The Lack of Multiculturalism in the American Literary Canon by Dr. A. Robert Lee

The Lack of Multiculturalism in the American Literary Canon by Dr. A. Robert Lee



hello I'm professor Miles Chilton of the Department of English Nihon University I'm co-chair of the 2015 libre Jie conference on literature and librarianship in Osaka Japan today I'm joined by Professor a Robert Lee formerly of the University of Kent at Canterbury and Nihon University professor Lee is the author of many influential texts on American literature including multicultural American literature winner of the American Book Award in 2004 this year at this year's conference professor Lee gave a keynote address on the issues of power American literature and ethnic identity and I was wondering professor Lee how do you think power is manifested or registered in the literature you've been specializing in through your academic career well that's a great question and it's a question that indeed has run through the whole history of American authorship I think the first thing one has to say immediately is that over the years and certainly into the 20th century through one process or another a cannon built up and that cannon was overwhelmingly white heterosexual it had a Protestant base and it looked essentially at the history of America the history of America as essentially a white enterprise and cultural whiteness and I'm not just talking about skin color cultural whiteness is at the heart of the matter and yet ironically when we go back over the history of America when we remember that America at one time was nuez France nueva españa New England New York New Hampshire the mapping of Europe onto the American continent that gives one body of diversity when we remember – and it's a fairly well known story that slaves were brought to America that America was always African in that regard and what will remember the legacy of the Spanish conquistadores and their into interweaving with indigenous peoples we have obviously what in Spanish is mesda sake this mixture of people's and when we shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific we also find that in the import of Asian communities Chinese Japanese Korean and many many more right down to modern importation of people and so forth we have that dimension too and I cannot mention canonical America the power of America without its first peoples so Native America which needs to be recognized honored understood read responded to creates this multiplex this extraordinary diorama which is the Americas and America and one small note to add to that America very often as a signature has done duty to include Canada and to include the Americas to the south it has included Hawaii and the Pacific and the Antilles or the Caribbean in the East so this composite this complex entity simply called America with the power of suggestion and the power of signature has created I think many problems and is simply in need of serious recognition serious deconstruction serious analysis okay you mentioned at the beginning of your remarks the the formation of a cannon and how the cannon the American cannon is is traditionally be seen as generally a white project made up of white writers recognized by white critics and taught trying to sort of signify an ideal kind of whiteness but you're saying we should be reading against that we should be thinking against that and making the cannon a much more plural or pliable thing but doesn't that run the risk of diluting any sort of substantial meaning to the word American I don't think so I think there are common threads within all of the creation of America the Constitution the Bill of Rights the system of Courts and most importantly in the history of America Highschool which has always been an agency of if you will Americanization the issue of language politics only English English only it's a very dangerous idea that in all kinds of ways also let us be very clear the great writers who have been traditionally associated with this canon let me take what one herman melville have always themselves been profoundly multicultural they've been writers who have looked at the threads the makeup the differences within American culture I could for example suggest you a line that came from Melville's fourth novel red burn and this is 18-49 he says you cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world we are not a narrow tribe of men no our blood is as the flood of the Amazon made up of a thousand noble currents pouring into one imagine Melville writing that in 18-49 it would play very well in a thousand ethnic studies and multicultural studies departments today here is a white Anglo in fact Scottish Dutch ancestors writer of the 19th century but a man who had travelled more than probably any American in literary history and one of the qualities that he offers and anticipates is precisely that multiplex precisely that ply of ethnicities and so on and so on so that when we have a Canon we must be very careful if we use sloppy terms like dead white male and somehow imagine that you've done your duty these are writers who challenges in all kinds of complex ways and of course by the time we come on to the modern period certainly since the 1960s in the explosions of the 1960s the rise of ethnic studies the rise of multicultural studies the very rise of the term itself in some ways is a way of reminding us that these so called canonical figures who had been shriven who had been dumbed down in many ways and simply into white blocks were not like that at all and we're actually generous and open to the multiplex which is America so we must be careful on both ends of this so that one cannon should not as it were be taken as if duty done and we have no more to say so you're saying by citing at the mid 19th century of Melville that American literature has been thinking through multiculturalism even before multiculturalism became a category or or an academic site of of of continent station but I'm also thinking for for example a Japanese student here we are in Japan a Japanese students studying American literature if the first time to from the outside perhaps America seems a much more unified thing what would you say to a Japanese student who and when if they conceive of American literature they may think of the big names like the Hemingway's the F scott Fitzgerald perhaps the Herman Melville's and you and and you suggested them well there's a great deal more to that there are the there's the whole body of Native American writers there are the so called much kana writers of the Latino and Latino American writers how can how can somebody from outside of America or any of these so-called multicultural states like my native Canada Australia New Zealand and so on how can somebody get any purchase on that conceptually or even notionally well one of the ways in which I think you can address that since we are in Japan is unsurprisingly to look at Japanese American writing to find the ways in which the nexus between Japan and America took place let me just give you a couple of precise suggestions two of the very early works in Japanese American writing and they are of enormous importance it seems to me are Tasha amore in Yokohama pause California in which he juxtaposes they hit the the hereditary Yokohama of Japan with a community named for the Yokohama of Japan but actually in California he writes this at the time of the aftermath of executive order 906 six which puts 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps 21000 in your native Canada and many more in Chile and Peru in the Americas to the south this is yellow peril that is absolute worse read it alongside say Yamamoto 17 syllables which any Japanese student recognizes instantly for what that meaning is