Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New and Forthcoming Publications

I was happy to see that an essay I wrote for the journal Symploke recently became available via Project Muse:

“Anonymity, Authorship, and Blogger Ethics.”

[If anyone who doesn't have access to Project Muse would like me to send you a copy, please let me know by email; I would be happy to send it to you.]

This was something I actually wrote more than two years ago, not long after a series of panels at MLA related to blogging and public intellectual activity. The paper actually began as an MLA presentation, for a panel with Michael Berube and Rita Felski, in December 2006. In the essay, I bring together literary theory relating to authorship (Barthes, Foucault, and critiques of French theory by scholars like Sean Burke), with context from literary history (the 18th century broadsheet as a predecssor to blogging as a genre), in order think about how the possibility of universal, instantaneous publishability is changing ideas of authorship (not destroying it, but changing it).

I was happy to see that it appears that a student at West Virginia University is already using the article in a paper she's writing: here. (It's part of this course)

I have some other publications coming out soon as well:

"Veiled Strangers: Rabindranath Tagore’s America, in Letters and Lectures." Forthcoming from Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing, 10:1, 2009.

"Animating a Postmodern Ramayana: Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues" Forthcoming from South Asian Review, 2010.

"More than 'Priestly Mumbo-Jumbo': Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr." Forthcoming from Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2009.

Of those, the Desani article was the most difficult to write; it actually had its start as a blog post I wrote all the way back in 2005. I had submitted it for publication in 2007, only to receive a "revise and resubmit" that seemed very challenging at the time. For various reasons, between 2007 and summer 2009 the paper was simply in limbo. I attacked it again this summer, and sent it off, this time successfully. The version that will be published is much shorter than the original version. Some of the materials I referred to, such as Desani's columns for The Illustrated Weekly in the 1960s, are not easily accessible, and I'm toying with the idea of having them scanned and OCRed for the web.

The Tagore essay goes back even further. It had its seeds in the very first blog post I wrote for Sepia Mutiny, back in 2005. I had given versions of it (in a more scholarly vein, of course) as a talk a couple of times. When the invitation came to send it to "Journeys," I was happy to finally finish it.

Finally, the essay on Nina Paley and the Ramayana was written quickly this past summer, almost on a lark. It brings together scholarship on the diversity of the Ramayana tradition (especially in the two important Paula Richman anthologies) with Nina Paley's animated, postmodern appropriation of the narrative.

In other news, the project I have been doing on Mira Nair is approaching completion; I'm hoping to send off the manuscript this fall. I'm also presenting a paper on the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma at the upcoming Modernist Studies Association Conference in Montreal (early November). Finally, I'm presenting at the MLA Convention in Philadelphia at the end of December (a paper on the "open letter" as a literary genre in the era of globalization -- from Sa'adat Hasan Manto to Mohsin Hamid and Aravind Adiga).

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"I Wanna Be Like You": The Jungle Book, Revisited

Being a parent gives you a chance to go back over the children's stories you grew up with and even, in some cases, learn about new ones. The following post consists of somewhat scattered thoughts on "The Jungle Book," including a 1967 Disney animated film version, as well as Kipling's original book.

I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" -- either adaptations or the original story -- but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it's gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.

The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).

My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of "The Jungle Book," which you can also see on YouTube here. It's a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling's "The Jungle Book" is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a "desi" context?)

I somehow didn't know about the Disney songs growing up, and it's too bad, because both my son and myself are now thoroughly addicted to them. Looking at the music a bit critically, I was earlier a little put off by "I wanna be like you," where I initially thought the singer was Louis Armstrong. The idea of a monkey-king, who liberally throws around African-American slang, kidnapping the "man cub," in order to learn the secret of being human, seemed a little uncomfortably like an allegory of race relations in the real world:

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You'll see it's true
An ape like me
Can learn to be human too

It's hard not to think of the analogous human race-mimicry situation: "I wanna be like you/ I wanna walk like you/ Talk like you, too" could be the voice of an under-class minority asking the "man" for access to privileges (here, embodied in the technology of "man's red flower," fire) that make him supreme over the rest of society. It's a little better that the singer is Italian-American rather than African-American, but there's still a slightly off-putting race angle here if you're looking for it. (I'm sure some readers will think I'm reading too much into this.)

Also, just to be clear, I still play this music for my kid all the time, and have no qualms about doing so. I also don't mind that "The Jungle Book" is a good excuse to teach him a few Hindi words: Bagheera, Akela, Shere, Bhalu, Hathi, Bandar, etc. As I riff on the stories with my son, I'm also trying to sneak in some new ones, which Kipling doesn't use: Gainda (rhinoceros), Bheriya (wolf), Magar-much (crocodile).

Some of the race stuff, of course, comes directly from Kipling's other writing. As people who know his other works are already aware, Kipling was obsessed with race (this is the guy who invented the term, "white man's burden," among many other things). He was born in India and spent his first few years there, before being sent to England for boarding school, as was the norm in late Victorian British India. Though he hated his experience in boarding school, he still always thought of England as "home" -- and strongly supported the British Imperial project in India.

As a young man, Kipling returned to India to work as a journalist, and lived mainly with his family in Lahore. He published his first short stories (mainly on the Anglo-Indian community in India) in the newspaper he wrote for, and frequently used material related to his journalism work as fodder. His father, John Lockwood Kipling, was the principal of the art school in Lahore for many years, as well as the curator of the Lahore Museum (Lockwood Kipling is the model for the museum curator in the opening chapters of Kim, incidentally). Some part of Rudyard's interest in animals in India -- which would later nourish one of the best-selling children's books of all time -- probably came directly from his father, who drew and wrote about India's animal life himself in a beautifully-illustrated early book, called "Beast and Man in India". (And Rudyard Kipling's original published version of "The Jungle Book" has great illustrations by John Lockwood Kipling.)

Kipling's own The Jungle Book is a little different in structure from the Disney adaptation of his story. For one thing, the Disney version only uses material from the first three chapters of Kipling's book; "The White Seal," "Servants of the Queen," and "Rikki-tikki-tavi" go in different directions. "The White Seal," for instance, isn't even based on an Indian jungle, but rather involves seals in a northern ocean.

Even in the "Mowgli" chapters, there is a big difference in the fact that, in Kipling's story, Mowgli actually meets his mother and lives in the human village for a time, before being excommunicated because of his ability to talk to wolves ("Tiger-Tiger"). Disney doesn't get into this potentially dark situation (i.e., the boy being forced to separate from his mother by a mob of angry villagers who are ready to stone him to death), and rather chooses to end with just a hint of Mowgli's repatriation into human society and inevitable future adulthood preoccupations -- as he ogles a village girl getting water from the river.

There are other differences too. Kipling's story is more unabashedly violent, and the most dramatic story arc in Kipling's version in my reading is the battle against the monkey-people, which ends with hundreds of dead monkeys. The killing of Shere Khan via a strategically arranged stampede of cattle in Kipling is somewhat anti-climactic by comparison to the stormy fight sequence between Bhalu and Shere Khan in the Disney film.

In Kipling, the society of the Jungle has several different respectable species who adhere to the "Law," including Bagheera the panther, the wolves, Kaa the snake, Balu the bear, and Chil the kite. Shere Khan, the Tiger, behaves a little like an Oriental despot, whom the other people of the Jungle are right to want to depose.

By contrast to the animals who follow the law, the Monkey-people ("Bandar-Log") are sociologically anarchic:

"Listen, man-cub," said the Bear, and his voice rumbled like thunder on a hot night. "I have taught thee all the Law of the Jungle for all the peoples of the jungle—except the Monkey-Folk who live in the trees. They have no law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten. We of the jungle have no dealings with them. We do not drink where the monkeys drink; we do not go where the monkeys go; we do not hunt where they hunt; we do not die where they die. Hast thou ever heard me speak of the Bandar-log till today?"

"No," said Mowgli in a whisper, for the forest was very still now Baloo had finished.

"The Jungle-People put them out of their mouths and out of their minds. They are very many, evil, dirty, shameless, and they desire, if they have any fixed desire, to be noticed by the Jungle People. But we do not notice them even when they throw nuts and filth on our heads."

He had hardly spoken when a shower of nuts and twigs spattered down through the branches; and they could hear coughings and howlings and angry jumpings high up in the air among the thin branches.

"The Monkey-People are forbidden," said Baloo, "forbidden to the Jungle-People. Remember."

"Forbidden," said Bagheera, "but I still think Baloo should have warned thee against them."

"I—I? How was I to guess he would play with such dirt. The Monkey People! Faugh!"

Because they have no social hierarchy, no memory, and above all, no "law," the other animals treat them as "outcasts" (loaded choice of terms!). The Bandar-log themselves treat the other animals with contempt. (I don't see an obvious "race" angle here, incidentally, though it does seem like there is a rationale for Imperialism: the people who follow the Law are justified in either excluding or attacking those who do not.)

