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José David Saldívar talked about “How I Think (and Write) about Literature from the Global South” during Admit Week


José David Saldívar talked about “How I Think (and Write) about Literature from the Global South” during Admit Week

May 15, 2012

On April 4, 2012, the following talk was given as part of the DLCL series on "How I Think about Literature."

José David Saldívar: “How I Think (and Write) about Literature from the Global South”

José David Saldívar, Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, and Chair and Director of the Undergraduate Program in the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) at Stanford, began his speech for the DLCL’s series “How I Think about Literature” by reporting first on his initial and then ‘intercultural’ understanding of “American literatures and cultures.” Having relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, from his South Texas borderlands, he left behind a locale that envisioned the Global norte as a deterritorialization of space and time. This interpretation of the Global North and Global South’s literatures and cultures, he noted, was not taught to him by his public school teachers in South Texas, where history began and ended for them “with the master frontier narratives of the Alamo.” Saldívar was taught all about regional hegemony and global coloniality’s cultures, for culture, his teachers believed, “always lived somewhere else”—never in their “own backyard.” So Saldívar learned all the hard facts, which were, he said, “pejorative.” But the symbology of the two Americas in the Global North and the Global South that José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary and poet, mapped out in his Nuestra América (1891)—our America and the America that is not ours—remained largely hidden from him.

Saldívar continued his autobiographical observations about how he reads literature. He described his initiation into the Global North’s academy by saying that “nothing in his background” had prepared him for his initial encounter “with the other America” in the Global North—a secular nation “living like a dream on the back of a tiger.” With the soundtracks of his adolescence running through his head (Tex-Mex corrido and conjunto sonics), he left the Global South’s borderlands to walk along the mean streets of New Haven to discover the rather different musics of America—from Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” to the Funkadelic’s “One Nation under a Groove” to Ruben Blades’s Nueva York salsa anthem “Buscando America.”

Saldívar explains that during his undergraduate studies at Yale, and later during his graduate studies at Stanford, the English departments made it a conscious effort to teach the canon, – a word coined from the Biblical studies that in its time meant “sacred.” His Yale teachers Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman argued that the role of literature, indeed the very concept of literature, is indissoluble from pedagogy and criticism. His literature professor, Paul de Man, Saldívar noted, expressed this point about literature in a characteristic—and justly cited dictum:Literature is fiction not because it refuses to acknowledge reality but because it is not a priori certain that language functions to principles, which are like those of the phenomenal world.

More importantly, what Saldívar gleaned from this attention to literariness was that reading was, of necessity, historical. The text, of itself, he suggested, is a kind of event—and a certain historical and philological knowledge is necessary for even a beginning reading of the text. Literature only becomes what it is because its being is in a process of becoming and literature is dependent on forms in which it processes and crystalizes: reading, commentary, and critique. And critique bears an affinity to translation. Translation, as Walter Benjamin noted in “The Task of the Translator,” canonizes. Translation stresses the finality of the relation between original and translation. The original is brought to an end by the critical reading that is translation. Translation sets the original in motion--destabilizes it—which, he argued, is another way that we can argue that critical reading or translation is like a historical act in relation to the already historical act that is the literary text. Saldívar concluded the first part of his DLCL talk hyperbolically by expressing how he thinks about literature by saying that what counts as literature—which is to say a taught text—is that it should preserve for us the figural and rhetorical features that make it worth teaching.

In Part Two of his talk, Saldívar discussed how José Martí’s 1890’s invention of América in “Nuestra America,” offered an epistemological affirmation of what some one hundred years later the historical sociologists Aníbal Quijano (from Peru) and Immanuel Wallerstein (the USA) neologized as ‘Americanity.’  “Why turn to Americanity,” Saldívar asked?

He answered his question, first by summarizing Quijano and Wallerstein’s 1992 essay ‘Americanity as a Concept.’ He then concluded his DLCL talk by turning to a new book-in-progress provisionally entitled Junot Díaz’s Fukú Americanus: In Formation, and by showing a video clip of the Dominican-American writer Junot Diáz reading from a section of his novelThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)at Mountain View’s Googleplex campus.

According to Quijano and Wallerstein, Americanity, Saldívar noted, did not simply emerge from the particular almas or essences of Latinos/as and Anglo Americans since it fully emerged entwined with the modern (colonial) world-system. The common history of the Américas in the Global North and Global South lies in this world-system foundation: the matrix of the coloniality of power or capitalism, racism, or raciology, newness and modernity as the imperial hegemony of Iberian and British Europe.

For Quijano and Wallerstein, the emergence of Americanity marks three global systemic changes:

1) the expansion of the geographical size of our planet;

2) the development of disparate methods of labor control from various zones and sites of labor production of the modern (colonial) world-system; and

3) the creation of strong state machineries and ideologies at the end of the colonial matrix of power.

In their essay, “Americanity as a Concept,” Quijano and Wallerstein made the following claim: “All of the major categories of ethnicity and race into which we ethnically divide today in the Américas and the world (Native Americans or Indians, Blacks or Negroes, Whites or Creoles,” did not exist prior to the modern world-system, and, by extension, prior to the invention of Americanity. Americanity and the colonial of power matrix are, thus envisaged, mutually imbricated from the beginning of the founding of the Américas.

Saldívar concluded by noting how in his current work on Junot Díaz he is turning to literary material—in particular to the archive of Americanity’s literature from the Global South—to illustrate how the Global South’s literature takes possession of what has been dispossessed. By linking Quijano and Wallerstein’s neologism and theory of Americanity with Junot Díaz’s theory of the Fukú Americanus in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he translates and critically read a sociological term into the vocabulary of literature: Americanity and Fukú Americanus are the consequences of European classification and power hierachicization. The central characters of the novel Yunior and Oscar respond to the planetary realities of Americanity with Oscar’s deadly searches for decolonial love, and decolonial love’s point of view or focalization is unthinkable in the Global North where the classifications are made. Saldívar argued that Díaz’s transmodern novel turns the colonial difference into his favor—he manages (as Yunior puts it) the classification instead of letting the colonial difference of Americanity manage him in the Fukú Americanus.

By anchoring the narrative on an oral myth of the fukú americanus – a legendary curse afflicting the Antilles upon European arrival to the islands in 1492 – Díaz’s novel lends itself to read literature and sociological thought together. Colonial modernity, or the fukú curse – echoed in the Buendías clan in Gabriel García Márquez – presents in Díaz’s narration a case for decolonial love in today’s diasporic realms that is embodied in the character of Oscar. This character is a woman-lover, sci-fi fanatic, Dominico-American who transgresses unthinkable borders: queerness, race, gender and national norms. In his novel, as Saldívar recounts, Junot Díaz “illustrate[s] how the Global South’s literature takes possession of what has been dispossessed.” Saldívar’s future project is thus to translate the neologism of Americanity into the decolonial matters embedded in Díaz’s work, acknowledging that without the institutions of colonialism and slavery there would be no “modernism.”

Díaz’s narrative offers an environment permeated with bilingualism, multiculturalism, and heteroglossic erudition. Oscar’s reality no longer remains in the local imaginary, but goes global. Amid a witty and linguistically rich dialogue, Spanglish and synethetic prose, Díaz’ affinity to the language of world systems is transported to Oscar (and his family), oscillating back-and-forth between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. Oscar’s story is so well adapted to the realities of globalized relationships between these points of departure that the book has been adapted to the stage – a second form of translation, Saldívar points out. At the end of analysis, Díaz has confronted us with oral story telling, the tale of the “fukú,” of Oscar’s brief yet wondrous life where New Jersey is placed onto the Caribbean map and Santo Domingo is imagined within the globalized realms of the United States.

 - written by Sarah Quesada, Ph.D. Candidate in Iberian and Latin American Cultures