Monday, 22 October 2012

De-Exceptionalizing American Literature: The Un-Monroe Doctrine

In my career long scheme to de-exceptionalize "American Literature" into "Global English," the first public gesture was the seminar I organized at Beaver College in 1978 with future Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, black Brown University professor and poet Michael S. Harper, and Rex Nettleford, the soi-disant Thomas Jefferson of Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. We set out to terminate the “we protest too much” uniqueness of American Culture by introducing American literature teachers to their global cousins.

I explained to my guests how at the First Negro World Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal in 1964, I breached this subject of Common Weal with Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes. It was simple enough: stretch the U.S. Canon by slyly introducing first black American Lit, followed by the analogous but disgracefully underknown white Appalachian Lit. Before we could convince teachers that they were unnecessarily ignorant of their English speaking and writing counterparts in the six other continents, they should become ashamed of their hometown anonymities.

I had recently been visiting forbidden Cuba (remember the Jimmy Carter broadmindedness in the late seventies?),Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti and San Domingo .Not the least of my late enlightenments was how imperially and falsely we had abused these nearby neighbors. Our City on the Hill complex needed revision, if not utter destruction. I had played a new Wole Soyinka film at the Commonwealth Educational Conference in Lagos Nigeria in 1966, urging the creation of a global film library of literary first takes on all the English-speaking Commonwealth countries. 

Needless to explain, that we Amies had a lot to learn from the “biggies” like Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—not the least of which expansion would lessen our hubris by seeing what the “new” Commonwealth countries like Nigeria were achieving with the likes of Chinua Achebe.

So I was always on the lookout for new titles that would at the very least instruct us in the uniqueness of their views of our shared global culture. The tense was future: trying to share with “strangers” what we all must share, willy nilly, in a tremendously precarious future, both good and bad, the way serious literature uniquely informs us about the singularities of our common predicaments. So imagine my recent excitement to learn about a new young writer from the Dominican Republic, currently a professor of creative writing at no less a university than M.I.T. In my shallow science awareness, I was pleasantly surprised and could hardly wait for interlibrary loan to deliver Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber and Faber, 2008).

First the brief and not so wondrous career of Junot Diaz. Born in Santo Domingo, the DR capital. graduate of Rutgers, M.A. in Fine Arts from Cornell. His first book, a collection of short stories, ”Drown”, was described by Hermione Lee in Britain’s “Independent on Sunday” as a dazzling talented first book.” And he got a Pulitzer Prize and American Book Critics Circle Award for “Oscar Wao.” (Not from me he wouldn’t have!)

Oscar as a person is the most disgusting loser I have encountered in almost a century of compulsive reading. And the book begins and ends with this fat, sloppy Sci Fi freak would-be, trying mostly unsuccessfully to get laid—until he moves next door to a retired whore “in love” with a cop. There is much (much too much) trash about the sexual gifts of the run of the bed Dominican.( Oscar, the author unendingly reminds us, would get no Oscars for his equipment!) 

When he finally “scores” with her, the whore’s cop sics his colleagues after him to beat him to a pulp in a cane brake which is the favorite venue for dictator Trujillo’s thugs to delete unhappy constituents. In the middle of the “novel” (it’s more like a collection of short stories about the educational sorties of his relatives that are never properly separated—a new genre of run-on short stories!) Now I really want to know the history of Trujillo’s decades long dictatorship as well as American collusions and destructions thereby. 
But Diaz has devised the shtick of almost unreadable footnotes that suddenly appear erratically when Diaz briefly gets” serious”. ( I got more of the details of historical significance from the Wikipedia!) And there are so damn many Spanish phrases, even sentences, interpolated to sustain his ironic poses toward “the Plot”! It’s a verbal tic, simulating seriousness. He is especially enamored of the term fuku, accent grave on the second “u”. Sometimes it seems to mean “fate” (inordinately and universally bad-- in his family), or crudely, “fuck you” for no observable ( by me) significance. Except to give a phoney seriousness to an absurdly “unserious” plot. 

And there are so many made up or at least un-dictionaried Hispasms that I wanted to hit him over the head with my temporarily useless “Spanish Dictionary: An Amsco School Publication”, 1968). The Guardian bleats on the front cover (which features a mindless Oscarless kid surrounded by toys and comic books: “Exotic, original and spirited, it’s written with huge energy and heart.” And no visible brain! It’s “wondrous” that it ever got published, as is. Not to puzzle too deeply over those multiple awards. “Drown”, alas, is already on its interlibrary way. I hope he swims better in smaller pools.

This piece has been published by Broad Street Review.

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