What Is a "Multicultural" Novel, Anyway?

The Father of Modernism

What Is a "Multicultural" Novel, Anyway?

The Father of Modernism

What Is a "Multicultural" Novel, Anyway?
Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 21 2004 10:39 AM

The Father of Modernism


Dear Jim,

I have a hunch your English friend departed Shakespeare & Company alone. That American girl's "sounds annoying" spoke volumes. Like you, she would have preferred riding with the Parisian Sikh cabbie (and Reich) on the wave of the future.


I agree the cabbie's a better bet. My frontal assault on the so-called multicultural novel (on which more in a minute) was not an attack on multiculturalism, of which, as a mongrel myself, and the father of a supermongrel, I heartily approve. You're right that the way forward for literature will follow the direction of that cab: A Sikh, living in Paris, listening to a postmodern American composer influenced by modernist European composers, who were themselves influenced by non-Western music, etc.

That Reich made you think all this makes sense. Musicians seem not to read much Harold Bloom. They have little anxiety about ingesting influences and stirring them together to see what happens. Rock 'n' roll is the obvious example. I think you do this in The King Is Dead with the opening genealogy. As for me, I was consciously mixing genres in Middlesex. I wanted the book's style and structure to mirror its hybrid narrator. But mixing genres also seemed like a possible way to come up with a new sound.

The term "multicultural" causes problems. Over the weekend I received a complaint from a reader. It ran as follows: "What are these multicultural novels you mention? It sounds like you're doing the same thing people do when they talk about 'world music.' They don't mean Beethoven, though he was indeed a citizen of the world. They really mean music that's unfamiliar to the Western ear, from cultures historically foreign to us. So 'world' in this context means 'not our world,' (or, usually, 'third world')."

In my earlier post, I was careful to put "multicultural" in quotation marks to register hesitancy on my part about the term. I used "multicultural" because it was handy and because I thought—though the reader has corrected me—that people would recognize the kind of book I was talking about. "World music" may be a condescending term also, but I know pretty much what it refers to. (It refers, by the way, not only to music "unfamiliar to the Western ear" but to folk music from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc. Originally "world music" was supposed to denote noncommercial, marginalized music anywhere in the world. Now, of course, "world music" is anything but noncommercial, but, like Joyce, it began in the underground.) 

For the benefit of this reader, let me define what I mean by the term "multicultural novel." I do NOT mean fiction written in foreign languages. I do not mean Urdu literature or Japanese literature or Nepalese literature. By multicultural I refer to novels written in, say, English, and originally published in the United States or the United Kingdom that deal primarily with characters who are not living in the United States or the United Kingdom, or novels that examine the lives of an ethnic group hermetically insulated from the—and here comes another so-called—dominant culture. I do not mean White Teeth. I do mean Waiting by Ha Jin. I mean writing in a 19th-century manner about characters living in the 20th or 21st, and calling this new because the names of the characters are Hassan or Chen rather than Emma or Mr. Darcy.

You can spot a multicultural novel of this sort very easily. It is written in English but sounds as though it were translated.

I know what I'm talking about here because the early parts of Middlesex threatened to be just the kind of multicultural novel I so despise. I was writing about Greeks in Asia Minor in 1922, writing about them in English, putting English dialogue in their mouths, and it gave me an ulcer. The way I settled this problem to my satisfaction (save that there's never satisfaction in writing novels) was to interlace this old-fashioned story with a contemporary American one, to try to keep the language peppy and colloquial rather than sonorous and antique, to use lots of postmodern tricks making it clear I was worried about this kind of storytelling, and, especially, by trying to be funny. Still, part of my distaste for the so-called multicultural novel comes from my own near-trafficking in it. I escaped and lived to tell the tale. Beware all who enter here.

What the children of Jewish immigrants did for the American novel in the last 50 years, the American children of Korean or Chinese immigrants are doing today. But they won't make the novel new by writing about comfort women or foot-binding—by giving history lessons, that is, in a historically outmoded manner. They will make the novel new if they can graft the shoot of their own cultural experience onto the tree of American literature, not telling us what it was like in Beijing a hundred years ago but telling us what it's like in Queens or Columbus today.  Whoever you are, you don't want to be ghettoized. Chang-Rae Lee was smart, and fully entitled, to make the narrator of Aloft an Italian-American. The novelist gets to speak for everybody. A lot of people disagree with this idea, but I insist on it. Freedom is the one great perk of this job.

Of course, being the child of immigrants doesn't ensure newness of approach, either. Martin Amis is a highly original stylist. And he's more like the English kid chatting up the girl at Shakespeare & Company than the Sikh cabbie. So you never know where innovation will come from. That's the nice thing about writing, and why our project here is, in the end, impossible.

I think the inconsistency of my liking the avant-garde and also liking popularity is an inconsistency within avant-gardism itself. Avant-gardists are never against popularity. They just think it will be posthumous. That's the dream they hold out to you. If you're great, you'll be unread until after you die. Joyce is the model for this. Scratch an avant-gardist and you will find a seeker after the Pantheon. There was a interview in Bookforum not long ago with Alain Robbe-Grillet, and he made many marvelous, witty remarks. But one thing that struck me was how much he kept insisting that his books sold well. At one point he even got up to show the interviewer a picture of the chateau he bought with his royalties. 

For my own part, the expectation of immortality is beyond my capacity for self-conceit.  If it happens, it'll be nice for ... my great-great grandchildren? I won't take much notice. For a long time I held it as doctrine that to be a great writer meant to lack readers in your own time. But then I learned how famous Tolstoy was, how beloved. It often takes centuries to recognize artistic genius, but it doesn't always. And writing unpopular books doesn't ensure you're a genius any more than writing popular ones. You write the books you're given to write, that's all you can do. The reception is what the reception is.

I began our exchange talking about Gerty MacDowell. It seems to me now that my preference for that section of Ulysses illuminates something about my preferences in writing in general. Joyce may have been lampooning romance writing in that section, but he was also vividly creating Gerty on the page.

I've never wanted to abandon character and story. I need Gerty MacDowell watching fireworks exploding over the beach. I'm capable of reading on two levels, but if I don't have the primary, scene-created, character-driven reality to go along with the formal play, I lose interest. I want the old authorial magic. Sue me. But I don't like transparent writing, either. Even the most laconic prose should be well-made, worth noticing and rereading. The language of a novel should conjure a mental image as it simultaneously shows itself as language. For me, a great example of this is Bellow's prose in Herzog. It's a very "written" book; you can read it for the sentences, and yet you never forget the emotion or the vividness of Herzog the character: He exists as a pure manifestation of the language.

A certain kind of experimentalist doesn't want this, is tired of characters, of stories, says they've all been done. I can feel that way a lot of the time myself. Until I read a book where the spell casts itself over me.

That's all I can say. Bloomsday's over until next year. Modernism has come and gone. We don't have to be modernists anymore, Jim. But we make a big mistake if we pretend that modernism never happened. Its seeds might come in useful someday. As it said on my daughter's birth announcement: hybrid vigor.


Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides and, most recently, Middlesex. Jim Lewis is the author of Sister, Why the Tree Loves the Ax, and, most recently, The King Is Dead.