Each of the countries that contributed to the universal horizon of conquest and emancipation will now withdraw from institutions invented two centuries ago. The Occident finally earns its name, having become the empire of the setting sun.

Good, we have now been warned, so that we might avoid being so surprised moving forward. Indeed, our incapacity to foresee has been the main lesson of this cataclysm: how could we have been so wrong? All the polls, all the newspapers, all the commentators, the entire intelligentsia. It is as if we had completely lacked any means of encountering those whom we struggled even to name: the “uneducated white men,” the ones that “globalization left behind”; some even tried calling them “deplorables.”

… We thus find ourselves with our countries split in two, each half becoming ever less capable of grasping its own reality, let alone the other side’s. The first half — let us call them the globalized — believe that the horizon of emancipation and modernity (often confused with the reign of finance) can still expand to embrace the whole planet. Meanwhile, the second half has decided to retreat to the Aventine Hill, dreaming of a return to a past world.

‘identity to place is dynamic – not fixed – always moving, always changing – nothing is static’.

We circle, we move, we leave and return. The grass isn’t still. Nor the water. Nothing is static. Country extends over borders –

…Colonial mapping, rewriting history, is a force of the past as well as the present. They colonised our rivers and lands. I try to observe and learn when and where other Aboriginal people use placenames and to adopt First Nation strategies and systems. This state border is an artificial border, marked by a sign, and a sculpture. The surveyors did not care about anything but bones and latitude and lines. Not a care for sacred places or ceremony. I have been thinking about our states for a while, how they match up to states of being.

Maybe what Smith is after in Swing Time is a kind of postcolonial realism or, better, an aesthetic practice for decolonizing realism. Instead of reading about black bodies colonized to help other characters realize themselves, Smith has illustrated a way of pulling the inhabitants of NW out from the background, of freeing black bodies from the fetishizing strokes of lyrical realism. Though I doubt that she would explicitly wed her project to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, Smith has nonetheless moonwalked into a space that Ngũgĩ’s call for unshackling and shielding African realities from the aesthetic modes of imperialist and neocolonial cultures helped create. It is a space that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Teju Cole’s Open City, and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland (Pinckney and James Fenton, his partner, show up as characters in Swing Time) inhabit and one into which Swing Time dances. As in those art works, Smith imagines blackness without essentialism, engages the multiple realities that black people inhabit, recognizes the self in a state of always becoming, and understands finally that we know as little as nothing.

What we are going to do about it. That’s the issue. These three writers all seem to take it for granted: It is up to them as citizens, it is up to art as a form, and it is therefore up to them as artists, to change things.

Like all writers they deserve to be read for the quality of their own work, and the books certainly warrant it. Still, reading these three it’s hard not to feel something is going on that transcends individual texts.

After decades where the most prominent writers in European literature have often preferred to see political issues as, at best, an incidental topic of literature, it seems significant that the major literary breakthroughs in three different European languages in a short period of time have come from writers who are overtly political.

…all three aim at breaking down language barriers. Whether it be between Swedish and Romanian, between the speech of the working class and the bourgeoisie, or between the language of the majority and the immigrant minority, the endeavor to mix languages normally not used on the same page is part of larger project aimed at crossing boundaries and scaling walls in order to build new political collectives.

  • Poem By Athena Farrokhzad

My family arrived here in a Marxist tradition

My mother immediately filled the house with Santa knick-knacks
Weighed the pros and cons of the plastic Christmas tree
As if the problem were hers

During the day she distinguished between short and long vowels
As if the sounds that came out of her mouth
Could wash the olive oil from her skin

My mother let bleach run through her syntax
On the other side of punctuation her syllables became whiter
than a winter in Norrland

My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they came from
My mother said: The one who travels think they are essential to the place they come to
My father said: The one who travels is redundant to the place they come to
My mother said: The one who travels thinks they were essential to the place they came from
My uncle said: The one who travels knows nothing about place

But the mainstream literary novel now looks a lot like Kraus’s work. The longest novel of recent years runs to thousands of pages not because it has a large cast of characters or takes in the sweep of history but because it follows the daily life of one Norwegian writer very closely. The success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” Ben Lerner’s “10:04,” Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” and Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” has helped “I Love Dick” find a new audience. Chris’s intimate, discursive voice, her range of literary and artistic references, and her mordant self-criticism have put “I Love Dick” within the central current of contemporary fiction.

“I Love Dick” ’s use of real names and documents helps dramatize a realization: the embarrassing circumstances of Chris’s life—her lack of success as a filmmaker, her financial dependence on her husband, her failure as a conventionally attractive object of desire, and her ridiculous crush—should be the substance of her art. As Chris’s letters get longer and more confident, her first-person voice eclipses the original narrator’s. She has learned to play both parts: the person caught up in her feelings and the ironist who sees them from above. She has become a writer.

