Tricontinental, Globalization Fiction: More Syllabus Blogging

by zunguzungu

Another fake syllabus, but this time, more of a narrative than a list.

Daniel Alarcón, a young Peruvian-American writer who I recently discovered — based in Oakland, yo — gives me the jumping off point for another class I’m kicking around. In his excellent short story collection War By Candlelight, he suggests that

“Lima, of course, is only the Peruvian iteration of a global phenomenon. If I were Nigerian or Pakistani or Mexican, I could have written a very similar book–the place names changed, some altered details of the cultural landscape, but the essence would have been the same: an urban center defined by unbounded growth, social, political and economic instability, and dramatic cultural change.”

I hear that, though I also don’t. Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums has given a lot of people the impression that urban hyper-growth is happening the same way all throughout what we used to call the “third world,” and though Alarcón is doing something different than the thing that Davis’ book sometimes provokes in his more hyperbolic readers, the suggestion that there’s an essential core to the experience of urban modernity — that an identifiably singular global process is happening in each of these places and links them all as one human experience — is worth not only thinking about but also carefully critiquing.

There is truth to it, and yet there is also so much wrong with it: African mega-cities just work differently than Latin American mega-cities, and from each other. Lima is different than Mexico City (and Lagos from Johannesburg), and God help the poor soul who tries to generalize from Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo, and Lagos with anything more than a photographer’s level of rigor. These are radically different places, and those differences are important; if nothing else, the processes that are similar cast into sharp relief that basic and irreconcilable differences.

But let me stop there; if I never want to forget that the glass is half-different, I also don’t want to dismiss the sentiment of an Alarcón who sees it as half-similar. For the purposes of the class I’m thinking about, let us confine ourselves to what I might less pejoratively called “a novelist’s level of rigor.” And let’s compare Alarcón’s sentiments with those of another itinerant Latin globalista, Che Guevara, delivering a message for the Tricontinental conference in 1966, his first public words since 1965 and his last before his death:

[L]et us develop a true proletarian internationalism; with international proletarian armies, the flag under which we fight would be the sacred cause of redeeming humanity. To die under the flag of Vietnam, of Venezuela, of Guatemala, of Laos, of Guinea, of Colombia, of Bolivia, of Brazil-to name only a few scenes of today’s armed struggle-would be equally glorious and desirable for an American, an Asian, an African, even a European. Each spilt drop of blood, in any country under whose flag one has not been born, is an experience passed on to those who survive, to be added later to the liberation struggle of his own country. And each nation liberated is a phase won in the battle for the liberation of one’s own country. The time has come to settle our discrepancies and place everything at the service of our struggle.

Just as I would question how deeply Alarcón’s “urban center defined by unbounded growth, social, political and economic instability, and dramatic cultural change” can really capture what is important about Lagos, Karachi, and Mexico City, we need to start from the observation that Guevara’s effort to develop a “true proletarian internationalism” was an unmitigated disaster in practice. It is well known that he died in Bolivia, but it’s less well known that his attempt to build a rebellion in the Congo — in the period just before he wrote that letter to the Tricontinental — was a complete and total clusterfuck, a disaster founded in his inability to understand the Congolese he was working with and their ability to use him to get what they wanted, which was different than what he wanted. It turned out that you couldn’t just wish away discrepancies; if Che’s motorcycle diaries give you the internationalist ideal, his Congolese diaries give you its failure in reality. His effort to impose the model of the Cuban revolution on the Congo might have been as ill-fated as the US’s effort to impose the Washington consensus for other reasons, bu they have in common a basic irreconcilability between theoretical globalism and practical failure. Different places are just really different, you know?[1]

And yet… How about a class comparing the great era of the “Tricontinental” novels with the works written in the spirit that Alarcón is channeling? How about this class, in short:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

Latin America:
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Daniel Alarcón, War By Candlelight

