There’s a provocative piece on FT.com called “Beyond the Global Novel.” In it, the writer Pankaj Mishra lays out the complexity / irony of the titular subject. Interchanging “global” with “postcolonial”–and challenging American literature’s right to be considered among global novels (on the heels of the Man Booker announcement they would open prize contention to American authors too)–Mishra takes up the argument of novelist Philip Hensher that the diversity of literature emerging from African and Asian authors is only skin deep.
Hensher specifically asserts the Man Booker shortlist panders to North American sensibilities, writing, “Curiously, all these novels, effectively written by American-based authors about exotic places, were unable to do so without placing the exotic places in the reassuring context of an American suburb.” Mishra paraphrases Hensher’s assertion (and calls it an exaggeration): “every writer of non-western origin seems to be vending a consumable–rather than a challenging–cultural otherness.”
Mishra adds in counterpoint, “it would be untenable to deny that there are diverse reckonings with issues of class, race, religion and gender, and a bracingly ambivalent relationship with nationalism and global capitalism, in the work of Nadeem Aslam, Teju Cole, Hisham Matar, Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Damon Galgut, Tahmima Anam, Zoë Wicomb, Laila Lalami, Helon Habila, Aminatta Forna and Pettina Gappah.”
The arguments are at once familiar and surprising.
Familiar in that both assert authority on what the African=Asian=global=postcolonial scribe is supposed to write , and surprising because there is, in 2013, still so much paternalistic concern about what said authors choose to document or imagine. Both Mishra and Hensher fear the bully power they believe the ugly Americans will introduce in next year’s Man Booker race, even as they put their own dukes up, strong arming the idea of what constitutes “meaningful” literature from the postcolonial world.
Mishra and Hensher essentially agree that global literature means something when it “focus[es] public attention on social, economic and political ills”; when it is nationally and historically specific; when it defies the myths and legends supplied by the imperialist power signing the prize check. To follow this strand, literature that is not deemed to perform this function is meaningless.
One of the most frustrating things about being a person–let alone a culture creator and bearer–that does not trace her or his roots to the once sunset-less British empire or “The West” in general is being trapped within a discourse you did not start whose resolution nevertheless has high stakes for your well-being. The patronizing pattern of imperialism is endlessly repeated as the fate of the children of the colonized is decided by bickering superpower parents or their proxies.
Mishra and Hensher mean well. Both aim to protect the children from the parents as it were, but they are patronizing all the same and leave little room for the subversion that emerges from the “apolitical and borderless cosmos.”
Here’s where I get paternalistic and insert my own strand into the discourse.
Subversion takes on many forms and by virtue of its definition requires some stealth. Some African-Americans enslaved in the antebellum United States, for example, broke their tools to undermine productivity on the plantations they were forced to work. Likewise, the novel that does not explicitly (or implicitly) address the “terror of war and the horror of peace” is in effect subverting expectations, daring to preoccupy itself with matters meaningful to itself, challenging Western readers to inhabit a universe that is not familiarly foreign, if that makes sense. Like readers that originate outside of Europe or the US, Western consumers of African=Asian=global=postcolonial literature must endeavor to enter a world that challenges preconceptions, or confirms them. They must exercise the muscle of their imagination and do the work of researching strange phrases and idioms. They must (gasp) separate the baggage of history and politics from the humanity, and put themselves in the characters’ shoes. After all, isn’t the “global novel” a human novel too?
Of course, humanity is never immune from the forces–political, social, economic, religious, et al–that surround it. These factors impart explicit and inadvertent influence and whether the author leads with them or not, they come out. Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, for example, is on its face about a family’s undoing in the wake of the patriarch’s abrupt abandonment, but the context of that abandonment necessitates an understanding of so many immigrant and first-generation experiences including the model minority conundrum, the complex relationship between Africans and African-Americans and immigrants in general, and the pressure to make the sacrifice of emigration “worth it” by attaining financial and professional success.
Likewise, Catherine E. McKinley’s memoir Indigo about her search for the fabric across West Africa, powerfully addresses the tension between the dollar-wielding tourist and the citizens she encounters. What does the visitor owe the strangers that show generous hospitality? What are the paternalistic implications of studying a people and their culture?
Because every work of literature can only offer a sliver of the global story through the prism of the author’s worldview, I would argue that no novel is, in and of itself, “global.” Rather, each work of literature exists within a community of works that collectively presents a global human story from multiple perspectives. But the current discourse is too provincial for that.