Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe centers on a character who, arguably, is the embodiment of The Colonist Mentality, as evidenced by his interactions with, and perception of, the native cannibals he encounters while visiting an ‘undiscovered’ island. The protagonist, Crusoe, initially plans to murder the natives, but decides against it, writing that its inhabitants do not “know” their acts are criminal.
In a strange land where one easily expects culture, social norms, and constructs of morality and immorality to differ, Crusoe still manages to view himself as an authority figure, and the natives as inferior.
The Colonist Mentality is exemplified by Crusoe’s relationship with Friday, whom he has named, and further espoused by Defoe’s depiction of Crusoe as an enlightened visitor whose mere presence benefits the island by imploring its inhabitants to cease engaging in acts of savagery.
Crusoe deems his culture as a superior force, one which, in order to be redeemed, the natives must assimilate into.
Defoe’s novel has had a tremendous impact on the narrative structure of fictional accounts of travel and exploration, and rightfully so. The novel takes on a autobiographical, cinematic format— unfolding in snapshots, if you will—of the main character’s experiences.
However, the work is worth revisiting because of its relevance to today’s instances of Xenophobia, the valuing and devaluing of particular cultures and norms, and the notion that one culture should reign over another. Crusoe’s Colonist Mentality lives on.
In medieval times, astrology was synonymous with science, viewed as an infallible knowledge source for insight into human nature, a compass of sorts for predicting human behavior and determining fate. Astrology’s prominence as a reference guide for humanity was, no doubt, a substitute for the absence of fields like neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and biology. It was the means by which people in the Middle Ages examined socio-political factors and behavioral differences among rulers and citizens, and provided a framework for understanding variations in the customs, rites, and beliefs systems of different nations.
Although the view of astrology as a reliable, standard measurement of social issues and human activity has become archaic, its presence in medieval times is exemplary of advancements in human thought. During this era, human thinking patterns became increasingly analytical, exhibiting a new awareness of the relationships between past and present events, as well as past and present behaviors. Thought leaders of the period were particularly concerned with endowing behavior and events with meaning, and there was an increased effort to view such aspects as contributions to a larger, inevitable fate.
The connection between medieval subscription to astrological principles and contemporary debates over the role of genetics in human behavior is similar to the nature vs. nurture debate.
The central question being: are our fates dictated by the environments in which we are reared, our genetic history, or both?
Obviously, there are very clear distinctions between astrology and genetics; one is more in keeping with mythology and folklore and the other is based in science. But the view of genetics as a predictor of health and behavioral outcomes shares similarities with medieval reliance on Astrology.
For one, the notion poses the same questions, such as whether or not environment predetermines behavior: are human beings capable of making decisions independent of social environment or, in the end, do our genetics— a euphemism for fate— dictate who we are or who we become?
There are strong arguments for both, but the use of astrology as a thinking guide in the Middle Ages, and its relationship with current ideas about genetics, demonstrates that even primitive notions can be the first step on the journey of scientific discovery.
Many books, articles and academic discussions, have centered on reading: how and why it happens. Human beings are the only living creatures capable of reading, writing, and speaking. Exposure to language, both orally and in written form, plays a significant role in how we define ourselves, and each other.
In Narrative Structures and Literary History, translated by Rebecca West, the author explores the mechanisms that underlay the act of reading, and the interconnectedness between both reader and writer. In the text, the reader of a literary work (also known as the receiver) and the writer of the work (also known as the transmitter), are presented as engaged in a process that is inherently interactive.
Reading is presented as an exchange involving the transmission of information or a message.
According to the article, this transmission is more than linguistic; it involves the transfer of “states of mind, ideals, and judgments about the world.” The body of knowledge centered on reading, may be summed up as a collection of ideas focused on writer/reader competences, which, in the context that the author uses them, emphasizes the importance of the reader’s ability to accurately interpret written or transmitted messages. The reader’s role in the above exchange is, therefore, more than passive— he or she is a present figure in the construction of a text’s meaning.
The ability to interpret the message in a literary work, whatever it may be, is reliant on codes and codices—language, customs, societal conceptions of the world, and mutual and non-mutual knowledge.
But does the process of transmission that takes place during reading, differ when reading works written in the past? When common knowledge becomes less common, does the reader become passive?
Today’s mutual knowledge is greatly impacted by social media and technology, with each of us carrying our own personal catalogue of political and social ideas, associations in reference to objects, people, places, and concepts.
When an author refers to these elements in a work, whether directly or indirectly, that author is building upon our subjective knowledge of these subjects, resulting in a mental merging of sorts— the author’s sensibilities with our own.
