Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Towards a "Narratology of Otherness": Colum McCann, Ireland, and a New Transcultural Approach

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Towards a "Narratology of Otherness": Colum McCann, Ireland, and a New Transcultural Approach

Article excerpt

In his 2002 Yale University lecture "Step Across This Line," novelist Salman Rushdie discussed the recent dissolution of borders around the globe, concluding that "this new, permeable post-frontier is the distinguishing feature of our times" (425). In this new "post-frontier" age that Rushdie described, information, goods, money, and media endlessly traverse national boundaries, while migratory forces and cheap travel mean that humans also step across their lines, millions now residing in a land they did not previously call their own. As part of this loosening of global borders, literary texts are similarly enjoying mass circulation. The Amazon marketplace alone currently lists 32.8 million titles available for sale and international shipment. Meanwhile, particularly in the UK and US markets, the rising popularity of the "world literature" genre reflects readers' desire to purchase works by overseas writers (even as critics such as Emily Apter warn against the genre's tendency towards the commodification or branding of difference [2]).

However, while British, American, and European readers are avidly consuming works by writers from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and other Anglophone contexts, another dissolution of frontiers has occurred in writing coming from authors within Anglo-American and European literary traditions. Increasingly, many of these authors appear more inclined (or, indeed, more equipped) to step beyond their traditional frame of reference--to dismiss the age-old adage to "write what you know" and instead to inhabit, through their fiction, subject positions that are not in fact their own. Rushdie himself asserts that "the crossing of borders, of language, geography, and culture" has become central to his writing project (434), while elsewhere, Irish-American novelist Colum McCann talks of "ridding [himself] from the work": "I think that's what one has to do. Don't write about what you know, but towards what you want to know. There's a great freedom in the fictional experience" ("Write What You Want To Know").

Yet, despite this supposed freedom, critics are very quick to point out the ethical complications inherent in producing such fiction, such as the potential for discursive domination of "other" subjects by white and/or Western writers. (1) Indeed, examinations of the work of these writers have been almost entirely devoted to assessing the political implications thereof, whereas formal examinations of the texts remain considerably less prevalent and, in most cases, underdeveloped. As such, in order to expand the parameters of existing critical dialogues, this essay will argue that by devising and applying a narratological lens to contemporary transcultural fiction the focus may be shifted away from the field's preoccupation with ideological questions. (2) This is not to disavow the importance of such questions; rather, it is to illuminate the formal ingenuities enacted by certain transcultural writers, the majority of which have been heretofore overlooked. Taking Ireland as my case study (a decision for which I will provide apt justification), I will devise this proposed narratological lens--as I term it, this "Narratology of Otherness"--by examining the work of Colum McCann. This will at once shed new light on the formal nuances of McCann's fiction, whilst also revealing the implications such a narratological lens may have for both Irish and transcultural literary debates moving forward.

Existing interrogations of transcultural writing inevitably invoke the important work of Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha. Spivak's seminal essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1988) posits that the "other" traditionally cannot be given a voice in fiction--particularly since such a voice could only ever exist via the dominant discourse against which they are trying to speak out in the first place--while Bhabha warns that any possibility of speech would necessarily be "unrepresentable in itself' (37). …

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