Please enjoy my Fiction Writers Review interview with David James Poissant on the publication of his debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals.
“The key institution in the creation of World Literature has not been the literary festival, or even the commercial publishing house, but the university.” So write the editors at the influential and relatively young literary and criticism journal, n+1, in Issue 17, in turn posted their blog under the title “World Lite”—just in time for the return to school in August 2013. The editors went on to express their concern for this state of affairs, citing the sophomore efforts of novelists who became university professors after their debuts—such as Junot Díaz and Dinaw Mengestu—as removed, metafictional, rather than straightforward and direct.
As a professor of North African and Middle Eastern literature and culture in French, as well as a fiction writer and essayist, I must disagree with n+1’s assessment, as well as the statement that “No law of literature says the university can’t be the setting of great fiction, but it says something about the difficulty of the feat that the best example we can think of—[Don] DeLillo’s White Noise—was written by a writer who has never taught at one.” My first reaction is that former university professor Richard Russo’s cutting and hilarious yet gentle and empathetic novel Straight Man, narrated by the chair of an English department at the satellite campus of a public university, seems to be a lacuna in n+1 editors’ reading. Second, what of professors whose fiction writing remain steadfastly grounded in other realms of experience outside of the classroom? These include a number Francophone writers who teach in the American university system, such as Hélène Cixous, Maryse Conde, Assia Djebar, and Alain Mabanckou. These writers remain committed (and I use the term “committed” in the sense that Jean-Paul Sartre uses it in his essay “What is Literature?”) to represent experience from the periphery, of marginalization, of lives lived in second, third, or multiple languages and cultures.
And in turn, what can the fiction writer’s imagination do for the teaching of literature and culture? The problem with answering that question is that the ways in which the fiction writer has become codified within the American university system are completely unimaginative: these instructors and professors are ordered through English vs. foreign language, rather than genre or area of specialization. What do I mean by this? In brief and as a general principle, in the humanities, novelists who write in English will most frequently be found in creative writing programs and/or English departments, teaching American and English literature. Writers whose fiction is translated into English, by contrast, are most often housed in comparative literature, or a foreign/modern/classic/ancient/contemporary language department. And how often do we find scientists, sociologists, mathematicians, who are recognized for writing fiction?
This, I think, is really unfortunate. I recently read somewhere (and I will annotate this post as soon as I remember where) that it makes no sense for creative writing to be housed in English departments. Our influences as writers come from such wide-ranging, far-flung places.
I’m not exactly an envelope-pusher in this regard: I’m a French literature PhD who finds that she can’t help but write fiction as well. Both reading and writing order my world. And so they seep into everything else: my research, my parenting, and my teaching, just as a few examples. Personal essays with a critical point that were based on experiences during my research trips in Paris made their way into my dissertation. With my almost two-year-old daughter, I make up stories as we draw pictures, and I encourage her to narrate her experiences of the world (“Swing! Boom! Cry!” she recalls, and she touches her sore lower lip. “Yes, that’s right, sweetheart. That’s what happened, isn’t it?”). And as a teacher of French and Francophone literature and culture, whenever possible, I hinge class syllabi around narratives. For example, this fall, I teach a course on Paris literature and culture that I call “Metro Line 2: Paris Transnational,” that follows the logic of the metro line. Readings draw from the name of the stop; e.g., at the terminus Nation, we discuss the evolution of Place de la Nation and read Ernest Renan’s “What is a Nation?, while at Couronnes and Belleville we focus on the Jewish experience of Paris during the Vichy, using as a primary text Georges Perec’s W, Or the Memory of Childhood. Up at Barbès-Rochechouart, we read Leïla Sebbar’s Shérazade to open the discussion further to immigrant and second-generation experiences in Paris. And the idea is that the students will connect their own dots between the readings and lectures on the metro line and surrounding neighborhoods. Call it a simulated immersion experience (that’s what I’m going for, in some ways), or call it “cultivation of the terms under which reading occurs,” to borrow from Michael Allan’s insightful article on world literature.
I’m not claiming that I do anything new, or novel. As a teacher, I draw from my experiences with a whole host of amazing teachers and professors (they who inspired me to do what it is I do for a living), my experiences as an undergraduate in Paris and how that differed from what I had expected, as well as my love of delving into other worlds through fiction, film, and music. What if I can reproduce that for my students in lit/culture courses?
As Ian McEwan wrote, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” And that’s what I want to get to as a fiction writer, and as a teacher of world literature. If my aims are for students to write from their own engagement with works across the humanities and their contexts, as well as to develop critical thinking and participatory citizenship skills that will serve them throughout their lives, then I need to walk the walk. But to the original point of n+1’s indictment of world literature as a university-borne phenomenon, I think this goes hand-in-hand with we are told about the humanities: that they are fading into obsolescence. Yet their relevance has never been more paramount in a world where news, information, and cultural works can be transmitted instantaneously. To possess textual interpretation skills that allow for the understanding of those different from us is part of what informs us as responsible citizens and members of a global community. And within textual interpretation comes the ability to imagine yourself in another place, another time, and most importantly, other shoes.
So let’s not diss world lit. Let’s just figure out more productive ways to putting it into service—and open up avenues for fiction writers to teach more imaginatively.
 Allan, Michael. “‘Reading With One Eye, Speaking With One Tongue’: On the Problem of Address in World Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies. 44:1-2 (2007): 1-19. Print.
