The Culture vs Literature Binary and Its Effect on Racialized Works in the Literary Canon

In her piece Thinking its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, Dorothy Wang touches upon a myriad of topics in relation to the presence of neo-colonialism in the language used by Marjorie Perloff and associated scholars in her 2006 MLA address. In this address, Perloff explains that the fall of literature is to be blamed on the over concern with culture, and readings by and about racialized individuals. She explains that this “over concern” is detrimental to the students who want to read without any “lines” being drawn between subcultures and minority experiences. This belief, is not only silencing but incredibly damaging, as it implies that racialized, or texts about racialized individuals and cultures are not “real” or “worthy” to be included in the literary canon. In fact Perloff also goes on to say that such texts make up too much of the standard reading curriculum for post-secondary students; a statement that is almost ridiculous in its untruth, but also prompts the question: so what? Dorothy Wang encapsulates this “so what?” with her questioning as to just why there needs to be a separation between “culture” and “literature”, and the detrimental effects of this separation that these scholars seem so eager to push. Using Wang’s introduction piece of Perloff’s address, I will also be discussing similar issues from the point of view of the main character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story Jumping Monkey Hill from her novel The Thing Around Your Neck. I will explain the ways in which this “either-or” mindset is damaging, not only in literature but to racialized individuals through an analysis of the main character Ujunwa, and the struggles in identity that she faces as an African woman who seems to have to constantly prove her own identity in a white Westernized world. Doing so will help me to establish a connection on the importance of texts that delve directly into the space between passion and literature, and in doing so support Wang’s disapproval of Perloff’s address, and the concept that literature cannot exist without culture, and more importantly racialized identity.

     While recounting the ideas addressed by Perloff, Wang makes the unfortunate, though truthful statement about how “identity” has become a dirty word when discussing literature, as it edges awfully close to discussing the lived experiences of those who are not famed white authors. In support of Perloff’s address, Stathis Gourgouris states that literature has “abandoned self-interrogation” to “hop on the high-horse of identity politics” (Wang, 2013). This statement is problematic, as it not only implies that identity politics is a fad of sorts for people to “hop on”, but it dismisses the fact of identity politics (of racialized individuals) as important to the world of literature at all. This, however is contradictory, as Gourgouris, who advocates for a “truer form of interdisciplinarity”, has already disproved himself, as what can be “truer” than the human experience?

     A similar mindset is shared with the character of Edward in Jumping Monkey Hill, who is holding an African writers workshop, and had a near obsession with what he believed to be the authentic “African experience”. Edward as a white man told these African writers that their stories about same-sex love affairs and breaking the glass ceiling in the work place were not “real” African stories – implying the divide between racialized texts, and “normal” texts written by white authors. His way of thinking is damaging in more than one way, but connects with Perloff (and Gougouris) in the way in which he emphasizes a divide, that is not necessary to be there at all. As stated earlier, one may believe that the point to Wang’s rebuttal of Perloff lies solely in the question: why? More specifically why is there a divide at all between racialized texts, and those of white authors? Why are there literary restrictions enforced to certain groups of people, and why is identity politics such a scorned concept to be considered in literature?

     Wang answers this simply: “In other words, scholarly over concern with the cultural, including the political – dismissed as unspecified ‘anxieties’ and ‘prejudices’ – has seduced serious literary scholars away from the proper study of the literary” (Wang, 2013). It can be said, however, that concerning themselves with literature about these “anxieties” and “prejudices”, is evolving the world of literature, to understand works outside of the typical Eurocentric bubble, and extending the same academic respect and study as these “true” works. To do so, will not, as the critics seem to imply, take away from literature, but add to it. The stubbornness at the very threat of changing what constitutes as literature, or even the near-constant search for things that are a detriment to it, proves that perhaps the world of literature is due for a re-vamping, as the distinguishing between racialized and non-racialized writers (which is what is strips down to), can be viewed as petty semantics.

     Wang also takes on terms such as “identity politics” within this context, and call them out as merely straw-man theories: “…what is explicitly stated is what is not stated, what does not need to be stated, or what needs to be stated only by short hand: ‘identitarian’, ‘identity politics’, cultural’…”(Wang, 2013). What Wang does here, is call these terms out for what they really are: placeholders. They act as “politically correct” stand-ins for beliefs and assumptions that have suspiciously more to do with removing anything that causes social unrest (see: racism) from what is considered literature, and furthermore blaming the plight of current literature on works of writing that contain such content. Seeing as though this content is true to the human experience, it can be fair to say that Perloff’s arguments might have a lot more to do with the exposure of racialized writers, rather than the “truth” that she is so intent on striving for.

