Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writers Like Who? Me, You?....Black Like Who? Black Like Where?

Note(19 July): After getting some feedback on this post, I realized I hadn't made clear the intent of the multiple queries which appear subsequent to my Oyeyemi discussion. I've made some edits which appear in green.

I've been doing a lot of commuting lately. Normally I do research on the train, but on the last two trips I opted to take 22-year-old wunderkind Nigerian-British writer Helen Oyeyemi's recently published second novel, The Opposite House (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). I'm only half-way through. (pictured left, Helen Oyeyemi)

Don't you hate it when people write about books before they've finished them?

Yes, me too. And I just listened to NPR Book Critic Maureen Corrigan's confession of having raved to a crowd in a bookstore about an author's book after only getting 66.6% of the way through. You guessed it, the last 33.33333...% filled her with chagrin as endless as that repeating decimal (sorry, I couldn't resist).

But I am writing this as a note to myself; anyone else who might happen to read it will just have to take my opining with a grain of salt.

There I was in the train with the greenery rushing by feeling like I was reading something that seemed so familiar to perhaps the way many black writers in the U.S. are forging stories, in fact quite similar to that of a black women's writing group former colleague of mine whom I've lost track of, but I hope is still writing: poetic, stream of consciousness, non-linear, layered, episodic. No, this isn't an "hey, I could've done that!" post. It's a post about how sometimes people have to make their own inroads into a form in order to be able to employ it for their own needs--shred it, rip it apart, re-order it, change the definers of its traditional elements (what is a protagonist? What is time? What is place?) while maintaining others so as to get the audience to trust the author's authority enough to follow him/her...illuminated breadcrumbs for the unlit path.

Thinking about Martha Southgate's recent assessment of the state of African American literary fiction and its writers in her New York Times Book Review article, "Writers Like Me," which I've noted in this blog previously. Not surprisingly, if electronic anecdotal evidence is to be believed, African American writers and writers groups from across the country are widely circulating and discussing Southgate's depiction of economically cautious writers facing starting their careers later in life (if at all), publishing houses more concerned with the bottom line than publishing literary works from a culturally diverse array of talented U.S. writers, editors with an unfortunate lack of cultural literacy when it comes to African American life, and traditionally monochromatic professional networks.

As for Oyeyemi's novel, so far brilliant--she makes very hard work look quite easy, and has an incredible eye for small details that create devastatingly poignant characterizations, quite interesting pacing as well, as she's spinning two different narratives with distinct, but related rhythms. (pictured left to right: Helen Oyeyemi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Aminatta Forna at AFRICAN VISIONS 2005 Think Africa: A Festival of African Literature, Culture and Politics; photo by Rousha Browning)

While the train clogged past the scenery this thought popped into my head: "we were born in the wrong country to be black writers."

But then I thought of the cultural centrism of which African Americans have been accused lately, by both African American writers and recent immigrants of African descent who don't want to be lumped into a mass African American or black American identity. Although I wasn't thinking of Oyeyemi as "black like me," I realized that what was being embraced about her work, as per usual for trans-national folks, is this narrative of displacement which is primarily told through the struggle of the individual to find a place of belonging. In The Opposite House, it's told through the struggle of two individuals whose contexts give a sense of the communal that is elemental in notions of "community" and/or "culture." However, each of those two characters are isolated from each other and seemingly from those around them, by a thin membrane richly diffused with self-doubt, anxious nostalgia, intangible loss, self-censoring silence, the otherworldly and even vague ennui buffers and impedes their ability to consistently connect with others including family and friends--one character, an "Orisha emissary" is altogether without friends, and barely has family; her ancestral spirits are both her strength and her bane. These immigrant narratives of displacement used to be referred to with the line, "y'know, it's a New Yorker story." The magazine, not the state of mind.

In The Opposite House, there's a wonderful re-occurring motif of hysteria, it becomes its own character and more substantive than Freudian metaphor, its frequent visitations mark the dissonance between the moment when young women feel most compelled to speak and they are simultaneously most oppressively silenced. In the NPR interview I linked to above with Oyeyemi's name, it is one of African American journalist Michel Martin's favorite elements and she speaks to Oyeyemi about this, and asks her to read a passage which describes this character.

