Fiction across Borders: Imagining the Lives of Others in Late Twentieth-Century Novels

June 10, 2010

The semi-autobiographical narrator of Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land (1992) is touched when an Egyptian in the village in which he is conducting anthropological research tries to put himself in the Indian's situation, commenting that "Amitab" must miss people at home when he puts the kettle on with just enough water for one. Ghosh equates this empathy with his own ethnographic enterprise, arguing that it involves an attempt "to enter my imagination and look at my situation as it might appear to me".

In this theoretically ambitious but curiously ahistorical book, Shameem Black discusses the ethics of representing "the Other" in what she terms "border-crossing fictions" written by Ghosh, Charles Johnson, Ruth Ozeki, Rupa Bajwa, Jeffrey Eugenides, Gish Jen and others between 1982 and 2004. She argues that these writers eschew discursive domination in favour of their protagonists or narrators imaginatively becoming Other by straddling the boundaries that divide races, faith groups, genders and/or languages. To adapt Samuel Johnson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in Fiction across Borders disparate texts are yoked together, often with enabling, but occasionally epistemic, violence. Black's brave decision not to confine her writers within the expected national, ethnic, generic and religious borders, and to identify instead their shared exploration of "crowded selves and crowded styles", is intriguing if not entirely convincing.

I had hoped this book would allow me to find out more about the histories and interpretations of key terms such as "the Other", "alterity" and "border crossing", with which the text is liberally scattered, and the context of late 20th and early 21st-century fictions. However, this aim was disappointed, as Black makes too little effort to define her terms or trace their histories. For example, the term "border crossing" is used to denote social movements in which an individual imagines him- or herself in the Other's position. Despite the validity of this approach, I find it extraordinary that national border crossing is barely mentioned, especially given the migrant status of many of the writers.

Although Black touches on Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs McWorld, another elephant in the room is the War on Terror, the increased Othering of people of Muslim heritage, and their humiliations at passport control, which have become increasingly acute during the period studied. This is especially surprising given that the monograph closes with a line from Ian McEwan's Saturday, without exploring the "visceral" aversion that its protagonist frequently feels when considering the Muslim Other.

In her introduction, Black raises two fascinating points, first that "fiction can do real damage through its representations" and, second, that "ethnic" writers see less commercial success if they write outside their perceived group, but once more the argument is frustratingly divorced from examples. Whether or not irresponsible representations in The Satanic Verses were partly to blame for the violence of the Rushdie affair is pertinent to the first point, while Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue and Vikram Seth's An Equal Music could illustrate the relative failures suffered by "minority" writers when they discuss ethnic milieux with which they are not associated. Yet the detailed study of individual texts is more successful than the monograph's uneven line of argument. Black's impressive command of theory and sensitive interaction with current critical debates suggest that she will be a writer worth watching if only she can tether her research more closely to examples and context.

Fiction across Borders: Imagining the Lives of Others in Late Twentieth-Century Novels

By Shameem Black. Columbia University Press 333pp, £58.50 and £18.50. ISBN 9780231149785 and 49792. Published 5 February 2010

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