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Reading Serendipitously, or the Passing Strangeness of Gulliver’s Travels

Recently I have been teaching Gulliver’s Travels in an undergraduate class—and in the process learning the pleasures of serendipitous reading.

I love teaching Jonathan Swift’s great book, and indeed have written about it in multiple ways (both my first novel and first critical book engage it extensively). What is not to love? Here is a novel—okay, proto-novel—that is at one and the same time hilarious, ruthless, prescient, wrong-headed (see debates over its treatment of women), moral and provocative. It is a brilliant if troubling work, rightly regarded as influential on a host of later writers because of its marvelous feats of imagination and wit. There are many ways to teach such a multifaceted book. I teach it as a furious and in some ways surprising indictment of contemporary Europe, an insider-outsider critique (Swift was an ambitious player in the London literary scene for a time but from colonized Ireland) of a horrific slave-trading, genocidal colonialism that was well underway but had not yet reached its apogee.

Imagine my gratification then when a student in the class, who had acquired an early 1960s edition of the book, showed me a yellowed newspaper clipping she had found within the book’s equally yellowed pages. The clipping is an undated report on John Howard Griffin, a white man who had taken pigmentation-altering drugs as well as colored his skin in order to spend six weeks as a black man in the American south (the clipping does not mention the well-known memoir Black Like Me that Griffin published out of this experience in 1961).

What provoked someone to cut out this newspaper story and file it away in a copy of Gulliver’s Travels? We can only surmise. Scholars have long understood that Gulliver’s Travels explores race and racial ideas. But the conjunction of the newspaper clipping and the book brings to mind a nuance that I have not previously considered. Isn’t Swift’s book really an account of Gulliver’s increasingly tragic desire to, like Griffin, “pass” (as a horse, no less, at the end of the narrative)? Alas for Gulliver, who would rather be a horse than a man! Gulliver serves as a sad caution against the transgression of racial boundaries, or else as a brave invitation. Racial passing is not a simple matter, and certainly not a theme to be exhausted in a brief blog. All I do here is record a reading pleasure—how serendipity makes strange again a book that I thought I knew so well.

Love is Just a Word, and Related Notions from a Life between Languages

A key moment in South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel July’s People depicts the white protagonist Maureen as she is confronted by her black “houseboy” July. Maureen has been displaced from her privilege by violence accompanying the (imagined) end to apartheid. Without warning, July, so re-christened years before by his employers, uses his new found freedom to talk at her in his own language, making Maureen realize with sudden shock her utter ignorance regarding vast areas of July’s life. Instantly, Mwawate, for that is July’s true name, is transformed from transparent familiarity to opaque difference. Maureen is forced to recognize she hardly knows him, that she is only dimly aware of his fears and desires. Language becomes a powerful marker of the chasmic differences between them.

Those of us who, like Mwawate, have lived our lives between languages will recognize this scene. Our conditions may not be as dire as that of Mwawate and Maureen at the end of apartheid, but we will relate to the sense with which Gordimer leaves us at the end of the scene—that languages are freighted with emotions, histories, and ideologies that have their own autonomy, that what we feel and who we are are not separate from the language(s) in which we feel and have our being.

I am not a language relativist—a votary of the notion that languages are irrevocably different. I wouldn’t translate (as I have) if I was; however, while linguistic differences may not be insurmountable, neither will it do to pretend that such differences are inconsequential. Do we envy or pity in the same way in all the languages? Do we laugh in German the way we do in Tamil? Or love in English the way we do in Hindi? How, for example, might this unforgettable Hindi love song from Guide translate into English?

Is the “love” expressed here in Mohammed Rafi’s inimitable voice accessible to non-Hindi speakers? I know I can explain in English, translate if you will, what I feel in this song in Hindi, and that is significant indeed; at the same time explanation and feeling are quite different, aren’t they?

Enough said—love, like hate, is no more and no less than a word. And owning that fact, as Gordimer shows us, is the very opposite of dismissing the significance of love.

The Predator in My Kitchen (Learning about Literature from Kafka)

There was mayhem. In my kitchen. Invisible though it was, I benefited from the mayhem. After all, I had a problem before, and now I have none. I confess. The murderer in my kitchen has taken care of my problem. I’ll admit more even. Cockroaches. That was my problem. No longer, not since a gecko has become my unforgiving enforcer in the kitchen. As far as I can tell, the cockroaches are all gone. The gecko, ruthless in its purpose, has released me from the unhappy prospect of calling the exterminator. No more spraying of pesticides in my kitchen.

I know geckos. I grew up with them. In India, we call them wall lizards. They live behind curtains, picture frames, bookshelves, furniture. Sometimes you enter a room in the middle of the night, switch on a lamp, and catch one frozen on a wall, eyes iridescent in the sudden light. Now a distant relative has found its way into my kitchen here in Honolulu. To my benefit, for I do not fear the gecko. On the whole, I am pleased with the metamorphosis in my kitchen, which has made it unnecessary for me to introduce toxic chemicals into my home.

But what of the annihilated cockroaches? Professor of literature that I am, I think of Kafka and his celebrated short story. Gregor Samsa transformed into an insect. That is what comes to mind. Using his extraordinary gifts, Kafka entered into the condition of an insect, even if only as imagined by a human being. Let us call it trans-species communing through the power of literature.

I cannot resist the prod from sad Gregor, dead at the end of the story like my cockroaches. I have to ask—what is my karmic portion in the mayhem of my kitchen? No meaningful answer to that question is possible right now; or ever, some will no doubt say, finding the question inexcusably absurd. No matter. I’m still glad to have been provoked by Kafka and the (sometimes) redemptive power of great literature—a power that, Kafka shows, does not fear the risky embrace of the ridiculous.

Welcome to My Blog (Notes on Genre, Perhaps)

Better late than never. Better Johnny-Come-Lately than Johnny-Come-Never. Etc. The challenge: to go beyond the cliché.

Therefore: consider the genre of the provisional. Think genre. Think genre as the enemy of cliché. Think genre as an adventurous and unavoidable negotiation between the discipline of form and the freedom of expression. What form? What expression? That is a matter of (some) choice. But no freedom without discipline, no expression without form. Nothing new without something already given.

Think blog as an exercise in life writing—even as a life in writing, through writing. Think blog as the intersection of the literary and the critical, the personal and the quoted, the reinvention of the personal essay, R. K. Narayan and Hazlitt in the twenty-first century (memories of undergraduate classrooms in postcolonial Madras). Think, as resistance to given forms of thinking, the form of other thinkings: yaadhum oore, yaavarum kelir (Everywhere is my home, everyone my kin). That might be the subject for an interesting blog. As might something as topical as the intolerance of censorship in India. Or notes on a childhood in Nigeria. Or the conflicted American-ness of Richard Wright. Or love, in translation. Think the shape of private thought in a public space—reflection as re-citation.

Think brevity, find spontaneity. Perhaps. Write in the perhaps—not always, but as often as possible.

DON’T think what has never been thought before—there is no such thing. Perhaps.

It’s time. It’s been time for quite some time. Welcome to my blog. (Better late than never. The challenge: to go beyond cliché.)