Introduction – Extract
“Storying cannot any longer be put into the box of human exceptionalism” (Haraway 2016: 39)
“This earth is anything but a sharing of humanity. It is a world that does not even manage to constitute a world; it is a world lacking in world, and lacking in the meaning of world” (Nancy 2000: xii).
A Hundred Other Wests
As long ago as 2002 in Western American Literature, James Maguire called for a new relationship between Western American literary studies and globalization, quoting Stephen Greenblatt (I quote the whole passage):
To write literary history, we need more a sharp awareness of accidental judgments than a theory of the organic; more an account of purposes mistook than a narrative of gradual emergence; more a chronicle of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts than a story of inevitable progress from traceable origins. We need to understand colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination, and unexpected consequences, along with the fierce compulsions of greed, longing, and restlessness, for it is these disruptive forces, not a rooted sense of cultural legitimacy, that principally shape the history and diffusion of languages (2001:61 – emphasis added).[i]
Since then, critics have moved to explain, in Susan Kollin’s words, the “constructions and circulations of the Western” (2015a:29) as a traveling genre or “routed” form whose origins, development and metamorphosis deny Greenblatt’s “rooted sense of cultural legitimacy” and challenge “inevitable progress”. Western American literature, or “Westerns” as I will refer to fiction discussed in this book, are, despite appearances, a hybrid form crossed and re-crossed by multiple traditions, transnational influences and complex relations, with “roots” twisted and inter-spliced, rhizomatic, and entangled betwixt and between many cultures, languages and traditions. In this sense, the western genre has always belonged to the world just as, in Janne Lahti’s words, the American West “is not just a distant land out there, but part of our collective, global history” (Lahti 2019: 2).[ii] Increasingly, texts referring to the American West dramatize the impact of “colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination … fierce compulsions of greed, longing, and restlessness” producing a more fully rounded and critically engaged representation of, what I term, regionality-as-worlding. In so doing, such texts acknowledged complex transnational routes disrupting taken-for-granted assumptions and established exceptionalist discourses of the West’s intimate connection to US nation building. To read against this tradition through the prism of worlding Westerns is, in Paul Giles’s words, to note how “cultural formations overlap and interfere with each other in surprising ways, thereby giving the map of the subject a new cartographic and conceptual twist” (Giles 2013:18).
My aim is to show how in Westerns, or in fiction of the West, such conceptual twists emerge as worlding, whereby tropes and assumptions are indeed “overlapped and interfered with”, opened up to different, entangled visions of the region as a space of multiple relations with its outside, and its form made and remade from diverse perspectives. In Jean-Luc Nancy’s words, “the unity of the world is not one: it is made of a diversity, including disparity and opposition. It is made of it, which is to say that it is not added to it and does not reduce it. The unity of the world is nothing other than its diversity, and its diversity is, in turn, a diversity of worlds” (2007:109). Ultimately, this is a type of globalization with a difference, “filled with human potential … a form of political action being done through culture … worlding, with emphasis on the whirl” (Watson in Wilson and Connery 2007: x, xi). Since, “If the global is not the world”, writes Rob Wilson, “worlding is not or should not be equated to globalization as it sometimes still is … worlding is not just a gesture or tactic in the given world but helps to create a world, to world the world in an active gerundive sense” (Wilson 2018: 9).[iii] As Kollin explains, this process adds to our understanding of westness by, “connecting stories of the American West to global contexts, extending postcolonial criticism to literary histories of the region, placing previously marginalized groups at the center of this work, and questioning what counts as the beginnings and ends of regions themselves” (2015a: 4). In addition, to emphasize Wilson’s point, it is always also about the creation of worlds that refuse to deny relations with others, in order to acknowledge and build interdependent, shared communities.
Although, due to the scale and speed of its conquest and settlement, America has been traditionally viewed as exceptional, it is important to recognize, as this book will do, that the American adventure in the West had much in common with parallel settler colonial processes taking place across the globe. As Lahti puts it, “every expanding colonial empire had its own ‘West’ somewhere … [with] its scale of opportunity, process of conquest, fierce Natives, characteristics of its settler communities” (Lahti 2019: 160). These frames and parallels have been largely overlooked in favour of the exceptionalist narratives of the frontier and thereby neglected the transnational, postwestern nature of westward expansion and its consequences on the region’s histories. As Giles argues, “To relocate US cultural geography transnationally … is to move away from the identification of the United States itself as an enclosed territorial site and instead, to track ways in which its discursive dispersal around the globe is introjected back uneasily into the privileged home domain” (Giles 2013: 33 – emphasis added). In other words, it is critically limiting to think about the US West as essentially an American phenomenon, but instead to always refract its stories, factual and imaginary, through what we might think of as a prism of worldliness.
