‘who is this america dem speak of today?’

‘Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.’ - Derek Walcott

My partner in crime and literati madness, Lynne, and I continued this conversation about America, American identity, narratives, and plurality over the weekend. I summarized my recent post for her at our stomping ground while we were planning the next issue of our literary journal. We both remarked how we willfully ignored the kerfuffle or hullabaloo of Glen Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in DC over the weekend. A rally so blatant in its effort to re-write the narrative of post-civil rights America to serve some nameless corporate and political interest that it turns stomachs, rolls eyes. Whatever. That spectacle, compounded by the nativism and islamophobia washing over many parts of the country over the Park 51 cultural center, juxtaposed against the intensity of the anti-immigration debate in Arizona and California, exacerbates the polarization. We shared our fury over two separate events of assault and vandalism directed at our Muslim Americans; I told her how some believe that this backlash was a delayed reaction to September 11th. We also talked about how we were worried after the towers fell that we would see this behavior in our community and didn’t. We remarked how our mongrel society in the County of Kings asserts our right to exist. Then, I brought her up to speed on the #frazenfreude, the crowning of author Jonathan Franzen as the Great American Novelist of our time, and it’s subsequent fallout/criticism from women authors (Jodi Piccoult, Jennifer Weiner, progenitors of the much maligned chick lit) and the Paris Review’s Lorin Stein’s thoughtful response over on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on the Atlantic.

It’s impossible for me to not look at these things in relation to each other. The narrative of the American experience is undergoing some deep structural work. It’s good to see this debate out there in ether, warts and all. We’re all looking at this in different ways.

Here’s Michelle Dean on the Awl:

It seems a fair question, in that context, to ask: “What’s this ‘we,’ white man?”

What collective American experience do these critics envision Franzen as describing? I have a suspicion they simply imagine their own white, male, middle class experiences as the “American experience,” because it’s always been presented that way to them, not least in the novels of Updike and Mailer and sometimes Roth that they so often list as favorites. And since Franzen does seem to have a knack for describing that particular strain of the American experience, the critics elide all the issues.¹ As an American resident for just five years, what I left there with was a profound sense that there was very little one could generally say about American culture without profoundly ignoring certain communities, without writing them right out of existence. And I lived in Brooklyn, which, it bears mentioning, is a far more diverse borough than these middle-class white narratives about it might have you believe. And I suspect there are a lot of people there, never mind in the rest of the country, who don’t relate to Franzen’s work, or Jonathan Lethem’s, or David Foster Wallace’s.

That doesn’t mean that people answering to other demographic characteristics can’t like these books. You can relate across chasms of experience and even prejudice—no one can tell you this better than, say, a person of color who’s spent her life studying and loving E.M Forster’s work. But should she always have to? Isn’t it fair for her to ask critics to value for something that speaks more closely to her actual life?

There’s a two pronged bit to note here about the Piccoult and Weiner criticism. Who reads their work and who are the critics who write about their work. Certainly sales suggest that they have a vast audience. However, examine the roster of reviewers of the old guard publications, and ask yourself is it truly reflective our plurality? Examine the number of women, women of color, hell, people of color who write reviews for Time, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, etc and tell me how many reviewers reflect our demographic realities?

Aside: The ladies have some valid points, but on the real, I don’t much care for their work either. And according to my own preoccupations, Lethem’s and Wallace’s work relates to me as do Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Jim Shepard, Amy Hempel, and ZZ Packer. Patti Smith’s memoir (which I’m currently reading) relates more to me than Piccoult’s and Weiner’s narratives. And in the history of all reviews by the NYT’s Kakutani, would she ever review or read Piccoult or Weiner? Seriously? Real Talk: you like what you like.

But we were speaking of American narratives, weren’t we?

I was glad to see both Chris Jackson and Michelle Dean point folks to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk from last summer. From Adichie:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

In our conversations over the past weekend, we concluded that we’ve been losing control of the plural narrative of America in the public sphere for some time. The backlash manifested through Beck and his lot, some folks from the Tea Party, the Lost Cause folk, seem to be pushing for an America that erases my kindred and me. Some of us have grown exhausted from this constant siege of the right to claim what is and is not American. And while I’m aware that they share some inherent fear that their ‘losing’ America to an amorphous ‘other’, I refuse to submit to a singular, ‘true’ version of our origins. America is allowed to have her complicated and colorful stories of how she came to be, for all who call her home, regardless of how we got here. Somehow a foreshadowing of this crisis of existence in politics, culture and literature, Russel Banks raised this question in 2000, in a piece for Harpers, asking, ‘So what is our story, the one we all share, regardless of how we label ourselves on the left side of the hyphen? Do we even have a story?”

The question is weighing heavy on all of our minds. In two separate responses to the “Restoring Honor” rally, Ann Friedman offers some observations, a narrative from “Real America” in a piece for Longshot Magazine, while Latoya Peterson considers how it really is in the nation’s capital. Banks in his 2000 essay concluded that we do have an origin story, and perhaps that modern American fiction could be the vehicle to create the mixed narratives we seek. ‘A people without an origin story is doomed to perish’, I heard someone say that somewhere. Can we create a narrative that acknowledges our multiple identities, our shared history, nightmare and dream as we mature as a nation?