Peace Corps Writers
Writing American (page 2)
Writing American
page 1
page 2

     In a way, none of that matters. Many, maybe most, American writers are still affected by the notion of their nation’s exceptional status. In some cases, they work hard to debunk the notion. That’s the thing about a tradition. There are as many ways to respond to it as there are writers who think about it: You can celebrate a tradition, or you can condemn it. You can amend it, ridicule it, endorse it, camouflage it. You can blow it up and rebuild it. Maybe the only thing you can’t do with a tradition is to ignore it. It changes, but it probably won’t go away. For better or worse, I think something like that is the case with American exceptionalism. Does it touch every last imaginative work written by Americans? Does it figure in the reflective poems of a poet like E.L. Mayo? I wouldn’t go that far. I wouldn’t say it does, but I wouldn’t be sure that it doesn’t, either.
Ironically, the power and reach of the United States today appear to endorse the notion of American exceptionalism. There are many names for the position the U.S. occupies in the world today: the sole superpower, the hyperpower. There are those who want to believe America is the new empire, while others believe with equal conviction that the U.S. is incapable of empire. Whatever you choose to call it, however you choose to interpret the facts and circumstances of U.S. global power, it seems to me that those facts must affect every American writer regardless of his or her subject matter.
     Let me take the most extreme example first. The intelligence that takes as its ostensible subject a pine tree on the lee side of a hill at a particular hour, in a particular cast of light, cannot help understanding that the tree, the hill, the light, are located in time, which is to say in a political context. The consciousness that conceives the poem does not exist in isolation. The writer may resent that fact and struggle against its tyranny. In some poems, the results of that struggle are evident as sparks, or as flaming branches; in others, they don’t show at all. But the woman who sees the tree and writes the lines is in some respect a political creature no matter what she wills, and if she is an American poet she lives in a country whose influence is felt almost everywhere, and she knows it.
     There are other, more obvious cases of the effect on writers of America’s global presence, and that is the presence in America of the world. The extraordinary enrichment of the corpus of American writing by new citizens — writers like Edwidge Danticat and Bharati Mukherjee — is easy to understand, and Americans have learned to celebrate their arrival, to savor the meal they bring to the American table. They have expanded our understanding of what it means to be an American.
     Not quite as obvious, but in some ways just as interesting, is the influence of American writers who consciously seek to understand cultures that are not their own. John Coyne, a writer and editor, identifies a group — if not exactly a movement — of American writers who emerge from their experience as Peace Corps Volunteers with a passion to convey to American readers what they have seen and lived beyond American borders. Writers like Norman Rush, Marnie Mueller, and Paul Eggers continue to do that in writing that has little to do with expatriate fiction of the colonial era. Before her death in an accident, Maria Thomas wrote about Americans and Africans in stories that did imaginative justice to the fine mesh of relationships between them. In my own writing, almost all of my published work comes out of my own experience abroad, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and then later in the foreign service.
     I think writers like Thomas are onto something. What binds together their diverse perspectives and politics and styles is an attempt to make narrative sense of the interactions among people of different cultures. Those interactions take the form of clashes as often as they are of understandings, of miscues as often as rapprochement. There are more disasters than triumphs, and more middle-ground consequences than either of those. But the writers I mentioned seem to me to be paying attention to something fundamental. They seem to understand that the U.S., questions of power notwithstanding, exists in the world, and that our human connections matter. They matter to Americans and non-Americans with equal weight.
     How do we get at these human connections? How do we begin to understand one another? One way is to tell each other stories. We talk and we read. It seems to me that this is what the colloquium is all about. We’re talking, and we’re reading. So let’s listen — with pleasure and passion and strict attention — let’s listen to each other’s stories.

This paper was read at the 20th Annual American Studies Colloquium. The Colloquium, held in May on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, included Americanists of various disciplines from 14 African countries. Mark Jacobs’ next novel, A Handful of Kings, will be published in January 2004.

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