Knowing Me, Knowing You, Knowing Them: Fiction Across Borders

Louis Chude-Sokei


Perhaps the greatest paradox of contemporary notions of our differences — racial, cultural, sexual or otherwise — is that they are often celebrated alongside an equal stress on their incommensurability.  In other words, we have become habituated to the idea that even when acknowledged, differences are psychically and experientially, if not socially and sexually, insurmountable.  So though our cultural lives may be infinitely plural, our inner lives become increasingly singular, privatized even.  It is in this way that a healthy respect for others can often seem indistinguishable from disdain, the incommensurable shading easily into the incompatible.  As an awareness of other peoples expands exponentially across a globalized and mediatized landscape, the borders between self and those others have certainly become more and more porous; yet it often seems that the desire to understand those unlike us or the very notion that we could understand them becomes the greatest casualty of those differences.

Indeed, the desire to understand the perspectives and experiences of others has been so often demonized that attempts to bridge differences become reduced to hackneyed moral optimism and cringe-worthy sentimentality.  Or they are unconvincingly or insultingly farcical.  We are left with a crippling fear of even trying to imagine the life of others for fear of being accused of naiveté, racism, voyeurism or “cultural imperialism.”  No, this is not an essay about James Cameron’s Avatar, Precious, The Blind Side or any number of recent films that have done their best (or worst) to render the lives of others in such a way as to create sympathy or to assert that now incredibly unfashionable phrase, ‘common humanity.’  It is, however, an essay about fiction and the legacy of what are still called “the culture wars,” where terms like “cultural imperialism,” “colonial voyeurism” or “Orientalism” — now as sanctified by misuse as “racism” — began to gain widespread cultural cache despite their origins in largely academic debates.
These debates, it is so often forgotten, were erected on a longer legacy of cultural and political activism rooted as much in a sense of social injustice as in the utopian sensibilities of radical literature and thought.  Yet the willed incommensurability of much minority politics — i.e. you cannot possibly know us because your knowing is tainted with racism, sexism, imperial bias, etc. — has become for many in literary and cultural studies either the primary political gesture or a melodramatic replacement for politics.

Perhaps slightly updating these scholarly debates and postures is Shameem Black’s Fiction Across Borders: Imagining The Lives of Others in Late Twentieth-Century Novels (Columbia University Press, 2010).  It is a work littered with such border-defending nuggets such as “discursive domination,” “representational violence,” and the “invasive imagination.”  As she rightly points out, these terms emerged largely from “the chastening critiques of postcolonial, poststructuralist, feminist, and ethnic-minority studies.”  Though these modes of criticism were themselves shot through with the utopianism of mid-20th century global cultural and political resistance movements — a spirit that animates Black’s critical lens if not her prose — by the millennium the belief in the possibility of cross-cultural communion had become victim to the worst kind of cynicism: the kind that gets institutionalized.

How those intellectual and political movements contributed to the making of a cultural climate where differences are both celebrated and foreclosed is the far more interesting subtext of Black’s often-workmanlike book.  Had Black been more willing to make that the book’s primary target and was less reverential to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which she is clearly smart enough to openly critique, Fiction Across Borders would have been far more than simply a primer on “What Scholars Think Now.”  After all, it is true that these movements/tendencies in the academy and in the world of literary/cultural criticism have been as liberating as they have been themselves oppressive, as much responsible for the current state of public and intellectual debate as the forces they emerged in response to.  They have had the broader cultural effect of rendering the act of imagining or occupying another person’s skin as so politically suspicious as to be itself a crime, this despite that act being at the root of the fictional enterprise.  Even without the context of race, gender and immigration, “discursive domination” and “representational violence” are arguably what literature is and the “invasive imagination” what writers must have if they are to be worthy of words at all.
But it is the ethics of such imaginative border crossings that are Black’s primary concern, that and the representational politics at work when writers represent or inhabit people or characters who are not just racially different, but socially asymmetrical.  The book is to be lauded for its willingness to depart from what has been called “the mirror argument” in far too much literary and cultural criticism: that all our views or images of “the other” are ultimately distorted or inverted images and views of ourselves.  That the “invasive” or “imperial” literary self has long been structured by great historical imbalances of power is hardly a novel point; nor is it a remarkable observation that the fictional enterprise has for many writers been fundamentally unethical in regards to ethnic or sexual others.  However what becomes troubling is the book’s insistence on an ethics of literary border crossing and its suggestive proscriptions of literary art.  Again, things like an “invasive imagination” and “discursive domination” are what we praise writers for; they are arguably central to any definition of style.  The act of reading is, after all, a prismatic one: the reader enters into a perverse intimacy with the absent author but also engages promiscuously with the various others created by that necessarily invasive imagination.  In this way, one could argue, literature is fundamentally and necessarily unethical and attempts to render it less so merely mute its anarchic possibilities.