but in fact a series of short stories based both on the camp experience but beyond the camp experience many Japanese Americans refused to simply be identified by japanese-american internment yes does the history of Pearl Harbor yes that Yellow Peril yes there are the exclusion acts but one way in into looking at what happened in this in this marvelously rich diaspora of Japanese is to look at those types of texts you might even go as far as to say where the Japanese settled in Brazil where there is a Portuguese language Japanese American tradition of a different kind of needless to say it's in Portuguese the fact of the matter remains that that diffusion that sense of the complexity and to that if you will all of the other Asian American traditions and you begin to see how to look at that plurality but I would also add that that is a Ridge into looking at Native America the Latino traditions and certainly all of the African American traditions and let me add one tiny further point we talk of these groups in all kinds of ways they are not solid they are not exclusive groups into marriage has done its part the majority of Americans it's estimated by the year 2050 will have mixed ancestry America will not be a single ethnicity of one kind or another even though the collectivity of Asian America to include the Filipinos will be the largest so-called minority in America this is incredibly important and the rise of the Hispanic communities and we've seen this in the politicians courting the Hispanic vote is very very important that mix is a way of looking also allow me to add the mix which is Japan the myth of Japan is simply a unitary country which has no other communities whatsoever is told a lie precisely by Yokohama by the Ainu by a whole range of people who are in this mixed community and the idea of the single community identity nation-state will always be a myth and the dangerous one too professor Lee you mentioned at the beginning of your the last answer you talked about how we have this it seems to be comparison or comparative the comparative capacity of literature is is one way of establishing an identity but another thing that occurred to me as he were talking in this present age of globalization how is it that these ideas of unitary culture persist in the talk of the the rapid circular circulation of texts but from culture one culture to another throws up with the whole question of cultures of origin which is one of the big topics and more literature do you think that there is a age of the something about this age of globalization is is making that more important or more apparent well I think first of all we need to look at the word globalization globalization it seems to me has been hijacked by market people by Wall Street by the big banks the international consortium I think globalization could have a far more healthy and productive meaning if we look at it in cultural terms one of the bodies of language that we've got more and more used to in the recent times are transnational and international and the ways in which those tanks do circulate because we recognize through the media through other other means all together that a novel written by someone of Tamil origins in Singapore travelling through a London publisher and distributed in California and read by English language communities in the Pacific or in Africa has an international cut to it and those kinds of ideas of internationalism of traveling beyond borders makes us aware the hybridity is the name of the game it could not be otherwise I know as a white brit arriving in america and your native Canada the very first time it was an enormously educative experience for me to see that multiplicity of face effect here that little to hear those languages hear that sense that this world community could plug into a Chinese text Japanese text of the Spanish language text and in the native case one of the native language text and so forth so that globalization could mean a kind of cultural interchange it would not alter for one second the auspices under which it was written he may well have been written in Manhattan it may well have been written in Caracas or Melbourne or wherever it would be but that notion somehow that we have access to that is a global readership and that's quite as important as a global authorship now many people would stop either and say but wait a minute when we say global readership are still really talking about a Western or even anglo-american dominated global publishing system in which the dominance of the English language is increasingly marginalizing voices from shall we say less globally important places to not to demean these places but this is how it seems to be falling out is there any is that is do you think there's any way we can alter the the landscape of this globalized circulation of cultures is there some way that English can become the way in which Mart previously marginalized cultures can come can can occupy an effective place in the globalized circulation it's a great question and quite obviously nobody could possibly deny the ascendancy of the English language in all of its composite features whether it is American English British English Australian English African English whatever it happens to be there's no doubt about that if I could wave a magic wand I would make it compulsory for every world citizen to have at least one other language and certainly the need whether you go back to certain African writers who insisted on certain text being written in their indigenous language whether we are in a country like the United States which is the fifth biggest spanish-speaking country in the world you would imagine that it would be a pleasure an utter pleasure to have access through a second language whether you go to a small one of the smallest countries in Europe Luxembourg where you could find for example somebody who spoke both Luxembourgish could speak French is the formal first language which speak German because there on the German border so their first actual foreign language is English that's a 4-ply linguistic heritage how M viewable that really is it would seem to me that in Japan for example given the heritage from Chinese and given the heritage of kanji and so forth etc it would make perfect sense if we were to try to make sure that every young japanese student had either Korean or Chinese as well as English in other words to pluralize those language accesses is crucial I don't deny for one second the media are controlled by a kind of anglo-american ISM which we have to deal with but it doesn't alter the fundamental which is that language access language plurality is the way to world citizenship it's not simply a tool for communication it is that of course but it's also a way of politics a politics of trying for once and we think about the extraordinary phenomenon when the US State Department and the Pentagon discovered they had no more than a handful of Arab speakers and suddenly here we are watching the conduct of international Wars with policies and regimes without the access of serious speakers of the very language of those people for whom we have designated the word enemy yes it's a long haul and we need to do things about it but I would argue urge that beyond all measure well these are incredibly important issues and I think literary education has a small but significant part to play well Robert thank you so much for sitting down and talking with us today it's been my pleasure thank you very much well thank you to everyone at home for watching please visit the IFOR g's site to see this video and other videos and to access the online journals again on behalf of a Robert Lee and myself thank you very much for watching

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