11:45:36 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

James, thanks for such a thoughtful post.

I'm glad my comment about hybridity in yesterday's post resonated. It's something I've been thinking about for awhile, but I haven't been able to figure out quite where to go with it.

I think many critics prefer to hold on to the supposedly subversive power of formal experimentation, even though the intellectual justification for it is small. There is a feeling of false reassurance there, deriving I think from the discourse of identity politics. Maybe the artists themselves also have some share of responsibility for this?

My lazy answer has been to privilege edgy moments in some mainstream or relatively mainstream films w/conventional narrative structure. These are the films that actually do cultural work... Thus, Mira Nair is more interesting to me than Trinh T. Minh Ha (though I admit I've only seen a couple of Trinh's films).
Another example: I think there's something really powerful and interesting in Ed Norton's "F*** everyone" scene in Spike Lee's "25th Hour." In sequences like these, formal complexity does matter, but it is somewhat secondary to the content of the dialogue as part of a larger story.

Another thought: I strongly agree about the importance of treating "writers/ filmmakers from any nation on the same level." But it is virtually impossible to do this, as western writers focusing on themes pertinent to Euro-America generally have better access to the institutions of publishing and publicity than minority or foreign writers/filmmakers do. It's an uneven playing field...


On : 5/7/2004 12:49:21 PM Brey (www) said:

As a geographer, I'll speak from a spatial perspective here.

I think in a way it's just more obvious that we read "postcolonial" writers politically and with their region (if they have one) in mind. Certainly when we read Updike or Roth or Amis we also take into account their politics and how they are portraying their region. Roth especially is always critiqued in a manner that discusses how he is portraying American culture(s).

When I think about the God of Small Things, for example, I think about how Roy managed to write a novel that is a political statement, a love story, a coming of age story, a historical drama, and a Kerelan (or Indian) story. I guess what I'm saying is that it would be improper to focus too much on the book as THE portrait of Kerela. But, it would also be improper to ignore the fact that the book is set in Kerela. The issues she addresses are addressed in the context of Kerela.

Not many authors have the luxury or talent to create a novel that is "omnispatial." In order to do so, an author needs to have "the experience of place" in many diverse places. Or, at least a lot of knowledge of many diverse places. And, it seems unfair to ask of an author to remove place from their works. Just as it would seem unfair to ask an author remove time. Even in sci-fi the created places are based upon someplace real.

Sure sometimes authors - like Roy - do become darlings of those who chase the exotic. But, it usually isn't due to their own efforts. In interviews I've read or heard, Roy consistently places herself in multiple geographical contexts - Delhian, Kerelan, Kerelan emmigre, Indian, postcolonial, global, the global South.

To be fair, American writers often are not required to place themselves anywhere but in America. Perhaps, that's because the little literary criticism I read comes from American critics though. For instance, even British and Canadian authors are asked to place themselves in a larger geographic context when American critics discuss them. And while Canada might be able to marginally place itself in the postcolonial world Britain certainly cannot.

As to why South Asian and South Asian diasporic literature has become popular, I think the answer is simple. The authors write well.

I hope this makes sense as a comment on what you wrote.


On : 5/7/2004 2:34:36 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

On Brey's point, one of the things I find interesting about the new generation of postcolonial writers (I'm thinking of the Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips as well as the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid) is that they are able to be at once more 'globalized' and more 'localized'.

That is to say, several of these writers are comfortable writing about very different kinds of spaces and environments, and they put together stories that thread together vastly different points in space. At the same time, they are less interested in national allegory (i.e., 'The Great Indian Novel') and more interested in sub-national ethno-linguistic groups (David Davidar on Tamil-Nad; Amitav Ghosh on Burma in "The Glass Palace"; Roy in GOST).

The nation is, in other words, at once too small and too big for this new crop of writers.


On : 5/7/2004 4:56:28 PM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

That is to say, several of these writers are comfortable writing about very different kinds of spaces and environments, and they put together stories that thread together vastly different points in space. At the same time, they are less interested in national allegory (i.e., 'The Great Indian Novel') and more interested in sub-national ethno-linguistic groups (David Davidar on Tamil-Nad; Amitav Ghosh on Burma in "The Glass Palace"; Roy in GOST).


You're WRONG WRONG WRONG. They're not interested in any national, sub-natinal, ethno-linguistic crap. They're just telling a story. Stories happen to be set in locations. People, if they're in India usually happen to have lingustic identities (unless you're chracters in a Hindi movie in which case they have an absrud pan-North Indian identity).

Any categorizations made are by academics and they're mostly ludicrous. []


On : 5/7/2004 5:37:58 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

One 'wrong' would have been enough.
Have you read any of these novels? You've given no indication that you have. The whole *point* of The Glass Palace is Burma. If you'd read the book you would know that.

