Sunday, 8 May 2011

Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors

Nibir K. Ghosh. Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors. Chandigarh: Unistar, 2005. pp. 208+xxiii. Rs.395.

My voyage as a Fulbright scholar to the land which Columbus discovered was an enriching experience. During the course of my eight-month stay (2003-04) in the U.S., I was eager to explore and examine the various dimensions of  American society, polity and culture from the standpoint of an objective onlooker to see how my distance education of America stood in relation to what I could see in terms of visual as well as experiential reality. I was curious to learn what really makes the United States of America to be the undisputed first choice of immigrants not only from the developing third world countries but also from the affluent nations of Europe. I was overawed by America’s immensity in terms of geographical space, economic affluence, cultural diversity, and political goals. But, at the same time, I could not help reflecting on the glaring contradictions that challenge the very veracity of the avowed American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As a teacher-scholar of American literature for nearly three decades, I had often wondered at the complexities inherent in American polity and society, related first and foremost to the ambivalence of the “American Dilemma” that reflected the pervasive presence of the color line. It is evident that race continues to occupy a prominent place in American politics. Being situated in both the superstructure and base of society, “color-prejudice” exists as a glaring reality, both personal and political. Also, as revealed in the recent events surrounding Katrina, race and class remain central to an understanding of the American experience and shape both personal and political reality for millions of Americans.
Besides the racial dilemma, there are several contentious issues where democratic ideals do not seem to be in unison with democratic practice. The revelations of Watergate would have naturally stunned the founding fathers of this nation to see such display of gross abuse of power by its First Citizen but they would have been especially proud of the judiciary they had created, a judiciary that could affirm beyond doubt that no one, absolutely no one, including the President of America, is above law. It seems amazing that a nation urged by the sense of such ethics and democratic ideals which could remove even a President from power has little explanation to account for the miscarriages of justice in events like the Scottsboro, Sacco-Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs trials, and, in recent times, the Rodney King episode. It does confound one to see in a land where the Statue of Liberty stands majestically safeguarding individual freedom, a poet like Amiri Baraka, could lose his Laureateship on account of a controversial poem “They Blew Up America” that came from him in the wake of the 9/11 bombing and destruction of the twin towers. The “Patriot Act” too is being seen by many intellectuals as a measure to curb individual freedom in the style of Orwell’s 1984.

In these animated conversations contemporary American authors -- Charles Johnson, August Wilson, David Guterson, Ethelbert Miller, Octavia Butler, Jonah Raskin, Stanley Crouch, Colleen McElroy, David Ray, Harryette Mullen, Joseph Jordan, Kathleen Alcala, and Angelyn Mitchell -- foreground in their frankness and energy, the powerful dynamic that relates society, polity, art and ideas to the making of the American mind. These figures - alert to the events and challenges surrounding them - often address the variable human factor in the inequities of power within the United States and its relationship to the rest of the world. Together, they provide an intimate and distinctive portrait of how living American writers view themselves in a world that both frightens and excites them immensely. Although the thrust of this volume is on the response of the contemporary American mind to the ambivalence of the "American Dilemma" in relation to race, immigration and ethnicity, my conversations with writers from diverse backgrounds reflect how changing American values affirm the continuing need for complex modes of multiculturalism in an increasingly global culture. Factors such as the controversial emergence of the United States as the only super power, the growing socio-economic challenges from the so-called Third World, and the growing recognition of interdependence of nations and peoples, are leading the creative minds in the U.S. to question some of the long-held assumptions about the world and the role the U.S. might play in it. In these extended interviews, these writers and intellectuals talk about their own work and their own development. But they also share their concerns about race and ethnicity, gender and politics, culture wars, technology and environment, as well as recent events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War.
--Nibir K. Ghosh, “Introduction.”

Nibir K. Ghosh with Professor Morris Dickstein at CUNY, New York

Professor Morris Dickstein

Going back to the time of Frances Trollope, Dickens, and Tocqueville, our understanding of American life has always been enriched by the observations of sharp-eyed visitors from abroad. They may miss things that natives know in their bones, but as outsiders they show an uncanny sense of what most natives ignore or simply take for granted. Above all, they defamiliarize the cultural landscape, upending the conventional wisdom about what is central to it and what is marginal. To Dr. Nibir Ghosh, a distinguished Indian scholar of American literature, the ever-shifting margins of American society, especially the diverse groups that compose it, are central: like Ralph Ellison, he sees American culture as the braided strands of many cultures, not static and separate but dynamically interwoven in shifting patterns. During the course of an academic year spent in Seattle, often seen as one of America’s whitest, most homogeneous cities, Dr. Ghosh set out to explore these margins through conversations with writers….Dr. Ghosh’s ultimate subject is the diversity of American life and writing, not the stunted ideological diversity of identity politics but the prismatic diversity of a true multiculturalism. The writers he approaches…are complex and individual in their own identities. Unlike some of their contemporaries, none of them is strictly political.

Dr. Ghosh’s engaging colloquies with each of these varied figures bring to mind the work of journalist Studs Terkel, who has spent a lifetime talking to ordinary and extraordinary Americans, and the celebrated interviews with writers that have appeared in the Paris Review over the past half century. As an interviewer Dr. Ghosh is exceptionally well informed about his subjects yet never intrudes his own viewpoint. If these dialogues feel spontaneous, it is because he asks questions that set them at ease and encourage them to open up. They touch a nerve, letting loose a flow of genuine conversation, not canned replies or defensive maneuvers. Like any good interviewer he really listens, and hence the subjects listen more closely to him. And working with them afterwards, Dr. Ghosh undoubtedly edits their replies, grasping for what is essential and paring away the inevitable hesitations, imprecisions, and repetitions. The result is a book that is a continuous pleasure to read, peopled by array of writers who reveal things about their craft, their character, and their country from which no reader can fail to learn much of great interest.
--Professor Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, U.S.A. and author of widely acclaimed Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple.

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