When the Bandar-Log kidnap Mowgli, they take him, interestingly, to an abandoned, formerly human-occupied city in the middle of the jungle. Their reasons for kidnapping him are given as follows:

They never meant to do any more—the Bandar-log never mean anything at all; but one of them invented what seemed to him a brilliant idea, and he told all the others that Mowgli would be a useful person to keep in the tribe, because he could weave sticks together for protection from the wind; so, if they caught him, they could make him teach them. Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter's child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it. The Monkey-People, watching in the trees, considered his play most wonderful. This time, they said, they were really going to have a leader and become the wisest people in the jungle—so wise that everyone else would notice and envy them. Therefore they followed Baloo and Bagheera and Mowgli through the jungle very quietly till it was time for the midday nap, and Mowgli, who was very much ashamed of himself, slept between the Panther and the Bear, resolving to have no more to do with the Monkey People.

The motivation parallels, roughly, the "I wanna be like you" song in the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," except here the focus is not so much on the "Red Flower" of fire, but on adopting Mowgli as a king who would bring "civilization" to the Bandar-Log.

(It's hard not to think of Hanuman and the monkey-warriors of the Ramayana when reading Kipling's description of the "Bandar-Log." In the Ramayana, of course, they are loyal servants of Rama and brave warriors; in Kipling they also seem to have anthropomorphic qualities, but have none of the positive attributes one sees in the Hindu epic.)

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical reference points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from specific cultural contexts, as well as the literature itself. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion than Bhabha's essays have in my own experiences teaching this material.


Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a black person. Applied in reverse, a term that is sometimes used is “wigger.” [See more on "reverse mimicry" below.]) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.

Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.

Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative,” mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee, his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.

There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering –- when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.

Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.

As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish solidier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.

For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.

* * *


By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between eastern and western cultural attributes. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders,” he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).

However, the term hybridity, which relies on a metaphor from biology, is commonly used in much broader ways, to refer to any kind of cultural mixing or mingling between East and West. As it is commonly used, this more general sense of hybridity has many limitations. Hybridity defined as cultural mixing in general does not help us explicitly account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.

For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.

1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)

In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”

Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the afore-mentioned reasons.

2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.

As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:

For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)

Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.

There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, and it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi w’a Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.

Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.

3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.

Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.

Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:

--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three examples (and there are might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.

Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.

4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given -– something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.

However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:

Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!

For Kipling, the sight of a “brown legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mis-match that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education.) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.

By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.

As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.

Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.

5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.

The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."

Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: A Few Reflections

As many readers may be aware, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last weekend. Her friend Cathy Davidson has a tribute, and Duke University Press has noted it as well on its internal blog. I'm sure there will be much more to come from Eve's friends, colleagues, and students in the months to come.

I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).

I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular, and here is a little bit as to how.

1. Variations of "the closet."

First and foremost, Eve Sedgwick’s work pretty much directly inspired my dissertation project, which I originally titled (for myself), “Epistemology of the Religious Closet.” The actual title I used in the finished dissertation was “Post-Secular Subjects.” I later decided I didn’t like the term “post-secular,” and abandoned it, opting instead to a develop the argument that secular authors who engage religion in modern life articulate a distinctively literary approach to secularization, one which cannot come close to abolishing religious the influence of religious texts or practices (in short, a complex genealogy of secularism rather than a “post-secularism”). I published a version of the dissertation in book form in 2006, as “Literary Secularism”; though the top-level argument had changed, it was in many ways still a close version of what it was when I first conceived of it.

The idea came to me, like a shot, while reading Epistemology of the Closet, a book I still think of as perhaps the best example of politicized close reading I have ever encountered. The paragraph that set it off was the following:

Vibrantly resonant as the image of the closet is for many modern oppressions, it is indicative for homophobia in a way that it cannot be for other oppressions. Racism, for instance, is based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases . . . ; so are the oppressions based on gender, age, size, physical handicap. Ethnic/cultural/religious oppressions such as anti-Semitism are more analogous in that the stigmatized individual has at least notionally some discretion – although, importantly, it is never to be taken for granted how much – over other people’s knowledge of her or his membership in the group: one could ‘come out as’ a Jew or Gypsy, in a heterogeneous urbanized society, much more intelligibly than one could typically ‘come out as,’ say, female, Black, old, a wheelchair user, or fat. A (for instance) Jewish or Gypsy identity, and hence a Jewish or Gypsy secrecy or closet, would nonetheless differ again from the distinctively gay versions of these things in its clear ancestral linearity and answerability, in the roots (however tortuous and ambivalent) of cultural identification through each individual’s originally culture of (at a minimum) the family. (75)

In subsequent pages, Sedgwick goes on to use an example of a kind of Jewish closet in Racine’s adaptation of the Book of Esther, in Esther (1691), as a powerful contradistinctive tool. She uses the similarities and differences between the Jewish closet of Racine’s play and the homosexual closet to limn what is in fact the ‘proper’ subject of her analysis.

Reading Eve at that time, I had no ambition or hope of adding anything to what seemed to be an exhaustive consideration of how the closet is central to thinking about the modern discourse of homosexuality. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the idea of a Jewish closet she was alluding to, and mapping it to yet other frontiers: what about other religious closets in other cultural spaces? One thinks, first of all, of the complex embodied expression of religious identity in the Indian subcontinent, and of how fraught that identity can become at times of communal violence, such as the Partition, or the many incidences of communal riots that have followed. Much South Asian literature (and cinema) exploring the legacy of Partition marks this problem; there are numerous scenes where writers describe men being forcibly disrobed by mobs to establish whether they are circumcised or not (Muslims are traditionally circumcised; men from other religious communities traditionally are not). Though this is a very different space from the Victorian prose fiction Eve Sedgwick specialized in, the analytics she developed in Epistemology of the Closet can be a productive starting point for thinking about the strange crossing of sexuality, religious ritual, and raw violence in those South Asian scenarios.

2. Politics; the culture wars

Both during her most productive phase and more recently, a few scholars under the “anti-theory” aegis have attacked aspects of Eve Sedgwick’s work. She was attacked by Roger Kimball, for instance, in Tenured Radicals, after she gave an MLA paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in 1990. (She opens the final published version of that essay, in Tendencies, with a response of sorts to Kimball; see this blog post at The New Yorker.) This was the peak of the culture wars moment, and Eve ably responded to those sorts of kneejerk cultural conservative criticisms, both in her academic work, and in public venues like NPR and even, occasionally, on television.

More recently, I remember seeing a more respectful criticism from Erin O’Connor, in her “Preface to a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” essay in Victorian Studies, which still reflected some doubts about Eve’s latter turn to affect and texture:

Some scholars have begun to question the governing paradigms of the field, most notably Amanda Anderson and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. But as a rule, critics of interpretive paradigms have tended to avoid concluding that paradigms are themselves the problem; instead, they make their analysis of faulty paradigms into the basis for proposing new, ostensibly improved ones. Anderson, for example, devotes her most recent book to promoting "detachment" as an alternative to the popular theoretical rubric of "cosmopolitanism," while Sedgwick concludes her remarkable skewering of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that dominated 1980s and 1990s criticism by recommending a new-age psychoanalytic approach derived from Silvan Tompkins's little-known cybernetic work on shame. But as the far-fetched quality of Sedgwick's peculiar solution shows, the quest for a perfect paradigm is a quest for a methodological grail.

Here O’Connor is referring, approvingly, to Sedgwick’s essay introducing her anthology, Novel Gazing, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” (1997). She’s obviously less enthusiastic about “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins” (1995), an essay she co-authored with Adam Frank. I’ll say a bit more about that in the following section.

I vaguely recall other people saying, in various settings (including the Valve), that they find Eve Sedgwick’s writing opaque and impenetrable, along the lines of the “bad theory writing” charge that is often levied (sometimes, admittedly, by myself) against theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Though I sometimes have to run to a dictionary to look up the words Eve throws out (“saltation”), I actually don’t find Eve’s writing to pose the same problems as Butler or Spivak do.

There is, granted, a slipperiness that sometimes enters in at moments of peak intensity in Eve’s later close readings, and some prodigiously long and complex sentences. But one never feels she is evading the question she’s posed through jargon. Indeed, some of Eve’s more declarative moments, addressing legal matters (see, for example, her engagement with Bowers v. Hardwick in the opening section of Epistemology of the Closet) are models of clarity and intellectual rigor. Eve Sedgwick, in short, uses literary theory jargon appropriately, to engage difficult conceptual problems and make complex arguments, not to hide what might be seen as straightforward assertions behind terminology derived from Lacan/ Derrida/ Foucault. In her later essays, Sedgwick made a pronounced effort to nudge her fellow progressive academics to rethink how our established terminology can in fact be a crutch.

It might seem strange to bring up all this intellectual argument just after Eve Sedgwick has died. But in truth, if you read her works, it's clear that Eve was a gifted and inspired polemicist (a "fighter") in addition to being a brilliant reader of Victorian literature. It seems like a mistake to only acknowledge the people who liked her; in fact, Eve Sedgwick was a fairly controversial figure for many people. Let's not gloss over that.

