The Language of Developmental Literature

by zunguzungu

Lapata wrote a great post at Chapati Mystery on the special issue of Granta devoted to Pakistan (her second; the first was here). Building on Sepoy’s earlier critique of the issue, she targeted the use of “development” language to describe the development of Pakistani literature:

“…Aside from the ludicrousness of talking about the development and progress of the novel or short story in the same style as one might discuss the building of bridges and the paving of roads, there is also the fact that very few literatures of the world are in their infancy. “Yes!” You might interject, “But surely the novel and the short story are quintessentially modern forms!” Indeed, perhaps they are (though there are many arguments to the contrary). Nonetheless, these forms date back to at least the late nineteenth century in most Indian languages. Other genres of writing in the modern Indian languages stretch back much further than that, some to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, or even earlier, to say nothing of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

And she critiqued what she called “Cocoonistan,” the ability of Anglophonic readers to cocoon ourselves away from everything that doesn‘t confirm what we think we already know:

“…English, as the most powerful international language, dominates world conversations on just about everything, but wraps its native speakers in a cocoon that renders them increasingly unable to hear conversations that were not meant for their ears. The cocoon can alienate us from cultural diversity and deafen us to voices that are not speaking directly to us. In this way, as in many others, globalization both broadens our horizons and shrinks them dangerously. Nowadays, development discourse is often used to discuss the great progress that is being made on the front of new writing in English in India, and more recently, Pakistan. Besides the fact that this discourse infantilizes the literary output of writers in English, it paves over the very existence of literary traditions in other languages. As an English-speaking person who likes to read non-English literature from South Asia, I often feel irritable on encountering pronouncements about the extreme youth and great promise of Indian or Pakistani literature.”

This is all right and true. But what spurred this reflection was a quote from John Freeman (Granta’s editor) in a Dawn article, and I want to take some time to turn that quote inside out (in the particular metaphor I’m laboring under, that quotation is like the hip pocket of a pair of blue jeans that still has some change squirreled away in it). What, after all, does it mean to say that we are cocooned in the language of “development”? What is development discourse?

First, the quote. In response to the interviewer’s suggestion that Pakistani fiction has really come into its own “internationally,” Freeman agreed and replied:

…yes, they’re all writing in English. But in a lot of countries early in the development of their literature – I’m thinking certainly of the United States – people who were writing were well-to-do, Henry James and Edith Wharton for example. And they left the country and went to Paris…

Lapata’s response was to remind Freeman that non-English literatures — in Urdu, for example — are vibrantly continuing their centuries-old tradition of existing and being important; if English language writing is, in some sense, “maturing” now — which seems to mean, in practice, that suddenly Anglophones in the West are reading it — this doesn’t necessarily represent Pakistan’s literature as a whole. But Freeman’s response to Lapata was more or less to double down:

“On your point about developing literature, I did not mean to suggest that Urdu literature or any other within Pakistan was without a history or developing…I was referring more to literature which develops within the nation state. The Pakistani nation state is very new; just as when Wharton and others were writing, so was the American nation state. But that doesn’t mean that native American story-telling or pre-revolutionary American texts do not qualify as literature…simply that when a nation declares its independence a different sort of clock starts, especially early on, since the writing starts to help define borders as much as lines drawn up on a map…I made a decision early on to focus on Pakistan writing of the modern nation, not of the region or of its languages. We never intended this issue to be representative or exhaustive, but since we are the magazine of new writing, we decided to focus on what was new…”

