Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Michelle Cliff, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Postcolonial Criticism

I recently read Everything is Now by Michelle Cliff, which includes stories from her first collection, Bodies of Water (1990), and her second, The Store of a Million Items (1998), as well as fourteen new ones, some of which deal with growing up in a colonial country, being torn between identifying with the white colonizer and the colored colonized, triangulating from Jamaica to England to America, and coping with issues of immigration. Cliff was born in Jamaica but grew up in the United States, receiving her education in New York City and London. She is the author of three novels, Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, and Free Enterprise, which have been well received for their focus on growing up in a postcolonial culture and on the dehumanizing effect of the international slave trade. Because her short stories are more poetic and less focused on history, politics, and culture, they have received less attention.

As I have noted before in this blog, the short story seldom succeeds when it serves primarily as a vehicle for political ideas and social commentary—no matter how humane the ideas are. As a result, the current, but slowly waning, academic infatuation with all things multicultural and postcolonial, has not been kind to the short story form.
There are, of course, exceptions, such as the very fine stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, which academic critics have received warmly, but usually for the wrong reasons. The stories in Lahiri’s most recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, focus on immigrants who “must strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” However, Lahiri develops her theme more deeply than that, using geography not as a social message but as a metaphor for crossing borders.

The title story is paradigmatic. Ruma, a mother at age 38, has left her job in a New York law firm to follow her husband to Seattle to raise their child. Her father, at age 70, has retired after his wife’s death and now spends his time taking European tours. The story takes place during the father’s visit while Ruma’s husband is out of town. For sixty pages, nothing much seems to happen as Ruma tries to come to terms with her father’s newfound freedom and he comes to know and love his young grandson. Then in the last few pages, because Lahiri knows how to manage the rhythm of the short story almost as masterfully as her mentors William Trevor and Alice Munro, the story tightens as a secret is revealed and the daughter realizes her father is also a man. Because of their realistic detail and their casual narrative flow, many critics have erroneously called these stories “novelistic,” but make no mistake, when that flow tightens into a vortex at the end and the seemingly irrelevant details become transfigured into significance, you will know you are in the hands of a master of the short story.

In the spring semester of 2006, my last term as a teacher, I conducted a graduate seminar on the postcolonial short story. My students and I read stories from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. As usual, my focus was on formal excellence and thematic complexity. However, my graduate students, who had been trained by my younger colleagues to value political and social subjects, did not read the stories closely and wanted to talk about social and cultural issues in general rather than the thematic and formal qualities of the particular stories we read. For them, the only important stories were those that lamented the plight of people of color in the third world and the history of political domination. For me, what made a story important was its truth about the human individual and its formal beauty. It was a battle every day. By the end of the term, I was weary of fighting for the power of art over politics.

I have three major objections to postcolonial and multicultural criticism—all of which, in my opinion, lie at the heart of the teaching of literature:

First, by focusing on the “what” of fiction, rather than the “how,” postcolonial critics and teachers often make facile generalizations about history and politics that ignore the qualities of the particular work they are considering and have little or nothing to do with literature as art. Thus, they encourage cursory reading calculated to elicit general concepts and polemical ideas, after which they discard the actual language and form of the work like an empty husk.

Second, postcolonial critics often create a jargon language and a convoluted syntax to make their often-simplistic ideas sound theoretically profound. Tagging on to the dense and oblique prose style of the now defunct deconstructionists, they try to make mere propaganda sound philosophically complex. Note the following from an essay on Cliff’s fiction by Jocelyn Fenton Stitt: “Contextualizing the work of Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff within this literary tradition demonstrates that many of the dominant forms of rhetoric used to establish authentic national subjects contain within them the gendered and raced legacies of Romantic nationalism.” Or this one from the same essay: “Referencing the (black) mother in Caribbean postcolonial discourse as the point of origin displaces more complex notions of national identity, which take into account racial, sexual, and cultural hybridity.”

Third, postcolonial critics, compelled to read third world literature as political allegories about the domination of the Empire and the revolution of those marginalized, drain the individual humanity out of the people that populate fiction, making them mere two-dimensional figures representing general qualities of poverty, ignorance, hunger, and deprivation. Francoise Lionnet calls Michelle Cliff an “autoethnographer,” arguing that her stories belong to a new genre of contemporary autobiography, “by writers whose interest and focus are not so much the retrieval of a repressed dimension of the private self, but the rewriting of their ethnic history, the re-creation of a collective identity through the performance of language.” Well, I for one believe that the truth and beauty of the short story derives from its emphasis on the “private self,” not a “collective identity,” whatever that might look like.

I liked many of the stories in Michelle Cliff’s Everything is Now, but not because they gave me allegories of “raced” populations. The best stories in this collection, as is true of all great stories, result when Cliff successfully controls the raw obsessive stuff of her life with the consummate care of her art. I recommend the book to you.


Lee said...

Oh, I do like the story Unaccustomed Earth, which I've recently read. The secret is not particularly secret from the reader long before the end, but yes, I agree about the rhythm of the story, the excellence of the contrasting voices, and most particularly the wonderful selection of detail so that I felt immersed in Ruma's and her father's lives.

By the way, last night I read (twice) my first Alistair MacLeod story, The Boat, which is superb. I'm going to reread it more closely this afternoon, it's that good, and I want to thank you for your recommendation of his work, which I might otherwise not have come across.

Have you read his novel, which I now have on order?

You do realise, don't you, what a terrific resource this blog is becoming for those who love the short story?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Lee, for the kind words. I have read all of MacLeod's works, including his novel. I like him very much. One of my great pleasures was hearing him read one of his stories in Dublin a few years ago. We had a wee chat--a very nice man. I am going to a short story conference in Toronto next June. He will be there.

Unknown said...

Hi, I found your blog and I enjoyed reading it. I also am from Eastern KY I live in Leslie County. Glad that I found your blog I will be sure to follow it and read more of your posts. I love to read stories about the mountains and the coal mining (because my husband is a coal miner and my father a logger) These stories are always awsome a friend of mine suggested reading Kinfolk by Gurney Norman and I read your post about it. my email address is manthamae07@gmail.com if you have any more suggestions of stories about good ol' KY.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Samantha. Thanks for posting a comment on my blog. The best book of Kentucky stories I know is the book Home and Beyond, edited by Morris Grubbs. It is published by the University of Kentucky Press, and is available in paperback from Amazon.com
It has a lot of wonderful stories in it. You might also like the memoir Creeker by Linda Scott DeRosier, about a woman growing up in Martin County, near my own home town of Paintsville. She also wrote Songs of Life and Grace, about her family. Both are published by University of Kentucky and available on Amazon.com
The best writer on Eastern Kentucky is James Still, in my opinion. His novel River of Earth and several of his short story collections and collections of poems are available.

zoya gautam said...

the manner in which you voice your thoughts , is a delight to read ,

many thanks ..


Mel u said...

I have been reading South Asian short stories later and I saw you said you read Indian stories in one of your courses and I was wondering what Indian short story writers you would recommend -my favorite is R. K. Narayan-

thanks for the hard work of your great blog