Friday, August 12, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part I

In one of his recent essays,, long excerpts of which I found via Pam's blog,, Zulfikar Ghose implicitly challenges the very existence of this blog! It's a splendid piece, because Ghose doesn't mince words, so I won't feel bad for openly challenging and disputing his arguments here. (Plus agreeing with them when I think he's right, of course.)

And I'll be doing something I've never done before with this post and the following couple posts, which is create a paragraph by paragraph dialogue with an excerpt from the piece (or at least the parts on Pam's blog -- I don't have access to the whole piece, but Pam has helpfully quoted much of it on her blog). I've generally found this technique needless and distracting, often requiring the reader to read more than necessary and obscuring the blogger's own points, but I just had a nice supper and figure I should try it out at least once while I'm feeling like it. Also, as Pam insightfully points out, it might help if you substitute "identity" for "nationalism" while reading, because Ghose is clearly talking about what most American scholars popularly term "identity politics" except that he discusses it mainly from an "English" perspective. And when Ghose refers to "national identity," it's equally clear that he's thinking of "ethnicity."

Ghose: Of all the categories into which literature is divided, the worst is the nationalistic one, especially among writers in the English language. An implied hierarchy has become established among English-language writers: it is assumed that those from the United Kingdom and Ireland and from the U.S.A. are the primary English-language writers, the mainstream, followed by those from the former British colonies, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose population until recently was largely of white Britsh or European origin.

Whoa, slow down, big fella! First, let's take some responsibility for our points here: you think the worst way to divide literature is the nationalistic one, you think that there is an implied hierarchy, you think that (unnamed) others have separated an "UK-Ireland-U.S.A" triumverate from "the former British colonies." The "assumptions," though framed as assumptions, are actually assertions here.

Second, I doubt that the worst way to divide literature is the nationalistic one. There are many worse ways, in my opinion. For starters, there's the bastardization of poetry into a mere three or four bookshelves in bookstores while magazines, cookbooks, and computer self-help books get much more space and glory. Then, within the poetry section itself, we let in only "good" poets like Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, Whitman, and Frost, while we relegate contemporary poets to a fraction of this already small space. Finally, have you tried to find even a single Asian-American poetry book in a bookstores these days? You should try it out, just as a fun experiment. Oooh, for all you teachers out there, this is a smashing idea for an inexpensive field trip! If you're lucky, you'll find a book or two by Marilyn Chin or Li-Young Lee, but that's probably about it. There, I've just come up with three worse ways to divide literature. Three strikes, baby. And I haven't even gotten to how even the lower-middle class gets excluded these days with the shutting down of public libraries, decreasing funding for academic publishers so fewer works of poetry and poetry criticism get published, etc.

Third, and not a major point, I've never comes across the grouping of the U.K., Ireland, and U.S.A. as "primary English-language writers" apart from the "British colonies," such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Really, I guess I need to get out more. I've always thought of all six of those nations as having plenty of English-language writers. But I know that Ghose is implictly referring to the general degree of critical esteem that these writers have received, and I don't have much of a problem with this assertion, except for the oversight that the U.S.A. was once a British colony as well and that Ireland and the U.K. haven't exactly had the most amicable relationship either. Also, Ghose evidently has India in mind as a "British colony," and he should just come out and say it here instead of avoiding it to downplay the question of race.

Fourth, the contention that the population of British colonies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand "until recently was of British or European origin" is ahistorical. Indigenous peoples have long populated all these nations, before British and European immigrants migrated over the past several centuries. In addition, during the past several centuries, there has been plenty of migration from Asia and Africa as well.

Fifth and finally, I applaud Ghose for opening with a forceful and fascinating topic sentence and following it up with an interesting contention. Ghose clearly has something interesting to say here, and he's straightforward and upfront about it.


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