May 2010

Guy Cunningham


Fiction Across Borders: Imagining the Lives of Others in Turn-of-the-Millennium Novels by Shameem Black

In a recent New Yorker profile, the economist Paul Krugman explained that in his profession, people often disregarded certain ideas (in this particular case he was talking about his work in economic geography) until someone is able to translate them into a workable theoretical model. For some reason, I thought of that as I read Shameem Black’s new book, Fiction Across Borders. In it, Black formulates a new literary theory that she says offers “a new interpretative lens that will help us identify an ethics of representing social difference.” 

What makes Black’s work different from that of many other literary theorists, though, is the way she acknowledges her debt to novelists. She also deliberately stands in contrast to a previous generation of theorists who worried that authors could not imagine characters from different social, ethnic, or gender groups without resorting to an “invasive” appropriation of these group’s stories and identities. Many of those critics are here accused of having a tendency to “valorize a work’s oppositional or negative tendencies over its possibilities for ethical perception of significant otherness.”  

Black disagrees with this approach, observing, “If novels have the power to promote and perpetuate ideologies of inferiority, they may logically have the capacity to help us begin to question them.” She posits that certain cross-border fictions that emerged after 1980 have created an “ethics” for the proper representation of characters from different backgrounds and cultures. These novels use a “crowded style” to create what Black calls a “crowded self,” one that encompasses many identities and points of view simultaneously. 

Not all border-crossing fiction meets this standard, of course. Black sets three criteria for the “ethical” imagining of social difference. First, writers must show “a recognition of selfhood and language as socially shaped.” Also, they must acknowledge, “the act of imagining others requires actively reimagining one’s own social location.” Finally, ethical border-crossing fiction “requires self and style to abandon aspects of privilege, and to embrace a capacity to be vulnerable.” 

She points to the writer Charles Johnson as an important innovator in this field, declaring, “his novel Oxherding Tale, published in 1982, provides the earliest example of the representational ethics considered in this book (Fiction Across Borders).” She explicates these ethics by reading key examples of Johnson’s work, along with novels by Gish Jen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Amitav Ghosh, and J. M. Coetzee, among others. In so doing, she both develops a new theoretical language and -- perhaps more interestingly for lay readers -- illuminates an interesting new trend in contemporary fiction. 

All of these novelists dare to represent characters from across a range of cultures, in spite of the complications this entails. Black approvingly echoes Ghosh, who has said, “You flinch to represent a character thinking in Burmese in English. But one has to take that risk because something is better than nothing.” As Black explains, Ghosh manages this risk through an intentionally plain writing style:  

Because he refrains from representing different dialects as sonically distinct forms of English, Ghosh works against a tradition of discursive domination by refusing to place the many languages of his characters into constraining hierarchies of standard and nonstandard English. 

Black is a sensitive, observant reader, and the best thing about the book -- the thing that saves it from being a mere relic of academia -- is the way she explores the writers who have created this new ethics of border-crossing. For example, her meditations on Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex reminded me of just why I’ve always found Eugenides to be such a compelling and original writer. She also convinced me that I have made a grave mistake in not reading Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. Ultimately, the most important thing about a literary critic is that they make you want to read books that you might otherwise overlook. By that standard, Black has written a useful book. 

She is particularly insightful about Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. She adds to the case for his importance, explaining, “As one of the most prominent postcolonial writers working in English at the turn of the millennium, Coetzee stands out for the exceptional and uncompromising lens that his fiction turns on its world.” In works such as Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace, Coetzee is seen as pushing the ethics of border-crossing fiction to its absolute limits. As Black explains, “The ethical decisions of Coetzee’s characters and the narrative choices of his fictions all turn to radical renunciation and self-conscious vulnerability to transgress social borders.” To put it more plainly, Coetzee’s characters are willing to renounce the idea of the expansive “Self” put associated with the Romantics, especially Lord Byron, if that what it takes to cross social, ethnic, and gendered borders.

As the book’s comfort with scholarly jargon attests, Fiction Across Borders is an academic work. Like Paul Krugman, Black is basically creating a model for theorists to discuss something that already exists in the nonacademic world. In a sense, she is an advocate for the writers pioneering this terrain. But as writers’ advocate, she issues them a challenge: 

Unlike conventional defenses of artistic freedom of expression, which stress the right to create new representations without regard for differentials in power, the practices I defend invite us to understand writing about others as a responsibility that attends to the nuances of historical, intellectual, and material privilege. 

Whether other writers rise to this challenge or not, Black has done a good job recognizing the work of those who already do.

Fiction Across Borders: Imagining the Lives of Others in Turn-of-the-Millennium Novels by Shameem Black
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 0231149794
333 Pages