(Major Twentieth Century Writers /Professor Julia Keefer)

Advancing International Development through Introspective Appreciation and Criticism of the World, the Industry, and the Individual

By Alain Lemaire

I find it ironic that an introductory class on twentieth century global fictional literature turns out to be one of the best courses on international relations I have taken across three universities and two continents. Typically, the goals of such courses deal with the practical political concerns of the global arena—far removed from the deliberate study of genre and rhetorical literary techniques one expects from a literature course. In fact, without fomenting an ideological split between students of one field or the other, I can candidly state from experience that there are many students (and more than a few professors) of the social sciences that consider the study of literature to be a waste of time. How could fantastic written works of art offer insight into such gritty modern geopolitical realities as the globalizing economy, the increasing instability of American hegemony, and the ramifications of an international ‘war on terror’?

Upton Sinclair’s Oil! sparked the nascent answer to this question through a perspective of the societal implications of industrialization and the need (and subsequent greed) for oil. It was not until the end of the course, however, that I fully realized the potential of literature to respond much more organically and incisively to classic and essential international relations issues, such as that of social and political strife in post-colonial societies. This is examined in incredible detail through such works as Camus’s The Plague. In it, Camus recounts the outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria not only as a factual consequence of French colonization, but reflects more deeply on how human beings approach and deal with the absurd realities we are often forced into, particularly in the developing world.

Equally illuminating for international relations students are Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which offer contrasting vectors of insights into African and colonial European cultures. Achebe’s work presents and is written from an ‘insider’ perspective, one belonging to the African protagonist’s world and one which questions the motives of the colonialists’ foreign culture of invasion. Conrad, on the other hand, offers an alternative view more familiar to Western students: that of the outsider attempting to look in on the unknown. Although some might feel that Conrad’s work is antiquated, irrelevant, or even pejorative from a modern standpoint, I feel that it represents the kind of introspective questioning that can truly help us to avoid interacting with other cultures without the unilateral intellectual imperialism of regrettable previous eras. Cross-cultural perspectives are also important to study as Western ‘outsiders’, particularly as those aspiring to directly affect the situation there as I do. Reality in many of these developing countries and the people’s interpretation of the mundane is often a direct result of imperial influence, as illustrated in Heart of Darkness. In fact, I would argue that viewing ourselves and our efforts through the eyes of the so-called ‘other’ is critical to avoiding the mistakes of the past. I am reminded of a recent BBC article reporting on the friction between aid agencies and impoverished Pakistani villages: one of the villagers’ complaints was the insulting insinuation that they did not appreciate the inherent health benefits of washing their hands when, as an Islamic culture, they have been deliberately performing their ablutions for centuries. This kind of disconnection between the international civil society and the societies they are trying to positively affect could be eliminated with a little awareness of self for all parties involved.

In this spirit, I pursued the course with the intention of investigating my own experiences, values, and biases. I was impressed as an individual by some of the concepts invoked by the authors we have read this semester. Again, Heart of Darkness held particular significance to me as a both Belgian European and a Sri Lankan—quintessentially the colonizer and the colonized. I often blindly appreciated my father’s work as representative of the United Nations Development Program in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, but even such ostensibly noble efforts as Western-dominated international development should be scrutinized by both the donors and the beneficiaries. Too often, projects are devised, attempted and quickly fail due to poor understanding of the setting in which they are implemented; some Western donors are satisfied once the money leaves their hands for “philanthropic purposes” and are wholly disinterested in the actual success of these programs.

As a member of a UN family, constant travel and movement came with the territory. I therefore also appreciated the internal struggle of Ahmed, the female protagonist of Jelloun’s The Sand Child. While I was fortunately spared the gender ambiguity that Jelloun tragically remarks on in reference to the bias of Islamic culture, the sense of dislocation and uncertainty as to who one is and where one belongs in and across multiple societies was particularly stunning and sensitive to me. I myself was raised in various combinations by my maternal grandmother, mother, and sister. We shifted between the magnitude of New York, the modest mediocrity of Campbelltown (then a small suburb of Sydney, Australia), and the impoverished natural splendor of the sub-Sahara in Burkina Faso. I grew up mostly in the absence of my father, who pursued dangerous postings in Liberia during the civil war and North Korea during the peak of the 1997 famine. A household of women and the self-imposed exile from friends and familiarity at the end of every UNDP contract promoted one sense of self and undermined another, but a physically absent father completely arrested my understanding of what is required of a man by the standards of Western society. Though the sexual inverse of Ahmed’s predicament, I asked inwardly many of the same questions about social function and role while friends joked about my good luck with the ladies because I must understand them so well.

The effects of spatial dislocation on the individual psychology are profound, and for that reason I sympathized too with Zakeya in God Dies by the Nile. The frequent social isolation as a result of habitually changing homes was present in her constantly accelerating and horrifying transportation between her occult ‘special world’ and the mundane tragedy of village life under the Mayor’s despotic rule. In this way, Nawaal El Saadawi’s work also illustrated the sinister aspect of internal and often invisible politics of power pervading even the most remote communities. It is a primal feature of human society, one that has deeply rooted consequences for societies and their inhabitants; the psychosocial terror felt in that novel by everyone under the mayor’s thumb has to be recognized and addressed in the real world too and cannot be ignored by broad-brush development initiatives as ‘poverty reduction’ that disregard the oppressive forces desperately working to maintain the status quo and thereby their own power.

The scopes of both literature and international relations are vast: the former is limited only by the personal desire or necessity of the author, the latter focusing on the myriad issues that bind states and other geopolitical entities together. The majority of acceptable information sources for social science students demand and strive for objectivity. It is unusual to find subjective voice in many textbooks, but there is a notable parallel between the individual interpretations of authors of fiction and those political “insiders” who are now prolifically writing from firsthand experience. Subjectivity is often criticized if not denounced outright in the social sciences, but authors who write with personal perspectives on actual experiences in historical events, such as epidemics, genocides, and border disputes serve the critical function of providing an actual indigenous understanding of these events. This is particularly crucial to study as a potential development aid worker because we in the West are almost without exception unaffiliated with and unaccustomed to the histories we plunge into. Attempting to resolve situations with a unilateral and autobiographical knowledge of the history can prove to be disastrously ineffective, if not insulting, when the social memory and local appreciation of the same events is overlooked or even dismissed because it does not conform to Western doctrine. Is that not an unsettlingly similar philosophy to the Chinese communist persecution of Gao Xingjiang’s work in Soul Mountain, simply because it deviated from the acceptable prescriptions for artistic expression under autocratic Mao Zedong Thought?

Obviously, literature is not the only source of indigenous perspective, but it is a form anthropological study that should be referred to more often in the social sciences, especially in the modern climate of growing ideological, religious, and cultural tensions. We may even learn to laugh at the tragedies of the past and realize new trajectories in the building of a freer, fairer world of the future.