Tonight was a night of stories by two authors: James Baldwin and Ha Jin, both of which write rather magnificently and leave little to be desired should you come to them looking for very different things. We had a discussion today in W401 regarding the identity of the white middle-class male writer and reading these respective stories tonght has me wondering about this “something” that has been bugging me for a good long while: what the hell do I write about?
James Baldwin, son of the Equal Rights movement during the middle parts of last century, writes about blackness and its endless episodes and prescriptions during that time period. He draws from a hotbed of material events and his point of view as a hyper-literate racism victim keeps me turning his pages. That and his style borrows from centrifugal Baptist preaching, a rapid pirouetting that makes your head spin and agree to believe him no matter what he says. That’s what I admire most, but by and large I don’t have much trouble being myself and articulating in my own manner, just as he does. I have trouble with material, and it’s at those times when I my background and class status weigh heavy.
Jin, a Chinese writer of typical Eastern style, also has interesting material having grown up during Mao’s reign. His stories, not unlike a lot of Eastern lit, are rooted in “tale” and represent a joining between that and the cruelty visited upon the people by their government. Ichiguro does this also, but more whimsically, and Jin is very close (at least from my point of view) to Yu Hua, his elder statesman. The language is plain, which is supposed to be our impetus in our search for beauty in these stories (from a cultural standpoint) but I have an endlessly hard time reconciling a plainness of language with such engaging material. It begins to feel like salesmanship. It says to me: “Hey! My upbringing and life experiences are idiosyncratic by default and pulling stories out is like fishing with dynamite!” It’s infuriating.
This isn’t true across the entirety of Eastern literature, but seems to be a rule among the Chinese, at least. I’ve yet to encounter a Chinese writer that really pulls me in and floors me with their language and so half of me feels deficient in some way that I can’t recognize what award-givers recognize and the other half of me throws his hands up and says “So what!”
Maybe I’m feeling the walls of my own cultural influence; why do I need starkly beautiful language?