Cure the Canon of Literary Agoraphobia

Cure the Canon of Literary Agoraphobia

Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed’s latest book is “The Complete Muhammad Ali.” He is visiting scholar at California College of the Arts.

UPDATED AUGUST 31, 2015, 8:42 PM

I attended East High School in Buffalo, N.Y., for two years. It was located in the Polish-American section of town. I became a member of a circle that included Polish-American nerds, but not once did I enter a Polish-American household.

When I read Monica Krawczyk's "If the Branch Blossoms and Other Stories," I saw a similarity between working-class Polish-American households and mine.

Fiction can take you into the experience of others, where you might find difference but also commonality.

That’s what fiction can do. Take you into the experience of others, where you might find difference but also commonality.

Rudolfo Anaya’s "Bless Me Ultima" explores the triumphs and tragedies experienced by Chicano families in the Southwest. Puerto Rican life is explored by Victor Cruz, Nancy Mercado, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, Nicholasa Mohr, Tony Medina. Leslie Silko, James Welch, Joy Harjo, Gerald Vizenor and Donald Two Rivers take us beyond Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans. Shawn Wong and Frank Chin tell us about the ordeal of the Chinese working on the railroads and gold mines. Helen Barolini disproved the idea that Italian-American literature didn't exist.

The Pakistani-American writer Wajahat Ali, a former student of mine, asked me for advice about which authors to read for a sense of family life, before he wrote the internationally acclaimed play, “The Domestic Crusaders.” I guided him to Eugene O'Neill's Irish, Lorraine Hansberry blacks and Arthur Miller’s Jews.

Those who want to ban ethnic studies probably aren’t aware that at the age of 14, T.S. Eliot was inspired by Omar Khayyam. Writers whom I met in the Middle East call Eliot a "desert poet." Ezra Pound studied Chinese poetry written in Chinese characters. Both Khayyam and Chinese Characters would probably be located in Ethnic Studies.

The current literary establishment suffers from a kind of literary agoraphobia. They can only view multicultural literature in one at a time tokens. They seem afraid to recognize anything other than something called “Eurocentrism,” or “Western Civilization,” bunker terms that I have never heard uttered by the scores of European intellectuals, scholars and artists whom I have met on numerous trips to Europe beginning in 1955, when I was a teenager. In my most recent trip, in March, I attended a conference in France that brought together scholars from Asia and Europe for a discussion of American multicultural literature. In June, I was in China where a play of mine was performed. While there I learned that 75 scholars had been assigned to study African-American literature. They too have found that literature can further understanding.

What would have happened if those citizens who greeted President Obama with the waving of the Confederate flag had stayed home and read some slave narratives, or a historian like the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who didn’t treat Robert E. Lee and his generals the way they are treated in southern textbooks?

Though some of them claim that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, without his slaves, Robert E. Lee was broke when it ended. His daughter persuaded a party guest to give him the job as president of the school that bears his name, Washington and Lee University. Some years ago, I gave a lecture there. At the reception in my honor, a cadet from the Virginia Military Institute approached me. He could have been Stonewall Jackson’s twin — beard, gray uniform and all. But he had taken a course in African-American literature, and when he introduced himself, he began quoting from "Cane," Jean Toomer's impressions of black lives in the 1920's.