Reading the Individual

1 Feb

Jeremy brought up some very good questions in his post “How Should We Read?”  He asks,

Said rejects the idea of Germanness or Jewishness, etc. This seems important in finding the right lens through which to view literature this semester. But, in place of seeking analogs, if we look for the differences in literature, are we showing that there is no such thing as “Third Worldliness” or will those differences feed into the idea that there can be Dominicanness or Martininqueness? I can’t think of a way to start thinking about our post-Heart of Darkness readings that would not really piss off Said. Do we even need a lens or do we simply look at the subject matter and not the style or the form as evidence of how imperialism continues to exert control over various cultures?

I think Said gives an answer when he outlines his method of writing:  “My method is to focus as much as possible on individual works, to read them first as great products of the creative or interpretive imagination, and then to show them as part of the relationship between culture and empire” (xxii).

This holds true for any novel, not just the “Western” novels Said discusses. For instance, we read the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in the “African Writer” class. The novel, about 419 internet scanning in Nigeria, very much discusses contemporary issues in Nigeria (government corruption, poverty, the role of education), and assesses economic and cultural changes leading up to the 419 culture. Therefore, the novel is highly concerned with the nation-state of Nigeria and something that defines Nigeria in the minds of people outside of it–particularly “Westerners.” Yet, the “Nigerianness” it defines is, in fact, a “contrapuntal” writing in that the novel takes this common narrative about Nigeria and explodes it by writing the lives of individual Nigerians–giving them faces, lives, families, heartaches, and joys. The novel is also cognizant of ideological factors and the role of colonial emphasis on education and religion as well as economic factors in post-colonial Nigeria that lead to 419. In discussing the novel, we didn’t talk about the novel as compared to a “Western” novel–we interrogated it using many of the same methods with which we would interrogate a novel of the “Western” cannon, looking at history, the writer’s biography, and interviews. We were able to discuss the author’s writing technique in terms of the way in which it furthered her discussion of these issues.

In other words, to read a novel in the context of these classes and to ask the questions Jeremy has asked is already to question unitary presentation of ideas of  “German-ness” or “Nigerian-ness.”  Most contemporary writers that we read in “The African Novel” and will read in this class do so overtly anyway.  To read each author individually, to allow each one to have his or her own voice and own opinions, rather than looking for analogues or “differences” is to see each author not just as representatives of “Third-World Lit” or “Martinique-ness,” just as we view Conrad’s opinions both as his own and as reflective of a larger cultural narrative.

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