Monday, June 7, 2010

Stereotypes, secrets and cross-cultural relationships

I was simply going to announce a new biography of Forster, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat, brought to my attention by my mom (thanks!), but then this exploded all over the Intenet.

"This" being an attempt at humour (I think?) gone very wrong, in which an American woman (who also happens to run a dating website, I hear?) married to an Indian man attempts to explain how (and why) to date Indian men.

Although I do follow the Huffington Post (who ran this article), I only follow their books feed, so (thankfully?) missed this article the first time 'round. It only came to my attention because I follow Niranjana Iyer's blog, Brown Paper.

Niranjana writes eloquently about one of the myraid reasons the Huff Post piece is offensive: "That the stereotyping in this case happens to be (mostly) positive is of little consequence; exoticizing a people in this manner is to make them the Other (versus “ordinary” people). A mindset that is ready to label a billion Indians “gracious, social creatures” is just as capable of labeling them smelly beasts. Stereotyping robs a person of his individuality; does it really matter if the mugger is smiling or spitting as he’s relieving you of your valuables?" And she quotes one of the commenters from the Huff Post page (I am NOT going through all those comments myself!), who points out, quite rightly, that "Humorous generalization can be a laugh riot if done well– in a non-cliche or particularly insightful way– but this really misses the mark. It could have been funny or provocative if it had not employed so many cliched generalizations, or had done so with a self-parodying sensibility. [...] Writing a satirical send-up of any group’s generalized habits (Indians, white people, black people, whatever) requires a deeper, more nuanced perception of stereotypes, a fresh intelligence which provokes both thought and laughter. This article lacks that freshness." I don't know if this is the best time to mention that the various spoofs of the Huff Post piece available online sometimes have an edgy freshness to them that Miller's alarmingly earnest piece is missing.

As soon as I read about all this I knew I wanted to blog about it, if only to agree with Niranjana and the above comments, and to deplore the state of the dating world if these are the criteria applied ("successful and professionally desirable," not to mention "incredibly attractive" - OK, I know I am out of the dating world and can't be too judgemental, but seriously, are you choosing a buffet item or a partner?). Since I had notes about the Forster bio saved as a draft here, I was struck, when logging in, by the links between these two news items.

The Forster bio is apparently (I am on the holds list at work now, so must wait) about the importance of Forster's homosexuality to his work, and his life. I have to say, on my first reading of the review, I was thinking, "Yeah... so?" But then I guess I am a Forster nerd, and to me, it's obvious (because he pretty much says so) that he stopped writing because he couldn't write truthfully, and he couldn't write truthfully because he couldn't write about homosexual relationships, or at least not about anything remotely positive about them in mid-century Britain. Writes Fulford in the book review, "Forster wrote heterosexual novels because he had an old-fashioned sense of traditional values and because he rightly feared the consequences of writing about gays. [...] Moffat believes that by the time he wrote Howards End, in 1910, he was already tired of “the masquerade of propriety.” Being something of a specialist in hypocrisy (as the readers of all his best-known books well know), he may simply have decided that his own position was dishonest."

The idea for my Honours thesis came about years earlier, when I wrote the final exam in an English course at Marianopolis with Nini Pal. One of the texts we had read was A Passage to India, and the exam question read something like, "The novel concludes with the question, posed by Fielding, of whether he and Aziz can be friends. The horses, the earth and the world around them "said in their hundred voices: 'No, not yet,' and the sky said: 'No, not there." Do you believe this is still the case? Why or why not?"

(sorry if that's totally inaccurate, but that's how I remember it, anyway. I might have it somewhere in the office, but no way am I going back there to check...)

I was so struck by the question, and wanted so much to believe that the answer was no, not anymore, that I embarked on a study of modernist literature, and specifically, relationships across cultural, gender and class boundaries in Edwardian society and novels. As I learned more, I came to see how Forster's homosexuality, and his relationship with Syed Masood (at left below, from influenced his ideas, his writing, and his life. While Forster was far from the only modern Englishman (or woman) with a colourful personal life (I highly recommend Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe for more on the topic), he did feel his outsider status strongly, and was such an honest man that he struggled with keeping his true self in the closet. I always thought it was especially tragic that Forster seemed to set himself up to fail in romantic relationships: he fell in love with the most unlikely men, in the most unlikely places, setting himself up for an uphill battle against colonial England, racism, AND homophobia. I admire his open soul, but I wonder how much it hurt him.

So he stopped writing fiction (hey, many have stopped for less). I'm so pleased that Fulford states clearly that "he did not spend the rest of his life as a hermit in the style later perfected by J.D. Salinger. Forster wrote many essays, talked on BBC radio, lectured at universities, accepted royal honours and wrote a biography of the aunt who left him a small income. He was never in hiding." Although Fulford's eventual conclusions (that perhaps Forster would have been a worse writer if he had lived in a society in which homosexuality was accepted) are rather shaky - fans of Maurice, by the way, are thin on the ground because most people don't know it exists (trust me, I work in a library). Anyway, whether his writing would have improved or worsened is anyone's guess, really, but I'd say either way he would have been an equally influential (if humble) humanist regardless of which society, in which historical moment, he had lived in.

So, I guess this morning I was just thinking, I wonder what Forster would have made of the world, and this Huff Post article? I think he would have been utterly mortified at the lack of respect we sometimes have for each other as individuals, and I think he would have been somewhat uncomfortable with the humour we use to laugh off the stereotypes some people still believe in. Of course, we're certainly so much freer than we were in the 1920s, when Forster was finishing Passage in Weybridge, or even the 1970s, when Forster died. Although sometimes, when articles like the Huff Post piece come along, I wonder, how much freer? And at what cost to dignity?


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