By different means but with a strangely common objective, I’ve been reading two writers concurrently, Kevin Kwan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the non-white, non-Jewish persuasion. Having grounded myself, all the way from Berlin, in the contemporary New York literary scene, I was particularly struck by the freshness of one writing voice, that of Ta-Neishi Coates. His literary tradition stemmed from a deep African-American heritage, one that only gets the most singular of treatments (singular in the sense of a single book) within the broader study of English/ American literature. His most recent work, Between the World and Me can be found on two separate bottom display shelves of Berlin’s Dussmann English bookstore. I took note it was placed on the bottom.
Their common objective, a telling of their stories to release to the world that yes, there exists a beautiful middle America where African-Americans exist and yes, there exists extremely wealthy Asians whose wealth goes back generations. In one case, we are the not just the ghetto, drug-dealing, drug-using, imprisoned, pariah underclass, and in the other, no we are not all vulgar, uneducated in terms of class consciousness, nouveau riche, buying up all your Louis Vuitton, rich dumb consumers.
Both writers try to bring a conscious awareness to a popular Western culture which pigeonholes them into ugly archetypes. In Kevin Kwan’s opening prologue in the first book to his generational family trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians, he illustrates a typical racist episode in London and provides for any reader who has been classified as déclassé solely by their outer appearance or ethnicity, a wet revenge fantasy.
A wealthy Singapore Chinese family find themselves soaked from the London rain trying to check into a room with their extended family including several aunts and some kids into an exclusive hotel.
“The Dorchester or the Ritz might let this kind in, but this was the Calthorpe, owned by the Calthorpe-Cavendish-Gores since the reign of George IV and run for all intents and purposes like a private club for the sort of families that appeared in Debrett’s or the Almanch de Gotha. Ormsby considered the bedraggled women and the dripping children. The Dowager Marchioness of Uckfield was staying through the weekend, and he could scarcely imagine what she would make of these folk appearing at breakfast tomorrow…
“Where are we suppose to go at this hour?” Eleanor asked.
“Perhaps someplace in Chinatown?” Ormbsy sniffed.”
With their reservation denied, Eleanor calls her husband who realizes he knows Lord Calthorpe and knows he wants to sell his damn hotel and so he buys it. An hour later Eleanor walks back into the Calthorpe with Lord Calthorpe-Cavendish-Gore and tells Ormbsy to leave the premise.
Ta-Nahisi Coates describes in The Beautiful Struggle the cosmopolitan and urbane nature of Howard University, or the Mecca. The main difference between the two writers comes from whose measuring stick the writer uses. Coates doesn’t care if the reader shares his referential knowledge or not, his measuring stick is a homegrown one that isn’t simply an incorporation of local jargon. It is not Harvard; it is the Mecca. Kwan, on the hand either needs Western/English signifiers of the elite to prove a point or the infiltration of colonialism and Western power has been so strong in Asian culture, there simply is no Asian version of Oxford or Stowe strong enough on an international playing field; his measuring stick has to be borrowed.