3. Affect and Texture.

Though I've always found the texture material fascinating, for years I agreed tacitly with the spirit of Erin O’Connor’s response to Eve’s work on shame and affect. The bits and pieces of Sylvan Tompkins’ “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness” Sedgwick and Frank quote in “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold” sounded like beautiful psychoanalytical poetry to me, but hardly the seeds of a post-paranoid critical method:

If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. If you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace

It wasn’t until this very spring that I had a good opportunity and excuse to read Tompkins at greater length, and see better what Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank were interested in; I also came across a good many passages that sound nothing at all like the one above. As I see it, it’s not just Tompkins as a theorist who might potentially be more friendly to gay, lesbian, and queer analyses than are Freud and Lacan. Rather, with his emphasis on “weak theory,” and his ability to autochthonously generate concepts to insightfully describe interpersonal dynamics, Tompkins is a good model (though by no means a “methodological grail”) for how we as critics and teachers can respond to the representation of psychological nuances and embodied emotion (“affect”) in modern fiction, without having to lean on the questionable edifice of Freud/Lacan.

(I would say more about what I’ve been getting from Sylvan Tompkins’ work as I’ve been reading it this spring, but that might be the subject of another post, for another time.)

My project on secularism & religion is perhaps over (though I keep writing things that branch off of it in some way; there’s this essay on E.M. Forster, for instance). But I seem to have started building towards another project that is substantially inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s work, on texture. I posted some early thoughts along those lines a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve sat down with John Lawler’s essays on Rime- and Assonance-coherence (did I ever thank you properly, Bill Benzon?), and I’m starting to expand further into “phono-semantics” -- with a hope of writing up a publishable essay early this summer.

A big challenge remains the fact that texture, unlike most of the other concepts Eve Sedgwick is credited with contributing to literary studies and queer theory over the course of her career, does not seem to have an obvious or essential political application. One can certainly study texture and affect in modern fiction as a “queer” alternative to the repressive hypothesis, as Renu Bora does with Henry James' The Ambassadors, or as Eve herself does with James' "Art of the Novel." But one might also be inclined to pursue it simply because it’s interesting to see how George Eliot, Thomas Hardy (or, in "my own" 20th century, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce) represent the textures of the material world in their works.

Thank you, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For everything.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Why I Didn't Like "The White Tiger"

After reading Jabberwock's positive review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger some time ago, I was all set to pick it up. Jabberwock, after all, is the quintessential cosmopolitan Delhi-ite, so how can you go wrong?

Adiga also beat out both Salman Rushdie and the amazing Michelle de Kretser to make it to the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. Again, that should bode well, irrespective of whether Adiga actually wins the prize. (I have heard that he is currently considered one of the favorites.)

But I haven't been able to shake the sense that The White Tiger, despite its topicality and its readability, is somehow fundamentally fake. I almost hesitate to bother saying it, because it's quite common for Indian authors to be accused of composing narratives about India's poor primarily for a non-poor, non-Indian readers. It's a ubiquitous complaint -- almost a critical cliché -- but still true. Let me give you a passage that I think illustrates my problem with Adiga's novel quite directly. It's from near the beginning of the novel, as Adiga is introducing his narrator and protagonist to us:

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like the one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

It seems like a pretty clever way to set up a rather unconventional protagonist -- and indeed, Adiga's protagonist, "Balram Halwai," is often quite funny in his various "half-baked" soliloquies on various politically incorrect topics.

But there's just one problem: it doesn't make any sense. No one who was "half-formed" in the way described in the passage above would be capable of actually realizing it and articulating it in this way. Such a person couldn't be at once defined by his ad hoc grasp of the world and self-conscious about it. This should be a third-person narrator's comment, not a first-person confession.

I made this objection at a recent meeting of my monthly-ish book club (yes, even my book club has a blog; I should note that the primary author is my friend Kate, not myself). In response people pointed out that I may be missing the point, since for the most part Adiga isn't really interested in posing his protagonist as a psychologically realistic person. If anything, he is a caricature constructed to make a socio-political point about India's "dark side" -- the masses of poor and uneducated who are effectively colonized by the English-speaking elites, traveling around India's big cities behind dark-tinted windows, invulnerable in their air-conditioned "eggs." India's elites, Adiga wants to show, can misbehave with impunity (some of the plot events reminded me of Salman Khan's vehicular manslaughter case, and the Jessica Lall murder case a couple of years ago). In short, though Adiga's protagonist is a servant, this is really a novel about the misbehavior and fragile authority of the ruling class, not about "subalterns" (i.e., poor/working people).

This might be a reasonable way to read Adiga's novel, except that as the novel progresses, Adiga grows more and more committed to the character, and Balram becomes less of a darkly comic caricature and more of a realistic anti-hero. The White Tiger seems rather non-ironic by the end, and the various cynical one-liners about the hollowness of Indian democracy don't have the bite they should.


Friday, March 28, 2008

William Deresiewicz in "The Nation," and a Blogger's Response

Start with William Deresiewicz in The Nation, for what ails the English department, according to him (via English @ Emory).

It's been said many times that English enrollments have declined nationally because of "theory," but that's been shown, I think conclusively, not to be true. (A starting point might be this 2003 ADE report (PDF), which shows that the biggest decline in the number of English majors happened in the 1970s and 80s, though there was some recovery from the losses in the early 1990s -- notably, the peak of the culture wars moment. But the ADE's report also suggests there's been a general decline in the Arts & Sciences as a whole; more and more students are getting degrees in other parts of the university, such as engineering, business, education, and the life sciences. A much smaller proportion of college degrees now are B.A.s than used to be. In short, the problem is not the turn to "theory" or the "epochal loss of confidence" Deresiewicz talks about, but a structural change in American higher education.)

Then, proceed to Ads Without Products, for a blogger's response. The most striking observation for me had to do with the frame -- what does it mean that Deresiewicz is publishing this essay in The Nation?

This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…) (link)

Obviously, one wants to hear the "more on this" part, but there's still quite a bit to chew on here as is.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Book with "@" in the Title

There's a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:

But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of India’s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, “Five Point Someone,” published in 2004, and a later novel, “One Night @ the Call Center,” sold a combined one million copies.

Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket — just 100 rupees, or $2.46 — and have won little praise as literature.

“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)

Yes, it's true, we do hate him.

I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist's unrequited romance with a colleague , which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful -- the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).

That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it's the book's candor on the grim--yet economically privileged--experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.

Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:

I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You mightthink the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.

I'll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so "internet" becomes "innernet" and "advantage" becomes "advannage." Another way is when T and N merge-- "written" becomes "writn" and "certain" is "certn." The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D--"daughter" is "daughder" and "water" is "wauder." The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like "table" or "stumble." And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.

Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried about American accents.

A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the "rat-eater" variety:

"Guys, there are two things I cannot stand," he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans."

Priyanka started laughing.

"What is there to laugh at?" I said.

"Because there is a contradiction. He doesn't like racists, but can't stand Americans," Priyanka said.

"Why?" Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. "Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?"

Nobody answered.

Vroom continued, "I'll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn't do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth."

And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, RIP

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died earlier this week, at the age of 91. He was one of the best-known sci-fi writers of the 20th century, the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, among many others.

As is well-known, Clarke moved to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1956 -- in large part for the year-around access to diving -- and remained there until his death. The locale inspired at least one of Clarke's novels, Fountains of Paradise:

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death in 2008, having emigrated there when it was still called Ceylon, first in Unawatuna on the south coast, and then in Colombo. Clarke held citizenship of both the UK and Sri Lanka. He was an avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club. Living in Sri Lanka afforded him the opportunity to visit the ocean year-round. It also inspired the locale for his novel The Fountains of Paradise in which he described a space elevator. This, he believed, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete. (link)

I first read The Fountains of Paradise many years ago, and I pulled it off the shelf this afternoon for a refresher. There is an intense opening, set in the classical period, 2000 years ago, involving a "Prince Kalidasa," who does not seem to resemble the actual Kalidasa (who was not a prince, but a poet). And there are some rich descriptions of the island of Sri Lanka (named "Taprobane" -- Tap-ROB-a-nee -- by Clarke).

Here are a few paragraphs from the historical section involving Clarke's Prince Kalidasa:

The air was so clear today that Kalidasa could see the temple, dwarfed by distance to a tiny white arrowhead on the very summit of Sri Kanda. It did not look like any work of man, and it reminded the king of the still greater mountains he had glimpsed in his youth, when he had been half-guest, half-hostage at the court of Mahinda the Great. All the giants that guarded Mahinda's empire bore such Crests, formed of a dazzling, crystalline substance for which there was no word in the language of Taprobane. The Hindus believed that it was a kind of water, magically transformed, but Kalidasa laughed at such superstitions.