Such introjecting back is characteristic of authors discussed in this book, many of whose works move back in time, tracing historical journeys into the West from other nations, drawing diverse peoples into the mêlée of westward expansion, and doing so through transnational authorial perspectives.[iv] From Obreht’s Ottoman Turk arriving in America in the 1850s, Zhang’s Chinese migrants coming to “Gold Mountain” in the 1840s, through to Hamid’s futuristic vision of a new western settlement of “Marin” on the Pacific Coast. Consequently, Giles’ “privileged home domain” is undone by worlding, de-exceptionalized, and simultaneously understood as redolent of vital contemporary political themes and issues.[v] To borrow a phrase from Hernan Diaz, the writing I examine “walk[s] in circles wider than nations” (2019: 269) reflecting differently upon the West and America as deeply imbricated in the world. Thus, this fictional “dispersal” of territory worlds the Western shifting its focus between the local and global, the everyday and the universal, the proximate and the distant, or as Susan Stanford Friedman puts it, the “bird’s eye and ground-level views that can inform and complement each other” (2018: 94). This is exemplified in Diaz’s In the Distance (see Chapter 2), employing what he calls “radical foreignness” through his central character, Swedish giant Håkan, whose actual foreignness makes him feel out of place, with no English language, and cut adrift in the West. Diaz “tried to make genre and even language itself feel foreign” so that the reader felt as disorientated as Håkan, until ultimately, these strategies emphasize that, contrary to genre expectations, “this is a very American story, which makes us remember that foreignness is part of the American experience to begin with” (Pinckney, 2017).
Sounding like Deleuze and Guattari, the Westerns I discuss are “minor literature” in the sense they “send the major language racing” and their authors “are foreigners in their own tongue”, working against the “standard measure” of dominant literary and political forms with a force of “potential, creative and created becoming” (1996: 105-6 emphasis in original). This latter point, above all, gives these “minoritarian” novels a contemporary political relevance, underlining the necessity of immigration to the American story at a point in its history when, as Diaz puts it, referring directly to the Trump administration, the old questions are as vital as ever: “Who has a voice, and who doesn’t? Who gets to tell their story, and who is silenced? Is there really room for everyone in a country as vast as this? All of these questions are part of our history” (Pinckney, 2017).[vi] This one example shows how the dispersed and worlding Westerns discussed here engage, dramatize, and “foreignize” historic assumptions and myth whilst imbuing them with intense political resonance. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, “by using a number of minority elements, by connecting, conjugating them, one invents a specific, unforeseen, autonomous becoming” (1996:106). Ultimately, such deterritorialized writing of “silence, the interrupted, the interminable” runs counter to “one single dream” in order “to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 26, 27, 17).
This possible worlded community is “the opposite of separatism … the reverse of exclusivism” and explored best through Edward Said’s notion of “worldliness” (Said 2000: 382). Henry Giroux defined it as “an ethical and political stance” which is “a critical and engaged interaction with the world we live in mediated by a responsibility for challenging structures of domination and for alleviating human suffering” (2007: 8). “Worldliness”, according to Giroux, “required not being afraid of controversy, making connections that are otherwise hidden, deflating the claims of triumphalism, bridging intellectual work and the operation of politics … an act of interpretation linked to the possibility of intervention in the world” (ibid. – emphasis added). My emphases above track the process undertaken in this book, forging an active worldliness or worlding that is “a kind of border literacy in the plural” where multiple perspectives are at work in the creation of a world made of worlds (ibid.). In worlding the Western, to riff on a phrase from Iain Chambers, “a hundred other Wests now open up” (see 2018: 15). What this means will, ultimately, be the focus for this book.
[i] McGuire’s call found answers in works published since 2002. See Bibliography for works by Paul Giles, M. Higgins, R. Keresztesi, and D. Oscherwitz, M. Paryz and J. Leo, Susan Kollin, Krista Comer, Lee Broughton, Stephen Tatum, Stephen Teo, Christopher Conway, and in my own works.
[ii] The upsurge in interest in the West demonstrates a growing disruptive relationship with earlier conventions, in films like Slow West (John MacLean, 2015), Hell and High Water (David McKenzie, 2016), Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017), Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh, 2017), and The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2017). Alongside novels discussed here, Carys Davies’s West (2018), Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), or a crop of Australian works such as the futurist The Rover (David Michod, 2014), colonial outback film Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton, 2017), the Aboriginal “westerns” Mystery Road and Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2013, 2016), or Paul Howarth’s outback epic Only Killers and Thieves (2018). See my essays on Marlon James and Carys Davies.
[iii] Chapter 1 discusses worlding in more detail. A useful definition comes from Jimmy Fazzino: “Worlding is interested in transgressive acts, whether they involve borders internal or external, textual or otherwise; worlding seeks to be transgressive: that is to say, counterhegemonic, reading against the grain, writing against empire and globalization transcendent” (2016: 26).
[iv] The term mêlée comes from Jean-Luc Nancy: “On the other hand, it is not ‘one’: in a mêlée there are meetings and encounters; there are those who come together and those who spread out, those who come into contact and those who enter into contracts, those who concentrate and those who disseminate, those who identify and those who modify—just like the two sexes in each one of us” (2000: 151).
[v] I am using only novels written in English.
[vi] Minoritarian relates to “becoming” and “continuous variation” as opposed to the fixity of the majority, the aspirational, radical “becoming-minoritarian of everybody” rather than the “Fact of Nobody” associated with the majority (1996:106).