World Literature: Finnish Roma and Chicana/os

I’ve decided to use the field of World Literature to frame my dissertation chapter on Kiba Lumberg’s Memesa trilogy (2011). It’s the story of the narrator’s life, from childhood in Lappeenranta in a large, Roma family, to running away and breaking with the Roma culture, to eventually becoming an artist in Helsinki.

The problem is: no one knows quite what World Literature is. The first paper I read on it, Graham Huggan’s ‘The Trouble with World Literature,’ took pains to describe all that is wrong with it, but his primary complaint is that it doesn’t really exist. Perhaps as a marketing scheme, but as a methodology for study?

Pascale Casanova’s text ‘Literature as a World’ is helpful in giving very large and abstract ideas shape, however. First, she says that we must understand the world and the text as linked. The literary and linguistic realm is not independent; also, can we avoid making everything in literature political and historical? (She gives the example of Deleuze and Guattari mistranslating a world in a single entry of Kafka’s diary and transposing that to his complete oeuvre.)

“[S]truggles of all sorts—political, social, national, gender, ethnic—come to be refracted, diluted, deformed or transformed according to a literary logic, and in literary forms” (72), says Casanova. It’s a separate, semiautonomous world that is still linked in some way to all the other realms–political and so on. Literature should be understood as a world.

Everything is interlinked yet of a slightly different realm. So, you’ll have to understand everything yet in a way that is different from the way you would normally understand it.

Contrary to world-systems theory, furthermore (e.g. Wallerstein), Casanova also underlines power relations: she prefers the ‘dominated’ and the ‘dominating’ to the ‘periphery’ and ‘core.’

Also, she likes the term ‘world structure’ more than ‘world system.’ The latter implies “direct interactive relations between every element, every position” (80) while the former “is characterized by objective relations, which can operate outside of any direct interaction” (80-1).

I decided to test the theory by comparing a Finnish Roma text to a Chicana/o text to see how it works in practice.

I took down Estela Portillo Trambley’s collection of short stories Rain of Scorpions. The paratext says it all: published in 1975, Trambley was the “first Chicana to have a book published of her own literary works”; besides being, in her own words, a mother of five and a “haphazard wife,” the publishers included a long list of her accomplishments, which include plays, musicals (she composed the songs, too), Chairman of an English Department, two-hour talk show in El Paso…it goes on.

The writing is a bit coerced and I understood why it was out-of-print. However, that may be the point. Allow me to explain.

The first story is serious. It is entitled ‘The Paris Gown’ and the setting is Paris. There are two characters: a young university student visiting Paris for the first time and her grandmother, who is an art dealer in Paris. The first line of the story is; “Cognac with your coffee, Theresa?”

The first half of the story is an earnest dialogue of ideas (there is almost no action). The grandmother has a bad reputation back home in Mexico, a place she hasn’t visited since she left under dishonourable circumstances. A large part of the dialogue, mostly from the granddaughter’s side, is on the injustice of gender. They also discuss the meaning of art, and here is an example: “Perhaps I look at the world as if I were standing on my head, Theresa, and many artists do. For that reason we define barbarism different from Civilization” (2). In this relationship, linked to gender, the latter is seen unfavourably in relation to the former.

The second half of the story (it is only 8 pages long in total) is the grandmother telling her story. She was a rebel and her father was annoyed at her for being a faster horse rider than her brother. He had freedom while she didn’t. The father decided to ‘settle’ her by marrying her off to an old, wealthy windower. She’s from a wealthy family, too, and this way their estates would be bound together.

She rebels again but, after some problems, decides to play along. She becomes very involved in planning the engagement party, to which everyone is invited and the father spares no expense. She has a gown made in Paris–the latest fashion and the envy of the town–and plans to descend the staircase in it at an appointed hour. But instead, she appears at the top of the stairs stark naked and, of course, the marriage is called off and she is sent to Paris out of view with an allowance (the father could not abandon an insane daughter).

The layers of literary ‘dominated’ and ‘dominating’ or ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ here are like a chocolate eclair. Writing in El Paso, Texas in English (and one must remember that the border was much more porous back then), about a bourgeois Mexican duo that takes place in the literary, cultural, and fashionable center in the form of ‘literature of ideas’ with 19th century dialogue propelling the mental action forward, the nods to great art (especially sculpture) that is not described but great on merit of being in Paris, the centrality of gender inequality more common to the US than Mexico at the time and probably more.

