So much of the worst that groups of people do to designated enemies stems from knowing too little about the Other. So much of the reason why this tendency is so hard to change is that most attempts at filling in the gaps come across as ‘improving’ and crashingly dull.
A recent addition to the old Fighter-poets thread with which this experiment in blogging began contained a link to Robert Fisk writing in The Independent about Irish soldiers who died in tens of thousands in World War I — and how little that did to moderate either Irish anger with Britain, or anti-Irish prejudice in England:
I was brought up on tales of German U-boats skulking around Irish ports to receive fuel from anti-British villagers. But I spent three months visiting every village on the Irish west coast and researching the Irish Coastwatching service archives and I can attest that no U-boat – ever – put in to an Irish port.
Before Pearl Harbour, the Japanese were seen by Westerners ‘as physical and mental defectives: too nearsighted and prone to vertigo to fly a combat aircraft.’ The Allies assumed that ‘“our little brown brothers” could not independently design and manufacture high-performance combat aircraft nor fly them in complex combined operations.’ So says Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam, mentioned in an earlier blog on Class in War. He adds that Japanese prejudice against the Allies caused a symmetrical underestimation – leading them to leave ‘important papers behind in the field, on the assumption that Westerners would never figure out how to read them or how to crack their codes. Because Westerners were so soft, the logic ran, the Allies would agree to a compromise peace when confronted with the pure spirit of Japanese self-sacrifice.’
Will we ever make a serious dent in this variety of bone-headedness when xenophobic parochialism is so much more common than friendly, energetic curiosity about foreigners? Those of us who have blogged on The Guardian’s books site in the last two years have seen how post after post about books from foreign countries is virtually ignored – even when these works win prizes like the Man Booker.
The Guardian certainly deserves some praise for persistently trying to start conversations about exotic literature. But it’s hard not to wonder whether its own editors have their hearts in the campaign every time they roll out a new edition of their World Literature Tour (WLT). Bloggers are simply invited to recommend notable literary works of a particular country. They tend to list these like robotic accountants, rarely describing the books or the themes for which authors are best known, or supplying any context, such as the history of the region’s literary tradition.
After noting that the illustration for the WLT to Australia was a Melbourne street scene twenty years out of date, Matilda, an Ozzie blogger, remarked about the recommendations:
And the first suggestion: “I think joining world literature to Australia is a very good idea.” Oh dear.
My own reaction, exactly, to most of the thread. Someone replying to her said that the offerings were mainly
rather like recommending Margaret Atwood in a discussion of Canadian literature
The contrast between the potential, on that site, for amusing expository threads throbbing with life – drawing on the Guardian’s reputation and global reach – and the superficial and dreary inventories that most WLT blogs actually generate, is staggering.
Why not introduce each country not just by mentioning its name but with a question. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest: what are foreigners’ typical misconceptions about a people – and which books by those people are the most enlightening and enjoyable or admirable correctives? Which books by a country’s inhabitants (a) confirm and (b) challenge the clichés about it? . . . Why not mix the book talk with snippets of travel writing? – with scraps of local colour for a backdrop, like a Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas street market in German-speaking countries mentioned in a letter I received the other day, or Moscow preparing for the Russian Orthodox Christmas a few days from now?
. . . And why not have some of the introductory articles written by a native – or a Guardian correspondent on the spot – and others, by below-the-liners who regularly write interesting posts about or from certain countries? For instance, StevenAugustine in Berlin, Sean Murray or DesmondSwords or SuzanAbrams in Dublin – from where Suzan has also been telling us about the Middle-East and Southeast Asia. Then there’s Ishouldapologise/ISA/Philip Hall who, in his memoir-in-progress, blogs engrossingly, often grippingly, about South Africa, where he partly grew up – and has unwittingly been answering questions I’ve had for half my life about the split between the Boerevolk and South Africans of British descent.
It hardly matters that none of these bloggers are literary authorities, as far as I know. The GU editors who usually write the WLT introductions could certainly make no such claim. Whatever hair-raising mistakes the blogger-contributors made would only stimulate enjoyably rude threads drawing attention to, and arguing about, the errors and oversights.
Of course any other newspaper or blog could show the Guardian how to do a better job by introducing a WLT rival. I only mention that publication because this site began as a breakaway from its below-the-line discussions about books – and as a protest against its censorship policies.