Thursday, 19 May 2011

Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors

                                     Liberty as Statue  by  Ashok Sharma       
Multiculturalism as a phenomenon is widely acknowledged and debated. The US, Australia, Canada, India and many other countries make boastful claims of multiculturalism. This book, written by a distinguished scholar of American literature at Agra University, may be considered an important contribution to the study of American society’s multicultural aspects.
This book is an animated conversation of Ghosh with 13 contemporary American authors: Charles Johnson, August Wilson, David Guterson, Ethelbert Miller, Octavia Butler, Jonah Raskin, Stanley Crouch, Collen McElroy, David Ray, Harryette Mullen, Joseph Jordan, Kathlin Alcala, and Angelyn Mitchell. All are famous for their writings on the powerful dynamic that relates society, polity, art and ideas to the making of the American mind.
These authors, alert to related events and challenges, often address the variable human factor in the inequities of power not only within American society, but also in America’s relationship with the rest of the world. This book gives an intimate and distinctive portrait of how living American writers view themselves in a world that both frightens and excites them immensely. In doing so, it reveals an amazing diversity of perspectives on the social, political and cultural issues in contemporary USA.
Although the thrust of this book is on the American mind’s response to the ambivalence inherent in the American Dilemma in relation to race, immigration and ethnicity, the author’s dialogue with the writers reflects how changing American values affirm the continuing need for a complex mode of multiculturalism in an increasingly global culture. Factors such as the controversial emergence of the US as the sole superpower, the growing socio-economic challenges from poor countries, and the growing recognition of interdependence of nations and peoples, are leading America’s creative minds to question some of the long-held assumptions about the world and the role the US might play in it.
In their extended interviews, the writers talk about their work and simultaneously share their views and 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.
Ghosh’s ultimate focus is on the diversity of American life and literature, and the prismatic diversity of true multiculturalism rather than the stunned ideological diversity of identity politics. The American novelists and poets Ghosh has approached constitute a complex set of individuals with their own distinct identities. None of them is political in the strict sense of the term. This, in a way, is a positive as well as negative aspect of the book, since society and politics are interlinked.
Novelist Charles Johnson combines artistic conscience and historical understanding of Buddhist practice and African American issues, and proclaims the imperative of embracing a standpoint that calls for an amalgamation of multidisciplinary and multi-cultural perspectives. In contrast, August Wilson challenges America on patterns of exclusion and alienation, and celebrates the struggles and aspirations, fears and hopes, of the average black American citizen. David Guterson creates fictional universes wherein he presents moral questions for reflection on the human condition. Unlike Gutterson , Ethelbert Miller describes himself as a political writer and literary activist. Multiplicity is the key to his vision of the American dream.
Octavia Butler extends Miller’s concerns to include gender and more. A hardcore rebel and cultural revolutionary, Raskin thinks of America as an exploitative society “still deeply divided, still at war with itself”. Stanley Crouch explores the intellectual and cultural width and depth of Black America and opposes segregation of African Americans from mainstream life in America.
Collen McElroy’s America is a country where a common language controls the amazing diversity of cultures. Harryette Mullen concentrates on poetic paradigms in dealing with the racial dilemma; Joseph Jordan prefers to see the problem in relatively direct light. Kathelin Alcala, a Mexican American, stretches beyond her own experiences as an ethnic outsider in a society that tends to marginalise minorities, to deliver the unexpected. But for Angelyn Mitchell, America is her country, her “home”.
Ghosh’s conversations with each of these figures show that he is not only well-versed and informed about his subjects, he is also a keen student of how America is negotiating the challenges of multiculturalism under ever changing circumstances. As an external observer, he gives an objective view of America’s multiculturalism. The dialogue seems spontaneous, and the interviews are done exceptionally well. This is an interesting and pleasurable book to read.   

Review of
Chandigarh: Unistars Books, 2005. Price: Rs. 395; Pages: 208.     
Courtesy: Business Standard, Vol.XII Number 249 Friday 3 February, 2006

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