What distinguishes American literature from other literature
America - on the way to post-national literature?
Has contemporary American literature become a festival of hybridity - and what about the beloved myths that America are supposed to embody in this context? Thomas David discussed these questions with two successful writers who are not Native Americans.
Junot Díaz, like Aleksandar Hemon, you were not born in the USA, but it goes without saying that you two are counted among the most important representatives of contemporary American literature. What does the myth of the "Great American Novel" mean to you, on which American writers seem to have worked for generations?
Junot Díaz: I am convinced that the most interesting novels of an era are beyond definition and that even the novels that are now part of the canon of American literature are not necessarily the best or greatest American novels. Most of the books that we revere today, study at universities or put on any lists, are only a fraction of all the great novels that were written in their time. In my opinion, the concept of the “Great American Novel” bears witness to an unbelievable nostalgia for a place that never existed and never will exist and which nevertheless continues to influence American literature with an unrelenting force. The promise of this place is apparently enough to produce literature. Aleksandar Hemon: In my opinion, the idea of the “Great American Novel” must also be viewed in the context of the American longing for great men and leaders. It's about uniqueness, it must never be a question of social conditions or developments. There always has to be one in America who towers above all others. But literature is fluid, something that is constantly in motion, and although there are of course many great American novels, they are never isolated. They come from somewhere, they go somewhere, and without the literature that surrounds them they would have little relevance. Incidentally, the attempt to write the "great American novel" seems to me like the attempt to establish a literary dictatorship. From my point of view, what is more important is the dialogue that one enters into as an author with other writers, and one aspect that distinguishes American literature in my opinion is that it allows this dialogue.
Not only the outstanding importance that the term “Great American Novel” tries to claim for a single work seems problematic: Joseph O'Neill, the author of the PEN / Faulkner Award-winning novel “Netherlands”, sees himself as a representative of one post-national culture and also considers the idea of a “national literature” to be definitely out of date at the beginning of the 21st century. Is it important for you to be called an "American" writer?
Hemon: Yes, but I'm also a Bosnian writer, and although I write novels and short stories in English, I write journalistic texts in Bosnian and am therefore also present in this culture. But the idea that an American writer only has to pick up his pen and immediately pour a monolithic American essence over the paper has always been an illusion; in the meantime it is completely untenable and is at best still cultivated by the supporters of George W. Bush. For an older generation of writers, for authors like Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth, this idea was still viable, and Roth is still big on it. Apart from certain books by these authors, however, this idea repels me because any literature that tries to capture the spirit of a particular nation is essentially nationalist literature, and as we know from the past, it often ended up in Eastern and Western Europe into fascism. With regard to English-language literature, I would agree with Joseph O'Neill because English is widely used and English-language literature can be joined from anywhere. But in some European and non-European countries there is still a lot of nationalistic literature trying to express the soul of a country or a language. It may be true that there is a tendency towards post-national literature, but we are still a long way from achieving this ideal. Díaz: I think the more diverse and multi-faceted a national identity is, the stronger the need for cohesion and unity. But although the striving for national literature, for the "great American novel", proves the ridiculousness of this striving, we should nonetheless be grateful to those who attempt this. There is nothing Philip Roth can tell us about America. Nothing at all, not him alone. And that's great: As soon as someone tries to grasp America in its entirety, the question automatically arises about everything that remains unmentioned in its representation. The pursuit of a novel that captures the essence of America is proof of the impossibility of such pursuit. Hemon: I agree. For me, as I already indicated at the beginning, literature is primarily dialogue: dialogue with other authors, but of course also a dialogue between a writer and his reader. I like to imagine that my novels, but also the novels of other writers, create a kind of public space in which the most varied of people can enter and talk to one another. Not only readers, but also other writers, living and dead, and not just today's readers, but also readers who may not enter the public space of my books for fifty years from now.
The language that doesn't offend anyone
As different as your individual experiences of America may be, one thing you share with all American writers is language. What are the special features of what is called “American” or “American English” in the German-speaking world?
Hemon: I believe that every language is inherently democratic and that this is particularly true of English, especially American English, because our language is so widely used around the world. Even so, it is difficult to characterize their properties. I remember looking up the entry on the English language in the first edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” and it said, for example, that English expresses “the soul of the English people”. That claim might still have been made in the 17th or 18th centuries, but it sounds crazy today, although there are still countries who share this view. I grew up in the South Slavic-speaking area, where nationalists can still claim that everything you say in your language embodies the soul of the people. It is part of the beauty of English that it can no longer be misused in this way. Anyone can make the English language their home and no one can be banished from it. When I started writing in the United States, I gave my then wife, an American, something to read from me and she said, "We don't say that like that." To which I replied: "I do now." Anyone can bring their experience of a foreign language to American English without fear of being driven out of it, and that seems pretty unique to me. Díaz: It is certainly true that everything you contribute to the English language makes it stronger, but that also has to do with the imperial world power of English. If, for example, German were as widespread as English, the writers in Germany who reflect this diffusion in their work would be valued more.
