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A Brave New World Discovered - Touring, Reading, Studying, Discussing And Exploring the USA

Arthur Smith
 


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In 2006 I was amongst 17 American Literature scholars from 16 countries from four continents deepening our understanding of U. S. society, culture, and values through examining contemporary American Literature.

We were a varied group unified by our varying levels of interest in American literature. But then we soon realized, the need for contemporary American literature to include voices of other communities in America: African Americans, Native Americans, Jewish, Hispanic, Arabs, Jews, Chinese and other Asian minorities as well as for it to be reflective of various tendencies like gender and race which were important considerations in the choice of texts and in their discussions thus enriching the program and making it very varied, complex but interesting, through its resultant multi-cultural dimension.

So intensive was the program that it drew much time and energy from us in for instance reading up to late at night so as not to be lost to the lively discussions at the sessions.

In very thought-provoking seminars we, together with different professors with impressive credentials as well as publications examined how major writers, schools and movements both continue the traditions of the American literary canon, and at the same time establish new directions for American Literature. The wealth of experience and knowledge as well as accolades these long line of professors brought to this seminar was most impressive. We had in all about ten professors all of them with a long list of publications to their credit as well as bags and bags of awards, grants, and fellowships. Never in my life have I ever been exposed to such a battery of accomplished academics as these. All my colleagues from all over the world were equally humbled thankful and awed by this rare exposure to excellence at its best.

At the helm of affairs was the director of the Institute Professor Thomas B Byers, a very affable, multi-talented but modest man who has up to now run five such summer seminars. He is Professor of English and Director Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society at the University of Louisville from which he has received several awards for Distinguished Teaching as well as being at different times a Visiting Professor at the Universidade Estadual Paulista, Sao Jose de Rio Preto, Brazil and a Fulbright Senior Lecturer/Researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark. His publications include What I Cannot Say:Self, Word and World in Whitman, Stevens and Merwin(University of Illinois Press,1989) as well as numerous articles on contemporary U. S. literature, film and culture, published in such journals as Contemporary Literature, Modern Language Quarterly, Cultural Critique , and Modern Fiction Studies from which he earned the Margaret Church Memorial Prize for best essay in 1995. His younger but also erudite and able assistant, Aaron Jaffe , an assistant Professor in University of Louisville as well, has published Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (Cambridge University Press, 2005). His essays and reviews have appeared in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Modernism/Modernity, and other journals and essay collections

A widening range of cultural as well as racial and gender diversity were seen in the texts and writers examined and discussed. These include African-American writers such as Percival Everett, Adrienne Rich, Tony Morrison and Harriet Mullen, almost all of whom combined creative writing with literary scholarship in their careers.

Morrison for her part whilst an editor at Random House influenced the publication of many black writers and got the inspiration for her ground-breaking work Beloved which confronts the haunting memories of slavery.

Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior shows much of the doubts and cultural conflicts that ensues as Chinese Americans struggle to get absorbed into America whilst at the same time trying at great odds to retain their original identity .

A bitter, but beautifully written memoir of growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California, Woman Warrior, distills the dire lessons of Kingston's mother's mesmerizing “talk-story" tales of a China where girls are worthless, where tradition is exalted and only a strong, wily woman can battle her way upward. Kingston's America is a landscape of confounding white “ghosts" with equally rigid, but very different rules. Like the woman warrior of the title, Kingston carries the crimes against her family carved into her back by her parents in testimony to and defiance of the pain. She grew up “solid America, " the place her parents emigrated to, and the China of her mother's “talk-stories. " In talk-stories women were warriors and her mother was still a doctor in China who could cure the sick and scare away ghosts, not a harried and frustrated woman running a stifling laundromat in California. But the boundaries between fiction and truth becomes unclear as the narrative unfolds. Whilst in China, a ghost is a supernatural being; in America it is anyone who is not Chinese. Also, underlying even the most exciting talk-stories of Chinese women warriors is the real oppression of Chinese women which is evident in that a Chinese word for the female ‘I’ is ‘slave. '

This same feeling of displacement and estrangement is evident in the Mexican-American novelist Sandra Cisneros’ works: The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek.

In The House on Mango Street Esperanza Cordero, a girl coming of age in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, through poems and stories expresses thoughts and emotions about her oppressive environment. Esperanza and her family didn't always live on Mango Street. But right off she says she can't remember all the houses they've lived in but “the house on Mango Street is ours and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get. " Esperanza's childhood life in a Spanish-speaking area of Chicago is described in a series of spare, poignant, and powerful vignettes, each centering on a detail of her childhood: a greasy cold rice sandwich, a pregnant friend, a mean boy, how the clouds looked one time, something she heard a drunk say, her fearing of nuns especially so " when nuns yell at me, even if they're not yelling. " Esperanza's friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of her stories; through them all Esperanza sees, learns, loves, and dreams of the house she will someday have, her own house, not on Mango Street.