Saadat Hasan Manto, Mottled Dawn: Fifty Partition Sketches and Stories
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Put most simply, it begins with writers who wrote at the time of decolonization, broadly conceived, and then contrasts them with writers of the now-generation, roughly conceived. some important choices have been silently made about how to define those terms, of course; Manto is almost a generation earlier than the other two — and García Márquez’s Latin America was independent in a certain sense, if not in Che’s sense — but each of these big patriarchal figures is a kind of theorist of national transition, the midwife for an old sense of civic politics giving way to the kind of international order of independent states that would characterize the post-colonial era. Their writings all do that kind of work, however differently. And then the second half of the class would be writers thinking about the post-post-independence present, the era of globalization, which they each theorize it in different ways. Adichie grapples with Achebe’s patriarchal status in a deeply intimate way, and re-renders so much of what Things Fall Apart did from a female perspective, stunningly faithful to Achebe even as she radically reconstructs the patriarch’s “falling apart.” Alarcón’s jaded cynicism is certainly different from Macondo, and it breaks down nicely in the rural-urban, magical grandmother vs. MTV dichotomy so beloved of the McOndo people And I’ll make my students read Daisy’s fabulous essay on “The Reluctant Feudalist” to get a sense for how deeply Mueenuddin is dependent on Manto, even while also quite distinct.

Still. The schematic is also pretty inexact; if I wanted to be more rigorous about it, I’d substitute one of the McOndo writers (or the collection itself) for Alarcón and definitely use Rushdie and Lahiri instead of Manto and Mueenuddin. In that case, the class would revolve around “famous old novelist writing about decolonization” vs. “famous American-based short story writer writing about globalization.” I could even substitute Cisneros for Alarcón and make it a fully gendered split. But while Alberto Fuguet’s famous anecdote[2] would nicely frame Alarcón’s writing (or his own), I guess I’d be interested in teaching the class as more of a provocation, to begin by contrasting “third world” internationalism with Globalization of the present, and then offer the six texts as a way of charting how well it actually works in practice, and how well it doesn’t. Thesis-driven classes simply don’t work very well, in my experience; much better to start with a hypothesis and then smash it apart in the lab, letting the students both learn to do so and draw their own conclusions.

What’s interesting about these pairings, to me, would be the ways they don’t, quite, work. The intimate structure of continuity through which Adichie reads Achebe is pretty specific to these two Igbo novelists, and something quite substantially different from the relationship between a Peruvian writer raised in Alabama and living in Oakland to the great Colombian García Márquez. Adichie radically deconstructs and redoes the Achebe thing; but is War by Candlelight even a remotely similar art object to Cien años de soledad? The latter aspires to be the bible and Don Quixote of a continent; the former, well, doesn’t. And Manto is not typically thought of as a “postcolonial writer” in the way he certainly should be (always, it’s Rushdie when we come to that section of geographical history), because we privilege the massive synthesizing novel, instead of a fragmentary short story writer like Manto (or Borges).

More than that, a first pass over this idea left me with the notion that what’s important might be the idea of nostalgia, and a google search gave me this archive:

“For Peruvian American novelist Daniel Alarcon, home is where he happens to be. For now, it’s Oakland”: Forever displaced, always nostalgic for something left behind, something idealized by virtue of its distance, Alarcón finds resolution for yearning in his fiction.

Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohsin Hamid: Two ‘Internally Displaced’ Writers

Mueenuddin explained that straddling two worlds has enriched the works of many Pakistani writers such as Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, and Nadeem Aslam. His own nostalgia for belonging is part of his motivation for writing. “You miss it while you’re away, but even when you are there you can never quite grasp it, you never entirely belong to it.” Mueenuddin joked that people like himself and Hamid are IDPs: “We’re really internally displaced—we’re displaced inside of ourselves. But for us that is a rich position somehow.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “her debut novel Purple Hibiscus told the stories of people who looked like her and ’who ate mangoes’ in a nostalgic account of Nigerian life, establishing Chimamanda as a prominent literary figure.”

Until it occurred to me that such a distinction doesn’t even begin to suffice; Achebe’s nostalgia is profound, if mediated by a very complex and simultaneous alienation, and calling Alarcon “nostalgic” is both a terrible way to describe what makes him different from García Márquez — one of the most deeply nostalgic writers I can think of — and what makes his stuff his. If I had to use those terms, I’d say his writing is far more anti-nostalgic, but — in that way — that makes him a dutiful follower of the school of Vargas Llosa, the other great pole star of El Boom.

