Where I disagree with Achebe is that, because of the racism in Heart of Darkness, he refuses to consider it a masterwork. Like all books, Conrad’s novel is limited by his vision, his biases, his worldview. There is no writer with limitless vision, no writer whose worldview is shared by everyone. The problem is not that people read Heart of Darkness as a masterpiece—it is one—it’s that few read books unsanctioned by empire, and even if you wanted to, there aren’t that many available. Today’s imperial censorship is usually masked as the publisher’s bottom line. “This won’t sell” is the widest moat in the castle’s defenses.
A number of years ago I was a juror for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, an award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and the magazine World Literature Today. Since this is an international prize, the jury is always composed of international writers. There were jurors representing Lebanon, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Palestine, South Africa, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Italy. Only the Italian actually lived in Italy. The rest of us were primarily Americans, living in the United States, almost all associated with American universities. The Mexican was a Texan, the Egyptian a New Yorker; the Nepali taught at Ohio State. Every interview I did as a juror included questions about peace in the Middle East and whether we can achieve it in my lifetime, what it is like in Beirut, and whether I found the trip to Oklahoma tiring. Norman is a four-hour flight from San Francisco. (And while we’re talking about universities: MFA programs are a kind of indoctrination, too. Certain stories, certain types of stories and certain ways of telling stories, are made more valid than others, and this can be dangerous. From the Congo to the Punjab, if you go to Iowa, you will be learning the Iowa Way. You risk becoming a purveyor of comforting myths.)
Every group needs to have an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other. The question for the writers who are getting to talk is where we stand. Inside, outside, in the middle? For so-called world-literature writers, it’s a troubling question.
You might think this is diversity, but it seems more like homogenization. Sometimes, not always, when I read a novel presented or marketed as “foreign,” I feel that I’m reading that common thing, a generic novel hidden behind an alluring facade, a comfortable and familiar book with a sprinkling of exoticness. The names of foods are italicized. Instead of visiting Beijing, I end up at its airport with the same bright Prada and Starbucks stores, maybe one dumpling stand in the corner.
And sometimes even that little stand is troublesome. When I wrote a novel about a reclusive woman who bucks society’s rules by having a rich inner life filled with books and art, I was surprised by how many readers identified with her, and more so that many considered her a tragic figure because she lived in a country that had no respect for women. You know: we live in an exceptional country, it’s only over there where they ostracize women who refuse to conform. (Our world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other is just simply horrid.)