Writing American empire

Hilary Plum
February 6, 2012
Comments 3

The most recent issue of Guernica features an essay by Kamila Shamsie on “The Storytellers of Empire,” which considers the insularity (my word, not hers) of contemporary US “post-9/11” literature. Shamsie is from Pakistan, and wonders why contemporary literature from Pakistan features the US, travels to the US, indeed travels the world, but the reverse almost never happens: why does the American novel seem so determinedly, relentlessly domestic, instead of taking on America’s role in the world?

The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.

Shamsie begins with a discussion of John Hersey, as an illustration of the sort of writer she feels is missing from US literature today. Of his Hiroshima she says:

Inevitably, [Hiroshima] also contains within it two Americas. One is the America which develops and uses—not once, but twice—a weapon of a destructive capability which far outstrips anything that has come before, the America which decides what price some other country’s civilian population must pay for its victory. There is nothing particular to America in this—all nations in war behave in much the same way. But in the years between the bombing of Hiroshima and now, no nation has intervened militarily with as many different countries as America, and always on the other country’s soil; which is to say, no nation has treated as many other civilian populations as collateral damage as America while its own civilians stay well out of the arena of war. So that’s one of the Americas in Hiroshima—the America of brutal military power.

But there’s another America in the book, that of John Hersey. The America of looking at the destruction your nation has inflicted and telling it like it is. The America of stepping back and allowing someone else to tell their story through you because they have borne the tragedy and you have the power to bear witness to it. …

I grew up in Pakistan with two Americas. One was the America of To Kill a Mockingbird and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of the young Michael Jackson and Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Charlie’s Angels and John McEnroe and Rob Lowe’s blue eyes. Of Martin Luther King and Snoopy. That America was exuberance and possibility.

But there was another that I lived with. The America which cozied up to Pakistan’s military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, because it served its own interests in Afghanistan to do so. This America threw vast amounts of money at Zia, propping up his rule, strengthening his military, turning a blind eye to its nuclear program, working with him to promote the war in Afghanistan as a jihad for all Muslims rather than a territorial matter between Afghans and Soviets; this America spoke eloquently of the Afghan people’s right to freedom and self-determination but decided it was an internal matter when Zia’s government cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in Pakistan, or when he instituted public floggings and hangings, or when he passed a law which made it possible for a woman who had been raped to be stoned to death for adultery.

How to reconcile these two Americas? I didn’t even try. It was a country I always looked at with one eye shut. With my left eye I saw the America of John Hersey; with my right eye I saw the America of the two atom bombs. This one-eyed seeing was easy enough from a distance. But then I came to America as an undergraduate and realized that with a few honorable exceptions, all of America looked at America with one eye shut.

I don’t mean Americans looked at America uncritically. I mean they looked at it merely in domestic terms.

These paragraphs are compelling and true, and contain with them the beginnings of an answer to Shamsie’s question: the US’s presence in Pakistan has for decades been undeniable, violent, even imperial, whereas any ideas of the life and culture and politics of contemporary Pakistan are far from the mainstream here. Remove that “even” and the same is true of Iraq or Afghanistan (no: just remove it anyway, considering what the US has perpetrated of late in Pakistan). The US—as is continually discussed in American literature-in-translation circles, and I suppose by me in a dozen blog posts here—exports its culture aggressively but imports others’ art and culture only as a trickle, and that into the margins not the mainstream. Americans, and thus American novelists, have to struggle to even begin to imagine life in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan—therefore it can feel presumptuous to begin that struggle by announcing one’s intention to “[allow] someone else to tell their story through you because they have borne the tragedy and you have the power to bear witness to it.” Shamsie addresses this, the question of “appropriation”:

In part, I’m inclined to blame the trouble caused by that pernicious word “appropriation.” I first encountered it within a writing context within weeks, perhaps days, of arriving at Hamilton College in 1991. Right away, I knew there was something deeply damaging in the idea that writers couldn’t take on stories about the Other. As a South Asian who has encountered more than her fair share of awful stereotypes about South Asians in the British empire novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I’m certainly not about to disagree with the charge that writers who are implicated in certain power structures have been guilty of writing fiction which supports, justifies and props up those power structures. I understand the concerns of people who feel that for too long stories have been told about them rather than by them. But it should be clear that the response to this is for writers to write differently, to write better, to critique the power structures rather than propping them up, to move beyond stereotype—which you need to do for purely technical reasons, because the novel doesn’t much like stereotypes. They come across as bad writing.

The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.