The first thing to say about Freeman’s strange assertion that Edith Wharton represents early American writing is that it is a very strange assertion if you think even a moment about what he’s saying. The House of Mirth was published 118 years after the USA was established as a nation-state (which means that Pakistan has about 60 more years of “early” to go?) and no one who studies American literary history would consider it early. Back when American literary historians really cared about figuring out when the nation developed a national tradition of its own — the same year Henry Luce declared the inauguration of “The American Century” — it became canonical to consider the 1850’s to be that moment of “renaissance” (as in F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman). But even literary historians no longer take the 1850‘s “American Renaissance” very seriously as an origin point; writers like Charles Brockden Brown, Susana Rowson, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and James Fenimore Cooper are important and wrote much earlier. And while people of the 1850’s cohort like Melville and Whitman and Dickinson were sort of marginal to mainstream American literary culture until the 20th century — when people like Matthiessen suddenly had a new use for them — the pillars of American literature in the 19th century tended to be poets no one likes to read anymore (William Cullen Bryant, anyone?) and sentimental writers like Stowe and Warner. But my point isn’t that one or the other of these groups is or isn’t the real American tradition; it’s that choosing between these groups and selecting one to represent the totality is a choice determined by what it is that you want that totality to be.

After all, the assertion that “people who were writing were well-to-do” does not prove that it is normal for a nation’s early writers to be aristocrats; it presumes that it is normal and then cherry picks the data to find confirmation. Moreover, it’s a little perverse to pick people like Henry James and Edith Wharton to represent the “American” tradition, and not only because James lived most of his life in London and died as a British subject. One could just as easily describe an American tradition made up of decidedly more democratic and less well-to-do writers like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, or Willa Cather, even from the same period. It’s a lot easier, in fact, and the harder you work to find “well-to-do” American writers on which to center a tradition, the clearer it becomes that you’re describing a particular moment in American literary history, the Gilded Age through Roaring Twenties period in which “rich American” didn’t signify as an oxymoron. There have always been rich Americans, of course — as Sacvan Bercovitch noted once, “when Tocqueville wrote his myth of egalitarian democracy, one percent of Americans owned almost half the wealth in America” — but that myth is incredibly powerful and important, and the way a novel like The Great Gatsby could aspire to be the great American novel represents a seismic shift away from the assumptions about Americanness that could be taken for granted “in the age of Emerson and Whitman.” Which is, of course, why a socialist like Matthiessen wanted to look back over the last half-century of upper-class decadence and find a purer and more democratic American tradition to plant at its source: however much he loved James (and he did), he wanted to make James an offshoot of an anti-aristocratic lineage of democratic-minded Americanness that was the real source of his literary development (and certainly James’ obsession with novels that contrast democratic Americans with European aristocrats supports this reading; Americanness, in such a context, becomes a function of not being “aristocratic”).

The point, then, is that it tells us something about John Freeman’s principles of selection that he chooses Edith Wharton to represent “Early American Literature,” but it tells us a very selective story about early American literature. Because Freeman was trying to normalize the “internationalism” and “well-to-do” status of the writers he wanted to place as representative of Pakistan’s development, telling the story of America’s literary development through well-to-do and internationalist writers like Wharton and James allows him to make America into a model for Pakistan.

But, of course, this account of American literary history — however back of the envelope it may have been — is just comprehensively and staggeringly wrong. All of the early American writers were emphatically “non-aristocratic,” for reasons that will become clear to you if you think about what Americann-ess signified in the late 18th century for even a moment. The republic’s earliest literary efforts were obsessed with subverting the aristocracy, replaying in literature the victory of democracy of hierarchy that the revolution was meant to represent. As terrible as a play like Royall Tyler’s 1787 The Contrast might be, for example (and it is terrible), the fact that it’s built around “the contrast” between aristocratic privilege (Bad!) and democratic thrift and hard work (Good!) tells you most of what you need to know about the ethos of early American literary production. Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry doesn’t make any sense at all unless you take that for granted, while so many writers of the early period (like Tyler) are as uninteresting as they are precisely because they‘re so quick to swallow and blandly regurgitate the “Americanism = anti-aristocratic” line. (While the interesting writers are people like Washington Irving, who trouble the clarity of that assumption, it’s still the baseline assumption from which they proceed.)

