At a recent poetry reading I attended here in New Haven, Connecticut I witnessed an unexpected comedy show - a rare treat, as most readings tend to be like dour, precious funerals. In attendance were mostly students, in slashed tights, glitter headscarves and dark chiffon shirts. After the first, nearly inaudible poet left the stage, the second poet began to perform. He danced in epileptic bursts, crouched on the floor, burst into mawkish operetta, all the while feverishly interspersing his movements with gusts of shouted reading of his poem, which was opaque and difficult. Of course, people began to laugh, and I found I couldn't restrain my laughter, either; I hunkered down into my seat and tried to bury my face in my hands, and yet all I could see was the poet's face bright with sweat. I considered getting up and leaving the room; then, I had an overt horror that the Young Poet, in his crazed Dionysian state, would look at me and cry, “You there! Stop immediately!”
Right then, as though suddenly aware of the tittering around him, the poet shouted angrily, “What's wrong with you? Stop laughing! Stop laughing! Why is laughter our immediate response to things we don't understand?”
The hall lapsed into a deep silence. The poet's injunction had the dual effect of alienating his listeners and making some laugh even harder into their coat-sleeves. I laughed at the spectacle, and also at ourselves, and finally, at my own discomfort. Then I felt badly for the young man. What struck me in that moment was the futility of the entire poetic enterprise. Of course, it was just his enterprise, but the sensation of general futility was undeniable, and, as a fiction writer, a hardly welcome one. In my somnolent funk, I saw the chasm between author and audience as bridged only by misunderstanding, mockery, and laughter.
At Harvard, I had the great luck of having a creative writing professor and mentor, Jamaica Kincaid, who espoused the ethos that work is all that matters: Your work, your art, is what defines you. You write to save yourself. From there, I filled in the rest for myself. Nothing else: not who you love or who loves you, not what you own, not where you studied or what you “know”- all that means nothing compared to the work. Only your work means - matters.
Reality doesn't comply with the artist's desires for a pure reception, of course. If your work is what defines you, your reception of your work has some role in how the work is defined. Writers are forced to play tricks, to perform in the way The Young Poet did, drawing attention while repelling it, dancing for their readers. Specifically, we (by this I mean writers, including myself) define ourselves in particular ways to make ourselves accessible. We're Senegalese-American writers raised in Seattle who graduated from X University and Y's MFA program; we're from Missouri, lived in Eastern Europe, wrote our novel at this writers' colony; we've published here and we have matriculated there, and most importantly, we studied with Someone, and so we are of worth. (By this logic, because this person, who is already lauded, listened to us, we are worth listening to.) We're career-driven. We're deeply cynical, but pretend to a naiveté about our self-presentation. We all participate in the Game and struggle to find a space of autonomy.
I later found the Young Poet's poems in a journal, and I found they were really quite good. Why did he insist on delivering them in such a distracting manner? As I'm guessing he'd explain it, in disrupting the crowd's complacency, he was critiquing how capitalist relations have stiffened our experience of art. I sympathized with his disregard for being liked, and I recognized later that the crowd's laughter was a key part of his performance. He needed an audience that was derisive and disrespectful. Indeed, why is it we are so afraid of anomaly and disruption?
For one, anomaly gets a more severe rap these days: anomaly of origin, of self, experience and tongue. Here in the U.S., it is specifically foreign origin, experience, selves and tongues, which are subject to a peculiar system of scrutiny.
Here's an example: More than fifteen years ago, a poet named Araki Yasusada, said to be a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, published a series of poems in literary journals in the States, including the 'American Poetry Review'. His poems were lauded for their sensitivity and accurate depiction of war. Aside from faked memoirs, Yasusada went on to be one of the more notable literary hoaxes of our time, because Yasusada did not exist, except as the creation of a possible group of still-unidentified poets, or one working alone. The editors' willingness to print Yasusada's work revealed both a political correctness, and a desire for authenticity in the author himself (read: those who have endured suffering in war, in bomb blasts, in poverty, are authentic). How much does it matter that Yasusada didn't exist? The project was a brilliant performance; think of the notebooks, intentionally made illegible, given the appearance of being burnt. Think of the compendium of clichéd images in the poems - cherry blossoms and lakes and eyes turned to jelly in the blast - and how the printing of the poems reveals an inability on the part of the editors to discern between a truly good poet, in any language, and a poet who has the unparalleled virtues of suffering and experience of war.
I ruminate obsessively over the questions of authorial origin (or culture) as it affects the author's writing and reception, and these questions rise up, ungainly, unsightly, like so much half-masticated grass. They catch in the throat; they become more difficult to swallow each time they are brought to surface.
One of these questions: What is the future of the younger writers of educated background and discernable ethnicity? Will she or he be encouraged to write not of self, but others, of what is not known or familiar? I hope so. I can say, for myself, that the backlash to perceived 'ethnic writing' causes me great anxiety as a writer. It literally pains me to see a writer's work valued or judged by anything but universal literary standards. Of course, that which is literary is deemed so by an establishment that defines what literary is. Certain books have marks of the 'literary', and to deny that this is not partly a function of an economic prerogative (to sell books marked as literary or non-literary) is to be disingenuous.
