by Matthew Shenoda
Some years ago I sat amongst a group of people influential in the contemporary literary scene in the United States. As I listened to one of the individuals, (who holds some significant decision-making power in the literary world) speak about a writer that they ‘discovered’ and whose ‘career’ they helped launch, I was struck by the way the narrative was unfolding. I sat curiously listening to this hubris, this Columbusesque narrative, trying to understand the fascination for the speaker to spin such a tale. It so happened the writer at the center of this conversation was no stranger to me, it was someone whom I knew quite well. As the story went on and others around the table congratulated this person for their stellar work in ‘discovering’ this young writer, I couldn’t shake the way this narrative negated significant parts of this writers’ life and lived experiences.
Too often have I heard editors, grant makers, and educators talk about “discovering” this or that writer and too often has that writer been a person of color, often from a country outside of the United States. Is this act of “discovery” a real possibility or is it a hold over from a colonial mentality that shapes the way in which writers of color in particular are still shaped and understood in the present literary landscape?
In US literary narratives, the ‘immigrant writer’ is somehow only fully birthed once they arrive on US soil.
At the core of this telling was not an act of malice or even a conscious sense of power and privilege. The individuals around the table clearly and earnestly appreciated this writer’s contributions to the world, or should I say to their world. You see, as is often the case, this writer they spoke of, as all writers serious about their craft, labored for many years and worked intimately within various communities before they were “discovered.” And where is the room for that reality? For even to say this person is “new” to this landscape is quite different than to claim “discovery,” for newness implies a history, implies a trajectory, implies a mutual relationship as one who is new to a place is also new to the people of that place. But a narrative of discovery seems somehow to negate an individual’s history and experiences. What’s more is that this narrative is doubly damaging to the so called “immigrant writer.” Much like Columbus’ narrative of discovery, this kind of telling negates a person’s indigenaity and community.
In US literary narratives, the ‘immigrant writer’ is somehow only fully birthed once they arrive on US soil. There may be small recollections of their terrible pasts in their home country, but their real moment of virtue and dare I say, freedom, only happens once they are “discovered” in the United States. All this to say that the things they have written, taught, been taught, or cultivated in their home nations are largely negated. They are born anew in this land of plenty and as such are ripe for assimilation by those in power. Their contribution to the literary ethos of the United States seems ancillary to the fact that “we” have given them so much. There is in this power dynamic an uneasy sense of ownership and indebtedness. Rarely is it that those who control the literati of this nation recognize that they would in fact be lesser had it not been for those writers widening and helping re-imagine the ways we understand literature, and frankly, life in this country.
My goal here is to roughly sketch just some of the issues that arise when we engage this topic, in hopes that a conversation can ensue amongst my fellow writers and readers of contemporary literature. By no means are my comments here meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive, but rather a primer to think about how we have an obligation to continue to engage literature in the 21st century.
If we read the same books, journals, and magazines, frequent the same virtual, cultural, and institutional spaces, we significantly hinder our ability to accept a world that is much wider in breadth, taste, and significance than the one we inhabit.
To begin with we must unpack what I will call the affliction of parochialism, a reality all too common in literary (especially poetry) circles. This affliction is defined foremost by an inability to see outside of one’s self, one’s own confines, geographies, institutions, regions, and nation. Because writers too often affiliate with other writers, to be struck by this affliction is easier than one might think. If we read the same books, journals, and magazines, frequent the same virtual, cultural, and institutional spaces, we significantly hinder our ability to accept a world that is much wider in breadth, taste, and significance than the one we inhabit. We talk too commonly of a global age, or global literatures, but few embody such a reality. Instead, we occasionally allow “others” entry into this world and rarely venture outside of it ourselves, and this is the fundamental problem.
Not only is this an issue for the writer in question, but also for the reader, editor, grant maker, educator, etc. This kind of narrative puts the responsibility of a global reality on those from “other” places and rarely implicates, challenges, or educates the largely white members of the literary power structure in the U.S. Rarely is the editor challenged to have to engage in the home communities of these writers they “discover.” Rarely are they held accountable to understand the roots and antecedents of these writer’s aesthetics and literary traditions. Rarely are they called to rethink, realign or question their own tastes, interpretations, and aesthetic leanings. This reality creates a sorely uneven “global literature” where one group is indeed global and the other an apprehensive tourist given the power to shape their literary tourism as they see fit, never forced to face a rainy day on their perfectly curated literary vacation; always orchestrating how the world we all live in will be defined.
The Guyanese reggae band Arkaingelle sings in one of their tracks a simple summation of this predicament: “justice for all, not just those in the United States.” Once we abandon our nationalistic sense of literature and begin to question our own assumptions about literature, notions of taste, craft, and aesthetics only then will we begin to approach a true and equitable global literature.
*The quote comes from the Burning Spear track, “Columbus,” first released on the album Hail H.I.M. (EMI, 1980)
Matthew Shenoda is the author of the books Somewhere Else; Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone; and the forthcoming Tahrir Suite. He serves on the Editorial Board of the African Poetry Book Series and is Associate Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. For more information visit: www.matthewshenoda.com
Read the rest of the Pigeonhole or Portal series here: