Traveling from my small country, Sierra Leone, on the State Department- sponsored 2006 Study of the U.S. Institute on Contemporary U.S. literature in 2006 gave me the unique opportunity, amongst 17 other American Literature scholars from all parts of the world to deepen my understanding of U.S. society, culture, and values through examining contemporary American Literature. As we introduced ourselves, I first realized how much variety in perspectives we were bringing into interpreting American literature as well as culture and society. For we came from 16 countries: Togo, Congo Kinshasha, Tunisia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone. Palestine, Turkey, Serbia, Nepal, Philippines, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brazil and India. We all seem also to have varying degrees of involvement in the teaching of American literature. Whilst some of us were teaching it as part of a English as well as literature course, others were engaged in it as an independent discipline. One or two of us even admitted that they were more involved in linguistics or language studies. A particular participant’s interest in not only language but also philosophy and mysticism seem always to be forcing through her abstractions into virtually every discussion we were having. One was a legal practitioner doubling as a lecturer at the university in her country and another one was interested in curriculum design.
Some of us were upset because the program did not include the names of well-known white American writers, like Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. But then as the program went on we realised, that contemporary American literature must be re-defined to include voices of other communities in America: Black, Native American, Jewish, Hispanic, Chinese and other Asian minorities. And this was the greatness of the program: giving it a multi-cultural approach.
Contemporary American literature must in this way bypass the boundary of race and gender. But to absorb all the proceedings required adequate linguistic and literary competence. So versatile and rich was the program in content that a wealth of University teaching experience and vast knowledge of American literature and culture with intensive as well as extensive reading of the many texts as well as a thorough grasp of the critical theories was required to absorb and digest and participate in the discussions.
In very lively seminars we together with different professors with impressive array of credentials,including awards as well as publications examined how major writers, schools and movements both continue the traditions of the American literary canon, and establish new directions for American Literature.
A widening range of cultural as well as racial and gender diversity were seen in the texts and writers examined and discussed. These include African-American writers such as Percival Everett, Tony Morrison and Harriet Mullen, almost all of whom combined creative writing with literary scholarship. In fact, both Everett and Mullen were in session and thus had to receive and tackle a series of questions and queries.
Morrison for her part influenced the publication of many black writers and got the inspiration for her ground-breaking work Beloved which confronts the haunting memories of slavery whilst she was working as an editor at Random House. Kingston’s Woman Warrior shows much of the doubts and cultural conflicts that ensues as Chinese immigrants into the U.S. struggle to get absorbed into America whilst at the same time trying to retain their original identity which is largely an impossibility as the resultant identity could no longer be the same as before. as they now become more akin to Chinese Americans. The same cultural struggle is evident in the Mexican-American novelist Cisneros’ works The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollerin Creek. The current reassessment of American history with the growing recognition of the original inhabitants as Native Americans has given much space to their revolutionary literature through writers like Silko and Vizenor. Through Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies we also see the Indians struggling with accommodating two cultures in a strange land.
Science fiction seems to have emerged as part of the literary cannon with a wider selection of science fiction writers such as William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delaney, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler and Ursula Leguin becoming worthy of studying . We also had a revealing overview of the operations of the American theater. Overviews of contemporary American and African-American poetry were given along with a very comprehensive analysis of contemporary American literature with insights into critical and literary theoretical developments such as post-modernism and the politics of identity and representation especially with regard to minority American literature. The prevalence of post-modernism in contemporary American Literature was most evident through the seminars on Bobbie Ann Mason’s ‘Shiloh’ which is set in Louisville itself and on Samuel Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as well as on Don Delillo’s decidedly post-modern novel White Noise.
Diversity in cuisine reinforced the patterned diversity in almost everything including race and ethnicity in America as demonstrated in the varying types of restaurants at which we lunched and dined inclusive of African-American, Asian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Continental and American Texan Rodeo. Touring LOUISVILLE AS A POST-MODERN SPACE was also exciting and revealing, reinforcing the many exhibitions in showing us the connections between literature and space as well as time and other telling aspects of life.