This is a powerful argument and a powerful call to action, and one that will linger with me, since I think that I have been more wary of the problems of appropriation than Shamsie is here: to me they have still seemed quite real. (Though she does discuss some failures of appropriation, such as in John Updike’s Terrorist.) The novel I finished last spring (can I say “first novel” if it’s not published? well, I guess that’s still what it is) is indeed about the US war in Iraq, but envisions the war only through reportage, the mediated, indirect form through which most Americans experienced it. I couldn’t even imagine imagining myself or my “characters” into Iraq; to me one of the fundamental tragedies of this war has been its radical absence from American culture, daily life, discussion, awareness, morality—living here, it’s as if it could almost not be happening, as if we weren’t even there. (With the exception, of course, of the experience of US soldiers and their families—whose stories have broken through occasionally, only to be drowned out again, and seeming never or only infinitesimally to result in any change of policy or discourse.) I wanted to document that absence, which I couldn’t do by imagining myself out of or through it. That, however, is not at all, I think, an argument with Shamsie, rather a difference in approach.

At her always excellent blog “Arabic Literature (in English),” M. Lynx Qualey responds to Shamsie’s essay:

Still, I wonder: Is there a dearth of U.S. narratives “about” Iraq (for instance)? Reuters profiles soldier Benjamin Buchholz’s novel One Hundred and One Nights as does the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Senator’s Son, by Luke Larson, also gets press and there’s Benjamin Zimmerman’s novel The Sand Box as well as numerous other fictional ebooks, memoirs, and nonfiction accounts: The Forever War, Ambush Alley, The Iraq War: A Military History, Ghosts of War, Naked in Baghdad, Fiasco, They Fought for Each Other, and so on, and so on, and so on. Not to mention the movies.

There are far fewer books written by Iraqis, post-2003, that are available in English: Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, trans. Nariman Youssef was the first and perhaps flimsiest; Ali Bader’s worthy The Tobacco Keeper, trans. Amira Nowaira; Amal al-Jubouri’s compelling poetry collection Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation, trans. Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi.

This against a veritable tsunami of Iraq narratives written by Anglos.

Of course, these Iraq narratives are not (I don’t think) what Shamsie believes is missing. Just reading the blurbs of the Anglo novels/memoirs makes it sound as though they exist in a U.S.-manufactured Green Zone: The real characters here are U.S. soldiers and the U.S. public. …

… So let’s say: Yes, U.S. novelists should widen their novels to include the humanity outside the Green Zone. Yes, why not. But it seems also urgent to clear shelf space for the Iraqis who have written about their country post-2003.

I second that call.

I also wonder about American writers who aren’t novelists: I’m thinking of the stunning work, for instance, of Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction, both of which consider US empire and US wars with devastating rigor and insight. There’s more taking place in American literature than is being widely recognized—this too is not an argument with Shamsie: she’s right to note this absence of general interest and attention. As discussed elsewhere I hesitate at Shamsie’s choice of Amy Waldman’s The Submission as a counter-example, a successful post-9/11 novel: I didn’t find that novel all that successful. (I want to think more, too, about this idea of “character” and “appropriation”—poetry can certainly be guilty of the problems of appropriation, but perhaps the most obvious sins are through characterization, thus in fiction?) Shamsie offers an essay and conclusion that should make us all pause:

So why is it, please explain, that you’re in our stories but we’re not in yours?

Fear of appropriation? I think that argument can only take you so far. Surely fiction writers today understand the value of stories about America In the World, and can see through the appropriation argument. It is, after all, a political argument that can easily be trumped by another political argument about the importance of engagement. So why, then—why, when there are astonishing stories out in the world about America, to do with America, going straight to the heart of the question: who are these people and what do they have to do with us?—why are the fiction writers staying away from the stories? The answer, I think, comes from John Hersey. He said of novelists, “A writer is bound to have varying degrees of success, and I think that that is partly an issue of how central the burden of the story is to the author’s psyche.”

And that’s the answer. Even now, you just don’t care very much about us. One eye remains closed. The pen, writing its deliberate sentences, is icy cold.

3 thoughts on “Writing American empire

  1. Both the above comments — “no one will pay me to do what Shamsie recommends” — tell you a great deal about American literature.

  2. Since I wrote my response to Kamila’s piece, I have also been apprised of another reason: Publishers are wary of novels set in Iraq that lack a compelling “author biography.” If an author is neither Iraqi nor a former serviceman or woman, then publishers are apparently less likely to embrace a book…

  3. Thanks for posting this. Two defensive replies come to mind. First, there’s the practical matter of economics. Magazines or newspapers might pay to send me to Pakistan or Iraq for an article, but I don’t think the publishing houses are lining up to send me there for a novel I’d like to write. And on my own, I’m lucky to be able to travel across the Midwest for my buddy’s wedding, let alone think about a trip to Pakistan.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I think art takes more time to develop. John Hersey may have been able to write HIROSHIMA a few years after the war, but look at the outpouring of Holocaust literature in the ’60s and ’70s–decades after the fact. Or look at Vietnam War literature–DISPATCHES and A RUMOR OF WAR (both nonfiction) in the ’70s, but the best fiction came out in the ’80s or early ’90s. There’s a delayed effect–10 years, 20 years. I think we’ll see a deluge of novels that tackle U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror in the 2010s. It just couldn’t be done well in 2005.

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