Words Without Borders -- making the U.S. cosmopolitan

The Argument

National myopia about other cultures' literature damages this country.


November 23, 2003|By Alane Mason | Alane Mason,Special to the Sun

In economics, a trade deficit comes about when a nation imports too many foreign goods. In culture and education, we experience a deficit when we import too few. America has always been richer for its exposure to other cultures. The last thing we should do in these dark times is shut ourselves off from seeking greater knowledge of foreign cultures.

Yet, due to the immigration restrictions that followed Sept. 11, the United States now allows many fewer foreign students into the country, despite the fact that such students usually return to their countries more sympathetic to America than those who never left home. American students are traveling abroad in greater numbers than ever before, and more of them to non-European countries -- a fortunate development, depending on how they behave and what image they project when they get there.

Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit in literature has become extreme. As Esther Allen, head of the translation committee of the writers' organization PEN, pointed out in a letter to the editor of Harper's Magazine last November, the number of books translated from foreign languages published annually in America, per capita, despite a thriving publishing industry putting out more than 100,000 books a year, is comparable to the number published in the proverbially closed and undemocratic Arab world, where the publishing infrastructure is much smaller and weaker.

Thus does the United States' vigorous export and minimal import of cultural products seem to mirror a political climate in which America seems to do far more talking than listening to anyone.

That is not to say we are the only ones who only talk, loving the sound of our own familiar voices and ideologies, neglecting to open our ears to a different tune. I was struck, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, by the degree to which the attacks on the World Trade Center were seen as an assault on a symbol, made in total ignorance of the reality of the concrete lives unfolding within the towers.

To the extent that people within existed at all for the attackers, it was in abstract terms, as "infidels." And yet, the posters of the missing that wallpapered New York bulletin boards and phone booths and telephone poles for weeks were anything but abstract: They evoked the absolute individuality of singular lives, from one person's fondness for dancing to another's tattoo on a left shoulder blade.

They were a painful kind of poetry, asserting with individual lives against amorphous mass death; intimate knowledge against blank ignorance.

Literature, at its best, should also allow us to see the individual over the general; to participate in some intimate way in other lives rather than melding them into shapeless abstractions. I had hoped, in the wake of Sept. 11, that our president might declare a "war on ignorance" -- to cast the attackers as ignorants, which they were despite their scientific degrees, depriving them of the glamour the word "terrorist" might have for some. But a war on ignorance would also obligate us to address the ignorance in our own culture (ignorance of the rest of the world, ignorance of our own weaknesses) that makes us vulnerable.

How many Americans -- even the most bookish -- have ever read the work of a writer from Iran, Iraq or North Korea -- the countries designated the new "axis of evil"? (An abstraction, incidentally, that obliterates both the very great differences between the included countries, not even in alliance with each other, and the distinctiveness of the individuals who live in them.)

Adonis, an Arabic poet born in Syria -- let us call it an honorary member of the axis of evil -- almost won the Nobel Prize this year, and has reportedly been on the shortlist twice before. Yet in America his books are barely available from the smallest of small presses.

Now dividing his time between Lebanon and France, Adonis captures in his work an outsider's lament that seems essential to our world today, in which migration and loss are the shadow side of globalization: "I shall declare my life a home for my flight, and migration a home for my life. I shall tell migration: You are my expanse -- you are vast." (Translated by Ammiel Alcalay with Kamal Boulatta. All the works here discussed are available either in full or in excerpted form in the new online magazine for international literature, Words Without Borders, www.wordswithoutborders.org.)

When one reads Tirdad Zolghadr's brilliant travel novella, A Little Less Conversation (available here only on the Words Without Borders Web site), evoking in vivid detail the art world in Tehran, one has both a better sense of the arbitrariness and oppressiveness of the regime, and a sense that rolling tanks into such a place would be as absurd as rolling them into New York's Soho. (Some people would no doubt like to do the latter as well as the former.)

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