literature

Why Naipaul Is Not Great: A True (non-Kantian) Appraisal of a Literary Career Now Ended

I first read Naipaul in Malaysia as a teenager. I would check out his books from the library of the club to which my family belonged. I recognized the world that Naipaul described in early books like A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street, though I had never been to Trinidad, from where Naipaul hailed. I had grown up in Nigeria and India, before coming on a prolonged visit to Malaysia, where my family was then living. Naipaul’s fictional world was sort of Hindu, yes, but what made it recognizable was the perceptive treatment of ambition in the midst of postcolonial scarcity. This theme of desire confounded by material circumstances is universal and early in his career—very early in his career—Naipaul explored it with some insight.

Young as I was, I recognized the postcolonial aspects of Naipaul’s theme from having lived in so many places. Even then, though, something about his fiction was disquieting. I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India. What I was drawn to in these other writers, I recognize now, was their more compassionate plumbing of that same theme of ambition amid constraint. I say this even though there is room for misunderstanding—after all, Achebe is nothing like Narayan and compassion is often regarded as being opposed to truth (it is not).

In comparison to Achebe and Narayan, Naipaul is routinely applauded by his admirers for being uncompromisingly honest about the varied “Third World” locations (Trinidad, Uganda, India, Iran) on which he poured scorn. This “honesty” is a tiresome defense of Naipaul’s reprehensible causticness, and since I have written about all three writers extensively in my criticism and literary journalism over the last twenty years I will forego saying more here. But here’s the truth I know: Naipaul was in his writing an Islamophobe, a racist, and a misogynist.

In his early writing, whether because Naipaul was dissimulating or because he was genuinely less doctrinaire, his prejudices were somewhat in abeyance. Later, he was feted by the literary establishment in Europe and the US because he did the ideological work of reinforcing the legacies of empire and European self-regard. I know it is common to call Naipaul a great writer with a mean streak, as if his greatness were somehow separate from his meanness and made his meanness bearable; but to my mind it was this very mean-ness, which showed dishonesty as well as a singular lack of imagination, that kept him from being a great writer.

In a way, Naipaul was a literary version of Trump. Like Trump, he hid behind the mask of a made-up truth to advance narrow ambitions (we should ask: what price an illustrious literary career if it leaves the world smaller, poorer?). All the beauty of his sentences—and there are genuinely beautiful sentences in some of his writing—cannot mask his failure of imagination. At most, with the exception of one or two early books, Naipaul was a talented and industrious writer of sentences rather than a great writer. Consider: Trump is a talented and industrious manipulator of the media but that doesn’t make him a statesman and a leader. What stops us from making a similar literary judgment with regard to Naipaul?

Kant does. Ever since Kant, our cultural gatekeepers have learned to separate ethics and politics from art. I don’t subscribe to this separation—which is why I can disagree with the many reviews that have greeted the passing of Naipaul by calling him great. Can a writer lacking moral imagination (otherwise known as compassion) ever deserve the mantle of greatness? I have to say no, even at the cost of being dismissed as naïve.

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Writing beyond English: The Challenges of Inventing Non-English Worlds in English-Language Novels

World Literature Today has published my observations on what it meant for me to invent a Tamil world in English in my most recent novel Ghost in the Tamarind. Language, politics, translation–the essay touches on these and other challenges. “Writing beyond English” started as a presentation at this year’s AWP, so a shout-out to my most exemplary co-panelits Nandi Odhiambo, Stephanie Han, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Kimani.

You can find the essay here.

My Mother and the Power of Storytelling: Balancing What Is and What Could Be in Ghost in the Tamarind

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Like many an Indian child, I first heard the story of Vikram and the vetal (vampire is a most unsatisfactory translation) from my mother. The story is referenced in the opening pages of my novel Ghost in the Tamarind when Ramu, one of the two main characters, playacts at being Vikram sent to bring back the undead vetal for the Brahmin’s ritual. The consequences of this playacting, as the reader soon discovers, are horrific.

The Vikram story is just one of the many I learned from my mother, who is the purveyor of stories in my family. So many of the stories she has told me over the years have made their way into my novel that when the moment came it seemed quite obvious to me what the dedication should read:

For Amma, K. S. Champakam,

first and best teller of stories

The most important of my mother’s stories to make it into Ghost in the Tamarind concerns my great-grandmother Gomati. It is my mother who has passed on the family lore regarding Gomati to me in the guise of stories. This lore is the inspiration for the character Gomati Paati in the novel, though I have little doubt that the real Gomati would not recognize herself in Gomati Paati. Certainly, Gomati is not exactly Ramu’s grandmother Gomati Paati—she couldn’t be because no son or grandson of hers was anything like Ramu. However, like the Gomati Paati of the novel, my great-grandmother Gomati too became a widow when young, preserved what she had inherited from her husband for her children against great odds, and went on to die of old age. These are things I know because of the stories my mother has told me.