Anyway, I thought you hated all these writers -- why would it concern you if I make a characterization about their approach to space?

You can't have it both ways. If you disrespect the whole idea of contemporary South Asian lit, you can't then go back and try to argue a point of detail about how the writers relate to national or regional identity.


On : 5/7/2004 9:02:49 PM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

You're being absurd (normal for you). Of course I've read the Glass Palace. I have the writer's autograph on it. It's his worst book and I'm sorry I bought it. [] I don't hate all these writers. I hate their classification as postcolonial writers. Call them contemporary. I hate the writers who exoticize India. I hate writers who write for the white man. There is a fundamental intellectual dishonesty in it. Ghosh's best book is the Calcutta Chromosome. When I say best, I mean it's my favourite. I don't mean 'important'. I don't think important. I don't think any books written by Indian writers are 'important', not from a sociological point of view.

Did you know Ghosh refused to be considered for the Commonwealth book award? He said it was a ridiculous category and he wanted no part of it. Have you read his letter about it? Have you read Rushdie's essay on the same topic? It's in his book of essays - I forget the name.

I love Seth, some of Ghosh's books, Desani, Narayan.I don't mind Anita Desai. [] I don't like Rushdie, but I'm willing to concede that he is a brillianr man and knows what he's doing - with him it's just a matter of taste. I don't like Naipual yet, but I think I'll like him in a couple of years.


On : 5/7/2004 9:17:55 PM YAN Kumar (www) said:

I also despise the expressions "ethnic literature" and "world literature". I just thought I should let you know in case you were planning to use them any time.

Yet Another Kumar


On : 5/7/2004 10:19:28 PM LiL (www) said:

I also hate the terms "ethnic literature" or "world literature." It belittles what it describes by sticking it in a category set apart from what we consider to be the classics. That said, I often find that foreignness as a literary device works for me. Perhaps "unknown-ness" describes it better... I am not bogged down by my own love/resentment for a familiar setting, familiar lifestyle or way of conceptualizing situations and can focus instead on the human dilemma of the story.


On : 5/8/2004 7:10:56 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

First XXX Kumar says: "They're just telling a story. Stories happen to be set in locations."

Then he says: "It's a terrible book and I don't think it has any point at all."

These positions are inconsistent. Either you have stories that are just stories -- baat khatam, point finished -- or you have stories that may have a 'point', and may be situated in social and historical context. If you have any of the latter, you can analyze. To say you dislike a book because it has no point acknowledges that novels can have intellectual arguments, and take positions (i.e., make a point). Identifying these is what professional literary critics do and that is what you do when you say "I don't think it has any point at all."

LILITH: nice to hear from you []. If every person who flamed me simply did , my comment board would be infinitely richer.

I also dislike 'world literature' -- and actually, I haven't used it at all (xxx Kumar is stating his dislike preemptively, as it were). When I came to my current university, I quietly arranged for them to replace a 'world literature' Ph.D. exam area with a 'postcolonial literature' exam. The latter is imperfect, but at least it has some historical/intellectual coherence (I.e., literature written in English from parts of the world formerly colonized by England)

It might be best to think of all of these as categories of convenience. 'World literature' exists in western universities because most literature departments are simply too small to have specialists in particular regions of the world outside of Europe/America. But no author would say she writes 'world literature'... nearly all authors hold on to one or another national affiliation (even Naipaul does: British).

I like the idea of unknown contexts, though maybe I'm not quite sure what you mean. I normally find writers like Borges and Coetzee enjoyable as storytellers who who aim to alienate the reader from his own context. Can you give examples of what you were thinking of?


On : 5/8/2004 1:39:20 PM YAN Kumar (www) said:

Every story by necessity is set in a context. To say that the context is the point is stupid. Every novel set in India is not about India. Every novel that has a caste conflict is not about caste conflict. Every nvel set in Burma is not about Burma. Most books don't have a 'point' to make. Some books may acquire points through relentless efforts by academicsc or writers. You may say GOST was about caste-conflict in Kerala, but only if the writer says that she expressly set out with that intention. As a reader, when books acquire 'points' like that, they make the book uninteresting to me. Hey, I already know all about caste conflicts. No need for a lesson.

"Post-colonial" is an offensive and lazy category. Why isn't American literature within this umbrella, since the US used to be an English colony? This is peculiar context. If I were to write a book (no need for alarm, I won't), I would be studied by the post-colonial people. Now I find that a most peculiar perspective to examine me from.

Many of Borges' stories are well-rooted (in and around Buenos Aires), as are stories by Marquez and Llosa. They are about Buenas Aires and South America and Peru *to me* because I'm an outsider and almost everything I know about those places and cultures comes from these books. They are *not* about Buenos Aires, South America and Peru because although they are set in a culture foreign to me, the characters seem familiar and it is only incidental that the stories are set in South aMerica. This is less true for Marquez than the others I think.

