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Otherness: Essays & Studies 3.1

Edited by Anne Holden Rønning


Introduction

by Anne Holden Rønning

In the global multicultural world in which we live we are faced with different cultures both as individuals, groups and ourselves. Such interactions are interdisciplinary and expressive of diversity, global and glocal, and the exchange of ideas and thoughts, but may also be a cause of conflict. One result of this increased critical awareness of the intercultural in a global and local perspective, that one of the frequently used methods for discussing modernity today is transculturation.Central to the study of transculturation are border-crossings be they geographical, epistemological, cultural, personal, temporal or symbolic, as well as the relation to ‘otherness’, which comprises not just the cultural, but also the aesthetic expression of hyphenated people.

In the global multicultural world in which we live we are faced with different cultures both as individuals, groups and ourselves. Such interactions are interdisciplinary and expressive of diversity, global and glocal, and the exchange of ideas and thoughts, but may also be a cause of conflict. One result of this increased critical awareness of the intercultural in a global and local perspective, that one of the frequently used methods for discussing modernity today is transculturation.Central to the study of transculturation are border-crossings be they geographical, epistemological, cultural, personal, temporal or symbolic, as well as the relation to ‘otherness’, which comprises not just the cultural, but also the aesthetic expression of hyphenated people.

            The many-faceted interpretations of transculturation are indicative of the fact that it can be seen as ‘a matrix through which a set of critical tools and vocabularies can be refined for the study of texts from a localized world, but institutionalized globally’ to cite the Nordic Network for Literary Transcultural Studies webpage. This diversity is reflected in the way it is seen as a place of ‘contact zones’ (Pratt 1992), a ‘cultural métissage’ (Cuccioletta 2002), as a form of translation, cultural or linguistic  (Bhabha 2000, Rüdiger and Gross 2009) as is seen in several of the articles here, or as ‘transliteracy’ (Biggs 2008) which encompasses the ability to cross different borders of social media as well as literature and the arts.[1]

            This volume of Otherness: Essays & Studies, is a small sample of the work done by members of the Nordic Network for Literary Transcultural Studies and presented at a symposium in Helsinki in 2011. This networkwas started in 2005,and has for the last three years had funding from Nordforsk to increase an understanding of and research in transcultural studies and research in the Nordic countries, and to highlight how relevant such literature and the aesthetic expression of it is to contemporary society, also in the Nordic and Baltic countries. Population and culture migrations whether through education or social media mean that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself’ as John Donne wrote in the seventeenth century (Meditation XVII).

            The essays in this volume cover a wide range geographically and aesthetically from a Chinese immigrant woman in London to science fiction and early Latvian literature, and the cultural aspects of translation. A central issue in several of these essays is translation and linguistic difference with the cultural connotations often proving problematic, to say the least. Ulla Rahbek’s essay ‘When Z lost her reference: language, culture and identity in Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ discusses what happens to individuals who operate in more than one language on a daily basis. The protagonist, Z, epitomises aspects of linguistic problems faced by any immigrant to a new country. The text illustrates the effects of time and space on language learning, and how ’straddling two cultures’ to use Salman Rushdie’s phrase or inhabiting Bhabha’s Third Space turns us into transcultural persons even against our will. Deutscher’s views on language and how other cultures affect one’s mindset are interesting and appropriate. Alternatively Rahbek,comparing A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Loverswith A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee (2011), suggests we could look at Guo’s novel as ‘an act of cultural translation’ indicating a cognitive shift.

            Jopi Nyman’s essay ‘Ijc Anonkoh efac fyfyno ikrb’: Language, Translation, and Identity in Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verses’ takes up the work of this Anglophone Pakistani writer whose works are concerned with ‘language and translation as ways of addressing post-colonial identity and its formation.’ Translation, in this case of encrypted letters from the poet to her mother, is seen as a search for the self after traumatic experiences, and periods of mourning and melancholia leading to a redefinition of the self. Nyman relates this to Bhabha’s notion of cultural translation and posits that translation works at two levels, that of an actual text, and that of the identity of the protagonist. Just as no translation can be an exact rendering of the original due to cultural differences necessary for understanding the text, so the experiences of individuals will change identities, especially in a meeting with another culture.

            The notion of cultural translation is key to Rūta Šlapkauskaitė’s essay ‘An Oscilloscopic Machine’: the Lens, the Image and the Canvas in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family’ that explores the relationship between image and text and, as often in criticism of Canadian literature, an emphasis on the weaving or meshing of the text. Following Mitchell in defining Running in the Family as ‘at once poetry, travelogue, anecdote, autobiography, biography, female history, photograph album, and journal’ (2008: 22) Slapskauskaité suggests the text invites an analogy to hypomnemata. The narrator is a Canadian born Sri Lankan who in tracing and understanding his past also uses photographs and maps in knitting his story together. The paratext is a virtual mise en abyme she indicates, but for Ondaatje mapping is not two-dimensional, rather ‘a cartography of perception,’ and ‘the aesthetical principle of sensorium’, linking mapping and imperialism.