That ivory gleam was only three days' march away - one along the royal road, through forests and paddy-fields, two more up the winding stairway which he could never climb again, because at its end was the only enemy he feared, and could not conquer. Sometimes he envied the pilgrims, when he saw their torches marking a thin line of fire up the face of the mountain. The humblest beggar could greet that holy dawn and receive the blessings of the gods; the ruler of all this land could not.

But he had his consolations, if only for a little while. There, guarded by moat and rampart, lay the pools and fountains and Pleasure Gardens on which he had lavished the wealth of his kingdom. And when he was tired of these, there were the ladies of the rock-the ones of flesh and blood, whom he summoned less and less frequently-and the two hundred changeless immortals with whom he often shared his thoughts, because there were no others he could trust.

Thunder boomed along the western sky. Kalidasa turned away from the brooding menace of the mountain, towards the distant hope of rain. The monsoon was late this season; the artificial lakes that fed the island's complex irrigation system were almost empty. By this time of year he should have seen the glint of water in the mightiest of them all-- which, as he well knew, his subjects still dared to call by his father's name: Paravana Samudra, the Sea of Paravana. It had been completed only thirty years ago, after generations of toil. In happier days, young Prince Kalidasa had stood proudly beside his father, when the great sluice-gates were opened and the life-giving waters had poured out across the thirsty land. In all the kingdom there was no lovelier sight than the gently rippling mirror of that immense, man-made lake, when it reflected the domes and spires of Ranapura, City of Gold-the ancient capital which he had abandoned for his dream.

In this made-up history of the ancient kingdom of Taprobane, Clarke actually seems to know whereof he speaks; the injections of bits of Hindu culture seem to come from a position of knowledge.

And here is a little from the main section of the novel, set in the present day. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan named Raja (short for "Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe"), who has retired from public life, and moved to an estate built on the site of "Kalidasa's" original pleasure gardens:

That had been twenty years ago, and he had never regretted his decision. Those who predicted that boredom would succeed where the temptations of power had failed did not know their man or understand his origins. He had gone back to the fields and forests of his youth, and was living only a kilometre from the great, brooding rock that had dominated his childhood. Indeed, his villa was actually inside the wide moat that surrounded the Pleasure Gardens, and the fountains that Kalidasa's architect had designed now splashed in Johan's own courtyard, after a silence of two thousand years. The water still flowed in the original stone conduits; nothing had been changed, except that the cisterns high up on the rock were now filled by electric pumps, not relays of sweating slaves.

Securing this history-drenched piece of land for his retirement had given Johan more satisfaction than anything in his whole career, fulfilling a dream that he had never really believed could come true. The achievement had required all his diplomatic skills, plus some delicate blackmail in the Department of Archaeology. Later, questions had been asked in the State Assembly; but fortunately not answered.

He was insulated from all but the most determined tourists and students by an extension of the moat, and screened from their gaze by a thick wall of mutated Ashoka trees, blazing with flowers throughout the year. The trees also supported several families of monkeys, who were amusing to watch but occasionally invaded the villa and made off with any portable objects that took their fancy. Then there would be a brief inter-species war with fire-crackers and recorded danger-cries that distressed the humans at least as much as the simians - who would be back quickly enough, for they had long ago learned that no-one would really harm them.

Reading this, I can't help but think of Clarke himself, one of the world's most famous writers, living in a remote part of Sri Lanka -- away from it all.

After the opening, the novel has a more conventional science fiction story arc -- the goal is to build a kind of massive space elevator from the top of a mountain in Taprobane...

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Review: Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age"

A friend gave me a copy of A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam, as a present a couple of months ago, and I finally got around to reading it this week. A Golden Age, it turns out, is a very strong first novel, written in a direct, natural style, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Anam's is the first novel put out by a western publisher that I know of to have Bangladesh's war for independence as its main theme, and for that reason alone, I suspect A Golden Age will become the kind of book that is often taught in college classes on "South Asian Literature" (like the courses I myself get to teach every couple of years). The War is important in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey, but only at a great distance (Mistry's novel is set in Bombay). And a section of Rushdie's Midnight's Children deals with this event, but it comes near the end, and Rushdie addresses it in rather lyrical terms -- you don't really get a solid explanation of how the war started or what it was about.

Here, you do. The center of the novel is, of course, the family drama -- involving a widow named Rehana and her two grown children, Sohail and Maya. Both of the children are politically oriented, and take a strongly pro-Bangla, pro-Sheikh Mujib position on the events that transpired in 1971. By contrast, their mother Rehana is at first reluctant to make a commitment -- though the needs of her children soon force her to inject herself into the conflict. She also begins to come out of her shell emotionally, which is of course what most readers want to see.

Here is an early passage in A Golden Age, one of the first direct discussions of the political situation:

He'll never make a good husband, she heard Mrs Chowdhury say. Too much politics.

The comment had stung because it was probably true. Lately the children had little time for anything but the struggle. It had started when Sohail entered the university. Ever since '48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. The Dhaka University students had been involved in the protests from the very beginning, so it was no surprise Sohail had got caught up, and Maya too. Even Rehana could see the logic; what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?

But in 1970, when the cyclone hit, it was as though everything came into focus. Rehana remembered the day Sohail and Maya had returned from the rescue operation: the red in their eyes as they told her how they had waited for the food trucks to come and watched as the water rose and the bodies washed up on the shore; how they had realized, with mounting panic, that the would wouldn't come because it had never been sent.

The next day Maya had joined the Communist Party.

Clearly from the above, one can see that Anam sees the war of liberation firmly from a Bangladeshi perspective, where the Pakistani Army is the villain. (Here I should say that I fully agree with her; Yahya Khan is thought to have said, "Kill 3 million of them, and the rest will be eating out of our hands"...) Operation Searchlight is described, as are the attacks on East-Pakistani/Bangladeshi Hindus. The Indian intervention is seen as a positive development, preventing what might have turned into an all-out genocidal suppression. (Estimates on the number of Bangladeshis killed by the Pakistani army in 1971 vary -- from 200,000 to 3,000,000 -- so it seems perfectly fair to suggest, as Anam does at one point, that Operation Searchlight was itself an act of genocide against the Bangladeshi people.)

Though she is undoubtedly a Bangladeshi partisan, Anam treats the gruesome acts of the war from a respectful distance; the story is told primarily from Rehana's point of view, and as a non-combatant she wouldn't have seen acts of torture or rape first-hand (though she does certainly encounter the results of those barbarities). Here I think Anam made the right choice. Extensively documenting the details of what the Pakistani army did in fact do that year would have overwhelmed the novel -- and that kind of documentation is, anyway, the job of a historian. One shouldn't think of A Golden Age as some kind of definitive account of 1971, but rather as an accessible, novelistic introduction to that story.

There's a little bit of Bengali literary culture alluded to in Anam's novel, but not a huge amount. You have references to Sultana's Dream and the songs of Tagore, but not Bibhutbushan Bandopadhyay, Saratchandra, or Bankim. But then, though their children study in the university, the Haque family is not really a literary family, so extended discourse on the Bengali Renaissance would be out of place.

My wife also found A Golden Age to be a satisfying read, and she is a software engineer (who finds writers like Rushdie too ornamental); perhaps her stamp of approval might actually mean more to non-academic readers than my own. That said, she did wonder whether there might be some points of culinary inaccuracy regarding the Bengali dishes described in the novel. For instance, is it likely that an upper middle-class Bangladeshi family would eat a meal of roast lamb, as the Haque family do early in the book, before the war starts? My wife isn't a Bengali, and neither of us have ever been to Bangladesh, but she thought it didn't ring true.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature"

There is a new book of general interest literary criticism by John Mullan out, called Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. It's getting great reviews in the British papers, and I wish I could have assigned it back when I was teaching "Secrecy and Authorship." (Better yet, I wish I had written it myself!)

Here are two snippets from the Guardian review. First, some arguments on why authors concealed their names when they went to publish:

He's not interested in works of which we just happen not to know the authors, but in writers who consciously sought to conceal their names. Why did so many people do it? Mullan advances a wide range of reasons, from mischief to modesty. Alexander Pope printed An Essay on Man anonymously in order to trick his enemies into praising him. Mary Ann Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot because "a masculine pseudonym was a claim to authority", and perhaps also because her complex marital career made her feminine name more than a little uncertain. Dodgson, the Christ Church mathematics don, refused to admit that he wrote the Alice books because "My constant aim is to remain, personally, unknown to the world." (link)

There's also the question of why it is we place so much value on authorship:

Why do we need to attach authors' names to books at all? Doing so makes life easy for librarians of course: just imagine arranging all those novels ascribed to "A Lady". Having names on books also helps us recognise works which we're likely to enjoy ("the new Ian McEwan"). It also allows for the simple human pleasure of piecing together an author's interests through their oeuvre, and feeling that you know how they think.

