“Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.”
In her essay, “The Storytellers of Empire,” Novelist Kamila Shamsie indicts especially post-9/11 American fiction, saying that it is too insular and fails to consider the perspective of the Other (Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan).
( “Storytellers of Empire”. See also Shamsie’s word-based initiative http://www.freewordonline.com/).
Since reading this essay a few days ago, I haven’t been able to move on from this question: Why won’t the novelists go — to Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan — in their creative work? Who will steward these important perspectives and voices into being in American literature?
Whether or not you agree with Shamsie’s assessment of American literature as narrow in scope in this particular way, for me her comments also suggest a certain type of work that Shamsie believes words should do: they should bear witness to a given moment in all its national, global, social, political complexities.
Her assertions reminded me of Toni Morrison’s essay, “The Dancing Mind.” This is an essay I find myself returning to often. In it, Morrison focuses on what, for her, is at stake in literary engagement, in the life of the mind: peace.
“There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace I am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one–an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in. Accessible as it is, this particular kind of peace warrants vigilance. The peril it faces comes not from the computers and information highways that raise alarm among book readers, but from unrecognized, more sinister quarters.”
The “more sinister quarters” are threats to a reading and writing life. These threats are as seemingly benign as the demands schools often place on students to do too much in too little time, and are more dangerous in parts of the world where the act of expression could cost a writer her freedom or her life.
Peace for Morrison, then, is realized in the dance between the reading and writing mind.
“I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my own mind while it touches another’s–which is reading…. That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain–which is writing.”
And as Morrison asserts, it is largely the writer’s job to secure and protect that peace. In this way, her ideas about literature resonate with those of Shamsie. Writers, then, should open new channels in their fiction through which new perspectives can be grappled with.
The novelist functions as an important witness. As a cultural diplomat.
But that would be too easy — to heap this work all on our writers. The challenges these two women writers of color pose aren’t only for writers. They involve all of us — those who read, write, teach, parent, imagine. How do we encourage a more global American imagination? How do we create space for full engagement with the written word — or really with any kind of expression? How do we write moments that encourage and even demand such stretching engagement? How do we read in a way that is more fully open to difference — and towards meaningful social engagement?
And, especially for parents and teachers: How do we raise and educate children who are motivated, curious, resilient, and imaginative enough to read, write, think, and engage beyond themselves?
We are called on by these essays to engage in deeper acts of cultural diplomacy. Potentially, the life of the mind may provide a different kind of diplomacy. A different means to peace.