Multicultural Literature: a Bridge to Higher Knowledge or Just Another Wall
“You will perhaps have noticed that the purpose of this literary ghetto—
like that of all ghettos, perhaps— is to confine, to restrain.”
– Salman Rushdie, “Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist”
The multicultural literature in the 1940s-1960s focused on assimilation and integration of cultures (Fung, 2010). This period marks the birth of multiculturalism. Even so, it was clear that hegemonic forces ruled colonial thought process because multicultural author would essentially express abandonment of their old cultures in favor or in the protection of their ruling power. The multicultural literature from the 1960s to present has focused mostly on rejecting assimilation and promoting cultural nationalism (Fung, 2010). While this trend in multicultural writing has actively communicated foreign perspectives and issues, promoted diversity, and embraced personal uniqueness, it is certainly more focused on differences between cultures rather than similarities. This has can lead to bolstering irrational bracketing of groups of people, unfair stereotypes, and marginalization. Thus, where is the future of multiculturalism going? Is multicultural literature, as a division of English studies, truly a bridge to higher knowledge and appreciation for other cultures, or is it another wall dividing people?
The role or purpose of multicultural literature, which functions in a duality between the author and the reader, is to establish cultural identity and self-concept, exemplify cultural uniqueness and commonality, and spread cultural awareness and authenticity. Ultimately, multicultural literature aims to promote a greater understanding among foreign cultures. While multicultural literature idealistically has the power to capture and communicate foreign perspectives, promote diversity, and help readers embrace personal uniqueness, it may truly be bracketing groups of people into stereotypes, reinforcing otherness, and marginalizing authors.
Culture, Human Nature, and Self-Identity
Culture is a powerful and ambiguous force because it ambivalently establishes community and autonomy, and collectivity and otherness: it is a strange social force that both breaks down and builds barriers between people and nations. Humans are social creatures of habit and conformity. As often as people like to claim they are autonomous individuals, so much human development and life experience depends on learning and interacting with other people. Comfort is found when someone is immersed within the commonness of their culture, and alienation is felt when they are surrounded by the foreignness of another culture. People crave to be a member of something larger than themselves because this is how people establish their unique individual identity: through their culture.
Cultural Diffusion and Diversity
When cultures influence each other, conflict and conformism are inevitable. Cultures are permeable and diffusible; when people come in contact with foreign styles, knowledge, and language they cannot resist thinking differently nor have their values challenged. As odd as it may sound, people often desire otherness (Buckingham et al., 2011). Despite people’s compulsion to habitually conform, they want to be seen as a unique individual. Even so, people fear the criticism that is inherently linked to otherness. Thus, they paradoxically desire commonness and uniqueness. At the cross-roads of cultures and at the exchange of multicultural literature this ambiguity thrives because everyone is different; that common link of embracing otherness brings about new knowledge and perspectives. This is the beauty of diversity.
The Meshing of Cultures
Even so, when cultures come into contact with each other, destruction and construction are inevitable. In fact, cultures that come in contact with each other destroy and construct each other ambivalently. It's an odd paradox but it is the always the mark of change. Different cultures in communication can lead to a weeding out of certain traditions, adaptions of new ways, transferring of foods and goods, inspiration for styles or stories by looking back into the past or observing the present, new perspectives on politics, religion, and philosophy, collaboration on global projects for business or science, and even warfare for those cultures that have incompatible or irreconcilable beliefs or ways of life. Cultures in contact will always lead to destruction and construction in one or more manifestations: political, economic, religious, ideological.
Multicultural Literature as a Tool
Together, multicultural efforts can guide groups of people into the discovery of the boundlessness of our own full human potential, and yet multicultural misunderstandings and disagreements can also illuminate the darkest and most savage dimensions of humanity. The duality of the power of culture is powerful and confusing. Thus, multicultural literature is a delicate bridge between nations that can either serve as highways of learning and enlightenment, or traffic jams of conflicts and tension (Alimole, Lecture Notes, 2013). Idealistically, literature can help bridge the gap between conflicting nations, and help turn us away from our differences by turning readers’ eyes towards our inherently common or universal human characteristics (Alimole, Lecture Notes, 2013).