But looked at from a wider historical perspective these are quite recent pleasures, and they don't have entirely innocent origins. When Henry VIII proclaimed in 1546 that the names of printers and authors should appear on all published books, it was not because he was burning to read the latest heretical treatise. It was so he could catch and burn their authors and printers. And when present-day publishers put an author's name on a title-page they do so because an author is now something like a brand-name. Doris Lessing experimentally sent The Diary of a Good Neighbour to publishers under the pseudonym "Jane Somers", and it was repeatedly rejected. When published it sold about one 10th as many copies as "the new Doris Lessing" would have done. (link)

In the end, our current emphasis on the identities of authors is a result of the dominance of the marketplace.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Little on "Rotten English"

I've had Dora Ahmad's anthology, Rotten English on the shelf for some months, but didn't get around to reading the introduction and sampling some of the stories and poems it contains until now. The introduction is in fact posted in its entirety at Amitava Kumar's "Politics & Culture" online journal here. Also, a brief review of the anthology, by Mandakini Dubey, is here.

The introduction is quite strong -- it's a helpful foray into the issues one has to contend with when thinking about "vernacular literatures" from around the post-colonial world. Ahmad brings together everything from Macaulay's "Minute on Education" to the responses by postcolonial writers like Chinua Achebe, who were at first somewhat ambivalent about writing in English (though Achebe more than adequately defended the idea of African fiction in English in his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," also included in this volume).

Ahmad also makes the intriguing choice to include African-American vernacular writers (Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes) as well as writing by Scottish (Robert Burns, Irvine Welsh) and Irish (Roddy Doyle) vernacular writers in the anthology. The great advantage of this is the way it suggests that "Rotten English" is not necessarily a new movement, per se, or strictly limited to "postcolonial" concerns. But such inclusiveness also raises a question of historical relevance: what does it really mean to link a poet like Robert Burns to, say, Louise Bennett?

[UPDATED in DECEMBER 2009: In fact, the historical circumstances that lead Bennett to emphatically proclaim her affinity for Jamaican patois ("Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/Weh yu honour and respeck,” but, at the same time, the truth is “Dat it it spring from dialect!”) are actually similar, even across a significant historical divide, to the aesthetic and political framework that produced Burns.

In fact, one could very well use this anthology while focusing specifically on the strictly "postcolonial" authors -- Oonya Kempadoo, Derek Walcott, and Louise Bennett. Or it could be used with a broader historical lens. Some of the passionate feelings about language experienced felt by today's postcolonial writers were also alive for Irish writers 100 years ago, and for Scottish writers like Burns more than 200 years ago!]


I've been very interested to learn about some of the authors I was previously unfamiliar with in Ahmad's anthology, like the Northern Irish writer Frances Molloy, or the Papaua New Guinean John Kasaipwalova.

Rereading the excerpt of Gautam Malkani's Londonstani Ahmad has included reminded me just why I disliked that novel -- I can't really sympathize with, or even be very interested in, Malkani's Brit-Punjabi thugs. But I'm also not really convinced by the particular vernacular spoken by Malkani's characters; they seem to be trying too hard. One of the worst moments for me is this paragraph:

All a this shit was just academic a course. Firstly, Hardjit's thesis, though it was what Mr Ashwood's call internally coherent, failed to recognize the universality a the word Nigga compared with the word Paki. De-poncified, this means many Hindus an Sikhs'd spit blood if they ever got linked to any thing to do with Pakistan. Indians are just too racist to use the word Paki.

Here, as elsewhere in his novel, Malkani is pursuing some interesting lines of thought regarding problems of self-naming within the Desi diaspora. But it's simply not realistic that Malkani's characters would work through these questions in a vernacular idiom; I would rather expect them to code-switch between academic (sociological) terms in standard English, and their Punjabi and Jamaican patois-inflected street language, when lusting after Nike Air Force Ones and beating up "goras" who use the word "Paki."

Much better than Malkani is Rohinton Mistry, whose "The Ghost of Firozsha Baag" is one of my favorite short stories from Mistry's earlier work:

All the fault is of old bai who died ten years ago. She was in charge till her son brought a wife, the new bai of the house. Old bai took English words and made them from Parsi words. Easy chair was igeechur, French beans was ferach beech and Jacqueline became Jaakaylee. Later I found out that all old Parsis did this, it was like they made their own private language.

So then new bai called me Jaakaylee also, and children do the same. I don't care about it now. If someone asks my name I say Jaakaylee. And I talk Parsi-Gujarati all the time instead of Konkani, even with other ayah.s Sometimes also little bits of English.


While I'm being critical, I might also point readers to Evelyn Ch'ien's "Weird English" (also at "Politics & Culture"), which runs along the same lines as her recent book of the same title. I may have my issues with the rather broad scope of "Rotten English," but at least it has a very strong historical and intellectual justification in Ken Saro-Wiwa's novel (Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English). By contrast, calling the same body of writing (with some variations) "Weird English" doesn't do much for me -- largely because I don't like the word "weird." "Rotten English" can work as a subversive rallying cry for accented and vernacular speakers of English all over the world (though I think "Global English" is more denotatively accurate, if blander). "Weird English," by contrast, really doesn't have the same purchase.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Indian Men Dig Mills & Boon Too

Via the Literary Saloon, an article in the Economic Times on the upcoming formal distribution of Harlequin Mills & Boon romance novels in India. These novels have of course been available in South Asia for many years -- but mostly via redistribution and consignment. It's only now that Harlequin is planning to start distributing its books in India directly:

For most Indian readers, it will come as a surprise that M&B was never actually distributed in India. The novels have been so much a part of our lives, stacked in the hundreds in circulating libraries, borrowed dozens at a time by women (especially in hostels, where the trick was for one girl to borrow them and ten to read them the same night), laid out for sale second hand on pavements.

We’ve seen the special sections in large bookshops, shelves aching with romantic desperation, anguish and fulfillment. We’ve fantasised about the busty heroines and tall dark handsome heroes on the covers. We knew about all the different varieties of novels: nurses, Regency, exotic settings and so on. And exactly how we knew all this we would never say since like most people we would never admit to reading M&B.

But all of this was achieved with Harlequin ever selling directly. “We had some idea about this market, but we never really followed it up,” admits Go. “At the Frankfurt Book Fair, we would meet Indian distributors who would offer to take on consignments and we never bothered beyond that.” (link)

Interestingly, Harlequin is finding that Indian men are just about as likely to be Mills and Boon fans as women:

What he wasn’t expecting were the men, “A substantial percentage of Mills & Boon readership in India is male! You don’t see that in other markets.” Go has speculations on why this is the case. Perhaps it’s just the sheer ubiquity of M&B novels, “Their sisters and mothers are reading them and since they are lying around the men read them too.” (link)

Finally, the author of the piece asks an obvious question on my mind from the start -- what about the desi version:

But the interesting question is whether, as with FMCG products, M&B will see the need to Indianise their offering. When even a Kentucky Fried Chicken has to offer a chicken curry thali to survive in India, will M&B be able to continue with its offering of Western-oriented romance fiction? Or is this sort of escapist fiction exactly its appeal? (link)

("Tall, dark, and handsome" might have to become "fair and handsome" in the Indian context. And maybe they could still use Fabio on the cover, only with Shah Rukh Khan's hair style?)

Incidentally, I have long wanted to write my own pulpy romance novel to make some quick cash, but I've been starved for a good, India-themed plot. Can anyone suggest a good scenario for me to use, as I attempt to enter the world of trash fiction popular romantic fare? (The best I can think of right now is an Indian version of this plot. Hopefully I can come up with a better title than "The Rancher's Doorstep Baby," however)


A Mini-Survey for The Academics in the House

My co-editor and I are finally wrapping up the issue of of South Asian Review we've been guest-editing. The essays are in good shape, and we're now working on the introduction.

I wanted to make some comments on the "state of South Asian literary studies," but as I've been writing, it's occurred to me that I don't know a great deal about how widespread "South Asian literature" really is in the North American academy. (In particular, I have a strong suspicion that for the most part the category is folded into the broader category of the "Postcolonial"). So I composed a mini-survey, which I'm also forwarding to friends and to some listservs.

1. Do you teach courses exclusively on South Asian literature on a regular basis? (Or are your South Asian authors generally folded into courses on "postcolonial," "world," or "global" literature?) If you are a student, have you taken such a course recently?

2. Either way, could you send me the titles of courses that in some way involve South Asian authors, and the names of some books/authors you've taught recently (or again, if you're a student, that were included in a course you took).

3. How often do you teach South Asian literature in translation (i.e., from Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, etc.)?

4. Are any South Asian languages taught at the institution where you teach/study?

5. What journals do you know of that specialize in South Asian literature? (The ones I know are South Asian Review and the Annual of Urdu Studies) What about journals that occasionally publish on South Asian authors/themes, among other regional literatures?

6. What journals might you go to if you wanted to publish an essay on a South Asian author or a topic specifically related to South Asian literature?

7. What publishers might you go to if you had a book manuscript on a specifically South Asian literature theme? What is a recent title from that press relating to South Asian literature?

(You could email me your response, or put your answers in the comments.)