Meanwhile in Finland (it is seven years prior: 1968) we have one of the first (or perhaps the first) Finnish Roma novel: Polttava tie by Veijo Baltzar. The book is narrated by Viktor, who, at the beginning, sits around the fire with his wife Rosita and her brother Janne. They tell their life stories up to that point and it is gruesome. To summarize the whole in a shortened, short episode, Janne and Rosita were two of five children, the other smaller and one just a baby. Their father rode the horse pulled a sledge through the frozen countryside, -30c, searching for a place for them to sleep. They were driven out of one yard after another in the dark, the mother huddling with the children in the back, the father driving the old horse forward violently.

The father begged and got on his knees praying to be let in, but to no avail. He pointed out the children and how cold it was, but it made no difference.

Finally, they all but forced themselves on a house where they were threatened with a rifle, but were then allowed to sleep in the sauna, which had been bathed in that night. It was so hot and humid that they took off their coats and slept on the benches and floor but, in the middle of the night, they all woke up freezing. The father started a fire but the sauna filled up with smoke and they had to crack the door open, which let in ever colder air.

In the morning they were driven out and continued their search. Everyone was ill, coughing and with fevers, yet no one let them in. Finally, they were taken into a fine, large house with a friendly owner and, once he realized how sick they were, had his son jump into the car to fetch the doctor. It was too late, however, and everyone died but Rosita and Janne. After some time, they understood that, though being friendly, they could not stay in the man’s house and moved on.

Roma are characterized as animals, as a filthy, wandering race, almost all interaction with ‘whites’ is mean-spirited. At one point Viktor wonders about his teachers, “didn’t they know enough about history to realize that the world is full of different races?” (29).

At this period, Finland was a much more peripheral (or ‘dominated’) area than El Paso, Texas. Rather than discussing gender equality, it is basic survival in a very inhospitable climate. The narrative takes the form of oral history, at first literally the three characters talking around the fire and then Viktor narrating his experiences. It is not in dialogue with Paris or centers of cultural prestige or ideas of modernity per se, but rather with recounting a story with a very clear agenda: to see Roma as people. One of the main complaints, which is returned to time and again, is that attending school was made impossible due to bullying and a general lack of food or homes, but the men were forced to fulfill their military obligations. Viktor’s father had fought in WWII and had wondered if he and the other Roma could collect the rifles and turn them on the ‘whites.’

In which ways does the ‘world of letters’ shape the form, the other-reality-ness, of this piece of literature? How is it independent from politics and society? How is it in dialogue with a grander structure of world literature or, for that matter, with the national literature of Finland? If the text is neither independent from politics nor inextricably linked to it, then how does one delineate this middle ground–that ‘world of letters’? What are the rules by which is operates in conversation with literature more broadly?

One explanation may be that the Finnish Roma were so dominated within their national context that the ‘world’ horizon was beyond vision in some ways; there were more pressing problems. Paris when you’re starving and freezing to death doesn’t stand for anything.




In-betweenness as Ordinary

Like the solitary old man who begins to look like his dog, so life begins to mirror one’s research.

Since beginning my first funded period of PhD research five months ago in September 2018, I’ve noticed how my the deeper I get into analyzing in-betweenness in narratives, the more I see it around me and in my own life.

These five months have been spectacular: reading, writing, and shaping my dissertation, which will soon be in the home stretch towards completion.

But after about three or four months, I realised, too, that I have to start thinking about making additional money and thinking about what comes next–how to get the next round of funding, the post-docs after that and possibly even a career. Yesterday I laughed, though tired, when I realized that I’d worked four separate jobs in one day: translating, proofreading, substitute teaching and my academic work. Welcome to the neoliberal late-capitalistic freelance-gig economy!

Within this process, I have been grounded by one book: James Maffie’s Aztec Philosophy: A World in Motion (2014). In Maffie’s analysis of Aztec philosophy (or actually metaphysics), he puts a lot of weight on the centrality of nepantla, which is, of course, the central concept I’m using to analyze in-betweenness in narratives.

Now, the difference between Maffie and Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Laura Pérez, is in the premise the Aztecs held that everything is: a) made of the same stuff (teotl, a kind of sacred energy) and b) that it is defined by constant flux, change and movement. As opposed to Platonic essentialism, where the nature of something is defined by its being, or ‘is-ness,’ the Aztecs believed the cosmos and everything in it are defined by change.

In Western terms, this would be called ‘processual metaphysics.’

When analyzing a corpus made up of Bildungsromane, as I am, processual is what you want, as the genre is defined by change and movement.

Also, this links nicely to what I’ve always found most inspiring in literature as in life: becoming. The horizon is out there and we’re striving for it–it’s outward and mobile.