In writing Gomati Paati, it might first appear that I was doing what Creative Writing classes routinely exhort—drawing on what I knew. But Write what you know is a useful dictum for writers only if it’s accompanied by another—write what you wish you knew. Description of what is accompanied by imagination of what could be—that’s the balance to strive for. It’s a balance to be found in any good storytelling. Thinking back, I find it in my mother’s stories too. In my mother’s stories of what is and what was there was always an element of what could have been: If only Gomati had been born in another age or in other circumstances, who knows what she would have done?

Real life inspires but in becoming fiction transcends itself. When I started my novel all those years ago I intended Gomati Paati to be an important but secondary character confined to the early pages of the novel. But Gomati Paati refused to be so confined. She refused to die off early. Every turn in the novel found a new need for her, until she became a character who survives almost till the very end. It is possible to recognize in this willful behavior on the part of Gomati Paati—yes, she seemed to achieve a certain autonomy of her own in the process of her invention—the potential of a story that begins in imitation to leave imitation behind.

In Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart, Nwoye learns the power of storytelling from the women in his family just as I did from my mother. I am tempted to think there’s a lesson here—a lesson about women and the power of stories that walk the line between what is and what could be. Doesn’t it make sense that those who experience the constraints of society most severely are the ones who would be most dissatisfied with pure description of how things are and thus rely on their imagination to invent what could be? Isn’t this what that most exemplary of storytellers Scheherazade does in the Arabian Nights?

I won’t defend this notion about the special relationship between women and storytelling right now. It is not really defensible in the rather glib way I’ve made it. But I will say that one of the people from whom I have learned the power that stories have to test that line between what is and what could be is surely my mother.

What is Postcolonial Philology?

MULOSIGE (Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies) is a fabulous project at the School of Oriental and African Studies aimed at rethinking the literatures of the world. Led by Francesca Orsini, the project sets out to present alternative views of literary traditions. Recently the MULOSIGE group—which includes Karima Laachir and Sara Marzagora–asked me to write a blog on something I’ve been thinking about (and occasionally writing about) for a while: “postcolonial philology.” This is what resulted:

What is Postcolonial Philology?

Remember Phallocentrism? Remember Postcolonialism?: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Clichés and the Diminishment of Literature

Oh, for the heydays of literary theory!

Earlier this month, Bob Dylan, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered the required lecture just in time for him to collect the nearly $1 million cash award associated with the prize. Speaking in his trademark gravelly voice, Bob Dylan gave the Nobel Prize Committee what they no doubt wanted. Dylan thanked the committee for considering the question whether his songs are literature and answering in the affirmative. Dylan’s lecture was declared “extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent” by Secretary Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize. By co-opting the sung into the idea of literature, it seems, Dylan had given the Committee the relevance it craved.

Then again, you should be careful what you ask for. No sooner was the audio recording of the lecture released than charges of plagiarism descended upon Dylan. An essay by Andrea Pitzer in Slate argued that parts of the lecture are eerily similar to what is found on website SparkNotes crib sheets (consulted by countless students taking short cuts in their college education).

I recently had to deal with a student who did pretty much what Dylan seems to have as demonstrated in the Pitzer essay. When I called her in for questioning, it became amply clear that she had in fact plagiarized and had no first-hand knowledge of the works she was commenting on. I suspect nobody’s going to call Dylan in for questioning.

With regard to Dylan’s Nobel lecture, though, plagiarism is only the half of it—the other half is cliché.

Dylan constructs a venerable—and perfectly unimaginative—list of literary works and authors in his lecture. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities. Kipling, Shaw, Camus, Hemingway, Shakespeare.

And especially Moby Dick and the Odyssey and All Quiet on the Western Front, about all three of which Dylan speaks extensively (and unoriginally and plagiaristically, it seems) in his lecture.

Bob Dylan is a transcendent musical genius—a voracious student and reinventor of musical form. It might even be argued that his songs can and should be considered literature—after all, as Dylan himself suggests, the exclusion of songs from literature when plays are readily admitted makes no reasonable sense.

Nevertheless, if the committee for the Nobel Prize for Literature was trying for relevance by awarding Bob Dylan, its gambit has badly backfired. The Nobel Prize for Literature, and indeed literature as such, has been diminished by the award to Dylan. The problem is not just the plagiarism. Rather, it is the very idea of literature that Dylan constructs in his lecture.

Taken individually, I can’t argue with Dylan’s list of literary works and luminaries—it has titles and names I have read and loved. Certainly, each of the works on Dylan’s list can be and has been considered “great” (whatever that means); taken together, however, the list induces nothing so much as a yawn. It is the reading list of a frighteningly conventional high school curriculum—one constructed in perfect ignorance of developments in the study of literature, indeed of “literature” itself understood in any meaningful sense today.

The list is perfectly conventional—and perfectly Eurocentric and patriarchal. There is not a single non-white or non-European or non-North American figure or text—no Frederick Douglass or the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights. There is not a single woman—no Sappho or Jane Austen or Mirabai (talk about song as literature). There is not even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the greatest of Nobel laureates.

