PLAGIARISTS OF EXPERIENCE
posted by James Reel
Considering, first, the swarms of American and European journalists across earthquake-ruined Haiti and Chile, and the current controversy over what constitutes a literary “mash-up” and what remains out-and-out plagiarism, this seems like a good time to revive an essay I wrote a decade ago about a more benign form of “borrowing.” Remember that all references to things “recent” date back to around 1999.
Plagiarists of Experience
Proponents call it literature of witness. I think of it as social voyeurism. A First World writer dons an L.L. Bean pith helmet, jets off to some jungle hell, is horrified by reports of exploitation and slaughter, and catches the next flight back to the home computer to document it all in a slim volume of outrage and elegy. The book moves its American and European readers to momentary despair.
Back in the jungle, the atrocities continue.
I do not question the sincerity, integrity, or physical courage of such a writer. Nor do I claim that the nature of witness literature requires any artistic compromise. I merely question the relevance of witnesses now that the actual participants may testify on their own behalf.
Consider the work of Carolyn Forché, a distinguished, still youngish American poet who balances the elusive allusions so dear to academics with passion and conscience. Her first collection, Gathering the Tribes (1976), develops the themes of kinship and ritual. In many of these poems, she assumes the persona of her Slovak grandmother. In a few others, though, she insinuates herself into Native American culture, and seems something of a poseur when taking on a heritage other than her own.
The Country Between Us followed in 1981, shortly after Forché served a two-year stint as a human rights activist in El Salvador. Compared to Gathering the Tribes, her style is now even more direct and less self -conscious, but the subject matter is suddenly more artificial: political oppression and torture of mind and body on a scale alien to any U.S. citizen at this end of the 20th century. Whatever Forché may have experienced in El Salvador, these poems make her seem little more than a second-hand witness to atrocity. The people in her poems have already been mutilated, or killed, by the time they enter her text; this is by no means an account of direct experience. Forché has mounted an aesthetic colonization of others' anguish.
Fortunately, Forché remains aware of her status as an outsider, with outstanding results in the poem “Return.” The poet, back in the U.S.A. and snug in a supermarket—the chain, not coincidentally, is Safeway—frets over what she has observed in El Salvador, and how she is unable to change anything there. A friend admonishes her:
Your problem is not your life as it is in America, not that your hands, as you tell me, are tied to do something. It is that you were born to an island of greed and grace where you have this sense of yourself as apart from others. It is not your right to feel powerless. Better people than you were powerless. You have not returned to your country, but to a life you never left.
Clearly, Forché's need for kinship in an alienating world has remained constant since Gathering the Tribes, and her work in Central America has made this need even more intense despite its apparent futility. Even when the poems in this second collection resist the gravitational pull of politics, they orbit a sense of oneself as isolated from others, a sense of how individuals grow apart and are separated by huge differences in interests, commitments, and intentions—the "country between us." She is, more often than not, writing about universal concerns that resonate through her personal cares.
This rarely happens in her most recent volume, The Angel of History (1995). Forché overcame several years of writer's block by writing about silence in a larger sense: how the perpetrators of this vicious century's most heinous acts refuse to admit their crimes, and how victims remain reluctant to discuss their experiences. Naturally, Holocaust ash blackens many of these pages.
Forché is even farther removed in time and place from these events than she was from Salvadoran sadism, and although she now steps outside her Carolyn Forché persona more often than in earlier poems, she seems less a witness than a tourist logging her snapshots. Here we are visiting my aunt in Brno. This is us on our daytrip to the concentration camp. Here's a photo we took on our layover in Hiroshima.
I'm being unfair to what is, in truth, a moving lament. But Forché does not persuade me that the lament is her own. She is a noble plagiarist of experience.
Which puts her in good company. As Edward Said posited in Culture and Imperialism, and as many a post-colonial lit-crit twit has parroted since, the great figures of Western literary culture have long conspired with grasping politicians to justify not only the colonization of foreign lands but the domination of foreign cultures and collective imaginations. I need remind you only of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which an Englishman's confrontation with Darkest Africa (not to mention the blacker aspects of the British Empire) culminates in the scrawled journal entry, "The horror, the horror!" And perhaps I should bring to your attention Rudyard Kipling's Kim, in which an English boy raised "wild" in India prefers to go native and live like the subcontinent's denizens, who are shown to be by turns comic and sinister, although the boy's innate English intelligence eventually allows him to become a cunning undercover agent for the Crown.
The post-colonialism whip is too often employed to flog long-dead writers produced by a society far different from our own, except in its smugness. But post-colonial theory does sound a useful warning to contemporary writers endeavoring to speak for other cultures. Those cultures are perfectly able to produce voices of their own, thank you.
Consider as a single example Taslima Nasrin, a feminist poet with an aggressive social conscience, who emerged from (and found it necessary to flee) Bangladesh. In an online essay, Harry Russo III situates her succinctly: "She uses the repressive, male-dominated culture of her homeland as a vehicle for her indictment of men, governments and zealots who dismantle human spirit and dignity through isolation and oppression." All I need add is mention of Taslima Nasrin's one collection in English, translated by Carolyne Wright: The Game in Reverse (1995).
Does the development of literary expertise within oppressed developing nations mean that Western writers should now ban other cultures from their word processors? Not at all. The dictum "Write what you know," when taken literally, would clutter the closeout catalogs with even more novels about self-absorbed professors of creative writing. It is our nature, as creative writers and readers, to explore new realms, at least in our imaginations. But we cannot afford to lose ourselves in those exotic realms, as do, to their peril, the protagonists of Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky.
(Interestingly, Bowles is one of the few American writers to penetrate a foreign consciousness with complete success. Hie thee to Bowles' third and finest novel, The Spider's House, and meet the complex, conflicted Muslim youth Amar; he makes Kipling's confounded Kim look like a Saturday morning cartoon.)
Carolyn Forché's admonishment from a friend plots our safest course, with its reminder to each writer and reader that "you were born to an island of greed and grace where you have this sense of yourself as apart from others." If we stand detached, yet not aloof, we may observe with greater clarity—and report with the compelling sadness and longing of the stranger within the gates.