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.
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.