Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Neo-Something: And It Ain't So Good

More than ten years ago, I picked up a used copy of Pushcart’s The Publish It Yourself Handbook, a nice re-released volume published originally in 1973 and again in 1983 and 1987. It tells the stories of those editors and writers who informed the independent American literary voice—a literati who are heroes in their own rights. Only recently, though, have I actually read into the book. It’s a minority opinion, but I think it’s a good habit to buy what you think you may want to read someday though not immediately. Well, there’s an interesting story told by Carla Emery (pp. 35–45) that relates to a point I’ve been wanting to make for a while. She starts out telling me about her childhood and how her physical inability to communicate one day in her early life prevented her from making friends when she so badly wanted some:

“My earliest childhood memories are of helpless muteness and the suffering it caused me. I remember being four years old on a lovely sunshiny day, standing outside in our yard. Two little boys came by and spoke to me. I understood what they said. They wanted to be friends. I stood and watched them, hoping they could see in my eyes how much I wanted to be friends too. But when I did not answer them out loud they walked on.”

Emery goes on to mention her visit to a University of Washington clinic, followed by a diagnosis, and a regimen of speech therapy that fixed the matter. Although she doesn’t say it explicitly, I don’t think those little boys came back. She lost that shot at friendship. That’s the disaster of poor-timing. When two towers collapsed in September 2001 and the post-trauma decisions and dramas ensued, it became apparent that an opportunity was lost, maybe irreversibly. The cultural paralysis of a burgeoning Muslim community beforehand had been the result of complicated meshes of psychology and forged paradigms introduced by the energy and minds tutored at the knees of post-colonialization vehemence in the Muslim east. But that analysis was rendered no longer relevant. Things quickly became political—poison to authentic art. Whatever Muslim Americans had to say was now either part of a continual apology and genuflection or forced effrontery against Islam and the concept of "tradition" and thus insure the interest of publishers. Or they were Pollyanna “introductions” to the faith that pined to prove the humanity of Muslims. But there is something else, perhaps more difficult to overcome, neo-puritanical angst, the steroid-pumped Muslim reaction: a tough line that is not scaleable, not attached to a valid sacred paradigm, nor able to exist beyond pixels or any mental holodeck. (Please consult your Star Trek Federation Manual.)

The forgettable presence of Jerry Springer short stories notwithstanding, the literary voice that is uniquely Muslim American is slow to rise. The underpinnings are not complicated. Religion cannot survive as an abstraction. As soon as it alights itself someplace, there is a pressure, almost sacred, to produce along with it a culture. Throughout the Muslim world, we see this as clearly as the sky: from the squared towers of Muslim Spain, the domes of Istanbul, the pointed minarets of Cairo, the majestic symmetry of monuments of Muslim India, and the pagoda roofs of Beijing mosques. (And this only speaks of architecture.) Oppression never destroys a religion, Seyyed Hossein Nasr once said. It is “indifference” that threatens it the most. A religious presence without a culture is indifference, a severe and impossible understanding of the relationship between religion and culture—between the heaven and the earth, the hidden and the manifest.

This neo-puritanical insecurity will certainly attract many and can only delay or kill what is desperately needed. (More to come, God willing.)


Blogger Celal Birader said...

Islam has produced a lot of great architecture; but, not much great literature, I'm afraid.

I don't expect we will see a great "literary voice" arise from Islam, if history is any indication.

4/18/2006 8:25 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Celal, you're mistaken. Poetry, for example, in Islamic civilization covers several languages: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and others. Rumi's poetry, for example, is among the best-sellers in America (translations, that is). I can also speak of the Qisas literature, stories and allegories galore. Not sure where you got your information from, nor your prognosis about a Muslim literary voice in America.

4/18/2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Celal Birader said...

Hello again,

I admit I don't have any first hand familiarity with Rumi. But in high school they taught us the poety of Fuzuli and doted on him as if he was the Shakespeare of the Muslim world yet his work (in my opinion) does not rise above mere doggerel.

Again i don't know about any kind of distinctly American Muslim literary voice but you seem to have admitted in your blog entry that is not (yet) existent. I suppose we all live in hope.

Most literary genres, like the novel, are late imports into the Muslim world. Current Turkish novelists such as Orhan Pamuk have been critically acclaimed; yet, i would not argue he is representative of *Islamic* literature per se.

The greatest example of the *Islamic* novel in 20th century
Turkish literature is Necip Fazil Kisakurek and his works cluster around a theme consisting of no more than a thick molasses of xenophonia, particulary an unhealthy expression of hatred toward Christians.

4/19/2006 5:04 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home