Wednesday, May 22, 2024

American Fiction: Who defines your narrative and why?

In elite educated circles, almost everywhere, there is apparently an ever-growing fascination about listening to the voice of the other: Blacks, indigenous tribes, Dalits, Muslims, migrants, queer, refugees and so on. Although this rising trend would look innocuous and inclusive, with its openness to diversity and differences, certain hegemonic undercurrents de facto define the content and style of the narratives that take rounds. American Fiction bluntly satirises this fashionable zeitgeist and shatters its progressive myths, challenging the false pretensions of capitalism’s culture production-spanning the industries of publishing, awards, and filmmaking-that it’s open to new, different voices from the margins and the underprivileged.

In the movie, American Fiction, written and directed by debutant Cord Jefferson (based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, winning an Oscar for the best adaptation screenplay this year), we see a sophisticated upper-class professor-writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, adorably played by Jeffery Wright, writing well-meaning novels that very few reads. He has issues with his students over racism and its linguistics, and he is frustrated by seeing trash Black novels being celebrated by predominantly white readers in literary festivals and bookshops, whereas his novel is rejected for not being Black enough. On the verge of depression and loneliness, Monk writes a parody fiction that he believes matches the standards of the garbage the white publishers tag as black literature. This intellectual prank, loaded with Black cliches and stereotypes that the Whites imagine about Black lives and their suffering, is sent to a publisher under a pseudonym; to his utter surprise, the joke is lost on them and they count it as a great new voice emerging from the margins, quickly dubbing it as an upcoming bestseller. Besides, even before the novel comes out, he is offered a treasure for its movie rights. Under a strenuous financial crisis for want of huge money for the treatment of his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Monk hesitantly accepts the monetary benefits and privately ridicules the stupidity of the celebrations this pandering narrative receives, including a prestigious award. Alongside the generous outbursts of sarcasm that hit hard on the deep politics of pop culture in America, the movie also revolves around the heart-warming story of Monk’s family: loss, suffering, and reuniting. The screenplay effectively juxtaposes his personal journeys and professional life.

Even though Monk himself thought what he wrote was soulless garbage, the White sensibilities found it raw and real. For Monk, it is because it could “satisfy the tastes of guilt-ridden white people”. The critics called it important and necessary; bravely employing the language of the gutter, giving the effect of looking into an open wound. Monk plainly calls this obsessive voyeuristic gaze as “Black trauma porn”. The satire is sharp and inescapable, and yet not preachy or didactic. The movie unambiguously asks the significant question: whose fiction do the facts of your life and histories constitute to? Who holds the command over your narrative, and who defines the authenticity and acceptance of the stories from the margins? Who is in charge, in academia, publishing, awarding, and movie-making? When the elite class show up the business of finding the voices of the other, do they let them speak their true minds and tell their true stories?

Obviously, it is not just Blacks who face this crisis of representation in terms of identity and integration. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of historic exploitations and systemic violence can relate to what a narrative does to our lives. Muslims in India, for instance, have always seen their stories being tossed up and down, twisted and tweaked, insidiously and irresponsibly, catering to the sensibility demands of the Hindutva’s Islamophobia, leading to massacres and gangrapes and massive robberies in city after city. Apart from the stereotyped consensus about Muslims, either negative or at times positive, you also find sympathetic portrayals where Muslims are treated as helpful and good-hearted. Anything wrong with this? Surely, it is a becalming relief in a violent cacophony of hatred and hence welcome. But, if the nuances and entirety of the truth are missing, it’s problematic. Again, what you spread is an illusion that you want to conveniently believe.

This better explains the politics of European co-production movies from certain Arab countries, like Lebanon, where they don’t get ample funds for film production. From the Arab world, especially its Muslim societies, it’s evidently easier to obtain funds, attention and awards if you are telling stories of terrorism, poverty and women’s oppression. Then, you are showered with reviews and awards, and invited to prestigious film festivals, for the simple reason that you are showing your society exactly the way that the West imagines it to be. As film scholars like Joseph Fahim and Vyola Shafik have pointed out, you produce pandering movies about yourself for an audience that has no idea about the histories and nuances of your community. The result: a weird form of native orientalism.

Similarly, Dalit writers and scholars in India have denounced the way their experiences and cultures have been abducted, sabotaged and appropriated by Savarna narrators. This happens both in academia and creative industries. To put it simply, narratives are hegemonistic. Those in power decide the story, its reach and effect in ways that the underprivileged can’t imagine the gravity of. The sensibility of the culture production machinery is so well-coordinated that even its so-called sympathetic minds do not easily recognise the pitfalls.

The stories that we often get about the downtrodden are often constructed by the expectations about their lives. Those emotions depicted from the margins are the illusions of the elite. Particularly, popular narratives that come from the mainstream. The dynamics between narratives and power, the way hierarchical power structures intervene in the process of creating, consuming, marketing and accolading narratives, is what American Fiction is concerned about.

Muhammed Noushad
Muhammed Noushad
Muhammed Noushad is a writer, editor, translator and documentary filmmaker based in Calicut.
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