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Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid has achieved star status within her literary genre, so one might imagine that her recent participation in a panel discussion at Tel Aviv University, would have caused more of a stir.
She is, after all, the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Annie John, At the Bottom of the River and Lucy, which combine the political realities of life in the postcolonial Caribbean with emotional truths about female identity. In a sense, she has become one of the most important voices dealing with exile and identity in the English language today.
Yet the intimate, quiet session, the first in a day-long symposium sponsored by the Fulbright Program in Israel, which funds Americans and Israelis doing research abroad, and entitled "How Others See Us," reflected the strong ties Kincaid has privately made with Israeli academics over the last few years. She shared the stage with two Israeli authors: cultural critic Gadi Taub and writer Savyon Liebrecht, and the audience of faculty and students at local universities embraced Kincaid eagerly. Talk of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - a hot topic in American academia - was noticeably absent; instead Kincaid addressed the idea of "otherness" in literature in a personal, casual way.
Kincaid's speaking style is like her prose - evocative yet direct. "You are yourself until someone tells you, you are 'an other,'" she said, adding that Blacks, both in the United States and in the West Indies, daily experience their self-definition as defined by the other. "The way others see you doesn't matter if you have power, but it does matter very much if you are powerless," she explained.
She traced the history of her own culture back to that crucial moment of other-defined identity - the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas in 1492. As a Spanish-speaker landing in an unfamiliar locale, the explorer attempted to "feel at home" by giving Spanish names to the places he saw, as well as by writing descriptions of the natives, whom he described as "serviceable" in his journals.
For Kincaid, the very act of writing, employed by Columbus at that time and still used by many today, constitutes a power act. To describe a group of people, how they look and act, is to own their identity, she suggested. This is even truer, she added, when the individuals described are illiterate and thus have no literary voice with which to respond.
She recalled her recent trip to Nepal to hunt for rare seeds for her garden, during which she made the decision not to write descriptions of the native peoples she observed and met there.
"I didn't want that power. After all the people who have described me and people like me, I didn't want to do that to someone else," said Kincaid.
Although Kincaid commented extensively on the place of African-Americans within the matrix of United States history, it was always to the theme of power-through-writing that she returned, continually problematizing the act of the writer who describes the other. She seemed at times to be responding obliquely to earlier comments by Taub, a communications professor at Hebrew University, who was the first on the panel to address the conference.
Before Kincaid was introduced, Taub sparked some controversy with a lengthy treatment of the popularity of multiculturalism within western academia, which he said is being adopted increasingly by Israelis. While many academics claim to be respecting others, they show no real interest in the Third World, but attempt to evade complexity by applying simple labels to the international scene, he opined.
"The paradigm of colonialism hasn't been challenged, it has just been reversed," Taub explained. All that was deemed bad about Black Americans, he said, is now applied to the white center, while Black separatists are seen as expressing the individualism and self-determination once reserved only for whites.
Instead of a black-and-white perspective, Taub advocated complex appraisal of world politics and in contrast to Kincaid, seemed to see the study of the other as an important facet of a balanced worldview.
Many in the audience, however, expressed disagreement with Taub's charge against academic multiculturalism.
Savyon Liebrecht, who has written a number of well-loved novels and short-story collections in Hebrew, seemed to fall more in line with Kincaid's ideas, as she also expressed hesitation about the concept of literature as cultural communication.
"I often wonder, what does a Chinese or an Estonian reader understand of my [translated] work and what remains untouched?" she said.
Liebrecht, a gifted storyteller and the child of Holocaust survivors, told of her experience as a visiting writer in Iowa City, where she organized the screening of a film entitled Deadline, which she wrote with Aliza Olmert. While the audience consisted of people from a variety of backgrounds, both Jewish and gentile, Liebrecht contended that "only the Israelis truly understood the film. Only they cried."
"How others see us," she said, "depends on their knowledge and inclination, and not on us."
With Liebrecht expressing doubt about the comprehensibility of ethnic literature on a global scale and Kincaid's refusal to write about the other for risk of impeding their growth, the risk of solipsism looms, a fact which several audience members mentioned during the question-answer period.
In response, Kincaid added that if the author considered the role of power while writing, and the subjects of the narratives ultimately gained the tools of literacy, then a fruitful discussion between various ethnic groups was possible, a concept she dubbed, "negotiation." Despite such concessions, Kincaid, throughout her appearance, refused to speak of the international scene as a neat or cooperative venture.
When asked if she would acknowledge the "good" aspects of the colonialist experience, Kincaid sighed and said, "I suppose some good has come of it all, but I often think, wouldn't it be nice if Columbus had arrived in the New World, looked around, said 'Nice Beach!' and then gone home."
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