In the lyrical prose passages, in Cisneros’ other collection of short stories Woman Hollerin Creek Mexican American women of San Antonio, Texas. , muse on their loyalty to Mexico, their lovers and their sense of self-worth. Cisneros addresses the reader in a voice that is alternately buoyant, strong, funny, moving and sad, painting a vivid, colorful picture of life on the Texas/Mexico border with strong familial ties: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents all present. , often bringing out the romantic dreams of young girls longing to escape stifling small-town life only to discover later that things are not much different on the other side of the border. With a unique voice and style, Cisneros lays bare the realities of those who are oppressed and victimized. Many of the narrators are double minorities and the issues raised span from identity crises and gender bias, to patriarchal violence and class stratification. Cisneros adroitly uses a conversational and seemingly simplistic (and often childlike) voice to expose the very troubling and complex issues that occur to those who are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Contemporary American Literature is then an outcome of a multicultural American society which is only now giving long-ignored groups such as women, African Americans and American Indians the opportunity to reflect the sense of chaos they have been experiencing due to their identity problem. This multi-dimensional nature of the American society has led its literature to reflect features of a ‘jambalaya’ - a spicy dish with several tastes remaining distinct in it - rather than those of a ‘melting pot’ in which all tastes unite and become one single flavor. Thus, voices of minority groups and women are heard through their own works of literature thus providing useful insights to analyze postmodern fiction- and a means of expressing the various disparate self - an ‘experience that is becoming increasingly fluid in an increasingly shapeless world (Howe, 1959). Radical voices are now searching for ways to deal with violence, rigidity of life, loss of meaning and identity in America, which carry to great extremes the themes of heterogeneity, fragmentariness and meaninglessness in an extremely experimental form as is done by an American Indian, Sherman Alexie, whose work shows that the more the self of the writer is in chaos the more experimental fiction becomes since there is no other means of ‘personal or artistic’ survival in a world which lends itself to no assured definition.

Among these long-ignored voices is that of the Native Americans or American Indians who constitute the majority who have had to experience fragmentation of personality, ‘loss’ of identity and cultural values in a sense of ‘captivity’ most as seen in a story titled “Captivity"

’ Ceremony’ by Leslie Marmon Silko is the homecoming story of a young Native American returning to his reservation after surviving the horrors of captivity as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. Drawn to his Indian past and its traditions, his search for comfort and resolution becomes a ritual-a curative ceremony that defeats his despair.

Through Asian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreters of Maladies we also see the Indians struggling with accommodating two cultures in a strange land. Most of the characters in this collection of short stories seem to be experiencing an underlying malady - that of being an outsider. They're outsiders in their personal relationships, outsiders in a new society, outsiders crumbling under emotional pressure and more often than not, they're average people who feel like outsiders because of their discontent with their lives. Despite the tameness of the story shorn of twists and turns, sparing in suspense and not layered heavily with symbolism, . Lahiri's writing, an ability to convey a message of humanity through lyrical prose. Although the stories involve characters of Indian origin, race and ethnicity seem almost irrelevant in the light of what Lahiri has painted with these stories. The issues affecting the characters transcend cultural barriers a situation into which just anyone can fit.

Despite the melancholic theme of feeling oneself a stranger, some of Lahiri's stories end on a bittersweet note where one must look past the obvious to see the inevitable freedom that will come from shedding old skin. “A Temporary Matter" and “Sexy" are particularly poignant in their analysis of feeling like a foreign inside your own personal relationships and the unspoken possibilities that await those willing to break away from the past. "A Temporary Matter" tells the story of a couple who have drifted apart after the birth of their stillborn child. As their Boston neighborhood is immersed in darkness for a few hours every night, their relationship is engrossed with darkness as well. Every night, after the light's go out, Shoba and Shukumar are given the chance to rekindle what has initially brought them together and finally give voice to what they know has driven them apart. Although the “temporary matter" referred to in the story applies to the nightly electrical outage, the real “temporary matter" is the crumbling relationship between the couple and their inability to save what has become of it. In a way, the nightly truths that they softly share with one another are reminiscent of a final goodbye.

"Sexy" is all about a young woman's affair with a married man. Miranda is the outsider in her relationship with Dev, secondary to his wife and incapable of living her own life since it revolves solely around the next time they'll meet. Through the innocent words of a young boy, she is driven to examine and re-evaluate what love is, until she is finally ready to let go. The final pages of both stories, portray characters who have gained a sense of self, have broken away from their maladies to work their way towards personal freedom, be it the break-up of a marriage in the case of Shoba and Shukumar, or the end of an affair which is the case with Miranda. Most notably, the common thread between the two stories lies in their humanity, in their ability to strike a chord within the reader despite the simplicity with which they read.

Science fiction seems to have emerged as acceptable in the literary cannon with the inclusion of a wide selection of science fiction writers such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delaney, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler and Ursula Leguin as worthy of studying. Science fiction is largely based on writing entertainingly and rationally about alternate possibilities in settings that are contrary to known reality. We also had a revealing overview of the operations of the American theater. Overviews of contemporary American and African-American poetry were given along with a very comprehensive analysis of contemporary American literature with insights into critical and literary theoretical developments such as post-modernism and the politics of identity and representation especially with regard to minority American literature. The prevalence of post-modernism in contemporary American Literature was most evident through the seminars on Bobbie Ann Mason s Shiloh which is set in Louisville and on Samuel Pynchon s The Crying of Lot 49 as well as on Don Delillo s decidedly post-modern novel White Noise.