Leaving, what? I’m not sure. But it would be fun to teach, wouldn’t it? So rather than begin with a claim or a rubric, I’d just begin with this:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking about Chinua Achebe:

…’Cultural values.’  That term worries me, especially when it is used next to Africa because I have found that we sometimes use it to shield our hypocrisies and to perpetuate the lies we tell ourselves.  I love the culture of my people, but at the same time, I do not believe in idealizing, or in transporting it to its ‘pure’ past. I think Chinua Achebe is one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen, because he did not only tell us, the writers who would come after him, that our stories were worthy, he also swiped at the disgusting stereotypes of Africa. That said, I don’t believe in being prescriptive about literature. I don’t think writers SHOULD write this or write that. They should just write. I speak for myself alone and I am interested in presenting things as they are and in challenging our collective hypocrisy. I remember being blasted by an Igbo web group, about two years ago, because of a story about a teenager who had a boyfriend. A boyfriend! We prefer sometimes to cover our heads with our hands and pretend that things do not happen. Until we acknowledge things to be the way they are, we cannot own them, and we cannot control them.

Daniel Alarcón describing putting together an issue of Zoetrope in which all the writers chosen were born after the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

…To be clear, the problem is not García Márquez—Diego and I noted the publication of that book simply because it is so iconic, so well-known that at times it seems that’s the only Latin American novel many in the United States have bothered read. And, of course, it’s one of those books everyone absolutely should read, a perfect, transcendent novel, but an unfortunate consequence of its critical and commercial success, especially in the American literary marketplace, has been to spawn dozens of imitators, who by sheer numbers crowd out other significant and original voices.

Honestly, I don’t understand why these books keep getting published. For years we’ve seen bookstore shelves lined with warmed-over copies of Gabo, formulaic representations of a continent that doesn’t exist anymore. If Americans are still picturing Macondo when they think of Latin America, they will misunderstand a great deal of what is happening now. The demographic shifts of the last forty years have been stark, and naturally the literature reflects those changes. The frustrating thing about it is that in Latin America, the literary conversation has long since moved beyond magical realism—it’s only in the U.S. that the dialogue hasn’t progressed. And this isn’t just a literary problem—it’s a political, cultural, and economic issue as well.

Daniyal Mueenuddin describing the importance of Saadat Hasan Manto:

…All of these stories are brief, violent, hastily written and stark. I think this is very fitting to the period which he was describing which is around the time of the Partition. It’s similar to Pakistan today which has become a more violent place than a few years ago. I particularly recommend his story, “Toba Tek Singh”, which is about how two or three years after Partition, the governments of Pakistan and India decided to exchange lunatics. In other words, Muslim lunatics in Indian madhouses would be sent to Pakistan, while Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani madhouses were handed over to India. But, one lunatic – Toba Tek Singh – ended up in no-man’s-land between India and Pakistan.

For me, Saadat Hasan Manto is important as a writer because you see with stories like this there is nothing prettied up about his writing. One of the things that I object to about most of the people who write about Pakistan is “the scent of mangoes and jasmine school of writing”. I think that does a disservice to the country and plays into the stereotypes that most Westerners have about Pakistan, and he certainly doesn’t do that. He tells it like it is, with all the violence, madness and political turmoil that involves.

[1] Guevara regarded his failure this way, by the way:The most interesting aspect here is not the story of the decomposition of the Congolese revolution, whose causes and key features are too profound to be all encompassed from my particular vantage point, but rather the decomposition of our own fighting morale, since the experience we inaugurated should not go to waste and the initiative of the International Proletarian Army should not die at the first failure. It is essential to analyse in depth the problems that are posed, and to find a solution to them…The idea that guided us was to ensure that men experienced in liberation battles (and subsequently in the struggle with reactionary forces) fought alongside men without experience, and thereby bring about what we called the “Cubanisation” of the Congolese. It will be seen that the effect was the exact opposite, in that a “Congolisation” of the Cubans took place over a period of time. In speaking of Congolisation, we had in mind the series of habits and attitudes to the revolution that characterised the Congolese soldier at those moments of the struggle. This does not imply any derogatory view about the Congolese people, but it does about the soldiers at that time. In the course of the story, an attempt will be made to explain why those fighters had such negative traits.

[2] “In 1994, the Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet participated in an international writing workshop at the University of Iowa, where he submitted for publication a short story to the Iowa Review magazine; he expected prompt acceptance, translation (to English), and publication, because Latin American writers then were an intellectual vogue in trendy U.S. mainstream culture. Yet, upon reading the novelist Fuguet’s submitted short story, the Iowa Review editor, taken aback by the realism and no magic, dismissed it as “not Latin American enough . . . [because] the story could have taken place right here, in [North] America.”