I continue to profit, intellectually and emotionally, from the close international friendships I made as a juror for the Neustadt Prize in 1998, but among the most stimulating ongoing benefits of WLT are the ideational riffs touched off by the random conjunctions, within single issues, of books and authors from different parts of the globe. Thus it happens that a reference to the recent death of Nirad Chaudhuri (at the ripe age of 101) and the review of Laure Adler's biography of Marguerite Duras coincide with a course I am currently teaching on the autobiographies and memoirs of contemporary literary figures; and thereby hangs a tale of representational and self-representational interrogation.
I first became aware of Chaudhuri's writing when I was living in India in 1977. He was an argumentative presence in the Indian press, a cultural and political agent provocateur. Subsequently I read his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and Passage to England. Like Duras, he was a self-mythologizer, and biographers will have trouble separating memorable self-dramatization from forgotten fact.
A year or so after my return from India, I met Chaudhuri at a small dinner party in Kingston, Ontario, after he had given a lecture at Queen's University. I was slightly bemused by his Oxford donnishness, a role assiduously cultivated. He wore a splendid velvet smoking-jacket, and announced that normally for dinner he also wore his jabot and lace cuffs, but that he restrained himself "when traveling in the colonies." He identified himself, quite earnestly, with those colonial scholars in Alexandria who kept pure Ciceronian Latin alive after the fall of Rome. On his shoulders, he believed, rested the Herculean task of preserving against the forces of degeneration the golden age of English language and literature.
Adler, notes WLT's reviewer John L. Brown, soon discovered that Duras was inventing her own life. Adler cannot pin down "the real Marguerite" but concludes that Duras's "writing was more truthful than her life."
What is apparent in the recent autobiographical writings of such literary figures as Carolyn Heilbrun, William Styron, Vivian Gornick, Klm Chernin, and Louise de Salvo is the awareness that this has always been so; that the multiplicity of selves, the slipperiness of memory, the shaping and reshaping of the narrative of one's life over time is a process both deeply suspect but also truthful to the (constantly changing) felt experience of such life. The instinct for self-mythologizing seems constant, but a watchful self-awareness of the process makes current autobiographical writing more fascinating, especially since the reader knows that the decoding clues self-consciously proffered are themselves suspect.
Janette Turner Hospital Professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence University of South Carolina
I read with interest the Summer 2000 issue of WLT and noted with pleasure the pieces on "`Exile' Latino/a Literature," Maryse Conde, and Spanglish. Your constant and good attention to Latino literature, of course, reflects larger trends. According to a recent study of readers across the United States of member publications of the National Association of Hispanic Publications, the typical Latino household purchases 4.8 children's books a year in Spanish, 7.2 children's books in English, 6.0 adult books in Spanish, and 6.8 adult books in English. This represents a total of 24.8 books per year, per household, which bodes well for the continued interest in books by, for, and about Latinos. The United States is enjoying a renaissance of interest in Latino writers by publishers. Established writers continue to produce work, and new and upcoming writers are finding opportunities for their voices to be heard.
This spring the Latino Literary Hall of Fame will once again honor Latino writers and their publishers. Last year, more than thirty titles were recognized for excellence in a variety of categories ranging from books for children and young adults to fiction and nonfiction in English and Spanish. There were awards for best romance novel, best mystery novel, best self-help book, best New Age book, best children's picture book, etc. There were even awards for best cover design and best first book. These attest to the diversity in Latino literature. One can only look forward to more exciting reading in 2001, and we should all stay focused on WLT in this regard.
Katharine A. Diaz Latino Book & Family Festival
TICKLING THE TONGUE(S)
I have encountered Ilan Stavans's defense of Spanglish in the past, shook my head dejectedly, and let it pass. In "Spanglish: Tickling the Tongue" (WLT 74:3, Summer 2000) Stavans offers a more replete analysis and explanation. He knowledgeably draws upon a diversity of germane sources and experiences in a variety of areas and languages. He is incisive, accurate, and compellingly convincing. And that is what makes this essay so dangerous.
