Where Have the Center and Margin Gone To?

In a last splash of summer, The Atlantic Monthly features a special on multicultural and globalized fiction  from their Summer 2009 Fiction Issue. Four authors, Monica Ali,  Joseph O’Neill, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Micheals sound off in “Border Crossings”. Monica Ali both gives cause to celebrate and raises alarm at the same time in her “Did I Know Enough to be British”:

Certainly the university departments of post-colonial literature are behind the times. We’ve moved beyond that. V. S. Naipaul has spoken of writing “from the periphery.” But there is no longer a center against which the margin can be measured. And if there were, it would have to include Naipaul himself in his Wiltshire manor house.

This is not just a question of geography, of migration patterns. It’s also about trends in fiction itself. We’re all postmodernists now. Or at least we must give a nod to the idea that fiction cannot reliably hold up a mirror to an individual life. And if fiction can’t do that, then what hope for telling the story of a nation?

Ali raises the same issues that the U.S. faces after having elected an African American president. Many progressives are distressed that this huge leap may inadvertently hurt the Civil Rights movement. Now people of color and supporters can’t use inequality and access as a rallying cry. We know this is not true. Racism and classicism run rampant as ever, perhaps in more insidious ways now. So can we really say the margins have been wiped away? If so, shouldn’t we be celebrating? Why aren’t we? For many writers, if there is no periphery than the writing aesthetic, the cause of creating art may have vanished with it. We must ask in turn, where have the center and margin gone to? What has replaced them? Perhaps both have evaporated into the same supposed vacuum where the U.S. economy has up and disappeared. This talk of the erasure of margins and center sounds like the same rhetoric used for the economic crisis. As if all of the world’s finances just spontaneously combusted. Money can’t just disappear. Someone has it, and, as usual, its an elite few. Racism still exists, as does inequality and injustice. Perhaps the language and our perception of how racism and marginalization works in this so-called “new world” of cosmopolitanism needs to be redefined. We need a new metaphor, a new analogy of determining and discussing these matters. These words, instead, prove themselves no longer useful. We must not confuse the word with the thing in itself. Words, as any writer knows, are shoddy representations of what’s real.

At the same time, we’d be wise not to paint every thing as “new” as O’Neill does in his essay, “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism”:

The relevance of cosmopolitanism is fast becoming more than theoretical. As a matter of daily reality and to a degree previously unknown, we are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. This imposes new demands on consciences and nationalistic categories. Literature is not immune from such demands; one might even suggest, since we writers are concerned with reality and conscientiousness, that literature should be unusually interested in these demands. This does not mean that a new artistic regime is upon us. Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions. But it does seem that those who internalize the new world have every chance of writing something newly interesting.

O’Neill, like others, insists that Cosmopolitanism and Globalism are new. History tells us this is not exactly so. From the Mongols to the Greeks, to the Muslims, cultures have always been mixing and bumping up against one another, exchanging ideas and, yes, beds, to be blunt.  A writer as cosmopolitan is about as old as humans traveling. What may be new is the speed, the reach, and method of sharing information and goods. We’d be wise not to credit every human phenomenon as new. Its an easy way to dismiss the human experience. We don’t have to do any homework. We’re urged not to look back and think of how and why things are the way they are. The concept of “new” allows us to make mistakes with an ignorance that completely neglects what our ancestors have accomplished and how much further we have yet to go.

Anne Micheals presents the most eloquent and insightful meditation in her piece, “Reading Faust in Korean”:

Despite the new ease with which we cross borders and enter the experiences of others, some truths will not change: love finds us wherever we are, a child is born in only one place, the ground where we bury our dead becomes sacred to us; these places do not belong to us, we belong to them. And where does a writer metaphorically wish to be laid to rest? In a book, in a reader. Not laid to rest in terms of immortality, but in terms of common experience; laid to rest in this common ground. A writer may be born in one place and write in another—but who claims him? The reader—who may live in a very different place and in a different time. In this sense alone, perhaps, globalization cannot be considered a new idea.

You’re urged to read the rest of Michaels’ brilliance. She, unlike O’Neill and Ali, takes into consideration all that has happened before, so we can look to what may happen next with clarity and reverence. Her words ground us in a reality that life cycles round and round. The human experience, despite all our advancements, generally remains the same. As writers, the center and margin may be removed but we still face the same struggles of reckoning with our past and aspiring to a just and brighter future. We have come a long way, and our stories pave the road ahead just as they’ve been the stepping stones to where we stand now. As storytellers, Michaels reminds us what we should already know. To tell the truth of the human experience, we must choose our words wisely, and know that our story is just one of many, each one as worthy of being told as the next. These stories are but shadows in comparison to the actual lives we lead. If we can remember them through words, the right words, being true to ourselves and our relationships with history, with ourselves, and with each other, than these stories will give us the best sense of identity and place in a world that is constantly influx.


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