Needless to say, if you know of others who teach South Asian literature, I would be very grateful if you could forward this "mini-survey" to them as well. Anyone who responds will get an acknowledgment in the Special Issue of SAR I am guest co-editing. Thanks in advance!

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Subcontinental Scripts: Hindi vs. Urdu

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I recently taught myself how to read the Urdu script, and it was quite challenging. Reading from right to left isn't so hard to get used to, but there are some letters that seem to be interchangeable (i.e., two different ways of writing 'k'/'q'), and other letters that look painfully similar to one another on the page ('d', 'r', 'v', etc). Also, some of the vowel markers one sees in Hindi/Devanagari, though they do exist in Urdu as diacritic marks, are frequently omitted in practice, so you often have to guess which vowel should be used based on context. Oh, and did I mention that there often aren't clear word breaks (depending on how the typography is done in a given book or newspaper)?

But once I got the script down (roughly), I was pleasantly surprised to find that Manto's Urdu vocabulary isn't that far off from standard Hindustani -- but then, he's a prose writer known for his accessible style. By contrast, the vocabulary of much Urdu poetry (i.e., Ghalib) is so full of Persian words as to be unintelligible -- at least to a barbarian ABD like myself.

Via the Sepia Mutiny News Tab (thanks, ViParavane), I came across a great post at the Language Log blog with a historical linguistics explanation for how the script (and language) divide came to be. I don't have much knowledge to offer on top of what Mark Liberman says, so the following are the just the quotes in Liberman's post I found to be most interesting.

First, Liberman has several quotes from an article by linguist Bob King on the "digraphia" (Greek for "two scripts") of Urdu and Hindi. First, we have the background:

Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest -- and therefore most artificial -- forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947. (link)

Then there are the social implications, which are not trivial:

One can easily imagine a condition of pacific digraphia: people who speak more or less the same language choose for perfectly benevolent reasons to write their language differently; but these people otherwise like each other, get on with one another, live together as amiable neighbors. It is a homey picture, and one wishes it were the norm. It is not. Digraphia is regularly an outer and visible sign of ethnic or religious hatred. Script tolerance, alas, is no more common than tolerance itself. In this too Hindi-Urdu is lamentably all too typical. People have died in India for the Devanagari script of Hindi or the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu. It is rare, except for scholars, for Hindi speakers to learn to read Urdu script or for Urdu speakers to learn to read Devanagari. (link)

(And yes, even those of us who pretend to be scholars struggle with "script tolerance.")

Another scholar (Kelkar) gives some concrete examples of differences in vocabulary, with specific attention to the points of divergence:

Common words like chai 'tea', milna 'to meet', and mashin 'machine' are the same in either Hindi or Urdu. Vocabulary diverges sharply as we move from Low to High. The Hindi words for 'south' and 'temperature' (as in weather) are dakshin and tapman, the Urdu words junub and darja-e-hararat. The sentence "Who is the prime minister at the moment?'' is ajkal pradhan mantri kaun hai? in Hindi, ajkal vazir-e azam kaun hai? in Urdu.

An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with different
languages. (link)

Liberman's post ends with a reference to Gandhi, who struggled -- as early as 1917! -- to conceive of a "secularist" solution to the script problem, but failed to do so.

Obviously, with Partition, the terms of the debate over "standard" scripts changed in the Indian subcontinent. The debate in Pakistan is essentially over, and Urdu wins. But according to the scholars Liberman cites, the split over scripts is very much alive in India (especially northern India, though I have Muslim friends from places like Hyderabad who say their families only speak Urdu at home).

The joint/hybrid spoken language spoken in much of northern India is Hindustani (mostly Hindi grammatical structures with a mix of Sanskritic and Persian vocabulary), which seems to have persisted in northern India despite attempts at Sanskritization. But even with that shared spoken language, it appears the division over scripts remains.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review: Nikita Lalwani, "Gifted"

The debut novel by Nikita Lalwani, Gifted , makes for quite enjoyable reading. It's about an Indian girl's coming of age in Cardiff, Wales, as a math prodigy pushed and prodded by an overly controlling father.

The father's obsession with having his daughter achieve a very rigid kind of academic greatness should ring a bell with second gen/ABD readers, especially given the apparent desi fascination with things like Spelling Bees and World Records. For most middle class desi kids growing up in the west, childhood is often (whether you like it or not) all about "studies" -- and Lalwani's book shows a case of that parental obsession taken to an extreme.

That said, Lalwani's Rumi (short for Rumika) is in fact genuinely interested in math and numbers from an early age, and Lalwani does a good job of taking us into her head without drowning the reader in math problems. Though I'm not particularly mathematically inclined myself, I do remember there being a certain luminosity to math problems as a child/teenager -- something beautiful in algebraic abstractions, or the spiraling concept of infinity in calculus. (Unfortunately for me, I tended to be more enthusiastic about the aesthetics of the math than in actually solving the problems at hand...)

Here's a short passage from early on in Gifted, where Rumi (age 8 at the time) is chatting with her relations while on a trip to India. They are discussing real-life math prodigy, Shakuntala Devi, who was able to multiply two thirteen digit numbers in her head:

Rumi and Jaggi Bhaiya talk about world records, in particular about Shakuntala Devi, the maths genius who multiplied tow thirteen digit numbers in twenty-eight seconds the year before. Rumi has seen Shakuntala Devi on TV, her kindly smile gracing the airwaves like the most favorite auntie you can imagine, big red bindi shining out from the center of her forehead with the super-force of blood. Rumi has a funny feeling when she sees Shakuntala Devi on the screen. It is as though she is related to her. Or something. Even her mum and dad are charged and excited when they see her on the box, thrilled by the contradictions of cotton sari, center parting, blond hair-sprayed host and acrobatic maths.

'But why did they treat her like that? In itself, it is proof of the superiority complex that the West has over us,' Jaggi Bhaiya is saying.

'What is superiority complex?' Rumi asks.

'When a culture thinks they are better than us, that we are dirty, cheating scoundrels. That is why they insulted Shakuntala Devi in this way. You cannot deny it!'

He is referring to the text added next to the entry in The Guinness Book of Records. Rumi knows the words, having Jaggi recite them and having read them in her own edition: 'Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to the above--largely on the grounds that it is so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other invigilated prodigy.'

Gifted is somewhat different from other Brit-Asian fiction by writers like Hanif Kureishi, in that the social context isn't especially politicized. In Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Landerette, the central subject is the tension about race and identity -- with the rise of the National Front on the one hand, and the emergence of the racially self-conscious British Black Arts Movement and the Southall Black Sisters on the other.

Though Gifted is also set in the 1980s, politics and race isn't really an issue. Lalwani's characters are in a more isolated, "mainstream" context, and the story is really about the internal dynamics of a single, deeply dysfunctional nuclear family. If anything politics enters in obliquely in passages like the one above, where the question is really whether and how respect is given by the world to "gifted" Indians. Like Jaggi Bhaiya, Rumi's father smolders with a simultaneous pride and insecurity about his image as a middle-class Indian in British society, and his neuroses are partly what drive him to treat his daughter as he does.

I tend to suspect that this book will be slightly more popular with women than with men, though it is (thankfully) a far cry from those deeply irritating Chitra Divakaruni type books, where the goal is for the desi woman to "find herself," usually after extricating herself from a bad marriage with a bad desi man. Dating and boys do play a role in Gifted, but again, the story is really about Rumi's fraught relationship with her father and mother, and all those familiar clichés of 1st/2nd gen Indian fiction (i.e., involving arranged marriage) are fortunately absent.

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted is available at

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Essay in Minnesota Review: "Republics of the Imagination"

I have an essay in the latest Minnesota Review. The journal has posted the entire issue online, not behind a subscription firewall (Why don't more journals do this?). There's also an interview with Noam Chomsky, and an essay by Lennard Davis on Edward Said.

My essay is here; it was originally called "Republics of the Imagination: Afghan and Iranian Expatriate Writers," before being shortened (de-colonified?) to the less bulky "Republics of the Imagination." It incorporates some of the material I've used in talks on The Kite Runner at various colleges and universities over the past couple of years. It also contains a defense of Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I think is a compelling and important book, that weaves together of memoir and literary criticism in some very original ways (it is also not at all some kind of pro-American sell-out, as some detractors have tried to suggest). Finally, I speculate on the fact that so many of the narratives coming out of both Iran and Afghanistan have been prose memoirs, not novels or poetry.

You might also check out the interview with the Iranian novelist Farnoosh Moshiri, one of the writers I talk about in the essay.

Any feedback?

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Two Paragraphs from Edward Said's "Beginnings"

Some tantalizing comments on Edward Said's early book, Beginnings. This is a book I've owned for many years, but have never really gotten around to -- maybe it's time. (Has anyone read Beginnings? Thoughts?)