But here’s the thing: just because Dylan hasn’t read the West African Epic of Sonjara doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And just because he doesn’t know anything about the critiques of phallocentrism and Eurocentrism made decades ago in the best iterations of literary theory doesn’t mean a richer and more adequate idea of literature isn’t available should you want to find it.

Surely, the predicament of literature—assaulted from different sides by celebrity culture, commodification, more popular arts (music!), superficiality and a myriad other challenges—is dire. Irrelevance doubtless threatens. However, the path to relevance does not lie through plagiarism and cliché.

Bob Dylan is bigger than the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award has enhanced him but literature itself has been diminished.

[See also an earlier companion blog–KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR (WHY BOB DYLAN SHOULD HAVE BEEN REFUSED ADMITTANCE TO THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE)]

The Word Is Resistance: A Personal Remembrance of Barbara Harlow and Her Legacy

“Where’s the next chapter?!”

That’s what Barbara Harlow wrote in my copy of Resistance Literature. I had graduated with my Ph.D. in 1993 and was no longer her student but, boy, were those words, down to that concluding exclamation point, seared into my mind! For two years I had heard them at regular intervals. They had helped keep me—as they had other doctoral students who had gathered around Barbara—on track to completion. Barbara inscribed those words in 1994, on a trip to New York, where I was then living. I had owned a copy of her book for years but, I guess, never bothered to have it signed by her.

Barbara’s gone now and it is time, sadly, to speak of legacies. One extraordinary legacy—hard to quantify but vital—is her work with graduate students. Barbara leaves behind generations of doctoral students she trained and helped secure academic positions. These students continue to develop and expand the work of the E3W (Ethnic and Third World Literature) concentration that Barbara helped found at University of Texas-Austin, albeit sometimes in ways quite different from her. In later years Barbara grew critical of many of the directions in which “postcolonial literature” went, but what she achieved for the literatures of formerly colonized places through her teaching and research cannot be overstated.

Resistance Literature, a lucid little gem of a book, remains to me the indispensible Barbara Harlow book. In it Barbara delineated a trans-genre category of literature in a manner that succeeding generations of scholars have found endlessly productive. If we speak routinely now of resistance literature it is because Barbara did so much to bring the term into critical fashion.

I teach Resistance Literature often (it teaches well at both the undergraduate and graduate levels) and when I do I emphasize the manner in which that book embodies what I consider to be quintessential Barbara Harlow critical traits—the attention to neglected archives; an undoing of received notions of what counts as literature; a productively tense (sometimes outright skeptical) relationship to theory; an acute recognition of the “theory” immanent within literary texts; a robust sense of what one might call practical politics (the politics of institutions, parties and movements) in whose context literature could be read in novel ways; and, above all, an unswerving commitment to the wretched of the earth. It is worth remembering that most of these critical tendencies were somewhat anomalous when Resistance Literature was published in 1987, a time of high intellection in the American academy. Into the hot sauna of hybridity theory, Resistance Literature poured like a cold shower of reality.

Barbara wrote a lot and edited a lot. There is much in her work that repays sustained study. Whether it is Barred, her book on prison literature by women, or the collections of primary documents she co-edited with Mia Carter, Barbara’s work carved out new terrain, staked out polemical positions, recovered forgotten voices. In Resistance Literature, Barbara wrote, “the emphasis in the literature of resistance is on the political as the power to change the world. The theory of resistance literature is in its politics.” Resistance, that’s the word for Barbara—an interest in and emphasis on resistance, it seems to me, is to be found everywhere in Barbara’s work.

I met Barbara for the first time within a couple of years of arriving in the United States, when I moved to Austin in 1989 to study with her. Austin was still a hippy-ish place then. Volkswagens and tie-dye shirts abounded. Barbara was no hippy but like the hippies sometimes glimpsed in the neighborhoods around campus she was at a tangent to hegemonic American culture.

At the same time, it has always seemed to me that there was a bit of American pragmatism in Barbara’s politics, that her desire to judge ideas and values by their practical consequences in the world owed something to radical American traditions. Barbara traveled widely in the world, spending time in France and Egypt and South Africa, and learned from everywhere she went. At the same time, she remained to my mind unmistakably American. In 2017, when Trump is working so hard to sully everything that America might stand for, it is good to remember that Barbara Harlow too was an American.

For all her American-ness, Barbara had a universal quality that I value more and more as I get older—persistence in struggle. Life’s default setting is to wear you down, to file away your contrary edges. If it doesn’t break you, life will fatigue you with its thousand cuts. Or else it will tempt you with the hundred comforts of compromise (of looking away, of keeping quiet, of taking the well-worn road of convenience). There was nothing convenient about Barbara. She was hard, as more than one person can attest. She was indefatigable in her commitment to inconvenient truths. She remained committed till the end to her values.

Barbara, I’ll miss you in all your hardness.

Here’s my next chapter.