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The Case of Otherness in Young American Prose — on the Distinctness, Multiculturalism and Ethnical Problems in Selected Short Novels from the Collection of Stories Granta 97 — Best of Young American Novelists 2

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The Case of Otherness in Young American Prose — on the Distinctness, Multiculturalism and Ethnical Problems in Selected Short Novels from the Collection of Stories Granta 97 — Best of Young American Novelists 2
      k  o   r  e    k    t  a Acta Universitatis Wratislaviensis •  No 3743Literatura i Kultura Popularna XXI, Wrocław 2015 Grzegorz Małecki Uniwersytet Wrocławski The case of otherness in Young American Prose — on the Distinctness, Multiculturalism and Ethnical Problems in Selected Short Novels from the Collection of Stories Granta 97 — Best of Young American Novelists 2 In the present essay I would like to consider the cases of otherness, multicul-turalism and ethnicity as presented in selected short stories gathered in the Polish edition of the collection of stories published by Granta in 2007 —  Best of Young  American Novelists 2 . The Polish edition was published in 2008. The collection consists of twenty-one works carefully selected by a six-member jury chaired by Ian Jack. One-third of the authors was born or raised in countries other than the United States (Russia, China, Peru, India, Nigeria, Thailand). Through the prism of the three works (by authors: Nell Freudenberger, Uzodinma Iweala and Jess   Row) I would like to look at the notion of diversity and at the concept of the Other. It seems that what characterized the previous editions of Granta’s ser-ies (“Americanism” and the issues of social classes as a source of tensions) is replaced with ethnicity, migration, distinctness and multiculturalism seen as a source of both interest and uncertainty. Invoking theorists like Tzvetan To-dorov, Emanuel Levinas, Wai-Chee Dimock, Gilles Gunn, Edward Said and others I am going to examine the ways in which both writers and their characters  perceive a multicultural world and how they treat diversity — not just religious or ethnic, but also sexual and mental. I would also like to prove that the young generation of American writers (all of the writers are under the age of forty-ve) has quite a fair sense of creating plausible images of what bothers and inspires modern American society 1 . 1   All of the translations from the Polish language done by the author (unless stated otherwise).DOI: 10.19195/0867-7441.21.3 LiKP21.indb 432017-01-12 11:28:05      k  o   r  e    k    t  a 44 Grzegorz Małecki Firstly, it is essential to clarify the concepts which stand behind these words: the Other and otherness. In this matter it seems most reasonable to point to the srcin of these two concepts. Levinas treats the Other as an external cultural construct to us which reveals itself/himself during a face-to-face meeting with  I. But it is not a shocking negation of the self, but rather the addendum to our being and interiority  — as Levinas puts it: “primordial phenomenon of gentleness” 2 . Elsewhere the phil-osopher adds: “To approach the other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of innity” 3 . This idea of innity states as the foundation of ethics and humanism. The relation with the Other is an ethical relation. Why does Levinas treat this face-to-face meeting with a stranger as the fundamental ethical value and what do we risk in rejecting this foundation? His answer is unequivocal and telling: “The other is the only being whose negation can be declared only as total: a murder. The other is the only being I can want to kill. […] At the very mo-ment when my power to kill is realized, the other has escaped. […] To be in relation with the other face to face — is to be unable to kill” 4 . To avoid killing we shall not consider otherness as a threat to our interiority. What is even more important, the Other does not have a capacity to murder the living being. Levinas believes that the interiority that, to thinking being, is opposed to exteriority, plays itself out in the living  being as an absence of exteriority. The identity of a living being throughout its history con-tains nothing mysterious: the living being is essentially the Same, the Same determining every Other, without Other ever determining the Same. If the Other did determine it — if exteriority collided with what lives — it would kill instinctive being. The living being lives beneath the sign of liberty or death 5 . As I understand it, Levinas claims that internalizing of exteriority cannot change the core of identity of  I —   and what follows — it might only open endless ways towards accepting the otherness of the Other. The otherness is therefore understood as a quality of being dierent, other and as the source of responsibility which comes true only within the moment of meeting (dialogue).How, then, is the issue of distinctness presented and depicted in the discussed collection? How do the authors describe the relations between the Other, other-ness and nativeness? And why do they still try to pertain to these matters whereas  — from the outside — it seems that America is able to derive great energy from multiculturalism? To fully address the analyzed content I would like to use a very 2  E. Levinas, ‘Totality and Innity. An Essay on Exteriority’, trans. by A. Lingis, Pittsburgh 2011,les/Totality_and_Innity_Whole_book_Word_PDF_2012-03-14.pdf,  p. 150, accessed: 14.03.2012. 