To her credit Shameem Black has not forgotten the absolute centrality of literary fiction to the age-old problem of knowing and representing the other.  It is worth emphasizing here, as per the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that this problem of the other in fact precedes the problem of being.  In fact, they were here first.  It is they who must welcome you (just ask your mother).  Accordingly the book is focused on a number of writers published between 1980 and 2005 (arguably the arc of the “culture wars”) who responded to “the widespread pressure placed on literature to defend its representations of social difference.”  They did so, in her view, “ethically,” which is to say by avoiding those various charges that certain critics began to levy against largely white and male literature.  This was the heyday also of “multicultural fiction” and of novels that transformed the impact of Latin American experimentalism into the marketable clichés of a “magical realism” that made the incommensurable deeply, deeply pleasurable.  Though the critical apparatus that emerged around these works were and are truly valuable in laying bare the silent assumptions of race, sex and colonial power in literary language and their vicious material consequences, there still existed a tendency to render cross-cultural interaction more equitable but also more genteel.  This tendency is strong in Fiction Across Borders and is there in its relentless discussion of the ethics of literary representation.

Also to her credit, the writers she has chosen do not occupy any simple pattern of conventional racial, cultural or sexual differences.  It would have been far too easy and less worth rehearsing the clichéd racial paradigm of white and non-white or, as commonly stated at the birth of post-colonial criticism, “the West” and “the rest.”  Black analyzes writers who cross borders between, say, Asian-American and Jewish identity in the case of Gish Jen; African-Americans and various “Asian discourses” in the case of Charles Johnson’s black slave with fetish for Buddhism and Hinduism; a Japanese housewife and the unpredictable cultural combinations of multi-ethnic America in the case of Ruth Ozeki; the internal and cross-cultural worlds of the Indian Ocean in the work of Amitav Ghosh and Indian novelist Rupa Bajwa.  There are others in this wide-ranging book, including the justly adored Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  His paralleling of the questions of race/immigration with those of sex/gender, for Black sketches a conceptual “middle ground” rife with paradox and multiplicity.  As such, it is argued to be ethical in that it resists or evades modes of literary representation that are deemed to be politically questionable.

Black is good to make clear that despite the hazy and imprecise notions of cross-racial solidarity that riddle academic politics, these border crossings are not quite lateral and are themselves shot through with prejudices and social asymmetries of their own.  But because she so clearly endorses those notions and is primarily on the hunt for so-called “emancipatory practices,” the problems of other-on-other contact are not given the detailed attention that they deserve.  Missing from this admirably researched text are the all too often ignored tensions between “Asians” and African-Americans, South Asians and blacks, not to mention the friction between all of the above and anyone who could even seem to be “middle” or vaguely sexed.   This evasion tends to only strengthen the notion that these “lateral” movements between others are more innocent than the vertical ones between white and non-white.  When these types of tensions do occur in her book, they become subsumed into a celebration of post-modern irony (as in the comic Orientalism of Johnson or the slightly irksome Jewish wanna-be-ism of Jen), or into a larger commitment to political possibility, as in her critical yet ultimately celebratory discussion of “trans-national feminism” in the case of Ozeki.

Other significant writers for Black include Amitav Ghosh, celebrated here for a refusal of distinct style and whose deliberate lack of literary pyrotechnics “proffers an alternative to hegemonic patterns of representational violence.”  Read against other works by Ghosh, her reading of The Glass Palace is remarkably insightful and Black uses it to point out how most of the writers examined in her book “seek to expand rather than constrict the range of options open to the subject under consideration.”  But again, because Black does not pay much attention to the moments when other-on-other interaction fails or reproduces exactly the kind of “representational violence” characteristic of white/non-white, she leaves open the suggestion that in the absence of “the imperial self,” we are left with a world that is more manageable or in fact more ethical.  It is at this point in her argument that one remembers to ask an embarrassingly simple question: whose ethics?  The answer to this becomes clearer when it is discovered that the book is framed by what she calls a “planetary idealism” for which we can read: a world made knowable not by the unholy triumvirate of racism, sexism and imperialism but by an academic culture dead set on rendering cross-cultural contact as necessarily benign if not anodyne.

When we do encounter the master template of racial dichotomies, it is in South Africa and in the challenging work of J.M. Coetzee, who — despite his long-standing suspicion of academic attempts to refine cross-cultural interaction — is defanged long enough to help Black sketch an ethics that could contain him alongside these writers.  The section on Coetzee’s magnificently brutal Disgrace is the book’s most impressive.  It is where Black shows herself willing to engage a writer who explicitly rejects “liberal and comic strategies” of representation and is often willing to equate the liberal desire for ethics and sympathy to absolute evil.  Another way of putting it is that this section is most impressive because Black is writing about a writer whose work is most hostile to her assumptions.  However considering the subject matter of much of Coetzee’s work, it might just be the case that the far more energetic prose of this final section of Fiction Across Borders is due to Coetzee and to what his work does to Black’s need to domesticate it.

