Into the Margins

January of 2018 was a good month for fiction in The New Yorker. The end of the month saw the publication of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Boundary,” a story about half the length of the stories Lahiri usually publishes, a product of her having originally written the story in Italian. The short piece is deceptively simple, told from the first-person perspective of a girl whose family works as caretakers on a rustic property where the wealthy come for respite from their hectic lives. The acute tension is the visit of a particular family with two young daughters who don’t seem that different from the families who usually visit; perhaps one of the only circumstances that makes their visit unusual is that the narrator’s mother is absent, off working in the city for the summer. The chronic tension established early on is that the narrator and her family are “foreigners” and that the narrator doesn’t “look like anyone else,” though the country they are from and the country they currently reside in are left unnamed. But this is a distinct counterpoint to the girls in the visiting family, who “resemble each other.” While the narrator’s family lives “behind a tall hedge that forms a kind of screen,” the narrator works in the main house and observes the visiting family’s activities closely, noticing a likeness between herself and the family’s mother:

The mother does what I do: she sweeps the floor, cooks, washes dishes.

The narrator also observes the mother writing in a notebook:

She studies everything I look at every day. But I wonder what else she sees in it.

The father is frazzled by some rustic occurrences that he then spins as charming to guests who come for his birthday party: “the tomato-eating crickets, the funeral under the plum tree, the sheepdog, the fox that carried off the flip-flop.” The daughters bring a piece of cake over to the narrator’s house, and they overhear the mother mention that she got it at a bakery in the same piazza where it turns out the father suffered a vicious beating apparently incurred by his foreignness that turns out to be the reason they live on this isolated property in the first place. The narrator cleans up after the family leaves, and finds some shopping lists in the mother’s handwriting:

…the faint, small script that the mother used, on other sheets of paper, to write all about us.

The eponymous boundary, then, would seem to be that between cultures, between foreigners and non-foreigners. Lahiri seems to be raising the question of whether, in writing, it’s okay to cross that boundary. The mother has apparently been observing the narrator in a manner not so dissimilar from the way the narrator is observing the family; the narrator hasn’t put anything in writing, but she is the one telling this story, so it’s almost like she has. Is what she’s doing any less acceptable than what the mother’s doing? Some details seem to indicate that it might be. The fact that the narrator’s family lives behind a hedge like a screen, for instance–the narrator sees the family’s house because she’s inside taking care of it, but the mother never sees past the screen into the narrator’s house. This screen is breached only once, when the daughters give them the cake, and the breach is fleeting:

They dash off before I can say thanks.

This would seem to mean, then, that the narrator is actually in a position to have seen and understand a lot more about the mother than vice versa, which would then mean that she’d be in a much better position to write about the mother with some degree of accuracy. Thus the story interrogates who’s in a position to write outside their race and who might not be. It’s notable that it’s the exchange of the cake, the breach of the screen, that triggers the recall of the violence in the father’s history–that brings pain. When looked at more closely, the “tomato-eating crickets” seem to reinforce the reading that breaching this boundary causes pain:

One day, back from the beach, the girls run around for hours trying to catch crickets that jump through the grass. They snatch them up. They put a few in a jar with little pieces of tomato stolen from their parents’ salads. They turn them into pets, even naming them. The next day the crickets die, suffocated in the jar, and the girls cry. They bury them under one of the plum trees and put some wildflowers on top.

One could read the narrator and her family as the crickets in the jar, while the girls are the mother/family–obviously the one in the position of power when rendered in this dynamic. The girls have good intentions when putting the crickets in the jar, but in doing so are doing something irrevocably harmful to them. This upsets the girls briefly, but they pave the pain over with some pretty flowers and that’s the end of it.

Lahiri’s publication feels timely considering that earlier in January the New Yorker published Sadia Shepard’s “Foreign-Returned,” a story that reworks Mavis Gallant’s 1963 New Yorker story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” Gallant’s story focuses on a Canadian family’s time in Geneva, Switzerland before their failure to find their fortune abroad forces them to return to their home country, while Shepard’s focuses on a Pakistani couple’s time in America before they also fail to achieve the success they’d imagined and return home. A minor controversy erupted over the story when novelist Francine Prose wrote in to the New Yorker to complain about how closely Shepard’s story followed Gallant’s, essentially accusing her of plagiarism for taking the story and only changing the characters’ names and identities. The writer Jess Row defended Shepard:

As is usually the case when a literary debate erupts, we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige. Shepard’s critics have accused her of plagiarizing Gallant’s story, while refusing to admit that to transpose a work’s cultural setting, or racial perspective, while preserving its plot is a long-standing, valid, and increasingly vital extension of Ezra Pound’s command to ‘make it new.’ This denies both Shepard and Gallant the respect they deserve. Gallant wrote a masterly story that embodies a certain time, place, and perspective; Shepard, who discovered it decades later, found a way to bring it to life again, putting the same human frailties into a different context. The real scandal here is the proprietary rage of Shepard’s critics, who insist that she has no right to this material. As if they were the ones in charge.

Interestingly, the movie Submission, starring Stanley Tucci, will be released this month, which is based on Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel, which is in turn inspired by the 1930 German film The Blue Angel. Prose’s Blue Angel is about a college professor who gets involved with a student; the 1930 film is about a professor who gets involved with a cabaret dancer he meets because of trying to keep his students from seeing her. That professor eventually becomes a clown in the dancer’s troupe and is humiliated in front of his former students. Without having read Prose’s book or seen the new movie, it seems possible that Prose transposed this literal turning-into-a-clown plot twist into a more figurative turning-into-a-clown plot twist, as her professor-character’s life falls apart due to his transgression. It would seem that she does not follow the plot of the movie as closely perhaps as Shepard follows Gallant’s, but as Jess Row essentially points out, is Prose in charge of determining the boundary for how closely you can follow a plot when you’re borrowing from it?