However, mutual knowledge, as it relates to reading a Zora Neale Hurston or Faulkner novel, versus a contemporary one, differs, the language, the references, the codes and codices. etc. When reading literary works of the past, we grasp only that which resonates with our present; everything else, we simply imagine. As a text ages, so does its interactive quality.
Though the term “Afropolitan” is fairly controversial, arguments for and against it share similar qualities, espousing a mutual objective: an embrace of the cultural nuances and complexities of African culture and the individuals who define themselves as African.
In Bye-Bye Babar, Selasi emphasizes the ever-evolving landscape of African culture and the African experience while condemning generalizations.
Afropolitans are presented as a distinct group of individuals, a social class, differentiated from the rest of Africa by their eclectic cultural upbringing and relationship to the continent, education and wealth.
The narrative that surrounds Selasi’s notion of the Afropolitan is similar to that of many young professionals whose parents or grandparents emigrated from other countries and established themselves in America and Europe.
In reference to the term, she states:
“You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes. Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars. There is at least one place on The African Continent to which we tie our sense of self: be it a nation-state (Ethiopia), a city (Ibadan), or an auntie’s kitchen. Then there’s the G8 city or two (or three) that we know like the backs of our hands, and the various institutions that know us for our famed focus. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world” (Selasi, “Bye-Bye Babar”).
This is indicative of a reimagining of, perhaps, the characteristics, behaviors, economic and social statuses society deems to be African. However, the term is often viewed as problematic On one hand, Africa is one of the most stereotyped, overgeneralized continents on earth. It is habitually portrayed with narratives of extreme poverty, hunger, war, lack of education and disease. There is also an intrinsic belief that it is in need or of being saved and this, rescuing of sort, can only be achieved through action taken by the west.
These narratives are portrayed in all forms of media and overshadow the cultural, political and societal nuances of Africa and its many countries.
In A Deep Humaness, a Deep Grace: Interview with Chris Abani by Yogita Goyal, the author introduces his readers to Abani’s stance on creative writing and the notion of the “African” writer. Abani is a noted Nigerian novelist, author of several books, most of which have achieved critical acclaim, as well as poetry, plays, screenplays and critical essays. In reference to his own work, he states that it is “post- national and global not in its reach, but in its attempts to locate a very specific African sensibility . . .” Abani refers to African writers as “curators of the continent’s humanity”.
This is a particularly poignant statement. It, inevitably, gives way to examination of whether or not African authors or authors who identify as such, should be deemed “curators” at all, or if a handful of writers, with varying relationships to the continent, should be given the task of curating its humanity, deciding what subjects, cultural and social aspects are relevant, worthy topics of literary exploration.
The central question becomes: should authors like Selasi be deemed as representative of the collective voice of Africa?
Given the vast, landscape of African culture, can a collective “African” voice exist? Abani goes on to state: “women dominate the new global placement of African literature” whereas “men dominated the first generation.” Thus, authors like Selasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and others are a part of this new generation of writers, shaping and expanding narratives related to Africa and the African experience but, also, a multicultural experience influenced by other parts of the world yet still, inherently, African.
In Selasi’s writing, positive and negative dimensions of the terms Afropolitan and Afropolitanism can be fully realized.
In Sex Life of African Girls, there exists a wonderful distillation of language and a rhythmic quality that is international but never deviates from African roots.
The inherent poetry of the language in Ghana Must Go and her approach, choosing not to treat the reader as though he or she is a stranger in a foreign environment, but rather an entity welcomed into a world full of familiar sentiments, characters, circumstances; all the workings of that which is universal, distinguishes Selasi from other novelists.
In the latest edition of The Best in American Poetry; a widely known anthology of poems, a dynamic poem titled, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” was published; supposedly written by an Asian American poet named Yi-Fen Chou, according to The New Yorker. Except the poet in question is not Asian American at all, he’s a middle-aged Caucasian man by the name of Michael Derrick Hudson, a former teacher in Illinois masquerading as a fictional Chinese American writer.
Hudson cited multiple rejections of poems written under his own name as motivation for developing the borderline offensive, if not entirely offensive, persona. Upon using the name “Yi-Fen Chou,” Hudson’s poetry submissions gained more favorable responses from publishers, with the aforementioned poem appearing in a well-respected anthology.
As news of this case of purposefully mistaken identity spread, criticism has been directed towards Sherman Alexie, editor of the 2015 Best in American Poetry series, forhis decision to allow the poem (which he says was published prior to knowing the author’s true identity) to remain in the anthology. On a blog for the series, Mr. Alexie makes an attempt to explain his reasons for keeping Hudson’s poem, stating that it was Mr. Hudson’s “Chinese name,” and his own desire to expand the literary canon to include more women and poets of color, that motivated him to give the poem deeper consideration.
“When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery,” Alexie told The New Yorker. Adding, “I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the ‘maybe’ pile that eventually became a ‘yes’ pile.”
