Transnational Communities, Multi-Ethnic Literature, and the New Issue of Ogina
I’m happy to report that the fourth issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora has been released on the internet just in time for Christmas. The new issue almost instantly got some play on Gadaa.com [here] and [here]. It kinda rocks.
And as always, it reminds me of some theoretical questions. One of the things in this issue is a review of Dinaw Mengestu’s recent novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I’ve taught this novel a few times in my classes, and as far as I know, the review in Ogina is the only one that says anything critical about it. Why is that? Why has no other magazine or newspaper criticized that novel?
It’s impossible to say for certain why. For one thing, it is a really well-written novel, which is why it has won awards, and consequently reviewers will tend to praise it. Mengestu has got some skills. For another, there are very few African immigrants publishing novels with the major publishing companies, and so, at this particular moment of literary history, reviewers want to nurture this talent, not squash it. But I think the real reason has to do with the critical perspective and the location of the reception. Since the novel was published by one the largest British-American publishing companies, most of the reviews likewise take place in the mainstream American and English media, so for them, this is an immigrant story — contributing to the diversity of these nations and supported institutionally by a variety of academic associations including MELUS and MESEA. From this perspective, Mengestu’s novel is superb, despite a few aspects of the plot that are a bit improbable (aspects that, as the Ogina editors point out in their review, the predominently middle-class readership might not notice.)
But Ogina has a different critical perspective than the mainstream media and academic institutions of the United States and Europe. Its perspective comes from a transnational politics — Oromos maintaining their affiliation with Oromos around the world and back home in Ethiopia (or, in Oromia as they might say.) Many of the contributors were born in the Oromia region. So, its review of a novel published by a major British-American publishing house (Penguin) appears alongside interviews of Oromo pop-musicians, artworks both traditional and contemporary, poetry in the Oromo language, and an essay about how art is a tool for political resistance. The difference between a review appearing in the NY Times and one appearing in an Oromo publication is pretty obvious. For a webzine like Ogina, art is not just about some multicultural identity politics; rather, as Demitu Argo’s essay about resistance intelligently discusses, it’s about struggle — a struggle that is sometimes violent.
There is quite a lot more to say about these different perspectives, and I have blogged about them elsewhere [here]. There is especially more to say about the question of violence. But I defer both of these questions to another time.
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