Monthly Archives: January 2013

Burning books

This past weekend Jamaica Kincaid was in Seattle promoting her latest novel, See Now Then. She spoke at a fundraiser in Seattle as guest of the Freedom to Read Foundation, an organization that advocates for First Amendment rights, particularly among libraries (FTRF is affiliated with The American Library Association).

There was something wonderfully ironic in Kincaid’s admission to her audience of mostly librarians that her first exposure to books was often associated with punishments in school (copying out passages from Paradise Lost, forced to read Jane Eyre), which, once the reading bug took hold, would be followed by frequent thefts from her local library. The young girl secretly stashed her prized books under her family’s house. Kincaid claimed with false modesty that “cleverest thing” she ever did was learn to hide books between her legs and smuggle them out under the librarian’s nose.

Kincaid then addressed the topic of book burning — in her words “the most lethal” form of censorship — by means of an episode that has taken on near-mythic proportions in her autobiography. The episode was framed by a long passage from the closing pages of her 1997 novel My Brother. No one hearing or reading the passage can doubt that Kincaid’s style rises to a rare level of speculative prose.

For many years I wrote for a man named William Shawn. Whenever I thought of something to write, I immediately thought of him reading it, and the thought of this man, William Shawn, reading something I had written only made me want to write it more; I could see him sitting (not in any particular place) and reading what I had written and telling me if he liked it, or never mentioning it again if he didn’t, and the point wasn’t to hear him say he that he liked it (though that was better than anything in the whole world) but only to know that he had read it, and why that should have been so is beyond words to me right now, or just to put it into words now (and it was only through words that I knew him) would make it either not true, or incomplete, like love, I suppose: why do I love you, why do you love me? Almost all my life as a writer, everything I wrote I expected Mr. Shawn to read, and so when I first heard  DSCN6492of my brother dying and immediately knew I would write about him, I thought of Mr. Shawn, but Mr. Shawn had just died, too, and I had seen Mr. Shawn when he was dead, and even then I wanted to tell him what it was like when he had died, and he would not have liked to hear that in any way, but I was used to telling him things I knew he didn’t like, I couldn’t help telling him everything whether he liked it or not. And so I wrote about the dead for the dead, and all along as I was writing I thought, When I am done with this I shall never write for Mr. Shawn again, this will be the end of anything I shall write for Mr. Shawn; but now I don’t suppose it will be so. It was because I had neglected my brother when he was two years old and instead read a book that my mother gathered up all the books I owned and put them on a pile on her stone heap, sprinkling them with kerosene and then setting them alight; I cannot remember what they were about (they would have been novels, at fifteen I read only novels), but it would not be so strange if I spent the rest of my life trying to bring those books back to my life by writing them again and again until they were perfect, unscathed by fire of any kind (My Brother, 197-8).

William Shawn is of course the longtime editor of The New Yorker who died in 1992. Kincaid’s younger brother died of AIDS in 1996. “And so I wrote about the dead for the dead,” Kincaid says, a fearsome phrase effortlessly carried off by the author’s powerful yet unassuming style. The past tense adds to the phrase a perhaps unintended trace of its posthumous future. Unless the temporality here as elsewhere in Kincaid is that of a permanent moment of trauma; the historical trauma wrought by colonialism, by the ‘Mother Country,’ as well as that wrought by the outsized and domineering character of Kincaid’s own mother. Speaking in Seattle of the scene in which her mother burned her books, the author stated that “I became a writer — perhaps — in that very moment.” And she added, insisting on the mystery of that fleeting temporal instant, a long moment spanning a life from beginning to closure, “There was something in that moment that sealed it.”


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MLA prize revisited

This year’s Modern Language Association prizes will be awarded today. Like a pageant winner, I should be allowed a return to the stage a year later….



