marlon-jamesA National Literature

Keynote address given by Marlon James

First presented at The NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad

Marlon James keynote text: “A National Literature”

A soon as I heard what was going to be the topic of this discussion, I thought of two things immediately. Chimamanda Adichie’s groundbreaking TED talk on the danger of the singular story and an incident I experienced recently where after being asked to interview the Jamaican poet Mutabaruka, I was, without my knowledge then demoted to asking prepared questions from the audience. All because a Jamaican organization found me unsuitable, a too volatile voice to represent Jamaica in an international forum, which was sort of like me telling Bunny Wailer that you can’t hang with Peter Tosh because you’ve been known to smoke weed.

But what both instances reminded me of was the immediate pitfall, the danger in the term ‘national literature’, the same danger in terms like ‘black music’ or ‘women’s fiction.’ That this is a categorization and any attempt at categorization is reductive, like the library of congress reducing your novel to three words. Take away literature and substitute any other art and this is quickly apparent: a national music, a national painting, a national dance step, especially in this post-everything age where national boundaries are not only irrelevant but sometimes anti-art. Because at the core of categorization is an attempt not only to make something smaller, but also easily definable. Great art resists paraphrase, but isn’t ‘National Lit’ an act of paraphrasing?

And we’re already seeing this happening, a move certainly in my country Jamaica to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable national literature. At the core, this acceptance versus rejection is a moralizing; sprung from both religiosity and jingo-ism, an attempt to enforce the singular story. Sometimes with the delusion of diversity. So sure, let’s have a gay story as long as it fits an acceptable arc of sadness, but what if it involves actual gay sex and what if the two or more involved quite like it? Moralizing disguised as nationalizing rears it ugly head when we talk about violence. There’s an acceptable limit, which can be crossed if there’s an acceptable comeuppance. But what if you’re Irish playwright Martin McDonagh and you’re a master of violence, that your poetry is gore, guts and buckets of blood? And what if you’re totally amoral about the whole thing? What if you’re Jamaica’s Jean Genet, or even closer: an actual Jamaican who navigates queer space to international acclaim yet all but unknown in her home country, Patricia Duncker? Is Thomas Glave National Lit? Or what if you’re none of these things, but someone who simply wants to write about the middle class? You end up in that situation where your national lit isn’t national enough.

And what are teachers supposed to do with a national literature? Teach art or nationalism? I was part of a generation where this was first enforced, not just nationalism but regionalism, clearly with good intentions, after all if you spend your early years with Enid Blyton you’re going to need all the cultural correctives you can get. But the result was not a national literature or the appreciation of it. It was a steady diet of simplistic poems, leaden dramas, and failed novels that caused, certainly in my generation, an unhealthy association of local literature with mediocrity, nostalgia and sentimentality. That these were works to consumed because it was your national duty, not because they had any inherent value. And another things happens, where in the midst of your own literature you disappear. Because there was no one in these books like you. You unfortunately came from neither bush nor ghetto so your voice is illegitimate. It certainly explains why in the discussion of Jamaican literature for example, John Hearne and Louis Simpson rarely appear. What if you just don’t look like a national writer? I remember when I was a student I was told that nobody in Jamaica writes about the upper middle class but John Hearne and nobody reads him. And lord knows the man should not be lionized, but he should not be ignored either. How do I get to be national enough? Who gets to define it? And will they be inclusive or restrictive, because that makes all the difference.

A good parallel example for this is hip-hop. Between 1981 and 1991, rap music had its most creative years, certainly it most expansive, driven by this unbelievable sense of possibility. A form that came out of nothing could now encompass everything. But growth makes us nervous. By 1993, there was a growing mood that hip-hop was too expansive, too inclusive and out of that came a new idea: What is  not hip-hop. The music started to define identity by drawing lines. You want to grow up? Sorry, not hip-hop. You’re neither bitch nor ho? Not hip-hop. Can’t keep it real and represent? Not hip-hop. Now an art-form had a gatekeeper, and not only that, it made gate-keeping the legitimate means for defining the culture. What’s the price we pay for this, of music, of literature becoming so easily defined because it is being protected? It becomes easily produced. Easily parodied. So take one small rural village, two grannies, a church sister named Dorcas, two wayward children named Lerlene and one Mas Joe, (because there must always be a Mas Joe) throw in some rivers, a mountain and a brush with obeah and poof, you have a Jamaican novel. No movement has ever survived categorization, not 70s’ style feminism that couldn’t figure out what to do with non-American women, or the Black Arts movement that couldn’t figure out what to do with James Baldwin. A national literature, if this is the way it goes forward, as it sometimes threatens to be, won’t get very far either.

This is a problem that will stunt art. Every few years for example we have a rash of ‘Britain for the British’ fever, which is just a cutely racist way of saying British lit does not look like British lit unless it’s white. You get a case of too many paintings and not enough mirrors. Even rebellion gets couched in a nationally approved way — always moralistic, never complicated. Sexuality if it happens is offstage. Poverty is always confused with simplicity and the past is always suffused with nostalgia. A national literature whose first duty is to promote tourism, not art.

Now, a national literature, if it’s supposed to happen, has to be so broad that it risks vagueness. Like Japanese literature it has to be constantly wrestled with and debated even at the risk of extinguishing the very idea of it. Like Indian literature it has to both accept and throw away the concept of Indian-ness and whether that has any bearing on literature at all. It has to include the next Beloved, but also the next Story of O. Criticism of it has to evolve as well beyond the petty sensibilities of critics and beyond the argument of whether a book should or should not have been published or whether or not it hurts the Brand. Japanese literature had to evolve from a very simplistic and jingo-ist idea of nationalism to something that celebrates both Murakamis: the one who writes dream-like fantasies and the one who writes sadomasochistic violence. Swedish literature is at once immediately recognizable and unclassifiable. It recognizes how essential it is, the contrary voice, the ambivalent voice, the deeply critical. Everybody of course knows of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but some are unaware that it’s Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women and it’s a scathing critique of Scandinavian society’s almost institutionalized brutality against women. And yet the book is held up as something to celebrate in a way that a book called ‘Men Who Kill Battymen’ would never be in Jamaica. At least not yet.

Maybe we need to rethink the term, and it’s not just the literature that needs to evolve, but also the national. National literature should never be anything that follows the word  ‘should’. There is no such word as ‘should’ in art. It can be cultural despite having no flag waving purpose. Where speaking truth to power is a greater service than describing beautiful beaches and wonderful people, it resists a literary blackface. National Literature is worth fighting for, but also worth fighting over. That it should never confused with a national story; that’s an advertising agency’s job. A national literature wrestles with form but also leaves it alone. A national literature reckons with how people actually speak. It recognizes the fluidity and musicality of form and extends it. For a national literature to exist it must always be uneasy with the term ‘national literature’, distrusting it every step of the way.

Or a National Literature is none of the above, but rather a blank space and safe space, a sponsored space but also a free space where nothing is beyond imagining but anything can happen.

Copyright: Marlon James, 2013