Why does this, often intergenerational, tale of displacement prove so popular? Well, what's key about these novels is that the struggles are internal, they are not the en masse struggles of a community or culture. But how could one write about these issues in wholistic terms? Why would one? However, the disquieting result of the protagonist centric storytelling is while an author avoids a reductive flattened portrait of "a people," as well as the worst pitfalls of the so-called "social protest novel" an author, particularly if s/he chooses to work in Western narrative forms, has to conform and/or confine the story to one, maybe two, lead characters, or a protagonist and an antagonist. Really, what I mean to say is that we get one point of view at a time, but the reality of dealing with the various communities in which African Americans exist and negotiate, sometime simultaneously in one day, is there is always more than one point of view happening; overlapping micro and macro narratives and often people inhabiting those multiplicities have a conscious sensation of that experience.

I do think that Oyeyemi captures this sensation more effectively, viscerally and mentally, than much of what I have read as of late. But, admittedly I haven't been reading much recent traditional literary fiction by African American writers. Why? Hmm... I guess I've been frustrated. I didn't even realize that Victor LaValle ( Slapboxing With Jesus, The Ecstatic) needed Martha Southgate to put him on an overlooked African American writers list she assembled to accompany her New York Times article, until I saw his name (the Queens, New York native LaValle, by the way, is part Ugandan, on his mother's side).

It's curious that Oyeyemi has recounted that when she was writing her first novel, The Icarus Girl, she did not consciously think of herself as writing a novel. Not until after sending what she thought was a short story to a new literary agent, Robin Wade, to get his advice on her writing style. Oyeyemi "wanted him to take me seriously, so having only written about 20 pages, I told him I’d written 150 pages and would finish the novel soon!" Wade told her he'd burnt his toast reading those first pages, requested more, and that he wanted to represent her. She famously completed the novel while studying for her A-levels (make or break secondary school final exams/college entrance requirements), and inked a two-book deal with Bloomsbury.

This got me thinking about the romance that some scholars and literary people in the U.S. have with the post-colonial. It has also been an area popular with U.S. activists who would focus on justice in Latin America while ignoring the race-based inequalities in their own neighborhood (sometimes right across the street). But the romance of the reader with the solitary post-colonial émigré protagonist allows for a mystification of both the larger issues that initiated that immigration, and the socio-political relations with the colonizing country. In The Opposite House, Oyeyemi's characters are Cuban émigrés the child who was born there has barely a handful of memories, and the parents who left have an ambivalent relationship with Castro and the revolution not the issues of injustice that led to that upheaval. Fortunately, for the U.S. publisher, Nan A. Talese, the relationship to the U.S. doesn't figure in the story at all. This is the problem of course for U.S. publishers considering African American work, the discomfort with the figuring of the U.S. in the story. And not some vague shadowy Uncle Sam, but neighbors, teachers, bosses, the easy cruelty and hostile indifference of white children whose portraits perhaps seem a little too close to home.

On the train I thought about whether it would be more palatable to those publishers, and perhaps the marketing department What if black writers could write about displacement, anxious nostalgia, hysteria, ambiguous loss and identity in a manner that didn't stick a narrowed finger to a longstanding civil wound? Would that allow us more publishing opportunities? If we could talk about our displacement as something that happened "over there" or in the distance traveled between "over here" and "over there?" If we each were, or each had an ancestor who was, implicated by the agency of choice in our legacy of mass migration to this country, wouldn't that be different? If each of us had an "over there" that we in operable theory could go back to; it might be a bombed crater instead of the house or village we or our parents knew, but we'd know the name of the streets, or what their names used to be, or that of the man or woman who used to sell our favorite________ from a cart in the street, and the woman or man who got "too much of the white man's education 'over there' in the land of the ghost-devil," so they came back not quite right but everyone helped them by having their children take piano lessons from them, even if the parents could only pay with food, or hemming faded "ghost-devil land" suits and thinning dresses.

