Sunday, 20 March 2011

Discarding the nation, and localising

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Discarding the nation, and localising
A long answer to a simple enough question

On his ‘Ephemeris’ website the other day (see the entry March 17-18, 2011), Norm Sibum outlined a conversation he’d had: a young poet put it to him that the concept of a ‘national literature’ was at best artificial and at worst actively pernicious; Sibum replied that we may as well acknowledge that a national literature will exist anywhere there is something resembling a ‘national temperament’, and that a ‘state literature’ masquerading as a national literature is the real cause for concern. I suspect these two were talking about varieties of the same thing: Sibum’s point implies that nationalities can develop a temperament and thence a literature, organically, from the base up; the young poet’s position suggests that there is no such thing as an organic literature on a national scale, that such a literature inevitably converges with state literature, as an imposition from above on the living society. With apologies to Sibum and his companion for putting words into their mouths, it seems to me they are roughly agreeing in principle and conflicting in practice: both place a higher value on a literature that grows up independent of superstructural influences (that is, impositions from a more generalised level of social organisation); where they differ lies in where they draw the borders around what one might reasonably consider to be a necessary level of independence. To put it baldly, Sibum accepts that there is, or can be, such a thing as an organically-constituted nation, whereas the young poet would have us move the relevant boundaries down to a much smaller level of society. I must also note that I am reporting on a conversation that took place in Montréal, in Québec, in Canada: a context that guarantees more uncertainty about the nation and its potential literature than would be occasioned here in Fukuoka, in Kyushu, in Japan. But this concept of where to draw the borders of a nation has a great deal of significance for me. In most circumstances, being from Fukuoka, and being from Kyushu, leads to a perception of being Japanese; but this ‘being Japanese’ will never be extended to me. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and after that lived for a number of years in Vancouver, British Columbia, both of which happen to be in Canada; my native language is English, and I started to acquire the language of my present community less than twenty years ago. These considerations compel me to admit that allying myself to a Japanese nationality is presumptuous at best; and yet, it also feels misleading to claim anything else, given that my particular temperament leads me to weave the whole fabric of my life into the neighbourhood of my daily experience. Thus the topic of Sibum’s conversation, although simple enough in itself and not really linked to the life of an English-speaking permanent resident of Japan, has touched on an exposed nerve in the bandaged-together corpus of ‘myself where I am’.
Whenever I meet new people, they inevitably ask me where I’m from, and almost every possible answer is misleading. So I say that I’m from Ozasa, which is my adopted nation. I am an English-language culture in a semi-suburban residential enclave built upon a few hills and valleys in what was the unoccupied northern extremity of a farming village to the south of a regional administrative and trading centre in the north part of the westernmost main island in the Japanese archipelago. There, at the end, comes the identification of where this neighbourhood may be said to lie in terms of a national culture. And there, at the end, I betray myself, because it happens to be the case that no-one will ever allow that I am, in some capacity, Japanese. Most people I meet share a tacit acceptance of a deterministic sense of nationality: they expect that I will naturally declare myself for the nationality of the place where I was born and raised. I lived for seventeen years in the Winnipeg and Manitoba culture, and then attempted an emigration to the Vancouver and West Coast culture for a further fifteen years; for about eleven years now I have been here in my Ozasa and Japanese culture. Curiously, at no point in my life have I accepted the notion that I might be something called a Canadian. This derives in part from the provincialism of my experience: an abiding sense that wherever Canada might have been, it was something devised and maintained far away from me. It is, in part, a private ideology: a desire to resist nationalism in all its forms, to reject the nation’s claim on me; a stubborn, cantankerous individualism that grew from my own character and from the tenor of the times when that character was formed. And it is partly an accidental offshoot of my upbringing and inclinations: as I was growing up, my immediate family were keen to oppose the conception of Canada that was then gaining acceptance among the country’s governing elite, and they had also long maintained the habit of looking to England for a sort of common identity and background. As time went on, I expanded outward not from Winnipeg to a broader Canada, but from my inner England to pursue a long-distance and chimerically European set of cultural inclinations. All of these private factors, like the concept of nation itself, are a heaping-up of illusions into an ordering fiction: a means of applying structure to psychic reality, one’s inner world, which then serves as a convenient way to bind oneself to other people in a community.
These days we all have lots of communities to choose from, and order our social lives according to a case-by-case agglomeration of these influences. Which is to say that our communities come into being on a case-by-case, local, individual basis: every nation is invented by individual people, one person at a time. In political and social matters, collective fictions are often desirable, but as applied to culture they strike me as poisonous. The aspects of culture I value most highly are those that develop organically, from below; of art, I see the greatest value in particularity: in the tendency of art to express aspects of its creator’s experience. I want to advance being small, being local, being particular; this necessarily puts me at odds with being large, being national, being general. Of course there is a danger here: the danger of being narrow and provincial, of individual chauvinism. But such dangers go along with the big-scale perspective as well. The most useful challenge is to develop one’s own particularity while remaining as deeply accommodating to other individuals as it is possible to be, recalling that personalities interact in the manner of chemical reactions, not that of accumulations of liquid sludge. We clash, we blend, we explode, we release pleasing scents, we give off poisons. The process of negotiating our individual balances and accommodations goes on every day, and will never end.
And so Norm Sibum’s innocent references to national temperament and national literature have led me to the crux of my own problem, to a raw nerve I expose voluntarily: my fruitless struggles against the impositions made, without malicious intent, upon the cranky substructure of my individualism. Whenever I meet people, they ask me what I am, and my reply, that I am their neighbour, simply fails to make sense. They expect a simple statement of nationality, but for me, who feels no such nationality, who is even actively hostile to the very idea, it leaves me in a pickle. I doom myself to being confusing, and yet, to remain honest to myself, I must keep at it. Whenever I meet new people, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ My reply can never begin with a nation I discarded because it never fit me. My reply begins with the local, ‘I am from Ozasa, in Chuo Ward, in Fukuoka.’ And because this seeds confusion, they ask, ‘No, no: I mean, where were you from before?’ Slowly, indirectly, I move toward defeat, but along the way I stubbornly push my simple self-introduction into the messy complexity of my own experience. As Sibum said, wherever there is a poet within a certain set of borders, there you will find a national literature: and here I am, a singularity, a nation of one. I hope to remain indivisible, and, as fate permits, to burrow into the understanding of my neighbour-nations, if only just a little.