Perhaps it’s her Dickensian surname that makes her think such a determination is within her purview, but another controversy that Prose has weighed in on makes it seem just as likely that it’s her race. In the New York Review of Books last November, Prose wrote about the online backlash against Laura Moriarty’s YA novel American Heart, which features a white protagonist who befriends a Muslim woman during a period in which Muslims have been interred in camps. The book is written by a white woman. When Kirkus gave it a starred review, it had been reviewed by a Muslim woman, but the online reaction was so extreme that Kirkus amended its position:

The Kirkus review was reposted, in a revised and less enthusiastic form: “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Prose’s argument in response to the backlash is to first discuss the idea that writers should be able to write outside their own “lived experience” because we should be capable of using our imaginations to imagine such experiences (a suggestion that echoes Jenji Kohan’s response to criticism of the predominantly white OITNB season 5 writers’ room). Prose suggests that if we can’t write characters of other races because we can’t imagine what it’s like to be them, then we theoretically shouldn’t be able to write historical fiction, which requires a similar feat of imagination outside lived experience. Prose then goes on to invoke “the dangers of censorship,” noting classics that have been banned in schools because some of their language makes people “uncomfortable” and some characters traffic in stereotypes. She asks, among other things, if we can no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black.

As a teacher of college composition-writing as well as creative-writing, this argument seems to me to be a straw man logical fallacy. While Prose singles out an author who “steers readers away from books that feature marginalized characters that have been written by ‘authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions,'” the original social-media reaction against American Heart does not seem to be declaring that Moriarty should not have written a Muslim character at all; simply writing a Muslim character is not what’s been deemed “problematic.” Rather, it’s that the white writer filters the portrayal of the Muslim character exclusively through a white perspective. People seem to be accusing Moriarty of only looking at the character from the outside and not taking up that character’s perspective, which is what would actually require imagining what it’s like to be that character–the thing Prose argues here that writer’s should be able to do. Effectively, Moriarty’s critics are criticizing her because she failed to take up this perspective, but Prose misses the point by acting like these critics are saying she shouldn’t be taking up this perspective at all. She pays lip service to the importance of being aware of the influence of white privilege, but in a way that seems borderline hostile before neatly deflecting the point:

The accusation that “society tends to favor privileged voices” is, according to some, not only a political analysis but an economic one. … What this suggests is that books are being categorized and judged less on their literary merits than on the identity of their authors.

It’s undeniable that the literary voices of marginalized communities have been underrepresented in the publishing world, but the lessons of history warn us about the dangers of censorship.

The reason Othello is not problematic is that Othello, the black man, is the main character. We’re getting his perspective. He’s not relegated to the margins and only looked at from the outside. That would be problematic. A white man writing a black man is not what’s inherently problematic here. It would be problematic if he had not written him as a realistic human being.

So does this mean that every time a marginalized character appears in your narrative, you have to go into their head, represent their consciousness, in order to ensure their representation adequate? There is no one answer to this question; it depends on the demands of the particular story. One Goodreads review describes why Moriarty’s narrative choices did not actually seem to suit the story she’s telling:

Personally, I don’t think it’s problematic to show bigotry and ignorance exist in order to critique them. I think it is possible to successfully imagine a horrific scenario, such as the one in this book, as a cautionary tale. But it does baffle me that Moriarty thought it was okay to set her premise around the plight of Muslims in America, and make her book completely about white non-Muslim people.

One of my students suggested that Moriarty might well have been just as criticized if she had gone into the Muslim character’s head, which does seem possible. But Moriarty’s has been accused of being a “white savior” narrative, and in general it seems one could possibly avoid such a pitfall by representing the saved character’s consciousness to show that they’re just as fully developed an individual as the savior and thus put them back on equal footing rather than being relegated to the lower and upper reaches of the savior/saved power structure. And if the point is supposed to be to explore the ignorance of the white perspective, showing the perspective of the identities that they’re ignorant about seems like it would serve to further highlight that ignorance by better showing us what that perspective got wrong. If they’re rendered well.

If white writers avoid the perspectives of the marginalized altogether because they’re not their “own voice,” then it seems inevitable that representations of marginalized perspectives will shrink. Perhaps marginalized authors could then fill this void, but this whole debate seems like it risks reaching a reductive point–if every writer is only writing in their own voice, then all of the characters in their narratives will necessarily have to be homogenous. How is any one individual then supposed to represent diversity? An effort does have to be made to cross the boundary and to do it well. If we did this in real life and not just in fiction, I maintain that the world would be a much better place.

Prose’s proprietary attitude over the Gallant story seems a symptom of white privilege, her invocation of a violation of the law a resort to a classic tool of oppression. By following characters of different ethnic identities through a similar plot, Shepard’s “Foreign-Returned” reveals both the similarities and the differences between cultures. The climax of both stories is when the male protagonist enters the private space of their female coworker’s apartment, and the female coworker reveals herself to the male protagonist in an intimate way that could but does not lead to more–physically. It does lead to more for the emotional development of the male protagonist. In Gallant’s story the intimacy manifests in the form of a drunken embrace, while in Shepard’s it manifests in the woman removing her headscarf. What the female coworker reveals to the male protagonist shows him his own inadequacies, but in Gallant’s story the protagonist maintains his denial even after being confronted with them, while in Shepard’s the protagonist sees them clearly. Prose’s accusations of plagiarism almost seems itself a coded cry for censorship. Ridding the canon of Shepard’s story seems to me every bit as problematic a prospect as banishing Huckleberry Finn.


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