Can a po-co perspective come from an insider?



On : 5/8/2004 10:18:29 PM LiL (www) said:

Kumar raises a good point (well, several good points) - the pleasure of learning through reading fiction. Yes, it won't be an impartial or "realistic" view of the society/culture/history fictionalized in the book. But I do think we read books to in part to come by experiences, human experiences we would not have otherwise. I'm writing this after I've shifted my focus from criticism to writing and have spent time considering the desires of a possible audience for my writings. I like the statement that post-colonial is a "lazy" category... I never really thought of it that way before. However, it is the best one we've got after world literature or ethnic literature. [what is ethnic literature? are we not all, every single bloody human being, part of some ethnic group? in which case Thomas Mann is just as ethnic as Mariama Ba?]

Borges is, I think, a good example of foreignness/alienation as a literary device. He does it on purpose. But, of course, part of the reader's pleasure is in recognizing her/himself in the apparently foreign. So Buenos Aires in Borges is any one of our towns... Borges is also very mathematical in his writing, and mathematics being (to my mind) literature raised to the extreme degree (i.e. largely free from all the uncontrollable variables that mess up the structures we build based on the set of axioms we define as the definitely knowable,) his writing is a rather more universalisable than most.

But let's detach ourselves from the idea of a conscious device. One of my favorite novels ever is The Tale of Genji, written by a lady of the Japanese court whose identity is not fully known, from twelfth-century Japan. Her world is foreign to a reader's like me not only in time but in place as well. And yet, reading this novel makes me feel more connected to humanity as such than many other books.

Perhaps it's something like this: the foreignness (for lack of a better word) forces the reader to embark on a process of creating analogies - parallels between the reader's life and the strange circumstances of the life written about. We learn most things by analogies: this thing is like that thing I already know, hence this thing is as knowable as that thing. No longer foreign. But without the sense of initial estrangement, the process of conscious recognition doesn't take place either. (I'm still sort of working out that line of thought ... So it could probably be much clearer.)

What makes me hang on to it is that I've heard it form so many people who read for pleasure only and have no desire for a critical-lit. theoretical stance (although are mostly Hungarians) that they enjoy learning from books experiences they would otherwise never have. Perhaps more than foreignness as a willed literary device on the writer's part, it's the experience of the reader I'm interested in - which may or may not be helpful in terms of your initial question, Amardeep...


On : 5/9/2004 8:27:00 AM YAN Kumar (www) said:

to Lilith: I'm not sure why it is that you say that po-co is the best word we have. It seems to me to be an artificial category. What do I have in common with a Zimbabwean or an Australian that is a reflection of the fact that our countries used to be British colonies, (other than the fact that we all speak English badly)?

The foreignness works well for me as well. Part of the reason (for me) is that I become freed of the nessesity to take a political stand. Switching off the political centres of my brain makes the reading more enjoyable and recreates in a way the kind of pleasure I used to get reading books as a kid. More specifically for Japanese lit (I've read only Kawabata), the change of style and the break from the standard literary devices is refreshing. It stimulates parts of my brain that were unused. And you're right about the pleasure in recognizing yourself in the foreign. There is also a pleasure in making connections and associations that you already have made - through films and art for instance.



On : 5/9/2004 10:48:09 AM LiL (www) said:

The only reason I say po-co is the best word we have is because I don't know another one that isn't even more offensive. I agree with you: what does it reflect other than that writers from these countries are writers from former colonies? And as to speaking English badly - I know you're just writing a bitter joke - but the English of these writings is nearly always richer, more expressive, and simply, well, better than, say, a fashionable NYC writer's... (Crude generalization - but you get the idea.)

So what would be a better term than po-co?

Another thing that often strikes me as a difference between, say, a Senegalese novel and a New York one (Western one) is that the Western reader will often feel that the Senegalese one has more authority to describe suffering. However, if we take this line of thought, the po-co definition breaks down. Because when reading, say, Yehuda Amichai's poems about Israel, there's the same kind of, well, credibility to the suffering described. And Israeli literature, in terms purely of definition, should be defined as po-co literature, but for reasons political and historical, it does not. Something written by a Palestinian writer living in Israel, on the other hand, is po-co...(Nothing original here - I know this stuff's ben discussed many times by others.)

I just want to say, I feel po-co is false too... but at least it's no longer as blatantly exoticising as, say, the terms 'oriental literature' or 'ethnic literature'. At this point, po-co accounts for the way these literatures are categorized along political lines defined by the traditional West. Which is a category imposed from the outside, and I would suppose in no small part to contain these literatures, and at a safe distance so they won't mess with out tidy little Western canon.

