Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mockingbirds, Good Fences, Bad Neighbours, Refugee Mothers and Children: Or Teaching American Literature in the times of Donald Trump

Literature, as Ezra Pound famously said, is news that stays news. Resonance of quote comes freshly alive for me when I am teaching  American texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, “Mending Wall”, and a poem by the Nigerian-born–settled-in-America writer Chinua Achebe titled ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ as part of the core introductory course for the Bachelor of Arts with English honours (at the first year or ‘freshmen’) at my University in Baroda, Gujarat.

Teaching Harper Lee’s celebrated novel (1960) about racism and growing up in the American south in the backdrop of the recent racist violence of Charlottesville and  the Las Vegas shooting made me recall Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic as a book that has not finished saying what it has to say.   Though racial segregation may have been legally dead in America after the Civil Rights Movement –the event that forms the historical background of To Kill a Mockingbird, the racial segregation of the American hearts and minds seem far from deceased. It is precisely this failure of the law to ensure justice that forms the central theme of this novel, the theme that is critical even today, when the far right has drastically resurged in the western society, fifty seven years after the novel was published

Chinua Achebe’s moving poem ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ made students discuss the burning issue of refugees that has so deeply influenced the global politics today, whether it is ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Multiculturalism as a political ideology of globalization seems to be on a decline and one of the things fueling this decline is the Syrian refugee crisis and the underlying Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, my students brought up the issue of the Rohingya refugees too. Clearly, the poem published in 1971 in America has not yet finished saying what it had to say 46 years ago. 
                           
The Robert Frost‘s classic “Mending Wall”, published in 1914, too, has not finished saying what it has to say , especially when the current President Donald Trump has come to power promising the Americans to build a wall to wall out Mexican immigrants,  103 years after its publication. The speaker in the poem mischievously wants his farmer neighbor to rethink his traditional wisdom regarding ‘ Good fences make good neighbours’by drawing attention to that  there is ‘ something’ -probably something supernatural ( an elf? ) or even natural ( winter) that doesn’t love the wall. I don’t think I am as good natured as the farmer -speaker in the Frost poem to ask the President-who is not particularly known for his interest in literature unlike his coloured precursor- to even consider the fact that the ‘something’ that doesn’t love a wall is neither an elf nor winter, but history.


It is precisely this question of history and its relation to culture and literature that drove home to me how baseless is the anxiety of globalization as cultural homogenization (or Americanization).  Many of my students, especially from the metropolitan cosmopolitan (and yes upper-caste) background, are brought up regularly consuming wide range of American cultural artifacts: from fashion to popular novels like  Twilight, from the Hollywood films to  American TV series like “ the Game of the  Thrones”, from  American junk food to American social media ( Facebook or Tinder). Or even American English.And yet they could hardly comprehend most of the content on the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. Who are the Southerners? Who was Andrew Jackson and who were the Creeks? What on earth is a ‘Methodist’ and what is a human chattel? They could hardly catch the Lee’s sarcasm regarding how the white families in the South could trace their lineages back to the Battle of Hastings, nor could they get the joke about  how Simon Finch,  Scout’s forefather, was escaping  persecution of the Methodist by “ more liberal” Christians in England. How is Robert Frost’s New England different from Harper Lee’s Alabama?


The displacement and annihilation of the Native American population, the American Revolution, the Civil war, racism , slavery, the Puritans and various Christian denominations, American social and cultural geographies that the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird pack are things that are part of shared collective memory of the Americans ended u p acting as a boundary that separates the American cultural text from the non-American readers who regularly consume popular American cultural artifacts. In short, artifacts are not cultures, and as the cultural theorist Yuri Lotman would point out, culture is non-hereditary memory of a group and it is always bounded (dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’).
The myth of globalization as Americanization is unfounded- we may be consuming more and more American artifacts, but the American cultural memory will never replace non-American cultural memories. And I doubt whether globalization can erase the cultural memory of non-American cultures, because as Lotman has pointed out, the cultural memory is not an archive or a library of past events ,but a mechanism embedded in the present and the contemporary that creates the image of the past and projects it backwards.


Reading and teaching literary texts from other cultures, from Lotman’s perspective, would invariably involve translation and translation according to his theory is the primary mechanism of generation of new meanings and information. Reading such American texts in the non-American societies and cultures would result in translation and generation of new information in those cultures. Globalization accelerates the translation and generation of new meanings in other cultures, leading to added dynamism of cultural change in those local cultures. This dynamism will be chaotic and unpredictable, not a simple Americanisation of the  world.