I think all times are turbulent—it’s just that they’re turbulent in different ways, and for different people. Poets are always swirling around in the maelstrom, whenever there is one, and in a way we know there always is one…

Garber: It’s strikes me how fluid, in all this, the lines are between “politics” and “everything else.” We have a habit, in our discussions and in our thinking, of segmenting politics off from the other realities of the world: Politics here, Art there. Politics here, Culture there. This isn’t a question specifically about poetry, but I’m curious: Do you think those categories offer a valid way of approaching things? Or do you think, given the world’s messiness, that it might be better to talk about political life in more holistic terms?

Share: I think we should. It’s interesting that you have that feeling, as so many people do, because it actually applies to poetry. Because if we think about politics as its own realm, and assume that it doesn’t affect us—we’ll soon find out that we are mistaken. And poetry is like that, too. Obviously, for people who don’t spend a lot of time reading poetry, they might think of it as something that exists in a kind of corner of experience—and that’s okay; it’s natural. But the reality is that poetry isn’t “somewhere else.” That’s kind of why it exists. And poetry and politics are inevitable, yet strange, bedfellows. Because they’re both trying to address this basic human question: Why are things the way they are? Why aren’t they different? Why aren’t they better?

I feared for our bodies and our futures and I felt the loss of security as something visceral ― a cement block on my chest, a fist at the base of my neck, a hand around the lung, tightening. But when I thought of myself as a writer, I felt the loss of something less concrete. I felt I had lost the sense that I was writing to the world, to people I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine, people who I might find through my writing and who might find me back. I had always thought of writing as a sort of CETI signal sent out into the universe, which had a chance of touching someone even if it ultimately failed to. In this new reality, it felt like we shared no common language of values, ethics, or even basic agreement on facts. Is communication possible without those things?“The simplest way to say it would be that I lost the sense of a shared world. A week later, I still don’t know how to negotiate the fissure: do I have a responsibility to try to find new ways to communicate the urgency of environmental and racial justice to people who are not inclined to listen? Or is my responsibility only to the people who’ve been put at risk by this election, who already have my compassion? What I do know is that being a writer in the political world to come will require much more of me than writing: it’ll demand my body, my time, the parts of me that I felt were personal rather than political. If we want to protect the values that make literature possible, we’ll have to step outside our discourse ecology and work for them in their more concrete, embodied form.”

In her essay ‘What is a Caribbean Writer?’ the author Maryse Condé, Guadeloupean by birth and now living in New York, suggests that the very term ‘nationality’ is today meaningless. “We now know,” writes Condé,

that its only purpose is, in fact, to obtain green, blue, red or orange biometric passports, depending on the country, that allow the holders to cross borders and work in peace in a given place.

With so many of the Caribbean’s people living outside its official geographical limits, pushing its boundaries and working under different passports, Condé’s interrogation of Caribbeanness is a serious pursuit. For writers, nationality should not matter, she argues, as long as they sustain creativity.

Hearts and creative thoughts attach little importance to the lines at Immigration. They settle everywhere and flourish anywhere they please. For them, continents drift and tropical forests can thrive in the very middle of a sidewalk in Manhattan.

This thinking engages with the formidable tradition of Caribbean intellectuals, such as Stuart Hall and Édouard Glissant, who have pointed out that immigration and diaspora have always defined the region’s history—and who like Condé see the creative potential in these experiences. Hall envisions the diaspora as a process rather than a place, where possibility and mixing thrive through—not despite—difference. Glissant, meanwhile, declares that the only answer to the hidden violence of “intolerant exclusions” is the “manifest and integrating violence of contaminations,” precisely the kind which flourish in the hybridizing cultures and creoles of the Caribbean.

Although Glissant here refers mainly to the way language moves, his words also evoke the movements of people: who the nation lets in and who the nation excludes. I particularly like his use of the word “contaminations,” because this bodily metaphor evokes both mixing and revulsion and returns our consciousness to the physical, to our bodies and our fear of others’. By identifying contemporary passports as “biometric,” Condé also underlines the connection between bodies and the written word, especially the ways the state controls these bodies via official documentation. For this very reason, then, her vision of unbounded creativity seems overly utopian when she says that “Hearts and creative thoughts attach little importance to the lines at Immigration.” Creative minds and hearts, of course, also inhabit a body. Reading Condé, I can’t help but wonder how many writer-bodies have been stopped and silenced at those immigration lines and how many words we have lost as a result. How many unofficial documents, never written, might have contested the violence of the state’s exclusions.

 

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