            As Heinz and et al. point out in From Interculturalism to Transculturalism: Mediating Encounters on Cosmopolitan Context (2010) transculturation illustrates ‘the necessity to negotiate and to appreciate different ways of conceptualizing the world’(5), and the ability to switch codes whether of language, culture or mentality. But this should not be limited to an interpretation of contemporary literature. Looking at older literature through transcultural eyes adds a new dimension and may uncover hitherto little known or discussed aspects of the text. This is evident in Benedikts Kalnačs essay‘Smoke and Fire: Autoethnographic Expression in Early 20th Century Latvian Literature’ which discusses the work of the Latvian playwright Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908) and in particular his play In the Fire from 1905, first staged against a backdrop of historical crisis in the Russian Empire, putting it in its social context of German colonization. German colonial fantasies privileged wealthy landowners trying to hold onto power against increasing Russian domination in the late 19th century. Kalnačs reveals how what is often thought of as a ‘fascinating love story’ is both an autoethnographic expression and a political comment on the times. The section on the historical background for the Germans living in Latvia and the German colonization of the Baltics is particularly interesting and gives us an insight into a history little known in the West. The migration of peoples then has its parallel in today’s society; where previously it was land that tempted migration today it is work opportunities.

            In ‘Translation and Other Transcultural Acts: Resistance to Language Imperialism in the Age of English’Milda Danyté discusses ‘translation as a transcultural act’, taking examples from Lithuanian practices. She queries whether translation can be a new form of imperialism in the age of English since translation from minority languages into English is slight.  She raises a highly relevant problem, much discussed in the media, as to the impact of social media on minority language cultures and asks whether this could lead to what V. Shiva has called  ‘monocultures of the mind’ (Cronin 2003: 74). For Lithuanians previously under the domination of Russia this new trend arouses anxiety as to the future of their language – will it fossilize or will translated texts open new doors and initiatives in the native language? As she writes, ‘Translation is a double-edged sword in the transcultural process opening another world but also one which may swamp their own.’

         Sbiri Kamalwrites of the transition from postcolonial identities to transcultural ones in ‘‘Trans-’, ‘Trans-’, and ‘Trans-’ Re-writing Identities, Re-thinking Otherness in Anouar Majid’s Si Yussef.’ Written by an American of North African origin the text deals with the transmission of memory through history in transcultural minority discourse where translation becomes a necessity. By relating Si Yussef’s storyAnouar Majid uses translation as a tool for the construction of identities. The first trans is aesthetic, the second the transition from post-colonialism to transculturalism, and the third is translation – all relevant in the construction of identities.

            In ‘Mapping the Transcultural Impulse of Postcategorical Utopia: Modernity and its Black Counterculture in James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head.’ Pekka Kilpeläinen suggests that a transcultural reading of this much overlooked novel by Baldwin throws new light on Baldwin’s text, ‘[b]y establishing a connection to the history and geography of the black diaspora and the black experience of modernity’, giving it political relevance.Kilpeläinen comments on how in modernity the categorization of people is oppressive and produces uneven power structures. This is examined in relation to racism and the black struggle, and to black music which Arthur the protagonist uses as a tool of resistance both to racism, and as an expression of sexual orientation by queering the gospel and Christianity. Kilpeläinen suggests that ‘song becomes Baldwin’s ultimate tabernacle of the transcultural impulse postcategorical utopia.’

            Matthias Stephan discusses transculturation in science fiction. In ‘On Transcultural Sites in Science Fiction’he takes up otherness as a means of constructing one’s own identity, and the notion of displacement, comparing Doris Lessing’s 'The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five', Ursula Le Guin’s 'The Left Hand of Darkness'. and the TV series 'Battlestar Galactica'. In Lessing the realms function as distinct cultures within a multicultural society, tolerant and accepting of each other, but remaining the same as before, but with added understanding. In Le Guin’s novel, by contrast, the identities of the parties are altered through transcultural encounters, leading to an acceptance of the other.

The transcultural encounter in Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, postmodern and posthuman, results in elimination of both cultures. In all three texts the presentation and expression of identities is crucial to an understanding of the dynamics of encounters.

The articles in this volume are only a few of those presented at the network symposium in Helsinki in 2011, but are indicative of the breadth of transcultural discourse in language and literature, and will hopefully inspire other scholars to take a new look at the aesthetics of literature.


[1] For more on this see Anne Holden Rønning ‘Literary Transculturations and Modernity: Some Reflections’ and John McLeod ‘Sounding Silence: Transculturation and its Thresholds’ Transnational Literature Vol.4. no.1. November 2011. http://fhrc.flinders.edu.au/transnational/home.html

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Revised 2014.04.22