Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Provinciality of the United States

Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices continues to be a provocative voice in culture, literature, and politics.  One of the best things about publishing your work in a magazine such as Literal (“How Has the Loss of Juárez Changed Border Culture?”) is to read who else is in the issue.  What fascinated me were two interviews, with the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Two quotes in particular resonated with me:

“What’s going on is that this country, the United States, has become very provincial. When I started out, my editors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, were publishing Francois Mauriac, Alberto Moravia, and ten or fifteen foreign novelists. Now there’s no one. Those of us who have been established for a long time, like Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, or myself, have kept on publishing, but almost out of condescendence. There is no interest in new writers, in the vast quantity and quality of writers we have in Hispanic America. This country has become very self- absorbed and preoccupied, and it still does not understand what is going on in the world.”  –Carlos Fuentes

“I still believe that a healthy democracy needs an education that focuses on (1) Socratic self-examination and critical thinking; (2) the capacity to think as a citizen of the whole world, not just some local region or group, in a way informed by adequate historical, economic, and religious knowledge; and (3) trained imaginative capacities, so that people can put themselves in the position of others whose ways of life are very different from their own.”  –Martha Nussbaum

For many reasons, what Fuentes and Nussbaum were saying hit home.  I have seen how little U. S. readers read in translation, or how rarely they seek out foreign writers in their own language, be it Spanish, Chinese or German, and so on.  American pundits and politicos have also narrowed their agendas and appeals, to forego fact-checking, to trumpet narrow-minded biases.  What is routinely ignored is a more expansive appeal to the public to appreciate working in someone else’s shoes, for example, particularly one who is dark-skinned and has an accent.

The United States suffers from a growing deficit of imagination.  Not just for humanism.  Not for embracing a Kumbaya moment of idealism.  But for the truth.  Even my thirteen-year-old knows that to better understand your position and your argument —he learned that in mock Supreme Court cases his class studied and debated— you need to ‘see’ the other side.  The critical thinking of Socrates is based on answering questions that unmoor you, and probing your opponent with similar questions, but all of this ‘education’ is based on souls being open to such give-and-take.  What happens when we as a society become more insular?  What happens when we stop reading to challenge ourselves?  When we don’t care enough to question our own thinking?

These questions mattered in a writing group in which I recently participated.  One story I submitted was set on the Mexican-American border, and although the story received many favorable, enthusiastic comments, two or three in the group pointedly had an issue with my use of Spanish phrases and sentences intermixed with my prose in English.  Didn’t I want to expand my readership? they asked.  Wasn’t I limiting myself as a writer by excluding people like them who didn’t understand Spanish?  (We were talking about four or five sentences in a story that was 28 pages long.)

I was blunt and unapologetic.  I told them New York readers were at the end of my line, in terms of the readers I was focusing on.  I wanted to be authentic to the setting, the Mexican-American border.  I asked them how many had read Vargas Llosa, or Paz, or García Márquez in Spanish?  How many of them had stepped outside their comfortable linguistic boxes, to seek truth in other worlds and other languages?  I mentioned how I had learned German to read Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Mann in the original.  Perhaps I was too harsh on my fellow writers.  But even among the educated in cosmopolitan Manhattan, our provincialism is growing.  But at what cost, and why?

What happens when a society stops caring about the hard work of imagination, self-criticism, and education?  Will this society even realize what it has lost?  This season, give a book in translation, or prose or poetry from a university press, to someone you care about.  Point them to other indie cultural favorites, in magazines or literary reviews.  Broaden their minds, and prompt their critical thinking.  Help our citizens earn their place in this democracy.