Are there stereotypes in American literature, such as the character of the “American Dreamer”, that are important to you?
Díaz: Although traditional narrative patterns certainly still exert an attraction, when it comes to - in quotation marks - "American literature", the first thing that comes to mind is the reactions to the particular historical events that defined the real habitat of the USA. For example, if I were to describe the difference between Dominican and American literature, I would always mention first that there was a civil rights movement in the United States that has changed the landscape of all relationships. There are many American writers for whom this fact is hardly worth mentioning, but such a reorganization has never taken place in the Dominican Republic. This historical uniqueness is subject to my understanding of literature, but that doesn't mean that I have to write about it all the time. Hemon: I once had to wait twelve hours for a flight in Buffalo and didn't have a book with me. So I got the New York Times and read it from cover to cover. I noticed four stories that were based on the pattern «From dishwasher to millionaire». I don't think the New York Times said to itself, “Oh, we need a few more rags-to-riches”: But American journalists internalized this narrative pattern to such an extent that they unconsciously use it again and again. For some reason it is completely alien to myself. I am unable to see a person in terms of the fulfillment of his dreams. If this pattern works, however, one can, for example, take Martin Luther King quite naturally as someone who conquered his adversaries in order to become this great American visionary. You forget that all of damn America was its adversary. Díaz: And that in the end, of course, nobody was defeated at all. Hemon: Yeah, that's true. But people define themselves through the stories of their lives, they define their country through the stories of their country, and literature plays an important role in that. Often times it confirms the narrative patterns of these stories so that people understand better who they are and what they are seeing, until people finally see everything only within these patterns. Like the aforementioned journalists from the New York Times, who see their dishwasher stories everywhere. Díaz: This fable is a genre that simply sells better in America than in other countries. Nowhere else has its popularity taken on such pathological traits. What fascinates me as a writer about it is that every one of my readers knows this genre and I can therefore disappoint or ignore all possible expectations.
The world and the stories
Is it possible to misunderstand Barack Obama's success story as the latest contribution to this genre?
Hemon: Obama didn't dream his way into the White House. To describe his career as a new version of the “American Dream” is a lie. My problem with this type of narrative paradigm is not only that it is boring, but that it dangerously falsifies reality and therefore has to be fought for not only aesthetic but also political reasons. My job as a writer is to understand myself and the world as part of a paradigm that is as complicated as possible: one that is open and defies definition, that does not confirm what you think you know, but rather expands the space of experience in all possible directions . But of course most people are just looking for what they already know and are anything but open to the challenges of the unexpected and complicated. Díaz: Don't worry, the world already cares about these people. The world shows each and every one of us, whether we notice it or not, every day anew how absurd are the ideas we have of it. The world is too complicated, too contradictory, too big to care about our simple explanations. They are nothing more than prayers to a God who does not exist. But what interests me as a writer is the relationship between the world and the stories we tell about it. Because even if the world keeps us from explaining it, we have to keep trying. In my opinion, every type of art essentially testifies to our desire for stories, for meaning and context, and the longing of the individual to find his or her place in the world. But also of the impossibility of all of this.
In his 1960 essay "Writing American Novels", Philip Roth observes: "The American writer in the mid-twentieth century has his hands full if he wants to understand, describe and make believable a large part of American reality." Why was it still possible for Roth to make this demand in 1960?
Díaz: It wasn't possible in 1960 either. Hemon: For Philip Roth, America is what happened before the civil rights movement. I can't stand his books, "The Human Flaw" is really disgusting. Deeply conservative, in the worst possible sense. When I read the novel, at some point I had the impression that Roth was telling a single lie. The book has nothing to do with the America that I can see. Díaz: In the Dominican Republic, I was born within earshot of the rumor that there is a nation that calls itself "America" and can be defined as such. Throughout my childhood in New Jersey, I was whispered this rumor that led me to believe that my presence in the United States was an anomaly. It wasn't until I got older that I realized that I was the victim of this vicious rumor that serves an economy where some people matter and some don't. So I've always felt like an embodiment of the stories America is spreading about itself, but why as a writer should I want to add to the power of those rumors with my books? Art is there to give the lie to these murderous rumors. But because the rumor of "America" is being spread of a powerful, all-encompassing hegemony, people all over the world are reacting so strongly and cannot stop talking about it. In the end, however, we should take my mother's advice: We should say the rumor is a lie and turn to the truth.
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