Novel Disconnections Recap

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Novel Disconnections Symposium

By: Russell Coldicutt, Kevin Gallin, and Hannah Rogers

The Symposium

When planning this symposium, the graduate student committee sought to bring invited speakers and roundtable participants from other universities to Duke to consider how the novel imagines “disconnections.” Through this forum, our goal was ask what questions such as: Does the novel acknowledge contemporary migration and refugee crises?  How, and in what ways do contemporary novels alter a narrative form arguably responsible for maintaining national differences? Given the novel’s traditional association with the rise of the modern nation-state and, more recently, with globalism in its various iterations, can novels shed light on the resurgence of neo-nationalism (Modi, Brexit, Trump, etc.)?  What role, if any, can the novel play for mobile or disparate communities? How does or will its form change accordingly?

Presentations and Response

In his paper, “The Historical Novel in the Age of Reverse Development,” Nasser Mufti cited a World Bank study that showed that civil war is both a cause and symptom of the failure of economic progress in nations in the developing world. From there, he posed the question of what form the historical novel could take against such backdrops, when the traditional objective of cohesive nation-building is obstructed through continuous civil war and economic instability. This context informed his compelling reading of the refugee figure in V.S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, redefining these figures “less as a problem of civic belonging or national identity but as a crisis of historical disjuncture and derangement.” Dr. Mufti’s work shows us how the contemporary novel, rife with figures of dislocation and placelessness, can help us to conceive of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, but also how to un-imagine them.

In her paper, “Incorporeal Inscriptions: Race and Ha Jin’s Documentary Style,” Sunny Xiang subverted and deconstructed definitions of Asian identity that depend on stereotypically racialized readings of Asian physiognomy, voice, and orthographies. She worked, instead, to theorize an understanding of identity that “centers on the disembodied tones that cannot be attributed to or rationalized through any speaker in particular.” Her talk raised the question of how to reconcile the claims about the immateriality of tone with the unavoidable materiality of literary form. What is the relationship between immaterial voice and a racially marked author? Who can use these disembodied tones? Who has recourse to this particular set of formal techniques? In asking these questions, Dr. Xiang’s work opens space for further critical attention to be paid to the ways in which content and tone, form and political engagement can and do mutually interfere in the contemporary novel.

In his paper, “Where You Are: Migration, Collective Narration, and Chang-rae Lee,” Matthew Hart questioned the relation between movement and stasis, representation and space, generic patterns and a contemporary political moment. Hart asked why, in a moment characterised by informational flows and global citizens, contemporary works of dystopian fiction imagine insular worlds in which movement is difficult and in which space is territorially bounded. Instead of separate and discrete, however, Hart argued that these islands should be considered as presenting “archipelagic spaces” of continuity without contiguity. Similar to Professor Mufti’s talk, Dr. Hart’s argument challenges traditional conceptions of the Andersonian national community. In identifying “archipelagic space” as a feature of contemporary dystopia, Dr. Hart shows how ideas of  insularity by definition revert to imagining their own outsides. Paradoxically, further focus on provincialism can perhaps be a way of going global.

Along with the roundtable — led by the senior editors of Novel: A Forum on Fiction — these talks raised issues both about disconnection and the novel form: What is the difference between disconnection and connection? Further, if we imagine “dis-connected” communities, how is this different from Benedict Anderson’s model? Is it? Is there a figure of the refugee before the era of reverse development? What is the relationship between writing and translation? Is the novel the primary media form in the contemporary age? If not, what role for it remains?