There's also the term non-Western... But I don't like that one either. Where does the West end? Where does it begin? Geographically, this just changed a bit on May 1st of this year. And then, too: whose West? To a Hungarian, until May 1st the West began past its Western borders. But to many others living further East, Hungary was always part of the West.


On : 5/9/2004 10:53:19 PM Brey (www) said:

The term post-colonial is useful because it points toward responses to European hegemony. While this might be easier to understand in non-fiction, itis important to note in fiction as well. Thus - while no term is flawless - postcolonial is useful and not a bad one at that.

Any geography will have a fuzzy boundary. In the case of postcolonial geography India, Zimbabwe, parts of the Carribean and Middle East fall clealy in that geography (as do other places). Canada and Australia fit marginally because they still belong to the commonwealth (the Queen is on their currency for goodness sake). The US hardly fits at all. Sure, it was colony but the break from the UK is far enough in the past to change matters a bit. Also, the US no longer responds to other regions - it dictates. (Not that that is necessarily a good thing.)

Do all novels address a reaction to Europen hegemony? No. Do many even if that isn't the stated intent of the author? Yes. Is this more probable in the former empire? Yes.

India is a particularly contentious example because (I would argue) it is what some critical geographers term a Thirdspace. India is no longer clearly fits into either/or statements such as powerful/subservient or center/periphery. It often fulfils both creating an alternate third type of space.

Obviously this problem occurs similarly with the term "the West."


On : 5/9/2004 11:40:14 PM YAN Kumar (www) said:

It appears there are as many definitions of po-co as there are post-coists, all carefully tweaked to support the pocoist's pet field.

I am yet to understand the need and utility of po-co. It seems to me that since there is nothing that is common among the consituents of this set, you can do without the set. Can somebody state in less than 50 words why exactly it is useful about it? How has it enriched the cache of human knowledge.


On : 5/10/2004 7:43:57 AM Brey (www) said:

The first sentance of my last post did that already. But reading Leela Gandhi's Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction might help you understand it better.


On : 5/10/2004 9:51:08 AM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

Is European interchangable with American and Western?



On : 5/10/2004 10:16:57 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

There are things in common amongst the constituents of the set: the primary, essential characteristic of postcolonial literature is a concern with the identity with newly decolonized nations.

This is fairly narrow, and many of the writers we have been discussing don't fit neatly. So some people who have been placed within the set (as in Jhumpa Lahiri) might not belong. See my latest post for more details on this (especially the 'alternatives' section).

The best way to defend the set from critics is to limit it carefully and precisely.


On : 5/10/2004 10:51:08 AM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

May i suggest then that literatuer from the West be called 'colonial literature'.



On : 5/10/2004 11:26:37 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

You can suggest it, but why?

Let's delimit again. We're not talking about "western literature," but English lit. written between 1757 and 1961.

And if you follow my logic, only the writing that explicitly deals with colonialism would count. There would be some surprising entries (Mansfield Park would be in the set, along with Jane Eyre), but "colonial literature" would still not attempt to include the entirety of English writing arbitrarily.

The all-inclusive gesture worked (for a while) with postcolonial lit. since nationalism was an intense preoccupation for so many people at the same time. I'm suggesting it's time to be more precise, not throw out the term entirely.


On : 5/10/2004 11:30:36 AM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

Wouldnt you call Sense and Sensibility colonial lit?


On : 5/10/2004 11:31:23 AM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

Oh I meant Masnfield Park, but I see you already mentioned it.


On : 5/10/2004 11:47:11 AM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

Kipling? Wodehouse? I bet if you look at a lot of English writers in a certain period, you can with justification call them colonial writers.


On : 5/10/2004 3:10:41 PM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

How about Uncle Tom's cabin, To kill a mockingbird?


On : 5/10/2004 3:44:18 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Kipling, Conrad, Orwell ("Killing an Elephan"), and Forster are certainly colonial writers, as is Joyce Cary. You can also include a good many Irish writers: Yeats, Joyce, and Shaw all dealt with the question of Irish nationhood in fairly direct ways ways.

Problem cases include people who only dealt with colonial issues a little bit (the references to India in Virginia Woolf, opium & the far east in Wilde, or Africa in Dickens). Other problem cases include people who were writing before formal colonialism (Defoe's "Crusoe"; Shakespeare's "The Tempest").

It's not difficult to convince people to incorporate the colonial aspect into the way they teach or write about these authors. These days, only very conservative people teach "The Tempest" without reference to race or English settlements in the new world.

What is difficult, however, is to find ways to include people like Bankim Chandra Chatterji or Mulk Raj Anand in the mainstream of Victorian lit (Bankim) or British modernism (Anand). Bankim, for instance, might go well with Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone," but I don't know anyone who has taught them together.

I have to admit I've never read any P.G. Wodehouse (I know this is a grave admission). I think the American lit. stuff really belongs in a different category.