     Another take that Wang has on Perloff’s lament of “purely literary” (see: racially occlusive) writing being overshadowed and replaced by works by minority writers, is the implication that to have racialized writers included in school curriculums at all, is a part of some skewed affirmative action, in order to fill a “racial quota” to appease minority students and professors. This further implies that the sole purpose of these works even being included at all, has nothing to do with their merit as nuanced and beloved works of literature, but to prevent a backlash at the stagnancy of the reading list. This is incredibly disappointing, as it would be assumed by now that many racialized writers have already earned their merit, but are now subjected to neat, preconceived categories of: African American literature, Asian American literature, and the like, without being dissolved into the naturally diverse category of literature as a whole.

     The root of Perloff’s statements (unbeknownst to her) lies in her social and political privilege in the class system. In fact, that seems to be the one factor that no other scholar seemed to take note of in this discussion between what is thinly veiled to be culture versus literature, but can be plainly seen as racialized works versus non-racialized works. Wang speaks about Steve Evans, and his claims that “…commodity dictates that nothing appear except under the aspect of identity – even progressive demands for the recognition of ethnic, linguistic, and sexual difference are converted into identity claims and sold back to the community” (Wang, 2013). In this, Evans claims that late capitalism is to blame for the commodification of “ethnic difference”, but he still manages to skirt around the fact that these “ethnic differences” are part of a lived experience, which still has very much to do with the world of literature. The ability to skim over subjects such as race relations by blaming it on capitalism (not exactly the newest move), points directly to Evans, and in turn, Perloff’s position on the social hierarchy. As their lived experiences does not coincide to those of racialized individuals, then it is not possible to understand – perhaps a reason why racialized texts are important in the first place. Furthermore, this also makes it simple for such texts to be demonized and silenced under the forbidden category of “identity politics”.

     The frustrations at being caught within one’s own authenticity, yet not conforming to narratives that white people (or other non-racialized people) find comfortable – hidden under the guise of words such as: “true” and “authentic”, in this case –can be further proved by the character of Ujunwa in Jumping Monkey Hill. As mentioned earlier, the character of Edward proved to be incredibly silencing in his hunt for what he believed to be a “true” African story – similar to the obsession with “true” forms of literature that have nothing to do with real human experiences. The similarities between Edward and Perloff and the like, continue on to their indifferences regarding their privilege as non-racialized individuals. In this way it makes it easy for them to demand “true” and “authentic”, and be able to pick away the parts that they do not deem necessary. However, as previously discussed, this translates as incredibly silencing to minorities, and can be encapsulated in this part of the story: “‘This whole thing is implausible’, Edward said. ‘This is agenda writing, it isn’t a real story of real people’. Inside Ujunwa, something shrank”(Adichie, 158). In this part of the story, Ujunwa reads her story to the group, and is met with wonderful reviews except from Edward, who insists that her story (which turned out to be a personal anecdote) was not “real” enough, in his perceived context of what he thought it meant to be African. It is worth noting as well, how through all the positive feedback that Ujunwa just received, Edward’s was the most prominent, and the most silencing.

      This can be seen as a representation of what this silencing looks like. Perloff’s suggestions to remove racialized authors, or texts containing identity politics does just that to both author, and the student. She implies that removing such will enrich the experience of the student who wants to study “true” literature, but by removing such works, makes literature significantly less “true”.

     In conclusion, when it comes to something as ubiquitous and subjective as writing, it is incredibly difficult to decipher the “good” from the “bad”. However, when it comes to authenticity, things are able to get a little clearer. The fact is that the “authentic”, or “true” literary experience, should not be presented in a binary. There should not have to be a divide between “culture” and “literature” in the context where one damages the other. While the terms by no means have to be mutually exclusive, understanding the ways in which racialized texts, and the experiences of visible minorities are in fact a part of “true” literature, can be a step in the right direction for the ever-lasting struggle of racialized individuals and their art, to be a part of “normal” culture.

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. The Thing Around Your Neck. Alfred A.Knopf, 2009. Web.

Wang, Dorothy. “Introduction. Aesthetics Contra “Identity” in Contemporary Poetry Studies.”   

Thinking its Presence:Form, Race, and Subjectivity in ContemporaryAsian American Poetry.

      Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.1 – 29. Print.