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I've been nursing a parallel theory that we confer official museum-grade status on writers from ethnic groupings we feel guilty about - 'we' meaning the mostly white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'.

Perhaps less theory than fact.  Which, as you point out, doesn't necessarily reflect the talent of those who are conferred the honor, but perhaps the opportunities available to them.  The arts are often funded by charitable foundations, philanthropists, grant organizations.  In fact, Hemon's last novel has a character trying to get money from a private foundation to pay for his trip to Europe.  Anyway, often these people and organizations have agenda to promote this or that ideal, advance the success of this or that group.  I suppose having a tragic story helps in the acquisition of funds.  And I suppose some individuals feel helpless in the face of tragedy and want to make a difference in some small way.  I suppose some just want to make a solid karmic investment.  

And actually experiencing trauma like war or ethnic persecution etc. often drives people to write, create, to work through it, to "tell their story."  I guess it is possible for people with normal, privileged, safe, mundane lives to have something interesting to say.  But it's so much more exciting to read about people who have faces these character building obstacles and either overcome them or become martyrs.  [Kidding on the square.]  Also, the things that happen to Joe Blow down the street have happened to an individual.  Why should we care what he dreams about?  We all have dreams.  But if your people have been subjected to genocide, systematic racism, etc., your story balloons in significance because you are (we believe and no one corrects us) not just writing about your personal experience, but that experience of a whole "People."  Also, because of our collective guilt, we're also probably less inclined to be critical of such authors.  Like, we've done enough damage and should just keep our mouths shut now.  So no one tells Gary Shteyngart he's really not that great.  

All this said, Hemon really is that great.  Even if some people probably only read him or praise him or give him money because they're trying to deal with their own issues.  Ironically?, I'm fairly confident Hemon belongs to the "white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'."

BTW, is Bosnian an "ethnic group?"  

Frankly, now that I think about it, I'm not even sure what an "ethnic group" is...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:39:07 AM EST
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I meant more that any time certain kinds of genocide and horror will be hawt, and others - not.

We had Günter Grass after WWII. Who the hell under the age of 30 has heard of Günter Grass now?

We also had British working class fiction. There's not so much of that around at the moment - but there is quite a bit of immigrant ethnic colour (of all sorts) fiction.

I'd lay reasonable odds that a great immigrant novel by an Eastern European will be discovered by the UK's literary industry within the next year or three - and there will be at least one rape scene in it, and probably also shocking scenes of violent human trafficking.

In the US Katrina fiction is just about starting to make an appearance. Iraq isn't - it's still too real to be mythologised. But give it five to ten years.

We don't have:

Native American fiction
Puerto Rican fiction
Indonesian fiction
Amazonian rain forest fiction
Etc...

It's not that these aren't being written - I'm sure they are. It's not that there isn't the potential for cathartic brutality and violence in those stories, because there certainly is. It's not that someone somewhere isn't reading them, or even writing abou them. It's more that they're not relevant to Western interests, so they'll remain outside the usual circuit of culture industry shindigs -  forever invisible to the New York Times and Guardian best-seller lists, which will continue to be populated by Dan Brown, Who Moved My Cheese?, and novels about married women meeting old boyfriends.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 09:23:35 PM EST
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We don't have:
Native American fiction

Sherman Alexie is a literary rockstar on our shores...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 10:43:35 AM EST
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He's awesome.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 10:53:12 AM EST
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I should have guessed there would be an exception for that niche:

Interview: Sherman Alexie | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books

Now 41, Alexie was one of Granta's 20 best American novelists under 40 in 1996, and was among the New Yorker's 20 best writers of the 21st century. Some critics have suspected that his literary territory (his titles are often flagged with "Indian" or "reservation") may have inflated critical sympathy. While James Buchan in these pages described his latest novel, Flight, as a "short-winded epic", it was praised in the New York Times as a "narrative stripped to its core, all rage and heart".

Flight is set on the underside of "sanitised and computerised" Seattle, amid destitute drunks, child-abusing foster carers and "kid jail". The teenage narrator Zits, an Irish-Indian "half-breed" with bad skin and no parents, meets a terrorist named Justice. Zits plans a shoot-out at a bank, but is hit by a guard's bullet and time-travels into other lives, including a child at Little Bighorn in 1876, a flight instructor betrayed by a would-be suicide pilot, and an Indian wino who turns out to be his father. Alexie has worked with charities for the homeless, yet the novel, although trenchant, seems less confrontational than earlier work. September 11 changed him, Alexie says, by revealing the lethal "end game of tribalism - when you become so identified with only one thing, one tribe, that other people are just metaphors to you".

I'm sure he's great, but this does sound heavy on the guilt and horror buds, perhaps a little.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 08:03:46 PM EST
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