Hudson’s decision to use an ‘Asian-sounding’ pen name, for the sole purpose of getting published, and Alexie (a Native American editor with a desire to publish works by women and minorities) raises it’s own questions concerning culture, race, and the kinds of literature supported by publishing firms. However, it also gives rise to questions about the responsibilities of editors in this ever-changing industry.
Many of the arguments against Alexie’s decision to keep the poem in the anthology, lay in the fact that there are numerous Asian and Asian American poets writing, sincerely, about their cultural experiences in this country and beyond, who are not simply assuming supposedly ‘ethnic-sounding’ names for personal gain. The decision to publish work by an author such as Hudson devalues; not only Asian American poets, but the other writers in the anthology who earned their place in the publication without resorting to dishonesty.
Still the question remains: what is the role of the editor when it comes to ensuring cultural and artistic integrity of written works. In today’s publishing arena, both publishers and writers are faced with unique challenges, and although self-publishing options have decreased the number of ‘gate keepers,’ most writers still look to publishing companies and editors to bring their poems, novels, and nonfiction to the reading public.
The ‘editor,’ is then faced with the daunting task of reading hundreds of pages of literature written by creative hopefuls – many of them toiling away in adjunct positions, working as bartenders and waitresses, or making a living by other, arguably, uninspired means – all with the knowledge that only a select few will be chosen for publication, and even then the road ahead is arduous at best.
As our society grows more culturally diverse, how we read and what we read will change, and when that occurs the demand for diverse artists and writers with the ability to look at facets of life from more than a westernized lens, will continue to grow and evolve. What’s deserving of, perhaps, more examination with regard to Hudson’s deception, isn’t just that he wrote a poem under a faux name—which some are calling an example of “yellow face”—but that his poem was still published, even after the fact. In other words, Hudson achieved what he set out to do.
What precedence does this set for other non-writers of color? Will other writers also take on faux personas, names they deem ‘African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian,’ under the assumption that doing so will increase their chances of getting published? Only time will tell. But let’s hope that, in end, truthfulness of expression reigns; not just ‘displays’ of truth.
In 2013, theater critic Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, described the playwright as a writer “who knows the code for getting under our skins . . .”
Perhaps this is what has actor Blair Underwood, Golden-Globe nominee and star of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, so excited about playing the role of Blue in her latest work, Paradise Blue. In a BE Exclusive, Underwood referred to the role as “powerful,” but Morisseau, story editor on Showtime’sShameless, is no stranger to this kind of description.
The University of Michigan graduate has won a monsoon ofawards and fellowships, writing plays such as Detroit ’67 (Public Theater; Classical Theatre of Harlem/NBT; Northlight Theatre), Sunset Baby(Labyrinth Theater Co – NYC; Gate Theater- London), and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill; Premiere Stages). Paradise Blue, directed by Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is based in Detroit and centers on an African American trumpeter struggling with whether or not to sell his beloved jazz club.
Tell me about The Williamstown Theater Festival, Paradise Blue, and what inspired you to write it?
Morisseau: I’m from Detroit. My play, Paradise Blue, is part of a three-play cycle about my city. The cycle is called The Detroit Project. The first play was called Detroit ‘67 and that was about the 1967 riots in the city, kind of like what we’re seeing in Ferguson, New York, and all over the country.
The second play in my cycle is Paradise Blue and that’s looking at 1949 during the Jazz era of the city when Detroit had its own little Harlem renaissance, if you will, a thriving black community called Blackbottom, and a black business strip called Paradise Blue where they had automobile shops, lots of bars and nightclubs, and jazz spots.
Alot of the great jazz legends used to come through Detroit and play in Paradise Valley. In 1949, a housing act got passed that would eventually lead to the wiping out of Blackbottom and the building of the 75 Chrysler Freeway. Blair Underwood plays the owner of the jazz spot, and [the piece centers on] what happens when the city gets ready to start its Urban Renewal Campaign and get rid of the black folk. [It’s about] who’s on board and who’s not.
Williamstown Theatre Festival produces works that are in practice, transitioning to another city, or getting incubated for the first time with the hope of transferring to another city. So, this is a safe space for things to get on their feet, get in front of audiences, get tried out and get the chance to move to New York or transfer somewhere throughout the region.
It’s also a really special place because it was started by a guy named Nikos Pappas, a Greek man who believed in theater and creating a safe haven and artistic space for theatre makers. The tradition has been going on for several decades now and has new leadership, Mandy Greenfield, who has just taken over as artistic director.
As you know, Black Enterprise believes in African American personal and professional empowerment. What advice do you have for creatives looking to enter the entertainment industry, along those lines?
I definitely think artists of color need to think about how to tell our own stories and make space for ourselves in our respective industries— be that theatre, film, or television. We need to think about not just participating in the telling of other people’s stories, but how to bring the stories from our experiences into the spotlight. It takes more and more storytellers to push their stories forward to create balance in our industry.
I think in order for us to be able to tell our stories and tell them the way that we want to, we really have to tap into our entrepreneurial side and figure out how we’re going to be the leader of our narrative, how we’re going to run our own shows or create our own films, find capital to make our films, and create distribution companies for ourselves.
Invest in the opportunities in your community. Build a community around you of like-minded artists that you can create a support system for.
The reason why I was able to transition into television writing is not because I just woke up one day and got lucky, it’s because I built myself—ten years in New York City— a strong community of supporters who, eventually, became my biggest audience and my biggest fans.
A few years ago, I had a premiere of one of my plays in London. I started an Indiegogo campaign to be able to afford housing in London so I could be around to help give shape to my work. We really have to lean on each other and think about where we’re circulating our investments and our support, so that we’re getting it back. Where you put your energy is where you’re going to get it back. Build a foundation—that starts with relationships and community.
There was a New York Times article, Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit, about the growing number of artists leaving New York for other, more artist-friendly, cities. Detroit is one of those cities. How do you think this new influx of, largely non-minority artists, will impact the cultural landscape there?
I was actually just talking about this with some friends last night; some of the actors in my cast. All cities need new blood, mixed with old blood, to keep the city reviving itself. However, what happens with this exodus of people leaving their cities and going to Detroit is that they’re not integrating with the culture that exists in Detroit. I’m not saying all of these [people] are doing this.
Alot of times they just see an abandoned building and they just go and they buy it. But are [they] talking to the people in that community to see what the relationship between that building and the community that surrounds that building is? How can you come in and offer something to that community?
You can’t offer something to a community, that it needs, if you haven’t figured out what it needs. Therefore, you’re not actually building with people, you’re building on top of them or you’re displacing them.
Detroit has a gifted artist community that already lives there. There are legendary poets, legendary writers living in Detroit, that are from Detroit, that have been building there and can’t get grants from the state of Michigan for the art they’re doing because of these new people coming in. The state is more interested in the new than the old, and that’s the problem across the board.
The people that are coming in have to learn how to bring an idea and offer something to the community that the community needs. You can’t do that if you’re not talking to the community and getting to know them.
Many of the artists moving there—not all of them—but many of them are well-intentioned. They’re energized by the idea of the city. They’re interested in trying to shift something. But we, collectively, have to figure out a way for that to happen without making the people who are already there feel like they’re unwanted in their own city.
Do you have any stories about the African American experience in Detroit? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
According to Publishers Weekly, The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, celebrated it’s 40th Anniversary this past August as it welcomed Britt Udesen, its new executive director. The Loft has made countless contributions to the publishing environment in the Twin Cities and has been a kind of guardian for writers of all genres, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Milkweed Editions Publisher Daniel Slager said of the literary organization, in an interview with PW, “The Loft is an invaluable part of the Twin Cities’ uniquely vibrant literary ecosystem.” He went on to say that, “Many excellent writers have developed and honed their craft in the Loft’s writing classes.
We have published a good number of them, as have [other] publishers. They also award invaluable support to working writers and host phenomenal events, featuring many of our nation’s best writer.”
Despite monumental changes in the field of literature, and the publishing industry as a whole, the Loft continues to thrive, providing a much needed haven for writers of all experience levels while also contributing to the progression of a ‘reading culture’ in the Midwest and beyond. The Loft has consistently been an invaluable resource for writers, in that it has been a constant source of support for authors; not only teaching and employing them, but also by providing financial support. In 2015 alone, the organization paid writers a total of $400,000 for teaching, mentorship, and other services, in addition to offering grants and fellowships, collectively, in the amount of $194,000.
The continued prosperity of the Loft can, perhaps, provide a kind of template for other writing centers and literary organizations, in both small and large cities, while demonstrating the role of writing centers in helping writers refine their craft.
Conversations about the state of publishing and the unique challenges faced by publishing firms, as a result of technology and other obstacles, often fail to recognize the importance of not only having publishing companies that can utilize changes in the field, but also to ensure that writers continue to receive the financial and artistic support that will enable them to produce creative work for a lifetime.
Centers like the Loft not only support writers, they promote a sense of community around literature and reading, perpetuating the idea that reading is an important component of meaningful living and contributes to society on both macro and micro levels.
Also, writers themselves are, generally, active readers and, therefore, both creators and consumers of literature. Any discussion concerning the future of publishing, as an entity, must consider the relationship between publishing companies; regardless of scale, and writers— as publishing companies, in all their configurations, need writers to write qualitative material in order for them to publish qualitative content in both digital and print.