We do know that for Black these various techniques of literary representation engaged by these writers are linked to putatively “emancipatory practices.”  This phrase reminds us of the book’s direct participation in a wider world of literary and cultural studies obsessed with spectacular gestures of resistance, emancipation or subversion despite being articulated by scholars far more institutionally compromised than the writers they study.  Such practices link the writers — even Coetzee — to a specific notion of ethics that upon reading Black’s book seems less based on the unique cussednesses of each writer than on an academic climate of literary and cultural studies that operates with a smugness that suggests that the culture wars have been in fact won.  Because, hers is a cast of characters so global and different that it would take an act of “invasive imagination” to argue that they were all ethical in the same way; and to define ethics as necessarily “emancipatory” or resistant is to easily ignore just how dangerously partisan such thinking often is (that, in truth, is Coetzee’s greatest point and why Black’s claiming of “the ethical” often seems slightly prudish).

So the book’s structural weakness is evident in the sheer variety of representational possibilities engaged by each and every writer and the insistence on a partisan notion of ethics masquerading as a “planetary” one.  Because of this variety, their own political differences and downright refusal to be contained by ideological categories become muted.  They are subsumed into Black’s overarching desire for “a new scholarly metanarrative for cultural study,” one that can only seem guided by a singular ethics simply because she continues to describe them as, well, ethical.  And in her quest for “emancipatory practices” and “alternatives to discursive domination” (in short, a literature of contact without friction/difference without offense), Black isolates two conceptual and narrative techniques from the texts: “crowded selves” and “crowded styles.”  The former can be thought of as various methods of narrative self-questioning, of diminishing the “imperial” subject by making it clear that its perspectives are partial and non-dominant in relationship to others.  The latter can be thought of as an acceptance of the social and political impact of multiple others, one that drives social interaction against the will of the narrator and even against the tolerance of author and reader.

These techniques are ultimately Black’s call for writers who attempt to surmount social differences to pair a “sense of permeable identity with self-critical reflection.”  Fair enough.  But these techniques have long been present in fiction and storytelling.  The list of white writers adept at them is longer than one drawn, say, from Robert Browning to William S. Burroughs, or even from Djuna Barnes to John Dos Passos. This isn’t acknowledged in Fiction Across Borders.  To not do so is to suggest that the techniques emerge primarily from “multi-cultural,” post-colonial or minority fiction and to sidestep the question of whether or not “crowded selves” and “crowded styles” are necessarily emancipatory.  One could argue that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness despite being consistently lambasted for its racist/colonial use of the “mirror argument” is also exemplary in its deployment of both of those techniques.  And let’s not even get started on William Faulkner!  In its belabored carefulness and its hyper-ethical politesse, Fiction Across Borders at times seems unhelpful in contemplating writers who understand that we live in a world where conflicts due to differences often occur too quickly to allow such consideration.  These are writers for whom conventional notions of ethics are as much a problem as bad writing (for some an even greater ethical concern).
So though rooted in an admirable sense of social justice, “crowded selves” and “crowded styles” are certainly not innovations; and as techniques of achieving narrative or social parity, their value is hard to discern since they have long been present in works that Black would no doubt agree are unethical.  They precede the “chastening critiques” of “the culture wars” and are here reflective of a desire for literature to be more respectful, less strident and therefore less prone to those productive mistakes that we call innovation.  Humility is perhaps a good word here in that it is what both of these techniques share and demand of critics, readers and writers, particularly those for whom “the other” is either a project or a career.  Yet one can’t help but worry for a literature so hobbled, or a critical intelligence so fearful of causing offense that it tiptoes around some of fiction’s strongest techniques.

It is hard to argue with the fact that racism, sexism, imperialism and other related -isms are embedded in many of the techniques by which we encounter and represent others in fiction; that Black has taken on that core assumption, is to be praised and imitated.  But the reduction of those techniques to racism, sexism, imperialism, etc. was in fact the great mistake of those supposedly “emancipatory” movements and tendencies that emerged in and from “the culture wars.”  Fiction Across Borders may not be the work willing and able to take on that still under-thought legacy; but it is to be thanked for reminding us that after a few generations spent criticizing oppression and institutionalizing that critique it might be time to start deconstructing corresponding notions of resistance, liberation or emancipation.  These ideas all too often move about the world masked by an absolutist language of ethics, just like those forces they emerged to confront and now threaten to become.

Accompany images by Paul Tyree-Francis (in order):
The Mobile Savage, The Beauty of Ease, The Great Debate, The Folly of Foil, and Learning


Related Articles from The Fanzine:

Louis Chude-Sokei on The New Era of Blackface

My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek