Sunday, August 14, 2005

On Ghose's Essay - Part III

Zulfikar Ghose: The very thing that works against us-- national origin-- is sometimes the reason for our success. I encountered this dilemma almost as soon as I began to publish poems in London, in 1959. Writers from the former British colonies were a new phenomenon. Dom Moraes and I from the Subcontinent, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, and a few others were among the first poets from the recently independent countries to be published in England. Suddenly a new category was born: Commonwealth literature. Next thing, publishers began to produce anthologies of Commonwealth poetry with their own little nationalistic pigeon-holes and I found myself in demand for the simple reason that I was identified as having been born in Pakistan. It had nothing to do with the quality of one's work. Poetry readings, literary festivals, etc., followed: one was in demand because one could be labelled.

Being included under this label gave us more opportunities (sometimes the only opportunity) to be published but at the same time, by confining us within a category, guaranteed our status as untouchables. But here's the dilemma: those of us who have acquired a reputation by being included in anthologies of Commonwealth literature and university courses in ethnic studies have been given opportunities to be published and to be studied which, being a consequence not of the quality of our work but of our being identified with a group, are denied to writers from the 'mainstream': in other words, the very thing that creates opportunities for us, and places us in a privileged situation, is the thing we accuse of branding us as untouchable. But to the mainstream folks our complaint of being thrown into a ghetto must sound like having one's cake and whining, while one's mouth is still full eating a big chunk of it, that it tastes bitter.

This post constitutes my third and final commentary on Ghose's recent essay on hyphenated English-language literature. It'll probably make more sense if you scroll back and start with Part I. Trust me. :)

I find the arguments in this excerpt more convincing than the two previously quoted excerpts. In contrast to the other excerpts, Ghose uses the word "I" effectively here. We get a much better of where he is coming from. The glimpse into Ghose's inner self allows us to better sympathize with his primary contention that identifying one as a "Commonwealth poet," or as an "Asian-American poet," constitutes an undesirable pigeonholing. His narrative allows us to experience the author as an individual with past personal experiences from which he has derived his present views.

Ironically, the success of this passage lies at least partly in the fact that we, the reader, can view him as a very specific human being, of which ethnicity/race/nationality constitues a key part, along with geography and publishing history. And Ghose makes an interesting, if not entirely original, point that "identity politics" can be used to benefit a racial/ethnic minority author in publishing -- the strength of this excerpt here, however, is that Ghose personalizes this argument across decades of experience.

I do have a quibble, though, with Ghose's assumption here and elsewhere that publishers, editors, and others who have promoted "Commonwealth literature" simply did so on the basis of group identification. I don't think that Ghose is saying that he and his fellow Commonwealth poets were published solely on the basis of their names, because that would just be wrong and, at least in relation to most publishers and editors, sounds like a somewhat unfair caricature of the truth. More likely, Ghose means that publishers and editors have not taken the work of his fellow Commonwealth poets seriously enough, have not been reading the works critically and honestly, and have not been evaluating it on the basis of its literary quality.

But whether literary merit and the ethnic/racial content of the poem or poet may be separable is an open question. In another version of the Hitler question, one may ask, is it possible to write a racist poem, like a poem that favors slavery, that is of high literary quality? I don't think it is possible. So, I think that literary merit is at least partly contingent upon ethnic/racial content, and the race/ethnicity of both the reader and the poet are at play in the reading of many poems.

I guess I also don't have as bleak a worldview of "the ghetto" of Commonwealth literature, or Asian-American poetry, as Ghose and some others do. Even if one assumes that it is a ghetto, I don't think that it's necessarily a bad place to be, or as Ghose puts it, "a bitter cake." I mean, we all have individual scholarly interests in poetry. I wonder how Ghose would feel if it wasn't the "ghetto of Commonwealth poetry" but "the ghetto of the Beat poets" or "the ghetto of gay/lesbian poets" or "the ghetto of southern poets." Or how about "the ghetto of Shakespeare," if a scholar is only, or primarily, interested in Shakespeare?


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

Now see, this is the type of critique and comments we really need to start seeing. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, and some good insights.

10:37 AM  
Blogger pam said...

Most def. I'm glad to see you picking up and responding to the issues that Z. Ghose stirs up... and there are a lot of 'em!

Just a few contextual notes for the curious: the excerpt I culled is from roughly the middle of Ghose's essay titled "Orwell and I." He begins the essay by noting that both he and George Orwell were born in the same region of the Subcontinent, a region that I believe is now part of Pakistan. Then he goes on to describe the very different career trajectories that he and Orwell take as writers, in large part because of race/nationality.

Out of curiosity, has anyone read any Ghose, Desani, or Rao? I admit I have only read a few of Ghose's essays, plus a handful of poems in magazines.

5:27 PM  
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10:37 AM  
Blogger pam said...

I've got a new post on this topic over here.

Mostly just a point-by-point summary of Ghose's assumptions. Later, I'll respond to each assumption like Roger has done, but for now I found it elucidating just to lay out the assumptions on the table.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, thanks for the note on the title and the enlightening posts on your blog!

2:41 AM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Or the ghetto of British poetry ... the ghetto of Hollywood ... ! ...

10:36 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Glenn, thanks for the post!

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