Foreign language scholars often find that they become someone else in many ways when they are elsewhere, inhabiting another language, another culture. Becoming immersed in a different culture and language is similar to writing fiction in this way: you enter a world and become someone in it so as to understand its order, its logic, its rhythms.
I am about to enter my last month of time at home with Audrey before I return to teaching. So I’ve been soaking in my time at home with her this summer. We’ve spent a fair amount of time in the backyard, tending our marigolds in the garden, swinging in the backyard swing, looking at bugs and butterflies together, and running through the sprinkler together (for Audrey, the first times).
When she’s napping or otherwise occupied, I write.
Fill in your own blanks, but these two things in tandem (spending time with my daughter on the cusp of year two, and immersed in my new novel) has made for some serious beauty this summer.
Two pieces have appeared recently by fellow writer-mothers that led me to put these thoughts together about this summer before I return to full-time teaching. Last week, I read Caitlin O’Neil’s lovely and inspirational essay about writing as the ultimate staycation. And then, a few days ago, Mary Vensel White wrote this astute essay based on Susan Sontag’s claim “if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home.”
I was surprised and delighted by these two pieces juxtaposed with one another, as they fill in the gaps in something that’s been crossing my mind of late, that writing fiction is the ultimate escapist activity. It consumes your mind in a way that nothing else does. Even when I’m actually traveling—plane, train, car, in this country or another—I’m still in my skin, my life, my memories, my own awareness. Fiction? If you’re doing it right, you’re not just somewhere else – you’re someone else, too, consumed with their day-to-day, their consciousness, their joys and worries.
But so, too, does being a mother. I’m constantly amazed by the way that I perceive the world now – all of Audrey’s first times. The way the world must look from her vantage point, in terms of her stature, age, and experience. She amazes me.
And so motherhood and writing together? My world is all the more kaleidoscopic, multidimensional. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever need wanderlust again.
What first got me thinking about being somewhere else, someone else while writing was when I was drafting my introduction for an interview I conducted via email with Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy, the two translators of the first English edition of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour, published this week by Open Letter Books. In my introduction I tried to convey to FWR readers—primarily fiction writers, of course—the experience of translating, and I compared it to inhabiting a character’s skin while that character was writing.
Truly great about the interview with Kazim and Libby was that, in addition to Duras’ mesmerizing text about former lovers’ return to the past, their responses to the interview questions also took me into another place. Here: the sleepy seaside resort town of Duras’ novel. There: the idyllic gardens and house in Oberlin, Ohio, where the translators did their work. Voici the poet, exalting a literary giant. Et voilà, the careful French scholar, attending to the movement between languages.
So I find the cover of Duras’ L’Amour (are those windows, or doors?) altogether fitting for the book and our interview, not to mention this period in my life. And I am so grateful for these many returns.
So last week, I attended this amazing Q&A/Discussion with Fadela Amara—founder of the French feminist organization for minority women’s rights, Ni putes ni soumises, and a particularly progressive cabinet member under former President Nicolas Sarkozy—at the Alliance Française de Chicago. I was there with my friend, former professor and (ahem) soon-to-be-colleague Ellen, who is a specialist of seventeenth-century French literature. At some point, a question from the audience came up about fears that racial tensions in France would “blow up” (exploser). The way the question was posed—by a student who further identified herself as a twenty-three-year-old Parisian woman—was particularly loaded and full of intolerant assumptions, which Amara called to attention in her elegant and nuanced way. She also said (I’m loosely translating here), “Man is not born a wolf. Man is made a wolf.”
I instantly thought of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous edict, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” I leaned over to Ellen and whispered, “De Beauvoir!”
She whispered back and said excitedly, “It’s Voltaire!” Later over dinner, she told me that she was pretty sure that Amara had used a direct quote from Voltaire’s picaresque satire Candide, ou l’optimisme, this bit about man not being born a wolf.
First, of course, that made me wonder if that’s part of where Beauvoir had developed her notion of the construction of woman. (Mind = blown.) But then, the next day, I was in my mom’s garden, which is transitioning leaf by leaf, bloom by bloom, day to day and night to night, from blossoming spring into riotous summer.
And that, of course, made me think about the quotation from Candide that is at least partially, if not fully, responsible for packing me off to graduate school: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden.”)
So Voltaire’s Candide is a satirical takedown of a lot of things, but this particular line advocates a balance between optimism and realism, the idea that even if we need to remain evenhanded about the world around us, there is much in our own day-to-day lives to appreciate and, indeed, cultivate.
And this made me think about the necessity of solitude to get writing done. It’s cultivating our own gardens—working on something inward—forgoing instant gratification in order to work toward the deeper pleasure of something that must be attended to, day by day, night by night, word by word, line by line, paragraph… well, you get the point.
Then I started to think about the French expression that’s more or less equivalent to “growing like a weed”: “pousser comme des fleurs” (in French, it’s gendered, I believe; I’ve never heard a little boy described as “growing like a flower.” But that’s a different issue, and I might be wrong about that.) And that made me think—of course and without question, as most things do—of my daughter Audrey.
This is Audrey in the garden, just about a year ago, with her cousin, my niece, Sophia:
This is Audrey in the garden, yesterday, nearly 21 months old:
Day by day, night by night… a child, a novel, a garden.