Despite the conservative stance taken by the appropriate agencies in France and Iceland, languages are not static relics; they evolve and mutate as we speak. But there is also a structural foundation, an integrity that lends consistency, so that although declensions, conjugations, and vocabulary have changed, the English of Chaucer or even Beowulf is connected syntactically and semantically to our current version. The occasional addition or insertion of individual foreign words has very little effect on the integrity of a language. German appropriates "teenager," Urdu picks up a surprisingly large percentage of its vocabulary from Arabic, and, as Stavans observes, Yiddish is infused with Hebrew and makes use of Russian and other languages depending on the speaker's linguistic grounding. But these analogues are deceptive. Yiddish, for example, is a secondary or tertiary medium for many speakers. It is also dying.
Spanglish is the language of communication for the speakers under discussion, and sometimes, rather than tickling the tongue, they seem to be talking in tongues. Almost thirty years ago, I had a conversation with a migrant worker in California. This approximately forty-year-old man had been born in the United States and spoke to me in Spanglish. Later, I asked his adolescent son whether his father's mother tongue was English or Spanish. His son replied that his father only spoke the language he had used.
There are no linguistic hierarchies. Middle Kingdom Egyptian is not superior to or more advanced than Sumerian. Some day, Spanglish may very well be the language of choice for international commerce and Nobel Prize speeches, but today it is not. Limiting oneself to Spanglish articulations concomitantly limits one's possibilities in the real world, regardless of whether one lives in Lima, Madrid, or Chicago. Perhaps that is why the man I met spent his days irrigating cantaloupe fields using a long-handled hoe. There is nothing wrong with choosing to use Spanglish or Ebonics or composing novels in dialect or with macaronic verse, as long as one also has the ability to use the formal language of his or her homeland. Otherwise, these liberal disquisitions will only benefit the theoreticians. The people will find life on the street very difficult indeed.
Robert Hauptman St. Cloud State University Editor, Journal of Information Ethics
CLOSING THE FRONTIER?
World Literature Today continues to perform invaluable service in publicizing sometimes neglected writers and whole literatures to its international audience. Perhaps it would be useful for WLT to recognize the part that various scholarly organizations play in creating, sustaining, or limiting literary reputations. As recent president of the Western (American) Literature Association, I can offer a perspective that may be useful as a starting point.
The general tenor of the Western Literature Association meetings and what I can see of the membership has changed in the past ten years. The level of gender and racial sensitivity has increased. For example, at the Estes Park meeting in 1992, the Readers' Theater presented a nineteenth-century play which featured a stereotypical Chinaman. He may have been bleached out by the end of the play, so you'd wonder where the yellow went; but what I saw was pretty offensive, and I wondered what a Chinese-American would think about it. That play would not be performed today. By the time I was able to suggest that someone be given a platform to comment, some members of the association had become so sensitive that they regarded Frank Chin as sexist (because he speaks for Asian males rather than females and has strong opinions about everything), homophobic (because he objects to Western feminization of Asian males), and abrasive (because he objects to white racism). I was particularly struck by the last charge, since the Association had previously honored Edward Abbey, that notoriously mild-mannered Western writer.
There are a number of ways to interpret this response. The least inflammatory is to discuss a tendency to canonize certain writers, themes, and topics and to give passes to writers accepted as canonical or at least worthy of study. I'm not suggesting that the Western Literature Association should start deconstructing Willa Cather or Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, for example. But it might be refreshing to note that not all New Mexican Hispanics share the attitude toward Padre Martinez of Cather and her archbishop; or to hear an argument that McMurtry's most financially successful novel, Lonesome Dove, might be distinguishable from a Louis L'Amour novel largely by length, literary ambition, and talent; or that the romance subplot in All the Pretty Horses verges on the ludicrous and shares the stereotypes contained in the comic book about Billy the Kid patched into Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Or that when reading McCarthy's prose, some of us want to adapt the comment of the emperor in Amadeus and say, "Too many words!"
Like many scholarly organizations, the Western Literature Association does useful work, but by adopting a more critical -- including self-critical -- attitude, and by remembering the spirit of openness to new modes and subjects in which it was founded and to a great degree continues, it can do even better.
Robert Murray Davis Norman, Oklahoma