The author of the review I linked to quoted a very intriguing sentence, which comes toward the end of the Said book. Here is the full context of the quote:

The writer's life, his career, and his text form a system of relationships whose configuration in real human time becomes progressively stronger (i.e., more distinct, more individualized and exacerbated). In fact, these relationships gradually become the writer's all-encompassing subject. On a pragmatic level, then, his text is his statement of the temporal course of his career, inscribed in language, and shot through with precisely these matters.

'Career is the key notion in what I have been saying so far about the writer. For any author, his writing life is what sets him off from the normal quotidian element. During the earlier European tradition great poets like Dante and Virgil were considered inspired by the poetic afflatus, which also shaped their poetic vocation and guaranteed special allowances for them as vatic ssers . . . In the modern period (my primary consideration here), the author's career is not something impelled into a specific course by 'outside' agencies, whether they are called inspiration, Muses, or vision. I sacrifice considerable detail by skipping over whole periods of literary history until about the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Europe generally and in Britain and France especially in order to remark that the idea of a poetic or authorial vocation as a common cultural myth underwent severe change. Blake once described the change prophetically as the 'Fair Nine, forsaking poetry.' So thorough had been the subjectivization of approach, so detached from traditional practices had the writing enterprise become--our discussion of Renan makes this point repeatedly--and so individualistic a tone had the literary voice produced--at least among writers whose aspiration was to uncommon status--that the poetic vocation, in the classical sense, had come to be replaced by a poetic career. Whereas the former required taking certain memorial steps and imitating ritual progress, in the latter the writer had to create not only his art but also the very course of his writings.

One author who comes to mind as being particularly self-conscious about the course of his career is V.S. Naipaul -- someone who for nearly 30 years has been writing nearly entirely about himself (and his network of relationships, and his career).

At a more banal level, another figure who comes to mind in this vein is the TV writer Larry David, who started out creating and writing Seinfeld, and who now does quite well writing self-reflexively about himself, in Curb Your Enthusiasm. What to do next, after Seinfeld?

What to do next -- that is the question, is it not?


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Canon Wars Redux

There are many good points made in Rachel Donadio's NYTSBR essay, "Revisiting the Canon Wars." Her argument, which is really more a skeleton that allows her to get quotes from fifteen different academics, is that the issues raised by Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the book that started the first strong reactionary thrust in the Culture Wars, are still relevant to humanities academics even now that the dust has apparently settled somewhat. (Or perhaps we've all just become more dusty, I don't know.)

First, there's a great quote from John Searle:

Searle also noted a “certain irony” that the Western canon, from Socrates to Marx, which had once been seen as “liberating,” was now seen as “oppressive.” “Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude,” Searle wrote, “the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. ... The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.”

I'm not sure that's true -- the purpose of a Canon, one could just as easily argue, is to create a bourgeois consciousness. Only the earlier generation of "leftyprofs," I think, felt the point was to unmask that consciousness rather than nurture it.

In one sense the debate has been superseded by what's happened in American universities since the 1980s, which is a growing sense that the humanities constitute only a minor component, rather than the core. Other segments of the university -- the sciences, business, engineering -- get the lion's share of funding (they also generate their own funds), and also the lion's share of the university administration's attention. Humanities academics are now in some sense all on the same side -- we have to prove we're still relevant:

All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”

It's rare that I see a Louis Menand or Martha Nussbaum quote I don't like, and this is no exception.

The second section of the essay gets into some more specific Canon questions, and brings quotes from Stanley Fish, Philip Roth, Michael Berube, Gerald Graff, Tony Judt, and John Guillory. There is some of the usual to-and-fro over Toni Morrison and identity politics. I think Gerald Graff's point is worth considering:

To some, another question is how to get students to read critically in the first place. “What does it profit progressives to get minority writers like Walker and Black Elk into the syllabus if many students need the Cliffs Notes to gain an articulate grasp of either?” asked Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written on the canon wars.

Arguably, the way to make sure students have the tools to interpret great works of literature by Shakespeare and James Joyce and Salman Rushdie is to put more emphasis on interpretive method, not to go back to only teaching Shakespeare. This might be something that conservatives and progressives in the English department could all agree on, if, first, conservatives could be convinced that everything wouldn't be better if the English Department restored its old, Canon-backed "prestige" (most of our students aren't aware that it's gone). As for what "progressives" need to be convinced of, it gets a little more complicated. It's more than just identity politics -- "disciplinary balkanization" might be a more accurate way to describe what ails us.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

It isn't the end of the world...

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, has a long account of the decline of book sections in America's newspapers in the CJR. I think his main goal is to try and make a case for the importance of the book review, but his essay considers in depth the possibility that a serious literary culture will survive the removal or reduction of book review sections at many newspapers.

Even as these sections are declining, good things are happening, and I'm not just talking about blogs. Online sales, for example, give a lot of power to the consumer:

Regional theaters and opera companies blossomed even as Tower Records closed its doors. CD sales might have been slipping, but online music was soaring. Almost ten years later, Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s new general manager, understands this cultural shift better than most and launched a series of live, high-definition broadcasts of operas like Puccini’s Il Trittico and Mozart’s Magic Flute shown at movie theaters across America. His experiment was a triumph, pulling in thousands of new viewers. As Alex Ross reported in The New Yorker, Gelb’s broadcasts “have consistently counted among the twenty highest-grossing films in America, and have often bested Hollywood’s proudest blockbusters on a per-screen, per-day average. Such figures are a timely slap in the face to media companies that have written off classical music as an art with no mass appeal.” The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.

Thanks to Amazon, geography hardly matters. It is now possible through the magic of Internet browsing and buying to obtain virtually any book ever printed and have it delivered to your doorstep no matter where you live. This achievement, combined with the vast archipelago of bricks-and-mortar emporiums operated by, say, Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the more robust of the independent stores, has given Americans a cornucopia of riches. To be sure, there has also been the concomitant and deplorable collapse of many independent bookstores—down by half from the nearly four thousand such stores that existed in 1990. Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary American bookselling and publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of our culture. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.

It seems hard to escape the likelihood that conventional literary book reviews are going to continue to decline in the years to come. A few newspapers (NYT, WaPo) will continue to carry them, as "prestige" sections, much the way the major movie studios keep making a few money-losing art house films on the odd chance that one of them might win an Oscar. Most other newspapers are looking at their bottom lines, and choosing to buy their reviews from the Associated Press rather than retain full-time book reviewing staff.

But the decline is largely about money -- the financial woes of major newspapers in the internet age -- not the liveliness of the cultural mix that leads some people to write interesting novels, and other people to buy them and appreciate them. As long as there are some mediating channels that help readers find good new books, the loss of book review sections at newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constituion might not be so damaging after all. What exactly those mediating channels will be, and how they'll reach readers -- it's got to be more than just blogs and Amazon reader reviews, I think -- remains somewhat up in the air.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jonathan Letham, on Influence

I missed Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence" when it came out in Harpers back in February. Today he was on my local NPR, and they were discussing the essay. It's a pretty inspired work of cultural criticism, which is at times quite sensitive to the processes by which works of art are brought into being:

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing. (link)

But Lethem also makes a compelling case that modern copyright law needs to be rethought in certain ways. (There are certain echoes of Lessig's arguments in Free Culture here.)

What Lethem doesn't really address is the real sense of violation that people who consume plagiarized works of art feel when they discover that a book or a piece of music is not what it says it is. There should be more scope for free appropriation than there currently is, especially in this digital era, but I think the limits of that appropriation need to be respected. The concept of authorship may have grown distorted with the advent of what Lethem calls "monopoly of use," but authorship is still there (along with plagiarism as its nemesis), and not just in the minds of literary and cultural critics.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Salman Rushdie, from Outsider to "Knight Bachelor"

Salman Rushdie got knighted over the weekend: he's now Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.

Predictably, government officials in Pakistan and Iran have come out against honouring the "blaspheming" "apostate" Rushdie. It's a brand of foaming at the mouth that we're all too familiar with at this point; in a sense, the hostile fundamentalist reaction validates the strong secularist stance that Rushdie has taken since his reemergence from Fatwa-induced semi-seclusion in 1998. (If these people are burning your effigy, you must be doing something right.)

But actually, there's another issue I wanted to mention that isn't getting talked about much in the coverage of Rushdie's knighthood, which is the fact that Rushdie wasn't always a "safe" figure for British government officials. In the early 1980s in particular, and throughout the Margaret Thatcher era, Rushdie was known mainly as a critic of the British establishment, not a member. The main issue for Rushdie then was British racism, and he did not mince words in condemning it as well as the people who tolerated it.

This morning I was briefly looking over some of Rushdie's essays from the 1980s. Some of the strongest work excoriated the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and indicted the pervasiveness of "institutionalized racism" in British society. Two essays in particular stand out, "The New Empire Within Britain," and "Home Front." Both are published in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. (Another great essay from that collection is "Outside the Whale" -- required reading, though on a slightly different topic. And see this NYT review of the collection as a whole from 1991.)

