A Question of Audience: A Response to Pankaj Mishra for Guernica Magazine
Where is the rage? Pankaj Mishra asks and directs this pointed question to the American citizenry, particularly its writers, in a in a recent conversation for Guernica magazine with Kamila Shamsie. When, asks Mishra is American literary fiction going to engage with the role and consequences of its country’s empire? And why don’t America’s citizens at least care that their own freedoms are being encroached upon? While Mishra mentions white-American author, Dave Egger’s as an emergent example of this kind of critique, Mishra wonders why this has not happened sooner and with more breadth. However, Mishra acknowledges, the “other problem in giving an ideological function—moral or political—to the novel. The questions, ‘Whose morality?’ and ‘Whose politics?’ still have to be answered.”
Mishra points to Arundhati Roy’s, The God of Small Things, as an example of the successful political- novel. Successful, according to Mishra, because it places marginalized characters at its narrative center. I concur with Mishra about the enormous contribution to the radical landscape that is The God of Small Things. However, I would challenge him to further reimagine and reconstruct the landscape of America by placing its disenfranchised at the center of his conversation about it. Mishra’s frustration at the absence of rage in American literature is facilitated by the continued default construction (domestically and abroad) of America (n) s, as: white, male, and middle- class or better. A construction perpetuated by Mishra, who simultaneously and from a great distance, asserts a critique of America that almost side-steps the issues of race entirely.
Mishra claims that an [American] novelist “cannot plausibly claim ignorance of his society’s manifold connections with the wider world, the fact that prosperity and security at home, for instance, often depend on extensive violence and exploitation abroad.” I would add that in 2014, it is equally dishonest and dangerous to not acknowledge those in America, who do not, and have not ever, enjoyed security or prosperity. Those whose bodies serve as the literal economic foundation of the nation. Those whose critique of capital is implicit in their decision to live. To leave the house every day knowing that the value of your life is still a rhetorical point to be debated. If Mishra is looking for rage, just maybe, he might find it among members of Black, NDN, undocumented, queer and trans people of color communities in the United States. Like the English-language Libyan, Nigerian, or Pakistani writer, we lack, what Mishra describes as, a “knowable community” as an audience. We are unable to work within the boundaries of nationalist assumptions of audience afforded to our white counterparts.
Many of us are poor, or underemployed, overworked, incarcerated, deported, isolated. Not to mention those who struggle with childcare, do not speak English, or live in neighborhoods where they are afraid, and are generally unable to access the fictional world where they might, but most often do not, exist. We are also brilliant, beautiful, in constant creative flux, bought, sold, and consumed at home and around the world. Survival leaves little time to examine the far reaches of American empire; ever present are the daily and monumental domestic repercussions of its local manifestation. It may do Pankaj Mishra and others well to know that the empire does not begin upon leaving the borders of the United States, but upon entering them.
For those of us who do travel, whether geographically, or professionally, outside of our communities, we come to learn of the circumferential reach and appeal around the globe of Black American culture. Yet, those of us, who have carved out the time to create— we struggle with the reality of a domestic audience, who may or may not be available to us. We also struggle with the knowledge that yes, while one is free to write what they would like in America, the supporting apparatus are always free and quite happy not to publish it. The magazines and journals are as white (whiter even) as they’ve ever been. We write and exist in a language and country that is both our second and often only; our origin an unknowable place. Black people in this country came from somewhere. Can Pankaj Mishra tell me where? Can he locate the depth of this rage? Can he even see that it exists from where he sits? Who am I to speak?
I am as unshocked by NSA spying, as Mishra says we should be. I am not shocked by NSA spying, the prison at Guantanamo, drone warfare, etc. My family line has survived genocide, chattel slavery, broken treaties, lynching, Jim Crow, and COINTELPRO, and mass incarceration. We have lost those we loved to extrajudicial murders. In 2012, the police or vigilantes murdered a Black American every 28 hours within the borders of the USA. I am not shocked because I grew up in a city, New Orleans that has had the distinguished title of being the world’s murder capital. I reside in a state that incarcerates more people per capita than any other place in the world. One million descendants of stolen Africans remain chattel in its prisons. My generation has been ripped apart quite systematically by drugs and prisons. New Orleans is being rebuilt day by day on the blood and land we have lost. What has been the response from the literary community both at home and abroad been to things I have recounted? Did we not suffer and die? Where is the rage, indeed?
America has been an intolerable place reaching much further back than the McCarthy era that Mishra traces it to. With the violence of a couple sentences, Mishra erases the physical and psychic suffering of those Americans whose experiences with empire pre-date the 1950’s and continue into the present. Mishra charges that the United States has been absent a true, oppositional culture since the 1960’s. I would like Mishra to know that there was Black Power, The Black Arts Movement, AIM, FALN, SNCC, MOVE, Angela, Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur, Herman Wallace, Alfred Woodfox, Sundiata Acoli, Geronimo Pratt, George Jackson… a list of names that I feel bad for even starting because it is impossible to complete. There is the suffering, imprisonment, torture, rapes, mutilations, murders, assassinations, spying, gaslighting, and forced exile and literature that accompanied the lives we lead in America.
There are many stories of resistance being written. Some of these stories are not being written. They are being acted out in the violence that leaves young men and women dead on the streets of my hometown every day. Some of these books are the rhythms and ceremony that survived the Middle Passage. Some of these books exist in the humor of Black Americans. In a vernacular we refuse to relinquish. We will not assimilate. Those of us who have chosen to write, resist a legacy that explicitly made it illegal for us to be literate. We resist the pressure to filter ourselves through the dominant paradigm.
The children of 80’s and 90’s America, our stories are just now being written into existence. They will, no doubt, engage heavily with the impact of mass incarceration, cocaine crack/powder sentencing disparities, Reaganomics, the Vietnam War, religion, gun and sexual violence, both in America’s past and present. The world might be surprised by just how much these narratives have to offer them, where it concerns the empire.
I would challenge thinkers like Mishra to open their eyes, redirect their focus, and expand the conversation about “American” literature. I would challenge the world community to seek out and center the work and speech of this America when discussing the presence or lack of rage or resistance within it. Or at least tell me honestly why my oppression should remain the hidden, secondary, or adjacent narrative of America. The violence wreaked by American imperialism on the world’s people finds its genesis at home. The ideology of white supremacy has sanctioned unfathomable violence within its borders. And as a result, will not permit itself to care for the violence it exports. A dialogue about America that centers the a priori, anti-Black, anti-indigenous violence, it was founded in on is the only honest conversation left to have. The conditions necessary for a society to be able to imprison, torture, and erase the men, who unconstitutionally, remain locked in the horror of the prison at Guantanamo do not emerge from the filament any more than did the Black American. We come from somewhere. Any conversation that chooses to willfully ignore this reality will find its effect on American literature nil.
Never before has there been opportunity to create a literature that is resistant to the conventions, constraints, and consequences of state allegiances, like the one that exists now. It is a question of audience— knowable or not. The creation of this kind of literature, the kind that can disembody the ideology of the militarist State will require people like Mishra, and all of us, to stop waiting on more white –American writers to come in to the know. It will require a disruption in the unacceptable practice of leaving America’s Black and NDN citizens out of the foray of the “main” discussion of America. The liberation of America’s Black and NDN people is inextricable from the fate of peoples around the globe. This is not a problem that can be worked out later. It is not an aside to the conversation around American imperialism. It is the central question of right now. Our survival on the planet earth depends on it.