One of my primary texts, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, adds a nice–shall we say feminine–caveat to this. One does not necessarily have to create a hierarchy of them vs. me, with the ‘me’ leaving ‘them’ behind. I’ll go out and be successful and you all stay behind in your backward ways.

Rather, she shows that it is possible, through a process of becoming, to indeed change but also return ‘full circle’ (as Cisneros puts it) to help those who cannot leave as easily and you.

Importantly within all this is Anzaldúa’s observation that you pick and choose what is best from various cultures, identities, places, etc., including your own. You reject what is damaging. This highlights the ’empowering’ aspect of nepantla.

Just today over lunch, my colleague Maï Soreau pointed out that there is ‘in-betweenness,’ which is empowering (Homi Bhabha called it ‘disruptive performativity,’ and there is ‘betweenship,’ which is being the recipient of harmful in-betweenness.

This is very important distinction, and I will look into it. Again in reference to Cisneros, there are characters in her novel that are simply stuck in the role of wife, mother and woman, enclosed within the walls of the home looking out the window longingly. Their time is static. They’re in betweenship (perhaps taken from Karl Grandin?) The narrator Esperanza’s time, on the other hand, is in becoming. It embraces the in-betweenness and empowers herself through it.

Novelists enjoy dramatic events and realizations. Americans enjoy hope and happy endings. Together, these texts have a better chance of framing in-betweenness as empowering.

When it comes to our own lives–in-betweenness as ordinary hack work as a freelancer–or the lives of migrants, refugees, minorities, persecuted groups, etc., some of the hope leaks out. For this reason, it is imperative that one moves forward in all humility and acknowledges in-betweenness as a spectrum. Sometimes its great; other times it stinks.

“Son, Give Him a Kiss!”: Paying Witness on the Balkan Refugee Trail

I arrived at the refugee camp in Dobova on the Slovenian-Croatian border just after the first snow had fallen. The large white tents, humming generators, military vehicles, police vans and flood lights stood just off the road about 100 meters from the passport control area. The heavily clad police walked in pairs or threes through the slush and others stood under a propane heater smoking. Near the first large tent stood two soldiers with helmets hanging from their belts and machine guns strung up high against their chests.

Straightaway I was given a badge, a florescent vest and told to take plenty of latex gloves and a facemask and to follow a man who’d obviously been there for many hours. He looked tired as he popped biscuits into his mouth and shifted his weight from one foot to another talking rapidly. Although he spoke Slovenian I understood enough to make out that he’d held a two-day-old baby that day; his face gleamed despite his tiredness. He rolled a cigarette clumsily and I followed him to pick up two large garbage cans and take them into tent number 3, which we were to clean.

Inside was that humid, sweet, nauseating stench of wet humanity on the move, something I’d experienced before but never on this scale. A heater vent pumped in hot air and the wet UN blankets strewn all across the floor of the 30m wide and 100m long tent gave off a light steam. The tent was broken up into four spaces longitudinally by portable metal fences, the kind that are put up at sporting events, parades and outdoor concerts. Everywhere were half-eaten tins of sardines, milk packs, water bottles, bruised apples, pieces of white bread, diapers, shoes, trousers, socks, plastic bags full of garbage and abandoned blue Ikea bags, wrappers, wet sleeping bags, rough plastic mats for sleeping on. By its appearance, a great traumatic event had just taken place Continue reading

An Ibis Hotel on the U.S.-Mexico Border

An Ibis Hotel on the U.S.-Mexico Border

(Originally published in Zarez, a journal for social and cultural affairs, Croatia, translated by Višnja Vukašinović, 2014. For translated version click here.)

About five or six years ago, we were driving along the U.S.-Mexico border, on the Texas side, on our way to Brownsville at the Gulf of Mexico. From there we would cross into Mexico and drive south to Mexico City where we lived. I was driving our 1988 Chevrolet van with a 350 V8 engine that roared. The van was white (rather unimaginatively we called it Moby Dick) with a sliding door that had to be tied shut from the inside and shag carpet that took on the odor of the many people, shoes, drink and food that passed through that van. Driving it was like navigating a boat, or indeed a whale, through traffic, but on the lonesome highway it hummed along nicely and in the dark, with everyone but me either asleep or half-asleep, it was a peaceful way to collect my thoughts.

Raymundo sat up and turned on a light in the back and began rummaging around.

“¿Qué te pasa?” I asked him.

Voy a hecharme un churro,” he answered. He was going to make a joint. I kept driving with the headlights making shallow holes into the dark, high Texas plain. It was the day after New Years and

Continue reading