Thursday, November 29, 2007

Anglo-American Literature Presentation, Part II

In the current political environment, Americans abroad are equally as unpopular as they were 135 years ago. An article in the London Telegraph describes Americans as:

“Loud and brash, in gawdy [sic] garb and baseball hats, more than three million of them flock to our shores every year. Shuffling between tourist sites or preparing to negotiate a business deal, they bemoan the failings of the world outside the United States. The reputation of the “Ugly American” abroad is not, however, just some cruel stereotype, but – according to the American government itself – worryingly accurate.”
-Sherwell, P. (2006, April 16). Speak softly, don’t argue and slow down. Telegraph.

Americans themselves remain incredibly unpopular abroad, but does literature still reflect this unpopularity? Or has the literary American abroad changed in the last 135 years?

Along these lines, I also have an interest in Levinas’s theory of otherness. Because Levinas can be rather dense,

“the simplest definition of Otherness [is] anyone or anything that is not me. . . . [O]therness is defined by difference, typically difference marked by outward signs like race and gender. As such, otherness has also been associated predominantly with marginalized people, those who by virtue of their difference from the dominant group, have been disempowered, robbed of a voice in the social, religious, and political world.”
- Onbelet, L. (2000). Imagining the Other: The use of narrative as an empowering practice. McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry.

To explore this topic, I will reference three contemporary, award-winning novels: Fieldwork, Everything is Illuminated, and The Red Passport. Many other novels would work equally as well, but I have limited the scope of this presentation because of time limitations.

Using these three novels (please link to my reviews of each for more information on the novels themselves), I came to several conclusions about the contemporary American abroad. The literature has:

  • An awareness of American cultural imperialism. Although cultural imperialism continues (e.g., the American missionaries in Fieldwork), the literature is aware of both its existence and its damaging effects.
  • American characters who emphasize the otherness of the local characters. For example, Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated tells Alex, his Ukrainian guide, that he should follow his dreams. Alex feels acutely aware that dreams are a possibility for Americans and not Ukrainians.
  • American characters who sense they do not belong in the local culture but blame the indigenous culture for not conforming to American standards. Ironically, it is Fieldwork’s anthropologist—Martiya—who despises the Dyalo tribe she is researching. She lies and manipulates the people into conforming to her American ideals.
  • Some American characters who have a sense of not belonging to the local culture, a sense of otherness. Leslie, an American with Russian heritage in The Red Passport, wants desperately to be accepted by the locals when she moves to Russia. She constantly reminds them of her Russian heritage, that she is one of them. However, the Russians see her only as an American who can never understand what it is like to be Russian. Although American, Leslie feels disempowered by her Russian neighbors.

If anyone actually made it through this excruciatingly long two-part presentation, I would appreciate any suggestions or comments you may have on the topic.


Wanna-Be Lit said...

You are an amazing writer and very deep. No wonder the committee loved you.

Spiro said...

Your combined subject of literature and the other got me thinking about a somewhat related topic: popular American accounts over the last two decades of living with/against the other. I'm thinking of Betty Mahmoody's "NOt Without My Daughter" which continues to draw opinionated and strongly-worded postings on the review site, despote being written in the early 80s. MOre recent accounts are "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and the Kabul Shopkeeper (if Memory serves me right).

Even more interesting to me than portrayals of Americans is the way these American writers represent the other through their work. Betty Mahmoody is the most obvious instance of creating the other in less than flattering terms.

What is your take (if you happen to have one) on the ethical responsibilities of these writers and their readers take up a relation to the other? I am struck by the seemingly inescapable dichotmous thinking that continues with readings of these literary accounts of the American (female) and the other....

Blogger said...

Spiro, I appreciate this well-thought-out response. Since making my presentation, I, too, have been hyperaware of the “cultural imperialism” that persists in American literature. I agree that American writers continue to represent and often misrepresent the “other.” For example, when I recently read The Geography of Bliss, I found many of Weiner’s accounts clouded and prejudiced by his “American” eyes.

Yet, I don’t know how American writers (or Americans in general) can fully disassociate themselves from their Americanisms. Although it pains me to admit it, there are still times in my travels when I automatically assume the American way is the proper and better way.

Ultimately, I’d suggest American writers are ethically responsible to acknowledge their American perspective—to acknowledge their representation of the other is tainted by their own experiences. We can’t escape the dichotomy you mention, but we can admit it.

Again, I appreciate your thoughts and would welcome further comments and ideas on this or any other literary topic.