Saturday, November 13, 2010

Authors and Influences Meme that Turned into a Race and Literature Rant

The Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who have influenced you and will always stick with you. List the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes, and they don't have to be listed in order of relevance to you...

1. Roald Dahl

2. Edith Hamilton

3. Joseph Campbell

4. Philip Pullman

5. Cristina Garcia

6. Saul Williams

7. Gwendolyn Brooks

8. Kevin Young

9. Frank O'Hara

10. Amiri Baraka

11. Pablo Neruda

12. William Shakespeare*

13. Tennessee Williams

14. Neil Gaiman*

15. Howard Zinn

This list really got me thinking about how few Spanish and Latino writers are on my list, and how angry that makes me. LOLOL. Despite the fact that I'm in a graduate program for writing and literature, I haven't had much opportunity to read for pleasure since high school (this being due largely to my outrageously and deliciously misspent youth and taking twelve years to complete my BA in English). Consequently, I've depended largely on my college and grad courses to inform my reading choices. And I'm sure there are those out there who read voraciously all year round, who can't wait to consume the next page all the time, and I have to admire that kind of enthusiasm. But as far as I'm concerned, the last thing I've wanted to do on my breaks has been to read "literature".

So what makes me angry is this: the fact that in an English major at college that loves to boast its number-14-or-17-English-program-in-the-country (number four in queer lit and number 10 in African American lit, last I checked, which was, I'll grant you, probably three or four years ago) and in two and a half years in a studio/research MFA program (basically meaning we have to take at least three graduate-level literature courses as part of our degree requirements) with a decent enough reputation, I could probably count on one hand the number of times we've studied Latino or Spanish authors. Even in the single English department class I was able to find that would even go near Latino authors (Caribbean Women Writers) only included a few Latina writers, all of whom wrote in English.

And there was the rub for my school. The Department of English, I found out from a professor of mine, had had a huge discussion about including non-American and non-English authors to be taught in the curriculum. It was apparently a major point of controversy. Their conclusion was that they would only include Anglophone literature - meaning literature written in English, in countries where English was either the main/one of the main languages spoken. OK, cool. Now we have post-colonial lit available from South Asia, some parts of Africa, and the Pacific Rim. However, the department would not allow translated works to be included. Meaning no Latin America or Spain, no French-speaking African countries, no Middle East, and sorry, East/Southeast Asia!

So OK, this is the point in the story where people who'd make the argument about language would often come in. "But the name of the department is 'English,' not 'Literature.' It'd be great to be all-inclusive, but the canon of the English language is vast enough without bringing in all these other literatures, which really don't have anything to do with the depth that we're trying to get to with English." What's problematic about this argument is that the translated works of authors from around the world have been influencing English writers since pretty much the beginning of English writing. (Also, plz to see the ancient Romans - if they hadn't included the works of other countries and languages in their studies, they'd barely have had a culture at all.) This has probably never been more true than in the 20th and 21st centuries. I'm sure there are authors who haven't been influenced by Borges, or Lorca, or Márquez, or Neruda in the "English" canon, but to pretend these authors don't really need to be represented in a serious English program is really short-sighted and honestly, kind of latently racist.

In my undergrad, at least, African-American literature was covered. To some extent, my grad program has done some work to that end as well. However (and this is where my "list" comes in), the dichotomy of mainstream American culture has bled its way into my, at least, literary educational experience: the vast majority of conversation is about white people; when race needs to be represented it's by black people; some vague and indistinct hems, haws, and nods are periodically given to the slew of other cultures and ethnicities that go unrepresented and unlearned about. I love African-American lit, I love Af-Am studies, and I don't regret a minute spent learning about either subject. However, there is something wrong with the fact that I know more not only about the literature of white American culture, but also black American culture, than the literature of my own cultures.

(I will note here that poetry classes have always been better about this, in my experience, than fiction classes. Poetry professors will usually at least throw you a Rumi bone and talk about a ghazal once in a while, and there's no way to study 20th century poetry without representing minorities - but again, not usually translated works. Excepted from this are my POCs (professors of color) and the amazing and wonderful and brilliant contemporary poetry professor I had in undergrad. Their curricula were diverse, rich, and challenging.)

But in my case, at least, it can be said that much of the onus of my ignorance lies with me. After all, I could have been reading Latino and/or North African authors on my own time, or taken more Latino/Puerto Rican and Hispanic Caribbean studies classes (which I did, twice) or Middle Eastern studies classes (even though Middle East is an Orientalist/ethnocentric term and largely inaccurate regarding the geographical location of my ethnic origins). But again, I found it really difficult to want to read on my own time when I spent so much damn time reading the rest of the time, never mind working, other classes, and wanting to have a life that existed outside the realm of books and papers and desks. And honestly, I didn't want a degree in Latino or Middle Eastern studies. At the time, I considered them niche fields that would limit my opportunities and preparedness for graduate programs in writing or literature.

In fact, I was right. I already feel ignorant enough in my classes half the time because my focus in undergrad was very heavily on 20th century and post-colonial literature; if I'd majored in Latino studies, I don't know if I would have gotten into the program I did, but I'm certain I would have had a much harder time. I wanted an English major with a history minor, and I'm not sorry I got them, but I am annoyed at the other gaps that have been left in my education.

But then there's the language issue. Casting aside all of these arguments about culture and richness and diversity and the rest, the fact remains that the literatures of these other areas of the world are not written in English, and, after all, the major is in English.

You know, except for Kafka, Nabokov, Yeats, Camus, the Bible - the list of works taught in that English department that have been translated into English from the languages of other countries that happen to be populated by white people goes on and on.

But I guess they're canon, so it's different, right?

It's even more offensive because the exclusion of Latin American literature, especially, from literary "canon" in the United States is, to me, another subtle way in which the US puts itself above Latin America. I think in a lot of ways, America treats Latin American nations like service colonies: they're there to provide resources, maybe occasionally some entertainment (often at their own expense), but never taken truly seriously on an intellectual, cultural, or artistic level. The fact that so many people in academia take this narrow view contributes hugely to the fact that Americans at large are so ignorant of Latino culture and art, because there is definitely a trickle-down effect as far as intellectual respect is concerned, and if the universities snub Latin American achievements in culture and the arts (you know, except for during National We Love Hispanics month, which I don't think is really even a month, but is like, half of October and half of November - I have no idea, I'm in on the lam in Cambridge, Latinos are only allowed in East Boston and part of Jamaica Plain up here), how is anybody in mainstream America supposed to be aware of the value of the contributions of Latinos to the American cultural landscape?

Something really stinks here. I know it's easy to throw around the term "racism" and sometimes, I get a twinge of the sense that I'm just being "angry race girl" - but this isn't really one of them. This isn't only detrimental to me - because I was raised in two other cultures, I at least know enough to recognize the omission of these literatures from my academic studies. The real problem here is for people who've never had any substantial exposure to people of other ethnicities, or their art or culture, who will spend their lives not only less culturally aware and sensitive, but whose lives I truly believe will be a little dimmer without reading some of these amazing works.

Kinda fucked.


  1. There's a lot of truth and good observation here. I see no substantial reasons to limit a curriculum to content written only in English. It seems like common sense to me to draw lessons from wherever and whomever in the world can teach them best. But then I guess we come to the problem that mixing cultures can dilute them — how do you feel about that? There are immigrants who embrace typical American ways of life and conform to society, and those who hang on to their roots more. The difference, of course, is that has more to do with individual choices and not with an institution of chosen curriculum, but the curriculum is something that can shape the cultural landscape. I think it's possible that the more accepting we are of each other's cultures, the less meaning culture will have. Rich culture is something that arises, at least in part, from segregation, be it political, geographical, or religious. I suppose I don't have any finished thoughts, but I'd like to know what you think.

  2. To clarify that last bit, I'm just trying to say that when dealing with a national consciousness, there's a fine line between cultural recognition and assimilation.

  3. And I'm totally thinking of the Borg from Star Trek when I say assimilation.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Ed! As far as dilution is concerned, I think while it's true that part of the richness of culture arises from segregation, I don't think necessarily that a more culturally diverse curriculum runs the risk of diluting the cultures being included - I mean, South America is still going to be South America, and the influences of the US on Latin America, in particular, probably won't be increased by a greater cultural understanding of it by Americans. I think that's largely true of American influence in the developing world, especially. Insofar as American culture is concerned, I mean - I don't know if American culture can be diluted, since American culture has, pretty much since it started, been an amalgam of so many different cultures, I think bringing more knowledge of and interaction with other cultures can only enrich the American artistic and literary landscape, rather than harm it.

    Also, I laughed out loud at the Borg reference. LOLOL.

  5. In some ways, I think our undergrad literary education was the victim of a research university that feels compelled to create an artificial barrier between Comparative Literature and English so that both departments can survive. (To my recollection, you couldn't transfer courses between the two... Maybe that's changed or was different before I was there.) Some of my friends who went elsewhere and majored in English did take classes centering around non-English-language writers. (Doubtful that they were non-white writers, though.)

    Your points are all totally valid, just adding some food for thought, perhaps. I know I'm lucky I (somehow) found Isabel Allende and other Latin American magical realists. I can't explain it, but the way they describe the world feels a lot like the one I live in most days. There are very, very few English-language writers who get it, lol. (What that says about my grasp on reality, aside...)

    Your rant made me laugh a little, though, because I do remember reading in an English class one very short document translated from Spanish: the conquistadors' "El Requerimiento"... Admittedly, not a high point of Latin American/Caribbean literature or history... (Important, yes, but, uh, yeah... lol)

    On a totally different note, why are Shakespeare and Gaiman starred?

  6. I wonder about the Comp Lit thing, and I often feel like I should have majored in it - but then I don't know if I would have taken my poetry classes, since they wouldn't have counted toward that major, and that would have sucked a knob.

    Shakespeare and Gaiman are starred for different reasons I meant to list in the blog; I'm not a particular fan of Shakespeare, but he's definitely influenced me, and is pretty much inescapable as some kind of influence, whether direct or indirect, in Western narrative.

    Gaiman is starred because I was referring specifically to his comic book work and short stories; his novels have always been less exciting to me, except Neverwhere, which was originally made for TV anyway.