January 4, 2012

“I Am a _____ Writer”

I wanted to cogitate on a topic for a bit today. Not sure I’ll have anything particularly insightful to say, but here we go.

I read the introductions to the 2011 edition of the fabulous series Best European Fiction, edited by Aleksander Hemon. One introduction is by Aleksander, and the other is by Colum McCann.

I just love introductions, people meditating about what they do and why they it, and these were no exceptions. Both Aleksander and Colum talked about what the tem European fiction might mean. Fascinating stuff.

What does it mean to be labeled a certain type of writer? It is a fraught thing. We have often given privilege to the white male writer, and all other writers have had to have an additional tag put on the title. So a white male writer is “a writer,” and a white woman writer is “a woman writer,” and a African-American male writer is “a black writer,” and an African-American woman writer is “a black woman writer,” and so on. The same for your country of origin or your religious persuasion. And if you’re a number of things, they’re often hyphenated ~ Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanken-English-Canadian-American writer, say.

The default position needs no clarification, which is evidence of the embedded nature of power structures, while all others need to be carefully delineated. I’m not writing this to point blame; I’m simply pointing to historical realities. It is in our very nature to categorize the world by stereotype, which is a completely different discussion.

One of Colum’s points is that that world has become so small that people live in the hyphens: “We can be Irish and Argentinean, or French and Australian, or Chinese and Paraguayan, or perhaps even all of them at once.”

Colum, however, goes on to lay a special claim for European fiction ~ that its meaning expands and contracts and is particularly unclassifiable and fluid. In one respect I agree with him, in that the borders of nations change, which is not the case any more in the United States.

However, when it comes to a single representational literature, I think Europe is the same as the United States. The consensus centers of culture lay claim to that un-adjectived state of representing everyone. To them, if they don’t read widely outside their own sphere, the fiction of the United States may seem fairly uniform, with oh you know that crazy guy who writes about this weird other place. (I give most people more credit than this, however.) All other literature is given the label of regional. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. Remember that infamous cover?

But another distinction may be whether the label is applied from the outside or from the inside. Who are you? Are you an American? Are you a woman? Are you an African American? Are you a lesbian American? And who gets to label you? Some people shoulder labels easily, while others reject all labels as superficial.

We need these classifications. That’s the basis for language: we all sort of agree that this word equals this thing with these borders. So there’s always an inherent tension there. For example, it’s not just that dastardly publishing business reducing my fiction to a certain category. People want to know what this thing is. (I did my master's thesis on identity in pioneer diaries.)

I’m going to have to think more about Colum’s claim for the special nature of European literature and reread  the intro. However, in the meantime, I get to read these fabulous stories!

PS I know I'm a year behind and there's a 2012.  Looking forward to it!

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