03 June 2010

"Refinement" in literature

This is the kind of definition of "literature" that has marginalized texts using more than one language:

"John Clammer points to several interrelated social factors in the relative paucity of this [Peranakan] literature. Many Peranakans up until the turn of the century were basically illiterate. Furthermore, as an interstitial community, there was a fundamental ambivalence of cultural identity which precluded any such great literary florescence--even what language to primarily publish in Chinese, Baba Malay or English, remained a critical trilemma. Due to the basic ambiguity of their cultural identity 'at the nexus of three civilizations' and their lack of any clear political culture, except that framed by the colonial administration, the Peranakans lacked the appropriate developmental or cultural context conducive to the cultivation of a refined literature. 'The mutual reinforcement of socio-political-cultural and literary values of this kind was absent from Straits Chinese society at its outset. Indeed, what peranakan culture had to do was to find or create precisely such a nexus of interrelated influences.'"

I don't know if Clammer is correctly quoted by Hugh M. Lewis, but the underlying assumption in the paragraph is clear:  most critics see mixed-language literature as being less "refined" than monolingual literature.  They do not realize that monolingual literature is only monolingual on the surface.  There are actually two or more languages at work in every literary text, particularly the classic or great or "refined" ones.  The beauty of multilingual texts is that the multiplicity of languages is foregrounded or not hidden.  In effect, multilingual texts are more "honest" than apparently monolingual texts.  (I am not arguing that multilingual texts are better, but merely that they are more clearly multilingual.  The greatness of the great monolingual works is that only truly perceptive literary critics have realized that there are other languages at work in those texts.)

1 comment:

  1. To Faithful Followers of this Blog: The Philippines Free Press has published my story "Heart of a Banana," May 29, 2010. It touches on some of the issues raised by this blog. The narrator says at one point, "We have to negotiate three languages to express ourselves. For us Bicolanos, it's Spanish, English and Filipinos. If you'd like a copy please e-mail: plim2@csulb.edu.