Saturday, July 25, 2009

White, Middle-Class Male Seeks "Reality"

First of all a confession: of all columnists spouting their views in British mainstream media, I believe Johann Hari to be one of the best. His arguments are well researched and well made. Plus, his liberal (as opposed to left-of-centre) views are refreshing in a world where opinions of everything from the colour of Michelle Obama's clothes to piracy off the coast of Somalia are tainted by ideological petrification and intellectual sloppiness.

Which is why I was disappointed to read his piece on reality and the contemporary novelist this morning. Suddenly I realised that Hari's views are not much different from the British mainstream.

First of all there is the ridiculous assumuptions that "reality" is some how "over there" - in lands far away like India and Africa but not in the middle-class havens of London, Manchester, Glasgow. More problematic is the implicitly classist conceit that this over-there-reality must be about war/poverty/violence.

Then there is a more troubling aspect: Hari blithely describes the location of Arvind Adiga's new novel as "typical Indian city." While, this might sound like nitpicking to some but most Britons take great pride in explaining the uniqueness and difference of the various parts of their tin-pot island. Thus London is automatically assumed to be world apart from Manchester. And god forbid if you ever describe Glasgow or Edinburgh as "a typical British city" to either a Scot or an Englishman! Yet a country of over a billion people, seventeen official languages, every major religion can somehow be reduced to "typical". I would LOVE to know what qualifies as a "typical Indian city" - Mumbai? New Delhi? Guwahati? Hyderabad? Patna? But hey, the white man will establish the "uniqueness" of his location but "over there" is just all a "typical" massive (w)hole.

An aside here: If Adiga's first book's superficiality (most likely a result of an over-arching ambition to write the "Indian" novel rather than just a brilliant one) is any indication, it is precisely his short-hand rendering of the Said-ian "typical" Indian characteristics that make him such an "exhilirating" writer for the likes of Hari. After all, why complicate your life - and reading - with ideas, views, insights into the "non-typical" India or any other "over-there" that you would acquire from the likes of a Mahashweta Devi or an Amitav Ghosh? After all their litarary "reality" gets a little too uncomfortably confrontational for white British middle-class men with pretensions of liberality.

(Mind you - for those of you ready to jump down my throat - I am not saying that Hari is racist! Unfortunately all of us have racist assumptions, most of which we deny or are unaware of. And to paraphrase Ella Shohat, its the "unthinking" racism that is the most insidous and dangerous).

Then there is the glowing recommendation of Adiga's Boyle-like attempt to write like a "journalist" about what he doesn't know. Without even going into the merits of Adiga's research and its literary rendering, Hari's statement itself is problematic.

Having worked as a journalist in Latin America and Asia, I have despaired of far too many of these well-meaning journalists who "research" places they write about without ever bothering to learn the language, understanding the culture, or indeed caring about the context of the stories they email back to the publications back home. Worse still, all these purportedly objective journalistic accounts are not only deeply judgemental and flawed, they actively construct views, opinions of the "over-there" by elision and omission, and thus aid and abet trade, diplomatic and military policies that countries implement.

So journalists are hardly the benchmark of those who go out to learn and write about "reality." And while it has become fashionable to complain about the deterioration in journalistic standards in the past decade, Western "journalistic" standards were always deeply flawed when it came to covering "reality" in over-there-lands! In fact, novelists would be better served if they focussed on particular subjective realities, providing depth, context, integrity and compassion to their stories, rather than imitating the falsely objective, exploitative, limited viewpoints that journalism requires!

Finally, Hari's paean to the apparent resuscitation of the "realist" novel by Adiga (and I assume others of his ilk) is particularly grating. The "realist" novel was a product of a particular time, place and culture, all of which are part and parcel of Hari's cultural inheritance. However the realist novel was also an aspect of the intellectual imperialism that wreaked - and continues to wreak - as yet unacknowledged havoc on colonized cultures across the globe.

Realism may have served a particular purpose in Europe and America, but it represents a form of intellectual and creative colonisation beyond these geographical/political and cultural boundaries. For far too long, writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America were told to write in "realist" forms and forced to eschew non-realist, non-linear narrative traditions that their own cultures had developed in the centuries prior to colonization. "Realism" was enlightened, modern, intellectually superior to the non-linear, non-realist narrative traditions of Africa, Asia, Latin America, we were told constantly and consistently. Colonised writers took up the form, to prove they were as good as their colonial masters, to attain intellectual credibility and readership, to show the masters that they too "could"!! This is why Marquez, Borges, Rushdie had such an impact on their home cultures - they unshackled the novel from its colonial-realist shackles, demonstrating that "reality" could be narrated in myriad ways and not only the one foisted upon us by our former colonial masters.

For writers from postcolonial nations who are still struggling to overcome the far-longer lasting legacies of intellectual and creative colonisation, Hari's views are not deeply familiar but also depressingly common. Its just horribly disappointing to read Hari espouse them.

As I said at the beginning, Hari is one of my favourite British columnists and I look forward to reading his work. And yet this morning, I was forcefully reminded that just as electing a bi-racial president has not made America post-racial, overt professions of liberalism has not removed the "unthinking Euro-centrism" or the long standing cultural, intellectual, creative imperialism implicit in British public discourse.