This is important because while literature always communicates universal human qualities or illuminate archetypes, they differ slightly from one geography to another (Ipcizade, Lecture Notes, 2013). Thus, coming from differing geographies, each expression of a single human archetype will always be a little different. This is really important because while multicultural literature addresses the same aspects of human experience across all cultures, each individual culture expresses that same archetype in their own unique style, thus readers come to learn the importance of perspectives in relation to universality.
Problems with Multiculturalism
Even so, in the midst of multicultural reading it can be a difficult task to find those universal characteristics for some readers. This is a major problem for multiculturalism. Sometimes differing cultures express the same universal concept but in irreconcilable forms. Furthermore, some readers have a difficult time putting aside everyday assumptions and breaking away from their familiar acceptance of the world (Buckingham et al., 2011). Thus, multicultural literature, which exclusively, yet not implicitly highlights differences between cultures, must instigate further misunderstandings. What else could possibly result from exclusively focusing on the differences between cultures other than building more barriers and separations? If readers cannot find the common connections in multicultural literature, then the sources of commonality or universality must be lost. This leads to stereotypes, otherness, and labels.
What is in a Name?
When readers label authors, they do marginalize them because they are attaching, either to them or their work, a specific and all-definitive tag. This limits their work significantly because they are ultimately reduced to the stereotype labeled to them (Riederer, Class Discussion, 2013). For instance, to say that author's such as Jean Rhys and Salman Rushdie are simply multicultural writers most critics would immediately abandon many methods of interpretation to focus on cultural study models of criticism. Thus, they are no longer evaluated on the same playing field as native English or American writers and their works. This is significant ideological segregation that results from focusing on the differences between cultures rather than what can bring them together.
Salman Rushdie explores the ideological hegemonies that plague English literature and reinforce ideological segregation in his short story “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist.” Rushdie explains that while Commonwealth literature, which is essentially multicultural literature, should not exist as a division of English studies yet it certainly is alive as a result of Western ideological influences and intra-cultural struggles. Furthermore, Rushdie argues against ‘authenticity’ in multicultural literature because it is impossible for a culture to be purely traditional (with the exception of religious extremists). This is a very important concept Rushdie examines and questions in his story. Ultimately, Rushdie traces much of the unfair division of multicultural literature back to hegemonic forces both within and outside of a nation, which contribute to an always unique cultural diffusion of ideas, forms, and styles for each individual. Thus, Rushdie is claiming that the literary recognition of multiculturalism is in fact as ideological restricting as racism, sexism, or nationalism (Bozzini, Leenerts, 2001).
Summary and Concluding Thoughts
Cultural differences are inevitable and looking past them may be the biggest and most rewarding hurdle while reading literature. If readers were taught to avoid labeling authors and instead recognize that authors may fit within several categories, perhaps readers may avoid marginalizing authors or their works by appropriately categorizing them. In this way, authors are beyond any single label, which eliminates unnecessary borders that may contribute to literary otherness. Thus, literary ideologies can dwell in democratic space by breaking down restricting boarders, and building more commonality; readers have the power, by focusing more on similarities than differences, to create a broad and equal playing field for all literature. Even so, multiculturalism is surrounded by so much ambiguity, paradox, and contradiction, one can only wonder how multicultural literature will progress or digress in the future. Maybe multicultural literature will become known as a bridge to higher knowledge and understanding or maybe it will be known as another wall dividing people. Only time can flush out the answer to that development.
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Alimole, O. (2013). Lecture notes; ENG/125 Literature in Society. Unpublished manuscript: University of Phoenix.
Bozzini, G. R., Leenerts, C. A. (2001). Literature without borders: International literature in English for student writers. (ed. 1) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Buckingham, W., Burnham, D., Hill, C., King, P., Marenbon, J., Weeks, M. (2011). In The philosophy book: Big ideas simply explained (1 ed., pp. 274-275, 300-301). New York, NY: DK Publishing
Fung, C. (2010). A genealogy of literary multiculturalism (review) from MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. (Vol. 35, ed. 1, Spring 2010). Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mel/summary/v035/35.1.fung.html
Ipcizade, C. (2013). Lecture notes; ENG/157 Mythology in Literature and Life. Unpublished Manuscript: Unibversity of Phoenix.
Riederer, B. (2013). Class Discussion; ENG/155 Multicultural Literature. Unpublished Manuscript: University of Phoenix.