3   Ibid., p. 51. 4   E. Levinas,  Entre nous. On Thinking-of-the-Other  , trans. by M. Smith, B. Harshav, New York 1998, pp. 9–10. 5   Ibid., p. 14. LiKP21.indb 442017-01-12 11:28:05      k  o   r  e    k    t  a The case of otherness in the young American prose   45 meaningful thought about the American society as a whole. According to Benja-min Demott, Americans suer from a distinctive, though by no means exclusively American, form of myopia . They are strongly committed to the ideal of person-al self-fulllment and it goes together with an equally strong counter desire to achieve a oneness of identity with other people. He argues that these are the two sides of the same coin. “Both represent a rejection of the idea that the realization of humanness, whether for oneself alone or for an entire group, »depends«, as he  put it, »upon my capacity and my desire to make real to myself the inward life, the subjective reality of the lives that are lived beyond me«” 6 . Do the authors and their characters also reject this ethical dialogue as a source of creating individual identity? To put it chronologically, I will analyze each of the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.Freudenberger was born in 1975 in New York and graduated from Harvard. Her story — Where East Meets West —   is a description of a few days and events in the life of Tabby Buell (she is the protagonist and narrator). She is a retired Latin language teacher, living alone in the suburbs. It seems that she leads a pretty good life — Tabby has got a spacious house and hires a personal nurse (Afro-American Serene). Her former student — George — is a frequent guest in her apartment. He is married to a young woman from Bangladesh — Amina. The young immigrant is looking for a job — she was an English language teacher in her hometown. During the rst meeting with Amina Tabby shows no major scruples while speaking with George’s partner. She does not have to go out of her way with any sarcasm or to oend her guest. However, following her thoughts we discover that the concept of the Other resonates somehow with her way of thinking. She lets it out when she notices Amina’s dark skin colour (which, in combination with a dark space, awa-kens a little anxiety) and when she thinks of Amina’s ascertainment about Tabby’s father: “Does she consider white men as good-looking?”. After Amina’s leaving Tabby explains to Serene that George literally “resourced her from the Internet”, from the webpage: After the moment she adds: “When we were moving here with Frank, this part of Rochester was only white”. However, the crucial point in Buell’s way of thinking about the otherness seems to be presented in her next thought-monologue, which follows: Meryl [Tabby’s daughter] is teaching in a public school in New York, and I know from Helen [granddaughter] that majority of the students are either Black or Latin. Meryl cannot even pronounce it: she uses this “new language” or she dissembles that she does not notice somebody’s skin colour. I have told her once that there were two students in the rst class which I had been teaching those days […] and she looked at me with such a dread as she would have had some attack or something like menstrual cramps. […] Sometimes I wonder how we succeeded on our way from racial segregation — which, despite my granddaughter’s thoughts, 6  G. Gunn, The Interpretation of Otherness. Literature, Religion, and the American Imagina - tion , New York 1979, pp. 175–176. LiKP21.indb 452017-01-12 11:28:05      k  o   r  e    k    t  a 46 Grzegorz Małecki I have never supported — to ignoring the fact that something like a race exists. As we all have Alzheimer. This passage seems to be key to understanding the protagonist’s approach to-wards racial issues. Since her words about Meryl, who does not speak about ethnic matters at all or with reluctance using a “new language”, are a proof that American society have not dealt fully with the otherness-treatment problem as something which you may freely talk about. This “new language” is denitely not Levinas’ dialogue — it seems to be rather the language of political correctness, devoid of deeper reection which treats a very important matter in a highly supercial way. It is enough to quote perhaps the most memorable statement of the French thinker to grasp the problem with this “new language”: „Positively, we will say that since the Other looks at me, I am responsible for him, without even having taken on responsibilities on this regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me. […] I am responsible for his very responsibility” 7 . The problem of “new language” is there-fore a lack of accountability — where there is no real dialogue there can be no question of taking responsibility. Tabby seems to present quite a rational view, saying that it is impossible to abandon certain categories of thought in