Thursday, October 21, 2010
The Politics of Reading and Recommending
(UPDATE: Corrected for errors)
In the past, once or twice a year, I've proposed my own ad-hoc short story collection, creating links to stories out there online that are great in one way or another. Recently, I thought it was a good time to do another. One of my go-to places for good short fiction is the winner of the Caine Prize, and this year's winner is Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days. What a great story this is!
It's epic, and speaks to how, even in our most cruel acts we often envision ourselves as heroes. It also speaks to a kind of brutality born of innocence. It's clean and crisp, and awesome.
Go to the link and read it now--skip the rest of what I have to say. But then, maybe, come back, because what is left is something that crushed my original impulse and forced me to question why some people, including myself, select the books, comics, and stories we recommend. And why I am only recommending this one story this month.
I teach college English at a community college, and literature is required of almost all students to graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. Recently I was talking to another English instructor about using contemporary African literature in classes. I'm interested in part because the campus where I teach has a large population of African immigrants and first generation African-Americans. In addition, I'm always drawn to the new, and Africa has a lot of great authors producing really fantastic work right now.*
I've used stories by authors from Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, and Rwanda at one time or another. Of course, these categories of where an author is from are not necessarily easy or clear cut--many authors were born in Africa, but immigrated to Europe or the U.S., or they went to college elsewhere, or are primarily published outside their country or continent. Many even struggle with getting published. What impact all this has on the writers and their writing makes for good food for thought in the class. It helps us keep in mind writers as persons and writing as an act, which sometimes can get lost in the English classroom.
During the discussion, this colleague of mine made a comment that her specialty--meaning what she had focused her studies on while getting her English degree--involved African literature. It seemed like we would have lots to talk about, in terms of what to use in the classroom and why.
Only, our conversation got weird fast. I tried to talk to her about specific African authors I've been exploring recently--Chris Abani, Uwem Akpan, and Chimimanda Adichie.** The English instructor gave a really dramatic grimace in response to this last author when I mentioned her. She actually stuck her tongue out like she'd bitten into a bad apple.
When I asked her why, she said, "Well, she's Igbo and I'm Hausa." Or she may have said "Yoruba," I didn't quite catch it. She made a gesture with her fists, banging them together like people in conflict. What stunned me about this is that she said it at all--Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba are all various ethnic groups in Nigeria. This woman I was speaking to is white, her accent places her from somewhere south and west of Atlanta, possibly in Alabama, but suburban, not rural South. In no way, shape or form is she from Nigeria. I was bewildered. I was ready for her to make some argument about the quality of Adichie's writing, or something about her newness (Adichie has emerged as a significant writer only in the past five or six years). But I had, and have, no way of understanding her comment. In what way is my colleague "Hausa"? Why does Adichie's Igbo background have any bearing on what books she includes in her class?
I think one of the awesome things, maybe the most fantastic, inspiring, and hopeful qualities of books is that they have the ability to transport us out of our own little worlds, out of our contexts to the extent that we see things, understand things, feel things we would normally have no claim to.
But here was a person who had done just that to the extent that she had displaced anyone else's authentic claim to the literature. She even spoke disparagingly of African students' attitudes toward African Literature: "They don't care; they just want to be doctors."***
So, here's my problem--yay, it's great that I like reading short stories from Nigerian authors, or the detective novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a Mexican author, or the manwha of Shin Ji-Sang and Geo, two Korean cartoonists. But, to what extent can we become poachers of culture not our own? Stories not our own?
It's like the time I had this friend who was a huge liar. We used to say you knew he was lying because his lips were moving. Anyways, one day we're talking and he begins to tell me about this thing that had happened to him. And damned if it wasn't my story, something that had happened to me!
Great that he loved my story, great that he was telling others, but he'd claimed it as his own so completely, he'd so forgotten whose story it originally was, that
he'd told it to me like it had happened to him.
You may think I've forgotten Olufemi Terry's story, Stickfighting Days. Actually, one of the reasons why I love this story so is how its laser-like focus on character avoids specifics, raises it up out of a single context (Terry, who's from Sierra Leon, was inspired by his experience in Kenya, but the story could take place almost anywhere). It also brings together references that reach across cultural and geographic boundaries (the main character, a homeless glue-sniffing boy, uses Tolkien's fictional languages when naming his favorite fighting sticks). It surprises and delights, and pulls me out of my own head.
It affirms for me that, whenever I suggest something to read, whether it's a review here or elsewhere, or an assignment in class, I always focus on the story, and the reader, and let everything else fall away.
*--So, herein lies the crux of what I'm getting at: Statements like this are inherently rediculous. Go to wikipedia right now and type in "African Writers" and you'll see a list that's a million miles long. Now, given that this includes authors who write in multiple languages (the French/English divide that exists when approaching even the material available in Europe and America makes the tag "African Literature" a difficult one even from an outsider's perspective), and includes poets, theologians, journalists, etc., only a portion of the entries are fiction writers. Yet several countries have their own pages of lists of authors. So we can see that, to think of African authors hitting their prime now is like saying a TV is loudest just after you open the door to the room where it's on.
**--Yes, I know they're all Nigerian. Again, witness my apoplectic anxiety.
***--um, A)Isn't that true of most students? Hell, that describes my father to a "t": who wouldn't aspire to have a good career that pays well, that rewards hard work and commands respect? Also, B) really? They don't give a rat's ass that they're reading stories that speak to and about their background instead of something they've never encountered before, like John Cheever, or HD, or Hamlin Garland? I mean, I love those writers, but I'm always excited by writings that connect with who and where I'm from.
Pictured above is the anthology A Life In Full, which collects all stories shortlisted for this year's Caine Prize. You can find it here on Powell's for $16.95.