Dr. Datta on Multi-Ethnic Literature and the "Must Read" List
If you made a reference to Mark Twain, you would probably be surprised if the individuals you were speaking to asked, “Mark who?” And if those same individuals proved to be equally mystified when you mentioned the name Ernest Hemingway or Edgar Allen Poe, you might begin to marvel at their ignorance. After all, there are certain writers whose names are embedded in the consciousness of virtually every well-read North American. But next semester, in Dr. Shompa Datta’s course titled Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, many students will venture into new terrain when they begin to explore the creative works of authors whose names are often absent from recommended reading lists.
“It is my activist goal to keep challenging what we call the canon in literature, which was formed by new critics in the 1950s and ‘60s who compiled a list of master works. Unfortunately, these critics did not have a world view of the master texts so they drew upon western texts only,” Dr. Datta states. She questions the assumption that these works are the true source, and that all “minority” literature is merely imitation. But she is not necessarily advocating for a more inclusive list of “must read” authors. She is championing a thought that is considerably more complex—the possibility that “ideas are endless and no one can claim to be all knowing.”
As a child growing up in Bengal, Dr. Datta was immersed in Indian literature. “Famous characters from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, the story of Rama and Sita, have penetrated almost all levels of living in India. An entire episode was transformed into a festival—Diwali—which is celebrated throughout India,” states Datta, who also enjoyed Bengali fairy tales called Rupkathas. “’Rup’ means image and ‘Katha’ means story. These fairy tales are usually populated with kings and queens and princesses and princes fighting for their rights against monsters. Often there are transformations. In the Seven Brothers of Champa, for example, seven brothers protect their sister by taking on different forms.”
The writings that inspired her most were stories of Buddha and his concern for social justice. As an undergraduate, she was influenced by the anti-nuclear movement and began writing poems about peace. “India was developing nuclear plants at the time, and though they were supposedly for peaceful purposes, it later came out that the country was developing arms.”
When she enrolled in the University of Alabama for graduate school, she followed the trajectory of many new immigrant writers and entered a period of nostalgia. “I kept writing about how life was in India, which fixed India in my mind,” she admits.
Eventually she began to understand that life, like literature, is not static. “By the time I started writing my dissertation, a lot of writing in English was done by Indians. So I studied post-colonial literature, which gave me an opportunity to focus on writings from the Indian diaspora—England, Trinidad, America. This gave me an opportunity to explore how these writings could celebrate not a purist culture but hybrid cultures. I fell in love with the idea of hybridity.”
In a poem titled A Far Cry from Africa, San Lucian-African-European–American poet and playwright Derek Walcott capsulizes the multi-ethnic dilemma of being “divided to the vein.” But while the theme of being “divided” or “hybrid,” and having to navigate two or more cultures, is prevalent in the works of many multi-ethnic American writers, their stories are distinct. The genre includes tales of exiles and refugees; of families confronting prejudice in a new land; of women moved by new waves of feminism; and of second-generation children who yearn to fit into the dominant culture. The themes are endless, and there is often an infusion of foreign words. In her poem titled The Un-Papered Over, which was recently published in The Magic City Sharodiya, Dr. Datta laments the injustice of the immigration system. Her poem is printed both in Bengali and in English.
Although the influx of multi-ethnic writing enriches the literary landscape, it creates a conundrum for scholars who believe that being well-educated is inextricably linked with having read everything on a static list of “must read” books. The multi-ethnic genre is simply too vast to master. It includes the creative works of Filipino-Americans, Barbadian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans and Navajos. It includes Japanese-Americans, Jamaican-Americans, and Indian-Americans. And should an ambitious scholar read everything there is to read by authors from these seven cultures, there would still be an almost endless list of other multi-ethnic voices whose compelling stories and poems deserve to be heard.
“There is always going to be more to study. This leaves students very insecure, but it is also a life lesson. Sometimes people want a formula. They want something stable and static,” Dr. Datta observes. “In epics you had a linear story. There was a monster and a hero. The hero killed the monster. The plot always moved forward. The new narratology advocates not linear thinking but circular thinking. Stories can put out roots in different directions, and they sometimes don’t end.”
If a list of “must read” multi-ethnic literature were printed on a scroll and unraveled, it might circle the globe.
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