Here is a long quote from "The New Empire Within Britain" (1982):

[L]et me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltneham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves, a lesson we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthears . . . The people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did . . . that we could never again be what we were. Ther were those who would not admit it . . . but--in their heart of hearts--they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'

There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popuolarity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the elctorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I say white Britons because it's clear that Mrs Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German though and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. (Read the whole thing)

That was Rushdie in 1982: "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." And it's by no means the only strong statement he makes about racism and imperialism in "The New Empire Within Britain"; he also goes after the legal system, the police, and the clearly racist quotas the British had enacted in the immigration policy to reduce the number of black and brown immigrants coming to Britain from former colonies.

If we compare Rushdie in 1982 to Rushdie today, it's clear that the man has changed quite a bit -- but it also has to be acknowledged that British society has itself been transformed, perhaps even more radically. Organizations like the National Front are nowhere near as influential as they were in the early 1980s, and a decade of the Labour Party and Tony Blair have changed the political picture for good. But more than anything, what seems different is the way racialized difference (Blacks and Asians vs. the white majority) has been displaced by the religious difference as the most contentious issue of the day. One you move the debate from race to religion, the parameters for who gets seen as an "outsider" and who becomes an "insider" look quite different.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Mohsin Hamid Media Coverage; Pankaj Mishra on Matar, Lailami

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is getting quite a lot of publicity this week. I've been an admirer of his first novel, Moth Smoke, which I think of as giving a fresh, entertaining image of the changes occurring in urban Pakistan in the globalization era. It also has an irreverent, off-beat style, somewhat reminiscent of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. When I've taught it in courses on South Asian literature, I've found that students really tend to latch onto it -- often more than writers like Ghosh, Rushdie, or Mistry.

Initially, I've been less than enthused about picking up Hamid's new novel, along the lines of: do I really need to read another book about the tension between fundamentalism and modernity? This ground has been covered so many times already -- starting with The Satanic Verses -- that one doesn't expect to be surprised. But the more I hear about the novel, the more interested I've become.

A good place to start might be the 20 minute interview Hamid did this week with Terry Gross, where (among other things) they spent a fair amount of time discussing how having or not having a beard affects how you're perceived, in both Pakistan and the UK/US. Apparently this is a major theme in the novel as well; as a dariwalla (bearded person), I approve.

And there's been other prominent coverage of the book, including an interview where Hamid discusses his allusions to Camus' 1957 novel The Fall:

The Fall is very clearly a model for this novel – both in the first sentence, and throughout the book I try to acknowledge Jean-Baptiste (who is present in the Chilean publisher who Changez meets later in the book), it’s something I did very consciously. In 1957 this idea of trying to break down the individual, and debunk the notion of us being good – something literature and the world has done very successfully – was quite radical. Now no one goes around thinking the individual is good; we're all tarnished. If you look behind anyone you find all sorts of stuff. What’s surprising given that, is that notions of larger collectives haven’t been debunked as thoroughly. We indulge ourselves in larger narratives that remain fundamentally good. Somehow, there is an emotional tribal feeling that remains. And that tribal feeling is actually particularly encouraged in America, as the only victor of the Second World War still standing. And in the Muslim world, it’s a sense of decadence and decline and impotence, which causes people to reach out for a similar type of

More in the political vein, I've been impressed to see Hamid directly challenging Pervez Musharraf's recent actions against Pakistan's judiciary in the Daily Times:

Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanised protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday. (link)

And the interview with Hamid in Tehelka from August 2006 was pretty striking -- actually quite confrontational in tone. Hamid feels the Indian media (even Tehelka!) has a somewhat hysterical attitude about Pakistan, which is perhaps borne out by the interviewer's own rather bizarre choice of questions ("What about Pakistan makes you blanch?" ?!?). In general, I think Hamid makes some good points, especially on the Indian media's tendency to immediately point at Pakistan whenever there is a bombing -- irrespective of whether the evidence warrants it:

I think India is terrified of looking inside itself because if a homegrown Indian Muslim group has done this in Bombay, you’d have massacres. India is a tinderbox so it’s forced to look outside. Who’s backing the Naxalites? People out of Nepal? Who’s backing the Muslim groups? Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are a billion Indians, many of whom are very upset with the government and could certainly be involved. In Pakistan, we have sectarian bombings all the time. Certainly one could say these are the work of Indian intelligence agencies. Perhaps they are. But I think it’s a mistake to look at these problems in this way and ignore what is often a very strong domestic component. I think Pakistan is right now desperate for a peace deal on Kashmir. Musharraf — like him or not — is bending over to find some compromise. But India is completely uncompromising. It prefers the status quo so any time there’s a bomb in India, it can be blamed on Pakistan. (link)

Well, I'm not sure whether what Musharraf has put on the table regarding Kashmir is really a workable compromise. And overall, I think I'm more anti-Musharraf than Mohsin Hamid is; I'm a little surprised, for instance, that he's not saying anything here about Mukhtar Mai or the status of women under Pakistani law as he considers Musharraf's legacy. That said, his perspective is a helpful corrective to some jingoistic/paranoid images of Pakistan that are often circulated.

* * *

I was also interested in Pankaj Mishra's recent review of Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Matar is a Libyan novelist, writing about life under the shadow of Qaddafi. Like Hamid, his book has been getting prominently displayed in the Barnes & Noble stores near my house -- it clearly seems to be doing quite well. Are publishers trying to make it into the "next" Kite Runner?

What's striking from Mishra's review is how personal, even intimate, the novel appears to be, despite the backdrop of state repression, disappearances, and torture. One quote Mishra pulls from the novel struck me as being particularly memorable:

Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. (from In The Country of Men; link)

Mishra also favorably reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which is another book that I've had on my "to read" list for quite awhile.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alternadad, Parenting in Literary History

I don't have that much in common with Neal Pollack, except maybe a certain attitude, but I still read about his book Alternadad with great interest. Here's Michael Agger's reading of it in Slate:

What's fallen away from marriage for artist-intellectual-professional types are the traditional genders and gender roles. But, as new moms have been observing for years, the arrival of a child has a nasty way of reinstating the old dynamic. Pollack, who feels the need to make money and provide a safe place to live, is among the first to relate the re-emergence of breadwinner angst among men. (Although he fights this pressure by smoking pot and forming a rock band.) Regina is divided by wanting space for her artistic ambitions and her feelings of being a "bad mother." Parenthood, which looks from the outside like a step into maturity, is actually a descent into a new set of insecurities. Including renewed tension with your parents, who are often willing to overlook a funky wedding ceremony but want to see you step in with tradition and/or religion when a grandchild appears. An infamous chapter in Alternadad details the three-way gunfight among Neal, Regina, and Neal's Jewish parents over whether Eli should be circumcised.

As I said, I don't have that much in common with Pollack (the religion question is a non-issue, for instance), though many of the questions raised in this review of his book in Slate are ones I'm thinking about too: as in, how to rethink conventional gender roles to support slightly non-traditional (in my case) careers. Also of great interest is how to inject a spirit of originality -- one's own idiosyncratic taste -- into parenting in a way that's both "cool" and nurturing.

As a side note, maybe I should follow Pollack's lead, and write an article (or book?) related to parenting sometime: parents and parenting in literary history. James Joyce was an unusual dad, though not a very good one, I gather. Rabindranath Tagore was in many ways a better father -- still highly unconventional -- though there are questions about him marrying off his daughter in a child marriage.

Of course those are only biographical bits -- the "real" question might be, how and whether writers posed characters as parents in their fiction. In some cases, it didn't matter whether they were parents or not: Virginia Woolf, for instance, did not have children, but she created some very memorable mothers in her novels -- Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay.

Other famous parents in fiction?

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Wizard of the Crow @ LBC

Ngugi's new novel, Wizard of the Crow, is the winter selection at the Lit Blog Co-op, and they have an interview with Ngugi up.

But even better is the post with a chronological list of quotes from Ngugi regarding the status of art in postcolonial Africa. The best one is probably the quote from 2003, where Ngugi talks about the evolution of his own name:

I wrote Weep Not, Child; A River Between; and A Grain of Wheat and published the three novels under the name James Ngugi. James is the name which I acquired when I was baptized into Christianity in primary school, but later I came to reject the name because I Saw it as part of the colonial naming system when Africans were taken as slaves to America and were given the names of the plantation owners. Say, when a slave was bought by Smith, that slave was renamed Smith. This meant that they were the property of Smith or Brown and the same thing was later transferred to the colony. It meant that if an African was baptized, as evidence of his new self or the new identity he was given an English name. Not just a biblical, but a biblical and English name. It was a symbolical replacing of one identity with another. So the person who was once Ngugi is now James Ngugi, the one who was once owned by his people is now owned by the English, the one who was owned by an African naming system is now owned by an English naming system. So when I realized that, I began to reject the name James and to reconnect myself to my African name which was given at birth, and that's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, meaning Ngugi, son of Thiong'o.

I knew that he had been baptized early in his life, but for some reason I was unaware that his first three novels were published under the name, "James Ngugi."

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