Describing James’ “aristocratic” status as representative, then, is the clearest indication one could want that a very strange definition of the early period is being imported. Even James’ contemporaries did not see him as a representative American writer; the burden of proof was always on “aristocratic” writers (like Wharton, James, and Fitzgerald) to prove that they were still American, while the mainstream was meanwhile dominated by middle class strivers, the Dreisers and Cranes and Howells, etc.

I want to return, now, to that original Freeman quote, and look at it in its entirety. He begins by placing Pakistani literature’s emergence “about three or four years ago”:

It was probably around the time that Mohammed [Hanif’s] book came out, then Daniyal’s. Mohsin and Nadeem and Kamila had been publishing for a while but suddenly you had all five of them, and I really wanted them all in the issue. They’re clearly a generation – they’re all about 10 years apart – and yet are writing in very different modes, which is very exciting. There’s all this hunger for a generation of writers and sometimes they’re right in front of you, just not in an expected place. Of course some people will ask why this issue isn’t full of brand new writers and argue that these names already get plenty of attention. But they’re really good writers and that’s why they’re in it. And yes, they’re all writing in English. But in a lot of countries early in the development of their literature – I’m thinking certainly of the United States – people who were writing were well-to-do, Henry James and Edith Wharton for example. And they left the country and went to Paris. The migratory instinct is not just about being noticed, it’s about getting out into the world. I think it helps in some ways to be away from what you’re writing about and all of these writers have benefited from that. Writing a work of fiction is not about reconstructing reality, it’s about building a new one that has sort of an oblique reference to the real world, so sometimes having the real world so presently in front of you can be an obstacle.

As I hope is clear, the appeal to the American example is specious on its own terms. But that’s what makes it such an interesting rhetorical move: however problematic it might be to declare that American literary history must be the model that Pakistan’s literary tradition should be expected to follow (and the answer is: quite problematic!), the fact that the “America” he’s holding up as exemplary isn’t actually the United States means we have to rethink what’s going on here even more fundamentally. He’s not only trying to impose a particular anti-historical model of “development” on Pakistani literature, but he has to first impose it on the United States.

I suspect that part of why James and Wharton are important to Freeman is that they allow “literary modernism” to become the origin point of a national literature (remember, Freeman “made a decision early on to focus on Pakistan writing of the modern nation, not of the region or of its languages,” a decision he neither defends or explains). Because the United States’ actual national literature originates in late-enlightenment and romantic era modes of identity,[1] the clock for American literature needs to be re-set to the moment that James lands in London or Wharton in Paris, thereby remaking “American literature” itself as the modernist, internationalist transcendence of the merely local, indigenous, national, etc. Which is the story Freeman seems to want to tell about Pakistan too: its literature doesn’t really begin until the moment it becomes modern. The fact that it had literature before that fabled and mythical clock-striking moment, therefore, is not so much denied as rendered irrelevant: such literature isn’t really national “literature,” because it precedes the nation, therefore anything that precedes the nation has to be quietly gotten rid of.

What I want to get at, in other words, is how the ahistorical nature of “development” discourse is its central feature. When Freeman declares that “when a nation declares its independence a different sort of clock starts…since the writing starts to help define borders as much as lines drawn up on a map,” he’s also talking about the old clock stopping, the necessity that we silently render the old histories silent. After all, to imagine that everything begins anew the moment you sign a declaration of independence (or whatever), you have forget that the old stuff still continues, to forget all the old stuff that characterizes the “pre-modern” state of things, and all the ways it still remains and evolves. You have to forget about Urdu, the same way F.O. Mattheissen had to forget about Royall Tyler. And we do this not by denying that they exist, but just by quietly passing over them. After all, to explicitly deny their importance would only recognize their importance as counter-narrative; better just to not talk about them. There just isn’t space, you see? And then, suddenly, there isn’t.

The opposite of that, by contrast, is to think about all the interesting and particular ways that Pakistan’s “development” doesn’t fit whatever model got cooked up for you in the dream factory of The Economist’s deep subconscious. That’s what Lapata and Sepoy are doing: not historicizing by analogy, but using history to show the ways analogy fails to obtain.

