Monday, August 22, 2011

Salman Rushdie and the Ethics of Multiculturalism

A couple of days ago I stumbled across an article in Jadalliyya (a phenomenal ezine run by the Arab Studies Institute) celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The article was half critical reading of the book/exploration of its varied themes and devices, and half reflection on the impact that Rushdie's work has had on the way Western academics, teachers and general readers view multicultural lit. While applauding the 'cultural turn' in academia, the author, Anthony Alessandrini, worries that the commendable Western drive toward 'inclusivity' actually encourages teachers and students of non-Western literature to read in less-than-ethical ways. The pressure to fairly and equally represent cultures not one's own can cause real anxiety for those readers determined to create a 'multicultural' TBR list or syllabus. I ran into this problem last winter when asked to put together a reading list for an "Introduction to Multicultual Literature" course for first year students-- what writers and texts do I include? Do I try to take a longitudinal study that covers as many areas of the globe/cultural experience as possible? Or do I try for more depth and read multiple works from one or two areas? Am I doing violence to groups that I 'leave out'? How do I fit 'World Literature' into one semester?!

Alessandrini argues in his article that the anxiety I faced last year is the result of an insidious reading practice that he calls "one-of-eachism." He describes the practice as follows:

This is a way of reading in which an individual book is given a sort of representational status, asked to stand in for a particular country or culture or group. One-of-eachism, in other words, is the process by which an individual novel, in any of the limiting contexts I’ve described above, comes to be considered not as a novel from India but as the novel from India — or, in other cases, the novel from the Caribbean, or the novel from Africa, or the novel from “the Islamic World,” and so on. This is rarely a conscious or premeditated move, but rather a process that evolves through the actions of various publishing, translating, reviewing, and teaching institutions (not to mention the literary award circuit).

Alessandrini's major concern with this practice (one that I 120% share with him) is that it dangerously misrepresents the relationship between literature-- particularly fiction!-- and history. Literature is not intended (I believe) to give a reader "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" about the people, cultures, geographies and eras it discusses, rather literature is a vehicle for exploring possibilities and for opening up histories and futures that may or may not have any place in the cut-and-dry truth of the world's experience. Literature gives us an opportunity to interrupt and interrogate history-- to play with its vagaries and its boundaries. Mistaking a novel for a (or, worse, as the) reference book for a region or people is a dangerous and, I'd argue, an unethical act.  

I'm reminded at this point of a humorous anecdote Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie often tells about the dangers of "Single Stories." She recalls that at a book signing for her first novel-- Purple Hibiscus-- a young Mid-Western American girl comes up to her and gushes about how much she loved the book before leaning in close, dropping her voice, and commenting that it was "so sad to hear that Nigerian men beat their wives." It was true that there was a wife-beating Nigerian man in the novel, but Adichie was surprised and concerned by the girl's movement from specific literary example to broad historical  generality. To counter this, Adichie responded that she had just finished reading American Psycho and that it was such a shame that all American young men were blood-thirsty serial killers. The American girl had a single story of Nigerian life (Purple Hibiscus, for her, was the Nigerian novel/history) but-- luckily!-- American Psycho was not the only narrative of American life available to Adichie!

In his article Alessandrini argues that Rushdie's Midnight's Children offers a reading practice that may help us avoid falling into the narrow traps of "one-of-eachism" and "literature-as-historical-referenceism." He sums up his argument by drawing on the language of Rushdie's narrator:

Early on, Saleem tries to prepare us for what is to come in his tale: “there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!” “I have been a swallower of lives,” he warns us, “and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well.” This call to multiplicity, the demand to attend to the many stories inside each individual story (especially the stories of those who have been dispossessed and forgotten), can, I think, provide a potent antidote to a pervasive way of reading non-Western literature


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