Down-town Louisville is mainly ornate preserving Victorian buildings and interspersing post-modernist buildings such as the Humana through their unique architecture harmonizing with grace with the surrounding gothic structures thus beautifying the skyline so as to curb and reverse the massive drift of residents to the suburbs. The city is a melting pot of all races,ethnic groups and cultures from all over the world. But still each person develops a distinct individuality in the face of all this. This marathon city tour was through a bus roving through many varying scenes and faces oif Louisville from south through west and then east unto north revealing their segmentation into areas for different classes, races, social and economic rankings with the varying state of the housing speaking so much of the vagaries of the human condition.
Our visits to various Art exhibitions further expanded the possibilities in representations and media. The Speed Art Museum was unique in many ways. Being right at the heart of the University Campus it is just a few yards walk from our Kurtz hostels showcasing not only American art and décor but African as well as British and European Gothic and Victorian interior décor. But the highlight of our visit was to the exhibition of the avant-garde paintings of African-American Art Graduate from the University of Louisville, Sam Gilliam. Together with another exhibition in the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in downtown Louisville where we admired and wondered at a widening area of art including toys, sculptors, carvings plastic art, glass art, as well as multi-media paintings and modelings gave us a taste of the lively art scene in Louisville, which is indeed a microcosm of art in America..
But what fascinated me most in the Americans is the amazing way they absorb within themselves and their routine, the extremes of life, working hard and playing hard. There are many resorts, play houses, fun fairs, cinemas and stadia of all shapes and form but mostly immense as is the pride and fancy of the American who if it were not for the soaring price of fuel could just have gone on lounging and cruising in those grotesquely huge limousines but which are still preserved for weekend cruises or ceremonial or festive occasions such as weddings.
Browse through the newspapers, some of which you could just grab from any street corner newsstand without losing a dime, you could find a resort or activity that would surely amuse you once you have what it takes to get there. But it is totally bewitching how a sport, horse racing, has grown beyond just a craze to a whole industry attracting devotees and fans and jockeys from all over the world to camp there thus transforming a sedate Louisville to one roaring rollicking and bustling city for a month or two with everything to be got on the market including accommodation and transportation doubling in price. A whole host of allied activities like betting, cafes, museums of horsing curios and clubs have all mushroomed around this whole craze.
Nothing demonstrates the Americans’ capacity to relax more than the ease with which they could get down and lay down sometimes on green carpets of grass as they drink, sway and holler out to the joy of being American on that glorious National Day with firecrackers metamorphosing into radiant assortments of colors and sounds all to the excitement and attention of a whole land bedecked with multicolors in celebration. Almost all the houses ,uniformly white, could be easily mistaken for alternate White Houses as the star spangled banner flutters excitingly on, as their inmates celebrate another year added to the life of a land of opportunities and higher aspirations in science as well as the arts. We were all awe-struck at the total abandon with which Americans of all ages, color and gender celebrate and affirm their nationhood and their ability to come together en-masse and in droves to the waterfront park parking a fleets of vehicles and surging forward to the crowds of jubilating fellow citizens sitting on blankets, grass, plastic or cloth chairs. Others simply stood or sauntered around the wide field with a carefree joy and vibrant cheerfulness munching huge pizzas whilst chatting others, laughing, dancing, swaying and romancing in consonance with the melodious rhythms emanating from the country and blue grass music groups on stage. Obesity which seems like the greatest social and health menace here is no hindrance to a bulky American letting off steam and celebrating with his kins to the glory and joy of belonging to a country that is both loved, hated as well as envied but that always compels international attention.
America cherishes and preserves history in several ways. Books and films, historical, biographical and documentary, abound in the millions. So do museums, exhibitions, monuments, relics and the restoration of slave plantations and slave houses for the continuous visitation of tourists as well as nationals thus ensuring that all are informed and educated on their past even with the uglinesses. At Bardstown, an outlying part of Louisville, is the remnants of a plantation with its slave house, Farmington, preserved as it was then with relics kept of the stay of Abraham Lincoln there, before he became president of course. Glimpses of life then were recalled through photographs, films, books, beddings equipments for farming, food preservation and a water well and a food barn. A day’s trip to Cincinnati furthered our insights into slavery and its attendant effects on life in America. This was at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center which has built a whole three-storey museum around the central core of a wooden slave barn which used to store slaves on their way to be resold. There, an interactive multimedia exhibition uses theater, visual arts of all modes and film and tutorials to bring slavery alive for all to realize its menace and atone for their guilt or complicity, depending on what side of the triangular trade they were on. We also followed with curiosity the restored houses and implements of the chaste and puritanical guild,of the Shakers who lived a life of total abstinence, piety, charity and industry in a replica of the Garden of Eden in Shakers Village at Mount Pleasant.