describing what is external to me, but the eort of taking responsibility is worth doing so. The “new language” does not want to notice it — instead it attempts to marginal-ise the matter of otherness, thus trivializing it and de facto  ignoring it.As the story goes on, the old woman is trying to get to know and understand the existence of otherness. She accepts George and Amina as her guests and she eats with them some Indian dish. At some point she even decides to conceal the truth from George and she conceals a young girl’s trickery with an alleged letter from Bangladesh (the letter refers to a permission for taking a driving course). Tabby is even able to accept a relationship between her granddaughter and Samaj, who turns out to be an extremely successful visitor from India. Despite the fact that she does not want them to sleep together in her house during their stay, there are two meaningful scenes in which we can trace some signs of her willingness and capabilities of understanding the Other. The rst is the situation when Tabby cannot fall asleep, she goes down and nds Samaj working on her computer. In-stead of scolding him, she wants him to show her how to use the computer. When they are watching and commenting the Asianladies webpage together they sum-marize its value with a common word “disgusting”. Secondly, during the rst moments of the meeting we follow Tabby’s impression about Samaj: “Instead I looked at Samaj and something ashed between us, probably nothing friendly,  but for sure something of a kind of understanding, as between the two prisoners in the same cell”. Levinas accurately notes that 7  H. Corvellec, ‘An Endless Responsibility for Justice — For a Levinasian Approach to Man-agerial Ethics’,, accessed: 22.02.2011. LiKP21.indb 462017-01-12 11:28:05      k  o   r  e    k    t  a The case of otherness in the young American prose   47 Our relation with him [the Other] certainly consists in wanting to understand him, but this relation exceeds the connes of understanding. Not only because, besides curiosity, knowledge of the other also demands sympathy or love, ways of being that are dierent from impassive contemplation, but also because, in our relation to the other, the latter does not aect us by means of a concept. The other is a being and counts as such 8 . Interestingly, it is Tabby who manages to convince Samaj to marry her granddaughter, on which he had some doubts. There is also one great metaphor of understanding the distinctness. At some point of the story Amina is curiously looking out Tabby’s house window as she would want to understand, to cross the  boundaries, to reach beyond  self. It seems, therefore, that the heroes of Freudenberger’s story, as it develops, are trying to gain reciprocal trust. We cannot forget that sometimes Tabby ex- presses some doubts and she does not want to forget about visible ethnical and cultural dierences, but anyway the Other might become a source of curiosity, sometimes understanding or even deriving the energy. It evokes what Gilles Gunn wrote about literary trends in American prose which have appeared throughout its development. He argues that American writers have tended to imagine the ex- perience of the Other    or otherness in three characteristic modes corresponding with three dierent episodes from the American history. The crucial one — in this case — is the third mode, which nds its reection in the contemporary literature. It is called “irregular metaphysics” and it assumes that to fully response to the experience of otherness, to this liminal phase, one has to reverse oneself through the Other — to take its energy, courage, even identify with the other’s reality 9 .Iweala was born in Washington in a Nigerian family in 1982. He graduated from Harvard in 2004.  Dance Cadaverous  is a short story about a young black-skinned boy named Daven (he is the narrator), his family and his dead Chinese friend Zhou. Daven bemoans the loss of the best friend, who died in a car accident while he was under the inuence of alcohol. Zhou was born in the United States,  but he did not know his home-country culture and language. The narrator of the story also reveals other secrets of a young foreigner — he was not loved by his  parents, born as a child of Chinese prostitute, met by Zhou’s father — Chavin — during his stay in the Chinese army. Right now he is a successful neurosurgeon, who is cheating on his wife all the time. In several chats with Daven zhou, cited  by the narrator, admits that his mother is not able to speak to him. He feels like a stranger, someone who cannot nd his place in reality. A brief, but thought-pro-voking description of dysfunctional family is initially contrasted with the image of Daven’s parents who are highly concerned about their son and care-taking.  Nonetheless, as the story goes on, it turns out that they have to face an unexpected truth. Their son was supposed to have become a student of the prestigious Har-vard, but — contrary to the parents’ will — he chose Davenport. However, it is not 8   E. Levinas,  Entre nous… ,    p. 5. 9   G. Gunn, op. cit., pp. 206–207. LiKP21.indb 472017-01-12 11:28:05
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