But ancestrally, I mean the language that issues from the marrow, black writers were brought to the colony, and colonized, or is it that we were colonized and then brought to the colony? Whichever, it is about the colony and colonization that we write, past, present, and future--even if just marginally, even if the sentiments are embossed as fog, the faintest palimpsest. I sometimes think that when we write, when we insist on doing so, the reading of those words touches some secret wound in the elite that guards the gates to the printed word. Those words weren't supposed to be for us. We weren't ever supposed to be able to tell our stories. We weren't ever supposed to know that the labor of our ancestors bought our progress, the crowns of Baldwin's famous quote, but they also bought the iron, and ornamental welding that bends and arcs that metal into the beautiful and intimidating demarcation of "inside" and "outside" of, to get Bourdieuan, "taste" and "tastelessness." Slavery, desegregation busing, segregation, redlining, are not topics for "polite conversation." When inside those rarified rooms some white person speaks wistfully of what it would have been like to live in the days of X or Y author, I've often realized that many white people have conveniently forgotten Jim Crow, or the reason why there are American Associations of ____ and National Associations of ______ , because the former professional organizations racially excluded African Americans and so African Americans formed the latter. The irony being that when the former ended its racist policies the National institutions experienced brain drain. If we were to create a speculative fiction of our post-colonial situation analogous to that of African-British, African-French, Caribbean-British, Caribbean-Dutch, Indian-British, writers, could we count those "American" organizations as Were those our little countries? Were they our small, under-developed nations from which we migrated after various layerings of U.S. domestic policy (as opposed to multi-national Western foreign policy) and the unexpected challenges of having achieved integration (as opposed to national independence) exhausted us? Left us searching for a better life, a place of peace, if only in our own homes after we turned the key in the lock?

Ah (insert wistful sarcasm here), if only black writers could write about that place as though it were another country that did not potentially implicate every white person (none of whom would be of our "nation"): the white person who created a breeze as they hurriedly passed an inch away from us on the way to the pharmacy, or to pick up their child from daycare; the white person with whom we unintentionally, but nonetheless intimately, shared a breath on a crowded subway, or a packed concert, calling out the praises of a beloved musician.

In the U.S. South there are times when blacks and whites are practically up underneath each others' skin. This is a tangible sensation in the South, but it is not isolated to the South. It is a particular and a peculiar institutional legacy. To be clear here, I'm not talking about sexual violence during slavery and the children who were thusly conceived. I am talking about centuries of trafficking in bodies, of incarcerating care and circumscribing emotional display in ways that meant that bodies that did not own themselves were forced to care for, feed, bathe, wash the "unmentionables" and play dumb to the secrets of, provide mothers milk for, bodies that did own themselves and owned these supplying bodies and it was at their will that these bodies were allowed to give or not to themselves or their kin (time, love, water, plaiting of hair, washing of feet). And of course these bodies were people, not property, not a social problem, not incarceration data, not asthma or HIV-serio conversion numbers. They were flesh and blood layers of humaness: humane, troubled, morally upright, morally ambiguous, loving, seething, despairing, insane, joyful (maybe not by our standards), or perhaps at any given moment all of the above.

All that ambiguity of identity and intimacy still characterizes a tender-fleshed place in this country's history. Why else do predominantly white cast movies still include the lone Magic Negro character? Do white people with power and the audiences to whom they call themselves catering, still want Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to make it all better with some witty homily, and do it with a smile that denies any desire that Aunt or Uncle would rather be giving that wisdom to a daughter or a nephew, or their own selves? I don't know if the commercial publishing industry as it now exist really wants to invest in U.S. black literary writers who have found new ways to tell about the membranes, the scrims, the unique layers of fleshy torque, digestive tract wreath, neurological circuitry, etc., of this America, of this American history. Do you?

Endnote I: Oyeyemi is on her way to Columbia University to get an MFA in Creative Writing. Why? Because she wants to teach creative writing. That does tell you something about the economics power and authority in the literary world. I'm not saying there's nothing to be gained by getting an MFA, but the classic reason given is the desire to better one's writing (when you're getting rave reviews from the NYTBR, the Washington Post, the Guardian UK and your first novel, The Icarus Girl, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize it could be argued, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"). Oyeyemi may not have a lot of years behind her, but she understands the dynamics of power and institutions: she's young, a woman, black (even if a London-raised British accented Nigerian is a more palatable embodiment of blackness in the U.S.), scary-brilliant, soft-spoken with a high-girlish tone of voice--though it is often weighted by the headiness of her considerations--getting the MFA stamp will make her life a lot easier.


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