Since I don’t know enough about Pakistan to do that myself, for me, the analogy that fails is African literature. One of the most famous arguments by which “African literature” gets problematized began when Ngugi wa Thiong’o turned away from English to write in Gikuyu and, as he did so, attacked African writers like Chinua Achebe for continuing to write in English. But Achebe’s response was — for better or worse — to eschew the prescriptiveness of Ngugi’s polemic. for him, he emphasized, hearing both languages in his head was the important thing. And he believed that, as a Nigerian and an African, he could best speak to other Nigerians and Africans by writing in English:

I write in English. English is a world language. But I do not write in English because it is a world language. My romance with the world is subsidiary to my involvement with Nigeria and Africa. Nigeria is a reality which I could not ignore. One characteristic of this reality, Nigeria, is that it transacts a considerable portion of its daily business in the English language. As long as Nigeria wishes to exist as a nation, it has no choice in the foreseeable future but to hold its more than two hundred component nationalities together through an alien language…English is therefore not marginal to Nigerian affairs. It is quite central. I can only speak across two hundred linguistic frontiers to fellow Nigerians in English…

Achebe has a strong point here; the linguistic diversity of African nations like Nigeria, which has over 250 distinct language groups, has to be dealt with. Which is why Ngugi’s Gikuyu-centricity is much more problematic than it has often seemed to Western academics who happily read and teach it; if you aren’t troubled by the problem of how many Kenyans he excludes by writing in Gikuyu, after all, his elision of “Gikuyu” into “African” can pass beneath your radar. But while Kenya is not quite as divided by language as Nigeria is, the deadly potency of tribalism makes English a way around the implied chauvinism of writing only for a particular tribal community, which is at least part of why the new Kenyan writers constellated around Nairobi’s Kwani? tend to take English as their point of departure. Especially in the aftermath of the inter-tribal election violence of a couple years ago, the choice to write in Gikuyu or Luo brings a lot of intra-Kenyan baggage with it, and while English is not the national language, either, of course (and Kwani? is notably much more interested in that unanswerable question than in satisfying polemic resolution) it is at least equally foreign to everyone (a characteristic it shares with Kiswahili in some ways).[2]

My point in going on this final tangent, though, is simply that the analogy fails even between two African countries. Achebe’s decision to write in English has everything to do with Nigeria’s particular history: the north and south have been at odds with each other — with deadly consequences — for the entirety of the nation’s existence, such that Anglophonic narratives of Nigeria can be, maybe, a way of mediating that deadly tension. In the ellipsis of that Achebe quote, he talked about the Biafran war (in which the Igbo attempted to secede) and it’s not incidental that a young writer like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel was about that conflict; Anglophone Nigerian writing is “nationalist” and “modern” precisely in its inextricability from its historical roots. One could tell a similar story about Ngugi and Kwani?. But the underlying point is simple: the politics of language and modernity have to be placed in the local political context of everything that preceded the “modern nation-state” or they don’t make any sense at all. To understand even a little what’s going on, you have to get very deep and messy in the particularities of particular history. And in this sense — and only in this sense — Pakistan is no different than Kenya and Nigeria, analogous in that analogies will mislead you.


[1] Which is why “The Age of Emerson and Whitman” is such an interesting obfuscation in its own way: by centering the story on proto-modernists like Melville and Hawthorne, you get to forget about the weird Victorian poets and embarrassing sentimental writers, and make “modernist formal experimentation” the origin point for the nation-as-modern.

[2] Read Binyavanga Wainaina’s fantastic “In Gikuyu, for Gikuyu, of Gikuyu” — published in Granta by John Freeman, by the way — to get a sense for why that question mark at the end of the title of the literary journal he edits is so important, why language is a starting point not an endpoint. It’s a fantastic piece of writing, that tells you so much more about the impossible complexity of — and the enduring nostalgia for — the idea of writing in an authentic language.