Last summer I read Nam Le's excellent short story collection and bestseller, The Boat. Le is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His opening story, 'Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' wryly depicts the trials of an author named Nam at a writing program. In short, the protagonist struggles with what story to write. He writes about Columbia and Tehran, about boys in Australia and drug rings and painters with gastrointestinal ailments. He is told, though, by several literary agents that he should “mine” his “background and life experience”, namely his father's extraordinary voyage to Vietnam via boat, and the struggle during wartime, for his collection. His own peers suggest, in a move of subtle condescension, that he's a great writer because he chooses not to write about his parents' history. At the end of so many conflicting messages about literary value and authenticity, the narrator presents the whole range of hypocrisies and restrictions on how fiction is produced in this country. In my favorite scene, the narrator slams paper into his typewriter, titles it 'Ethnic Story', and begins to write his father's story. “It was a good story. It was a…great story,” Nam thinks to himself, and so re-claims the story. In a move Le could have anticipated, the reviews of The Boat have focused on precisely what he anticipated: his biography, as an Australian-cum-Vietnamese immigrant to America. Nam Le's fiction anticipates its own reception, from the reduction to categorization; the story effectively shatters these categorizations by acknowledging and anticipating them. By demonstrating that they are just that - categories - Le elides them.
This story seems to me a validation of art's power. Le is asking us, how a story can be true when a readership and industry, thirsty for a new foreign “tragedy”, is geared to read it incorrectly?
I turn to chroniclers of the South Asian Experience. There are brilliant novelists who approach their panoply of histories and cultures with care and Dickensian accuracy: Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh come to mind. There are, without doubt, many supreme writers of fiction with links to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. I, for one, find it very difficult to keep up with the sheer number of South Asian writers who flood the world market; this is more a mark of how the industry has aggressively marketed these writers. As an American first, and Bangladeshi-American second (if we are trading in designations), I read with an eye that is primed for discrepancy or inaccuracy, and alternately, the relentlessly accurate plots and themes which exhaust every entrenched cliché of 'South Asian Experience' as it is defined against a supposedly more libertarian value system: The Oppressive, Narrow-Minded Parents; The Second Generation Woman's Desire for Freedom; The Arranged Marriage; The Cruelty and Unfairness of Religion; The Cross-Cultural Conflict. These tropes, though based in real, lived realities, have become so paradigmatic that they fail to disrupt. They are duplications of duplications. One can't even defend the industry's insidious mask of pluralist appreciation.
I have been lucky enough to have an unparalleled freedom to define my personal culture, to create my own system of values. I've rarely been made aware of my background until someone else unwittingly pointed it out, or I took the time to point it out to them. In truth, my life, I hope, is inward moving, and for someone, then, to suggest (as people often do) that a person of an “authentic” experience trumps my own experience - both in fiction and life - is not only insulting, but ultimately absurd.
The other face of the coin: A writer who doesn't write from her/his background is interpreted as having “issues” with that background; s/he is self-hating, s/he has turned to oblivion, s/he does not know “who s/he is.” The fallacies in these statements are obvious. I've heard desi friends' parents say their children are culture-less, without root, background or home. This is hardly true. A probashi, after all, no matter how deeply her heart is “in” Bangladesh, is still abroad. I've had the great luck to be able to exchange politics for the open values that art provides, and I never wonder what repercussions I'll experience for not knowing Bangladeshi culture very deeply. If anything, I fully accept the depth and beauty of a culture I simply cannot, and will not, know the way my parents live and breathe it. What I have experienced of Bangladesh, I hold private. I have no issues with the culture itself: I have issues with the way its images are produced, and how this proves inimical to artistic freedom.
As a writer, I have zero interest in being classified. I avoid writing about myself or my family, or their experiences, precisely because their experiences are not mine to write. I'm acutely aware that fiction seen as coming “too easily” from family history or personal experience (and the injustice of this doesn't escape me) is considered a step below 'true' literature. Real artists, this wisdom goes, write from the imagined. I have a real fear of treading upon overtly cultural narratives, precisely because I haven't resolved my ambivalence towards these narratives.
This is not to suggest that those of dual heritage shouldn't be proud of their 'original' roots, or that South Asian shouldn't write about their culture. I'm simply pointing out the manner in which being perceived as 'foreign' isn't necessarily a blessing or boon here in America, where culture and race are two of the most prickly spaces of socio-cultural debate. One isn't completely celebrated for being “Etcetera-American”; rather, you only confirm your separation. Once you've identified yourself as technically from 'elsewhere', you begin to inhabit, for others, a pre-set sphere of expectations and limited understandings. This effect resonates each day, in our daily speech, in our rhetoric about culture, in the books we choose to buy.
The artist desires a lack of affiliation, self-invention and creative mastery achieved in isolation. I wish my future work to be disengaged from contingency and cultural politics, primarily because I believe that Fiction still exists, a beautiful instrument moved by mystery. It constantly draws its own categories and edges, maps its own demise and rebirth, revives and regenerates us. Perhaps the desire to be heterodox only pushes one towards conformity. Perhaps we can only share a healthy suspicion of the culture industry, and seek new ways to undermine the song routines and scores given to us. I suspect this can be accomplished only in the content of fiction, and never in the blurb, the cover photo, or any of the machinations of ephemeral stardom, luck and profit.