New York, NY – 5 December 2011 – The Modern Language Association of America today announced it is awarding its nineteenth annual Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Literary Studies to John Culbert, of the University of British Columbia, for his book Paralyses: Literature, Travel, and Ethnography in French Modernity, published by the University of Nebraska Press. The prize is awarded annually for an outstanding scholarly work in its field—a literary or linguistic study, a critical edition of an important work, or a critical biography—written by a member of the association. The Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Literary Studies is one of eighteen awards that will be presented on 7 January, during the association’s annual convention, to be held in Seattle. The members of the selection committee were Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi (Stanford Univ.); Peter T. Starr (Univ. of Southern California), chair; and Andrea Tarnowski (Dartmouth Coll.). The committee’s citation for Culbert’s book reads:

At the heart of a modernity that we typically associate with travel and speed, John Culbert’s brilliant study Paralyses: Literature, Travel, and Ethnography in French Modernity finds an essential paralysis—a motionless crux or time of hesitation that inhabits travel and constitutes its ineluctable other. Through careful, consistently insightful readings of Jean Paulhan, Michel Leiris, Claude Lévi- Strauss, Roland Barthes, Rachid Boudjedra, and others, Culbert astutely demonstrates how paralysis inflects a wide range of modern and postmodern experiences, from the philosopher’s joust with aporia to the specific plight of the sans-papiers. Readers of Paralyses will find their understanding of modernity— specifically French modernity—altered as a result of Culbert’s perceptive and persuasive arguments.

John Culbert is currently affiliated with the University of British Columbia, where he is a lecturer in the Department of French, Italian, and Hispanic Studies. He received his MA from Johns Hopkins University and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He has previously been affiliated with the University of California, Irvine; the State University of New York, New Paltz; Scripps College; and Williams College. His articles and chapters have appeared in journals such as October, Mediterranean Review, Formules, Postmodern Culture, and Western Humanities Review. – The Modern Language Association


With MLA president Michael Bérubé, January 2012

Prize announcement link

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What is narrative?

Like many writers and literary scholars I’ve often thought about the meaning of the term ‘narrative.’ Only recently, though, has the word’s definition has come into clear focus. Narrative, according to an emerging consensus, can be defined as a willfully partisan construal of data whose purpose is to sway opinion toward a narrow set of morals, values and prejudices, usually with the deliberate intent to secure political advantage or personal gain.

This definition has not yet entered the dictionaries, which offer instead under the heading of narrative “an account that presents connected events” (Wikipedia); “the representation in art of an event or story” (Webster’s); or the “action de raconter, d’exposer une suite d’événements” (Larousse). In contrast, the above definition correlates more with propaganda, but with an added emphasis on the sequential ordering of information into story form; depending on the context, it can be more or less synonymous with fabricationalibimessaging and spin. A few examples may serve as illustrations.

In a recent piece of investigative journalism, The Washington Post reports on the direct influence of drug makers on the medical establishment. With the help of so-called “experts” the pharmaceutical companies succeeded in molding Food and Drug Administration policies and regulations to their advantage (Washington Post, 12/31/12). The drugs at issue in the article are new trademarked opiates that the companies managed to pass off to the public as safe and harmless, when in fact they are often lethal and highly addictive. 

Russell Portenoy, a doctor tapped as expert adviser to the FDA, reported that he was “trying to create a narrative [sic] so that the primary care audience would … feel more comfortable about opioids.” Apparently underscoring the ‘fictional’ nature of his scientific work, he added that his “primary goal was to destigmatize” the dangerous drugs, so he “often left evidence behind.” The federal policy that resulted from such flawed testimony unleashed a flood of drugs on unsuspecting patients, aided by deceptive marketing tactics. A public health nurse dealing with the consequences in her community said the opioid scourge was “absolutely devastating,” while a doctor called the drug companies’ sales methods “satanic.”

As it happens, that community is in Appalachia, ‘losers’  if ever there were. And of course, according to the dictum, history is written by the winners. Is it a coincidence that the cliché has seen a resurgence of late — not as a cautionary remark about the abuse of facts by dominant forces, but instead as a complacent confirmation of data’s tight control by righteous victors? In other words, as ‘narrative’? Literally? Such is the usage we find in a recent post in Politico, titled “Obama’s Narrative.”

Now that he’s won, Obama holds the power to write his own history, literally. His biggest early success came as a memoir author, not as a politician, and he plans to write the definitive narrative [sic] of his presidency after 2016. Politico, 1/1/13

This passage neatly condenses several abuses of language endemic to our mediascape. The victory the author refers to is Obama’s second electoral win as viewed from the perspective of his successful negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.” A messy situation, to say the least. Who won and who lost is an open question. The oligarchs, with their tax-free estates? The unemployed, with their meager extension of benefits? A perfect opportunity for “narrative.”

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