Diversity in cuisine reinforced the patterned diversity in almost everything including race and ethnicity in America as demonstrated in the varying types of restaurants at which we lunched and dined. Touring Louisville had amazing exciting and revealing ways in which it exemplifies a Post-Modern Space reinforcing the many exhibitions in showing us the connections between literature and space as well as time and other telling aspects of life.

The various art exhibitions visited further expanded the possibilities in representations and media. But also fascinating was the ease with which Americans absorb within themselves the extremes of life, working hard and playing hard. Myriad resorts, play houses, fun fairs, cinemas and stadium, grotesquely huge limousines, and vintage car festivals or rallies all give continuous joy to the flesh and the spirit.

Information is respected and worshipped here. So there are multiple means of gaining information: by telephone, land as well as cell, internet, cable television and radio, as well as magazines, journals and newspapers. Even without money one could have access to information, and knowledge through free newspapers, you could pick up from any street corner, newsstand, and thereby find a resort or activity that would surely amuse.

America cherishes and preserves history in several ways. Books and films, historical, biographical and documentary, abound in the millions. So do museums, exhibitions, monuments, relics and the restoration of slave plantations and slave houses for the continuous visitation of tourists as well as nationals thus ensuring that all are informed and educated on their past

We also followed with curiosity the restored houses and implements of the chaste and puritanical guild, of the Shakers who lived a life of total abstinence, piety, charity and industry in a replica of the Garden of Eden in Shakers Village at Mount Pleasant.

It was with longing that we awaited the flight to exciting San Francisco in spite of its well advertised expensiveness. But then I had to fly in to Oakland airport a day after my colleagues and was driven through bewildering scenes of architectural splendors onto the towering Argent hotel. On entering the conference hall for the afternoon sessions I was surprised by a standing ovation as well as glowing commendations by the Directors and the guest writer, Percival Everett, whose versatility in academia as well as literary creativity is most astonishing. The day s discussion with Percival Everett turned out to be very absorbing and wide-ranging.

I had already missed the Golden Gate bridge and Yerba Buena Gardens visits. But then I had to console myself with the remaining splendor and grandeur of San Francisco, with the buildings all now built to survive possible natural disasters. The immensity of the buildings are stunning. Each one seems to be in eternal competition with the others to touch the sky so much so that taking snapshots demand so much on your ingenuity to capture the fullness of their splendor. It was of historical as well as literary significance that we went to the City Lights Bookshop, the cradle of the West Coast Beat Movement which had such a significant effect on American poetry in the mid-sixties thus giving a bohemian and avant-garde twist to poetry. Allen Ginsberg whose poems were first discussed in the seminar was an important pillar in this movement. His books were published through this outlet which also became a broadside publisher as well as a venue for poetry readings as well as other literary jamborees. Our two days trip by Bart Metro for seminars at the University of California, Berkeley gave me the pleasure and privilege of strolling round the expansive but historic campus of the most renowned public university in the U. S. with its preponderance of gothic structures and to look up the English Department and the University Library

A four day trip to Washington Dc. with its breathtaking tours of exhibitions, museums, monuments, the White House and the Library of Congress drew our U. S trip to its climax. From Baltimore airport we were driven through a long stretch of country road to George Mason University where we were welcomed by Marilyn Mobley the exuberant and exciting black associate Provost for educational programs and associate professor of English and African American studies who led us through a well- informed and stimulating seminar on Tony Morrison and her recent novel Beloved. Her seminar on “Beloved" increased understanding of the effects of slavery on blacks as well as its centrality to Morrison's work. The novel BelovedMobley stressed is based on a historical fact that Morrison discovered whilst editing a book at Random House. It is the dramatic and suicidal action of a slave escaping from Cincinnati who was caught and killed the young baby girl in her hand to save her of returning to the ordeal she had attempted to escape from

Mobley, is the former president of the Toni Morrison Society and a society advisory board member, Mobley said, “Given current global affairs and our commitment to global education, I'm honored to have this opportunity to host this group of literature professors from around the world. " founded and served as the first director of the African American Studies program at George Mason. She received her PhD in English from Case Western Reserve University. A recipient of a 1989 NEH award and a 1989-90 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Her first book of criticism, Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative, was published in 1991 and reissued in paperback in 1994. Her recent work, Spaces for the Reader, is a study of Morrison's narrative poetics and cultural politics.

As we drove through the meandering contours of Baltimore s roads we contemplated how soon we would arrive at the nation s capital. Then our passing the Pentagon, Madison Square, Jefferson Memorial with a fleeting view of the sedate but yacht- laden Potomac River announced our arrival.

This trip was very rewarding in broadening my horizon giving me vistas of a widening world out there multiply and variedly advanced and where you learn and are thrilled, astonished and stimulated by varying sights and sounds every minute.

The offer of an honorary citizenship of the city of Louisville by its Mayor, a touching and most symbolic act, is still waiting to be amply exploited for the enhancement. of international understanding.

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