It was with longing that we awaited the flight to exciting San Francisco in spite of its well advertised expensiveness. But then I was almost about to board the plane when I had to be driven back to be examined for some feeling of nausea which I feared could have been malaria. But I was cleared and flew in to Oakland airport and was driven through bewildering scenes of architectural splendors onto the 40-plus floored Argent hotel. On entering the conference hall for the afternoon sessions I was surprised by a standing ovation followed by glowing words of commendations by the Directors and the guest writer, Percival Everett whose versatility in academia as well as literary creativity I find most astonishing. It was one unique day when one feels proud and gratified at having fallen ill but to have gotten up fast enough on one’s feet not to miss out too much. The day’s discussion with Percival Everett turned out to be the most absorbing and most wide-ranging which I managed to contribute to.
I had already missed the Golden Gate bridge,Martin Luther King Memorial, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens visits. But then I had to console myself with the remaining splendor and grandeur of San Francisco, with the buildings all now built to survive possible natural disasters as it is prone to. The immensity of the buildings were stunning .Each one seemed to be in eternal competition with the others to touch the sky so much so that taking snapshots demand so much on the ingenuity of the cameraman to capture the fullness of their splendor against their natural background . Our city tour gave us continuous flows of splendor in architecture in meandering roadways in coastal sceneries and towering immensities all tinged with the token offerings of oriental buildings in vast spaces the Chinese have held on to tenaciously even before the Gold Rush which attracted floods of adventurers looking for the Golden fleece. Every other significant group in the world especially so Mexicans, Russians, Indians, Vietnamese, Italians held significant sectors establishing a significant presence here.
It was of historical as well as literary significance that we went to the City Lights Bookshop, the cradle of the West Coast Beat Movement which had such a significant effect on American poetry in the mid-sixties giving a bohemian and avant-garde twist to poetry. Allen Ginsberg whose poems were first discussed in the seminar was an important pillar in this movement. His books were published through this outlet which also became a broadside publisher as well as a venue for poetry readings as well as other literary jamborees. I marked the visit in a special way by buying three modern authoritative studies of Shakespeare who seems to be very much alive everywhere in America even on the stage. At Berkeley I bought quite a large consignment of used books on a wide range of American writers at Moe’ s and was lucky to sell a few of mine which gave me additional dollars to buy more titles.
Our two days trip by Bart Metro for seminars at the University of California, Berkeley gave me the additional opportunity of strolling round the expansive but historic campus with its preponderance of gothic structures and woods and to look up the English department and the university library
This trip was very rewarding in broadening my horizon giving me vistas of a widening world out there multiply and variedly advanced and where you learn and are thrilled, astonished and stimulated by varying sights and sounds every minute whilst awake.
The offer of an honorary citizenship of the city of Louisville by its Mayor,I found a touching and most symbolic act, to be amply exploited to foster international understanding.
A four -day trip to Washington Dc. with its breathtaking tours of exhibitions, museums, monuments, the White House and the Library of Congress complex of buildings which were in themselves monumental and a history in themselves as well as a veritable repository of the history of knowledge and civilization brought our U.S trip to its climax. This trip could only be justly recorded in two to three articles. But as I try to plan it as I bring this to its fitting end I could recall touching down at the airport and driving through a long stretch of country road to George Mason University where we were welcomed by Marilyn Moblyn the exuberant and exciting Black Deputy Provost who led us through a well- informed and stimulating seminar on Tony Morrison and her recent novel Beloved. As we drove through the meandering contours of Baltimore’s roads we contemplated how soon we would arrive at the nation’s capital. Then our passing the Pentagon, Madison Square, Jefferson Memorial with a fleeting view of the sedate but yacht- laden Potomac River announced our arrival. We went on to our Marriott Inn just by the Capitol. Three days were just not enough to quench my appetite for the objects sights and scenes seen in the networks of Smithsonian museums for American Art, for American History , of the Native American of the African American as well as African Art, to add to the Library of Congress, The Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial.