SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Good afternoon. Good afternoon. If I could get everybody who hasn't taken a seat yet to find a seat as quickly and as quietly as possible, we can get our event started. And as you're filing in and finding seats, let me remind everyone of the importance of silencing your cell phone now, please. Silence all cell phones now-- pagers, cell phones, any other electronic device that makes noise.
Hello. I'm Michele Moody-Adams. I'm Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Cornell, as well as Professor of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences and Director of Cornell's program on ethics and public life. And I'm extremely pleased to be able to welcome you to this afternoon's discussion, our discussion of Nadine Gordimer's novel, The Pickup.
We began our new student reading project seven years ago by reading biologist Jared Diamond's provocative foray into global history entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel, and orientation has never been the same since. In the years since that first reading, we've read a classic play, Sophocles' Antigone, and novels as varied as Kafka's The Trial and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
This year's choice-- can I have your attention please? If you could file in as quickly and quietly as possible. This year's choice, Nadine Gordimer's novel The Pickup, provides what we hope is originally-textured opportunity for thinking about the sources of human identity, the complexity of human difference and otherness, the importance of family, the role of religion in human life, and the ever-present conflicts we all confront between desire and responsibility.
Now, from talking to many of the people who have read and persevered and enjoyed this book greatly, I know that there are some who have found initial challenges in working their way through Gordimer's prose style. So that's not going to be a surprise to anybody gathered here. Her style draws, in interesting ways, on lessons of modernism that Gordimer gleaned from writers such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and challenges some of our expectations about narrative technique and about the construction of dialogue. But I hope you'll all agree that Gordimer rewards the attentive reader with a richer understanding of all the challenges of being human.
Now, my welcome goes out most obviously to our incoming students. And I want to take just a moment to say something specifically to them. Like the protagonists of our novel, your hopes and dreams for the future have brought you to a new place, not entirely unlike another country, in fact. "A place where you must start again," in the words of the poet William Plomer, and you must do this all the while negotiating the very complexities of human diversity and the challenges of self-understanding that confront our characters Julie and Abdu, as well.
And I have to say that we are delighted to welcome you not only to Barton Hall this afternoon, but to a whole new world of possibility at Cornell. And one other brief bit of housekeeping-- if there are any of our incoming students who don't know precisely where they should be tomorrow at 3:30, my advice is that you take a moment after the session has ended and look up the information about your room, your discussion room, on our reading website.
Now, I am equally delighted to welcome all of our small group discussion leaders who will be meeting with the incoming students tomorrow afternoon to discuss the book. And I call on them to remember to collect, and then mail, the student essays, so that they can become eligible for 1 of the 10 gift certificates for books from the Cornell campus store.
Welcome also to readers from the Greater Ithaca and Tompkins County area, readers who are joining us here this afternoon. And let me extend a special thank you to Tompkins County Public Library staff, who year after year help us enlarge the community of readers who can enjoy our new student book. We also thank Time Warner Cable for its continued support in broadcasting our forum on cable access television.
You'll want to know that later in the year, several thousand high school students across the state of New York-- many of them in advanced placement English classes-- will join the project as well, along with almost 20,000-- that's 20,000-- Cornell alums whom we expect to read the book over the course of this academic year. So you're really in some very good company.
Let me say that our provost, Biddy Martin, who would normally serve as the moderator for the panel, is unable to join us today because of a family emergency. And she really regrets very greatly that she can't be here. This really is a very special love of hers, this book project. But Provost Martin asked me to extend her heartiest welcome to all of you, particularly to our incoming students, and to extend a special thanks to our faculty panelists.
Now, before I proceed, I want to make sure that everybody is heeding the advice to take their seats quietly and quickly so that we can begin the substance of our program. Before we do that, I want to tell you briefly a little bit about how we will proceed. Each of our three faculty panelists will talk for about 10 minutes each. And after the final presentation, the third presentation, we will open the discussion to the audience.
Now, we've provided microphones for the purpose. They aren't all out, I think, just yet. But there will eventually be four microphones-- two in this aisle here and two in that aisle. And we will ask you to line up at the microphone-- the microphone closest to you-- and if you'd like to ask a question or make a concise comment to be prepared to do so when I point to you.
Now, as a special message to our incoming students, who are still quite dutifully filing in, I will counsel you to start practicing one of the skills that will allow you to get the full value of this new country called Cornell, this country to which you have just immigrated this week. And I will invite you to take advantage of the chance to learn from your fellow students, as much as from your faculty panelists here, by waiting until the entire program has ended at 5 o'clock to depart. I know it's tempting-- the weather's nice, it's a lovely day. But it's a lovely day to read and talk about a book, as well. So I invite you to remain with us until 5 o'clock.
Now, if I may have your attention, I want to introduce our first faculty panelist. Our first speaker today is Professor Dagmawi Woubshet. He's Assistant Professor of English at Cornell. He earned his BA from Duke University and his MA and PhD in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University.
His scholarly and professional interests include African-American literature and culture, contemporary Black Atlantic literature, the 1980s, and AIDS and the narratives of loss. He teaches a variety of courses in these areas. And he is currently working on a book, which considers the literary and visual responses to the AIDS catastrophe in the United States, in South Africa, and in Ethiopia. And his talk today is entitled "Reading The Pickup." Please join me in welcoming Professor Woubshet to the lectern.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: Thank you. I want to begin by thanking Vice Provost Michele Moody-Adams and also Provost Biddy Martin and Michael Bush for organizing this event and also the events scheduled for tomorrow. And also for creating a wonderful website, which has already initiated the discussion on Gordimer's Pickup.
I also wish to congratulate the class of 2011 for being here at Cornell. And I wish to extend to you a very warm welcome.
So in 10 minutes, what I'm going to focus on is the kind of context that informs-- the historical context, the cultural context that informs The Pickup, but also more broadly Nadine Gordimer's fiction-making-- her enterprise as a creative writer. So I'm going to try to at least give some kind of synopsis about the kind of historical context that's been very much central in Gordimer's life.
Central, I want to begin by underlining-- giving some kind of backdrop on apartheid as an enterprise that was so formative in Gordimer's life. She starts writing fiction. She publishes-- she puts out her first collection of essays in 1947. Shortly after apartheid, the National Party in South Africa assumes power. And we could follow the trajectory of her life as a creative person really with the trajectory of apartheid South Africa, and eventually the fall of apartheid, the demise of apartheid.
But for an author like Nadine Gordimer, an unapologetically South African writer, she has tried to take up in her creative work, but also in nonfiction work, what it means to be South African. And for a writer for whom the kind of formative experience has been apartheid, much of her fiction has focused on what it meant to live under a regime that privileged that kind of racial distinction and segregation. So briefly on that kind of formative context, because it has a way of also informing a reading of The Pickup.
So constitutive or formative of apartheid was an exorable desire and mechanism for racial distinction. Apartheid organized its violent self by instituting a distinctly calibrated racial hierarchy, with whites at the very top and blacks at the nadir and so-called Indians and colored South Africans-- these are the categories that were very much operative in South Africa-- buffering in between.
The series of apartheid laws that came after 1949, once the National Party ceased control and after 1960 when South Africa left the Commonwealth and became a republic, codified rigid racial boundaries. For example, there was prohibition on marriage between the races, there were laws which residentially separated one racial group from the other, laws which enforced segregation in all public amenities, that Europeans-only and non-Europeans-only facilities need not be equal, are laws that codified the principle of separate and unequal in all educational institutions, with the explicit interest of stymieing black and non-white education and progress.
These draconian laws, which meticulously outlined the boundaries and hierarchies of the nation, were strictly enforced. And just to give you an example, in places where the racists had lived together in the early '60s, two examples stand out-- District 6 in Cape Town or Sofiatown in Johannesburg. In the case of the former in District 6, it was bulldozed and then left uninhabitable. In the former, in Sofiatown in Johannesburg in the 1960s, which was a racially vibrant and interracial neighborhood, it was bulldozed, erased, and renamed "triomf," Afrikaans for triumph, and turned into a whites-only suburb. So rigid kind of segregation in all arenas of life in South Africa, just to give you two examples.
So Gordimer not only emerges as a writer within this milieu, she emerges resisting it, resisting the domain of apartheid. But also takes it up-- the theme of apartheid-- as a formative theme in her creative enterprise. So her "of" is about examining and undoing the kind of racial binary so formative in apartheid.
But she is a creative writer and that's her art. So we have to think about, how does she explore this theme, this racial binary, formally? How does she examine this tension, this binary opposition, this dyadic tension between white subjects of South Africa and non-white subjects of South Africa? How does she take up that thematic formally? How does she wrestle with that formally? So that's one question to bear in mind.
The second historical backdrop that kind of informs The Pickup is that this is a novel that takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, a South Africa after 1994 that underwent an epochal shift-- that is namely legal, de jure apartheid is no more. Although, de facto segregation is still very much, in South Africa, the kind of regime that sustains South Africa kind of begins to falter in 1994. So this is one effort by this writer to think about a new South Africa, a post-apartheid South Africa, where the racial dynamic has shifted, has changed, significantly.
Furthermore, it is a country in many ways now, which under apartheid, it lived in isolation under sanctions. All of a sudden, it pries open itself, and South Africa becomes a viable continental alternative for many Africans, but also others around the world, to immigrate to and make a living and earn a living. This wasn't the case-- it was the case for Southern Africans. But all of a sudden, because of its relative wealth, South Africa becomes an alternative, just like, say, North America or Europe, are for those in desperate situations to come into and earn a living. So these are the two significant historical shifts that inform The Pickup, and at least, I think, give us some opening in the interpretation of this text.
Now, we see the historical backdrop informing the text. It certainly informs its milieu. Certainly, the first half of the chapter, we see that the dynamic of a city like Jo'burg has changed significantly. On the one hand, the definition of "the other" has changed.
All of a sudden we have all these immigrants who are the underside of society. But that position in the past used to be occupied by racial other. Now it's the national other that is the kind of underside of that society. All right? So we see the cityscape of Johannesburg or the cityscape of Cape Town, the major cities, begins to shift, because we have all of these people from different countries trying to make a living, trying to make a life in the new South Africa.
But also, we see this particular historical shift in the novel in the composition of the table itself, right? The table is in the foreground in the first half of the novel. And we see how members, the contingent of the table, publicly flaunt the kind of racial intermixing, which would have been a serious transgression only a decade prior to the novel's publication. So the very composition of the table, very interracial composition of the table, would have been a serious transgression only a decade prior to the completion of the novel.
So we see that Gordimer underlines the kind of yearning of the table, the fact that we have characters who are trying to get to know each other across race, but doing it publicly. She calls it, they're fascinated with open encounters. So we see that the new historical backdrop has a way of informing the characterization of the table, the fact that it comes into being in the new South Africa.
So the new South Africa allows Gordimer to explore the direction of the new country, and also, and much more centrally, the relationship between Abdu and Julie. Again, a relationship no longer contingent on an explicit black-white racial binary, which has dominated much of Gordimer's prior fiction-making. That's been the central thematic preoccupation in her work. All of a sudden it shifts now to consider the relationship between a white South African and, quote unquote, an "Arab." We don't know where he comes from.
But it's still an exploration of difference. And formally or structurally as in the past, Gordimer employs parallelism, mirroring, symmetry and asymmetry, binary opposition, and inversion to explore the lives of these two characters who come from very different circumstances, very different contexts. So I find interesting how this thematic preoccupation with difference, with the other, informs the very form through which the theme of difference finds expression.
On the one hand, I find interesting the way the narrative perspective shifts in the second half of this story, just as the locus of the story shifts. So the way the narrator has been able to focalize this story to us, put the story into pictures, into images, or the way the narrator has been able to vocalize the story, all of a sudden we see a shift just as the story leaves or changes geographic terrain.
For example, let me just give two examples of how the narrative shift takes place in the story. One is the characterization of Abdu. If you recall, in the first half of the book, Abdu is-- that's his alias, of course-- but he's rendered nameless initially, and described as Julie's property, right? Quote-- these are kind of a series of quotes in the first half of the book-- "Where did Julie pick him up?" "Where was it that she picked him up again?" "Her pickup. God knows where she found him." "Their friend, Julie's pickup." Or the refrain, "grease monkey," right? In the first half of the novel, they constantly refer to him as grease monkey.
Now, what's interesting is, quite often, it's the characters who use this epithet to refer to Abdu. But there are several moments in the first half where the narrator is complicit in using that epithet, that designation, to refer to Abdu. So Gordimer is deliberate about conflating if it's the narrator complicit in that kind of xenophobia or is it just simply the characters using this kind of epithet?
But we see the shift in the narrator's perspective in the second half of the novel, specifically around how Abdu is referenced. On the one hand, and obviously, we find out his real name, Ibrahim. But secondly, this is how the narrator comes out and kind of distances herself from the characters who had used this epithet initially in the book.
This is around page 200. So it's much later in the text. Note how the narrator comes out and distances herself. Quote, "The uncle, the family had said, of that world that shuts him out didn't even want him reduced to a grease monkey. Yes, they had said it. And at the same time, Julie had to stifle a derisive splutter of laughter."
So the narrator comes out and implicates the characters and implicates Julie for using this epithet. So there are all these wonderful revisions where the narrator comes out and shows us how Abdu had been rendered to the margins of the society. We see these wonderful rhetorical revisions in the second half of the novel, precisely because all of a sudden Abdu is a character with a context, with a family, with history, with emotions.
I'll use another example to illustrate these shifts in narrative perspective, and that is the characterization of the table. Initially, the table, at least for me, stands in as representative of the new South Africa. And there's a label that's kind of current in South Africa, it's called the enterprise of the rainbow nation or rainbowism, as an enterprise which underlines coexistence, multiracial coexistence of the new nation.
And at the beginning, in the first half of the novel, the characterization of the table is very favorable. It's a kind of Bohemian crew, which are bent on transgressing the boundaries of their society. But in the second half of the novel, once the story's locus has shifted, the characterization of the table changes, and it changes pretty dramatically. All of a sudden, the table is characterized-- Julie, in fact, characterizes the table-- as a cul-de-sac she once occupied, a kind of dead end. She calls it the theater-- that was the table. She says it was a kind of performance.
And here, I think Gordimer is in part coming out and criticizing the kind of excitement in South Africa about achieving a multiracial democracy. But although the laws are in place to guarantee it, it seems that it's not being followed through in action and in principle. So we see that the table is composed of very progressive folks. But at the same time, they're quick to use all these xenophobic expletives at someone who is at the margins of that society. So it seems in the second half of the novel, we actually have a revised take of the table, which initially seems progressive. But in hindsight, we see Julie reevaluating how progressive the members of the table actually were.
OK. I'm running out of time. I'll just wrap up by making this point. So the shift in perspective, in addition to being illuminating, also is somewhat problematic in the text, in part because Julie immigrates to a land that is unnamed, unspecified. And here, although Gordimer is trying to make a gesture of imagining another terrain, a new frontier, a culture that is not his own, I think she falls into the trappings of the Western-- the kind of orientalist gaze, which has a way of describing Muslim societies, Arab countries, in this case, as undifferentiated.
The country of Ibrahim's origin is conspicuously left unnamed. It becomes somewhat interchangeable. And also some of the characterizations of Ibrahim's country, beg one for wanting more for the interior language or vocabulary of that country to speak. We yearn for that kind of interiority to be accessed. And I hope we can talk about some of these points in our discussion. I'm sorry. I ran out of time. Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you very much. Our next speaker is Professor Sital Kalantry. She's an assistant clinical professor at the Cornell Law School, where she directs the law school's International Human Rights Clinic and is also co-director of the Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Law Clinic.
As part of these projects, Professor Kalantry represents immigrants in appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals and in front of the federal appeals courts. She's submitted an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court in a case involving military commissions, and she has represented Muslim-Americans alleging border discrimination.
Prior to joining our law school, she was a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, where she taught a human rights clinic focusing on national security and civil liberties. She received her JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, an MSC from the London School of Economics and Development Studies, and she earned her bachelor's degree from Cornell University--
--woo hoo, there you go-- magna cum laude, with distinction in all subjects. And one wonderful bit of biography-- one of the people from whom she took a course while she was here was our provost, Biddy Martin. She has had extensive experience as a practitioner of the law, and she has been admitted to the bar in New York state and in Washington, DC. And her talk today is entitled "Globalization, Economic Development, and Migration." Please welcome Professor Kalantry.
SITAL KALANTRY: Thank you, Vice Provost Michele Moody-Adams. It is a pleasure for me to be here today with you, particularly because I was in your shoes many, many years ago. And I won't say how many. I hope you enjoy your experience here as much as I did as a student. And I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity and moment for learning, because the next time you come together, it will be soon enough in four years from now on graduation day.
As many of you are aware, Nadine Gordimer's international acclaim has been associated with her observations in her works about the injustices of apartheid. In The Pickup, however, a post-apartheid novel, she shifts her focus to a new inequality in today's world between people who can pick up and cross international borders without difficulty and those who cannot.
I will discuss how the characters, setting, and plot of The Pickup illustrate the distinguishing features of the global haves and have nots, the reasons for certain types of migration, and how immigration laws in developed countries play a role in the creation of this inequality. The characteristics that distinguish the global haves from the global have nots in The Pickup are economic class, race, and country of origin.
Ibrahim, a poor, dark-colored person from an unnamed developing country, is deported from South Africa. While Julie, a rich, white person from a developed country, easily obtains permission to enter Ibrahim's country. Ibrahim's friends in the country with no name have either been deported from a developed country or have been rejected admission into one, while a South African CEO easily migrates to Australia. Although Ibrahim does eventually obtain the right to enter the US, he does so after countless months and after being rejected from many developed countries. And the reality is is that under current immigration laws, he would not likely have permission to enter this country.
The inequality between people in The Pickup emerges in a globalized world, where developing countries have opened their borders to goods, capital, and culture, often at the behest of developed countries. This globalization is reflected in the novel.
In Ibrahim's country, Julie obtains an English translation of the Koran from California. Julie's uncle transfers money to her from South Africa. There is even a McDonald's in the developing country and American James Bond movies play there. While goods, capital, and culture increasingly flow freely across borders, people are selectively and increasingly denied the ability to cross them. Immigration laws and policies in developed countries contribute to the creation of the global have nots by denying admission to poor people from developing countries.
To give the US as an example, we have erected walls around Mexico, but no such walls exist around the borders demarcating Canada from the United States. Immigrants from countries such as the Philippines, India, and Mexico, places from where there is great demand for entry, wait years for green cards, because of the annual per-country limits.
In contrast, visitors from countries such as the UK, Japan, and Germany do not even need permission to enter the US in certain circumstances. While it is difficult for a poor person to enter, it is easier for rich people to gain such permission, no matter where they are from. For example, a person who invests a million dollars and employs a certain number of people can get a green card to live here permanently.
The discriminatory entrance at the US gate is not a new phenomenon, and in fact was even more blatant at other moments in American history. In the 1840s, we began to limit immigration only in response to the influx of immigrants that were considered undesirable at the time-- Catholics from Ireland and Germany. Worse yet, in 1892, our borders were completely closed for people from Chinese origin. And those people already living here were prohibited from becoming citizens.
As more people desire to enter developed countries, the barriers to entry increase even further. Notwithstanding these restrictions, immigrants from developing countries still pour into developed countries, sometimes in violation of laws prohibiting their entry. So why do so many people risk dangerous journeys across the desert or high seas? The two archetype countries in The Pickup helps to answer this question. South Africa is a rich, developed country. It has hip cafes, high-rises, and luxury goods. On the other hand, Ibrahim's country is described as one of the world's poorest. In fact, there is no regular running water or electricity in Ibrahim's home.
The economic gap between developed and developing countries evident in The Pickup is growing. According to a World Bank study, the GDP gap between the world's 20 richest countries and 20 poorest countries doubled from 1960 to 1995. While poverty pushes immigrants like Ibrahim to leave their country, the promise of economic prosperity pulls them to the developed country.
Globalization also unexpectedly contributes to migration in a number of ways. Through global information and communication networks, migrants learn of the disparity between themselves and those who lived in developed countries. Global transportation networks make it faster and cheaper to cross the globe. And global social networks and diasporas facilitate the integration of migrants once they are in the new country.
Many migrants come to the US in search of the American dream that even Ibrahim idolizes. However, rather than finding utopia, illegal migrants often face discrimination. In The Pickup, Ibrahim's own employer tells Julie that she should not associate with people of his sort. In the US, there are approximately 12 million undocumented people. US law prevents them from receiving public benefits, such as social security, housing, or health, except in emergencies. Once people do enter the borders, the border once again restricts their freedom of movement, as they find it difficult to leave, because they fear they will not be able to re-enter again.
Like Ibrahim, who takes an assumed name to avoid detection, many undocumented immigrants live in an underground world. Once detected, however, the US government may put a person in jail when all she has done is crossed an international border without permission. Almost 300,000 such people were in jail last year.
Through my clinic at Cornell Law School, I represented one such man from Haiti who has been working in New York City for over 25 years. He was placed in a state prison over a year ago, and he is side by side with prisoners who have committed crimes such as murder or armed robbery. If he is deported to Haiti, he will be imprisoned there and will no doubt die without medication, adequate food, and water. Yet, the US is still attempting to deport him. I argue in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.
In The Pickup, Gordimer points to the irony against discriminating against immigrants in the South African context. That irony equally applies here. Julie's family, and the families of many people at Julie's father's party, were immigrants to South Africa. As is apparent from their names, the same people who crossed international boundaries to improve their lot, now limit those opportunities to others.
Like the military-style fences that began to emerge around the homes of rich people in South Africa after apartheid, the regulations created around national boundaries serve to protect the privileged lifestyle of those within them. Globalization, economic development, and underdevelopment, interact with immigration laws to perpetuate and create a global caste system, where the place of someone's birth determines the opportunities available to him or her.
24% of children in Mali, a North African country probably not unlike Ibrahim's country, will not reach the age of five, compared to less than 1% of such children born in the US. The International Human Rights Movement stresses the individual as the object of rights, regardless of his or her national affiliation. And it may be time that we recognize that all people, irrespective of their citizenship, should have equal opportunities. Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you very much, Professor Kalantry. Our final speaker is Professor Grant Farred, who has recently joined the Cornell faculty as a professor jointly appointed in the Africana Research Center and the Department of English. He received his BA degree from the University of Western Cape in South Africa, his MA from Columbia University, and his PhD from Princeton. He has taught at Williams College, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and most recently at Duke University.
His scholarly and professional interests are in poetics, intellectuals, literature, and popular culture. He is published widely on the literature of the African diaspora, as well as on issues of race. He is the author among other works, of a book entitled Midfielder's Moment, Colored Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa from 1999, and also What's My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals from 2003. He served as general editor of one of the most important journals in his field, The South Atlantic Quarterly. And he is going to talk to us today on the topic, Word From Another Language. Thank you.
GRANT FARRED: Good afternoon. Thank you, Michele, for that introduction. I woke up this morning and my wife pointed out that the T-shirt I was wearing, which I got as a grad student at Princeton when they give you when you enter, and it said "Beat Cornell." So I wasn't sure that was a good or bad omen. I'll let you decide.
Good afternoon. I guess I kind of have a question before I start. How many people-- and I genuinely mean this as a question-- didn't like the book? Just a show of hands.
I'm going to can this moment, because, you know? There's a great line from House when he says, "You don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. And sometimes you get what you don't expect." So thanks for that. I'm with the neatly quaffed, carefully-attired masses. I have to say, with all due apologies to Gordimer, I didn't like the book. But--
But I think it raises important questions, and I hope we can talk about that. OK. The talk is called "A Word From Another Language." And I begin with a quote from Gordimer. "He seemed to reject the word, probably that came to him from another language." I think it's on page 10. I'm going to take that as my hook for this talk. That was Gordimer. This is me.
What is the proper name for the refugee? For the illegal immigrant? Does the illegal immigrant even have the right to a proper name? Or is the refugee better off without a proper name?
Is it better, in The Pickup's terms, to be, and I quote, "disguised as a grease monkey without a name"? Might it not be strategically advantageous to, and again I quote, "to disappear under the name in which he was born"? What good is a name if the only thing it can do is identify you so that you might be expelled from this place that is not yours? In other words, if your name makes you a subject who is subject to the repressive apparatus of the law.
What is the value of having a consistency between the name, the proper name, Ibrahim ibn Musa, and how the subject is known in South Africa, "Abdu"? The abbreviation that nevertheless mocks a gap, a distinction between these two articulations of self. Who is "Abdu" in relation to Ibrahim ibn Musa? Is it not better to give up your name and the very psychic life, the history of your being that is intimate to it, if it will enable you to live where you are not wanted?
Which raises the question, is it Abdu's name or his North African being that makes him a threat to post-apartheid South Africa? I quote, "I'll be a burden on the state. That's what they say. I'll steal someone's job. I'll take smaller pay than the local man," end of quote. Now where and how very recently have we heard that before? Right? You're the Americans. You're going to tell me, yes?
OK. How familiar does that diatribe sound? Is it possible to think the refugee as anything but a universal experience as intimate to us all? What critical window does Gordimer's Abdu open for those of us who live outside of racially-sedimented Johannesburg? Those geographically removed, but philosophically intimate, within South Africa still grappling with the powerfully permanent residues of apartheid?
How do we think the refugee? How we consider the condition of the illegal immigrant. A debate, as you well know, of no small consequence in this country. and I suspect a ground upon which many people will vote come November 2008. But another matter entirely, right?
So how we consider the condition of the illegal immigrant requires that we, as a matter of historical and political urgency, name that person who is not native-- that grease monkey, that dishwasher, that sous chef, or the silent laborer who tends the immaculate gardens of suburbia-- a suburbia not, again, limited to Cape Town or South Africa, or just because they can't say it, doesn't mean they don't know where it is. In other words, LA, which, of course, is another way of saying America.
Of course, the project of naming extends beyond the actual term appended. It demands a language that can explain why that person is here rather than there, even though one person's here can easily be translated as another person's there. Why the disappeared subject lives always at this point, OK? That point we might call desperation or hope or hopelessness or extreme economic deprivation. That point that Abdu elucidates in The Pickup. I quote perhaps the most haunting line in the text, "I go where they let me in." Again, "I go where they let me in."
That condition perforce requires its own language that historicizes, that makes sense of the Abdus-- all the Abdus of our moment-- of whom we know there are many. Perhaps too many. It is telling that Julie, struggling to adjust to life in the desert-- and my colleagues would point out how nameless and unspecific, and yet how horrifically recognizable that place called the desert is-- some place which people call in the novel Sudan or we think of as Sudan, but it could be anywhere that is North Africa.
Julie recognizes what the first principle of living as an immigrant is. And I quote, "It was perhaps right then that she made the decision, I have to learn the language," end of quote. Is that all it takes to overcome the status of immigrant, to know the language, the language of the other? Does acquiring the language make it possible to inhabit this place that is not yours?
The condition of the immigrant, it could be argued, is to live permanently with the experience of translation. Of choosing words, and then, before they are spoken, before they have a public life, of rejecting them, as Abdu does. There is always another language that intrudes itself upon the immigrant-- another word, perhaps a more suitable one, perhaps not. Another language that impresses itself upon the moment of speech. It is the pressure of language, as much as socioeconomic forces, that reminds the immigrant of his or her status of living in translation, of choosing or rejecting words that are not appropriate, of understanding that to be a grease monkey is simultaneously a source of cheap labor and a threat to the unwelcoming state of your temporary habitation.
What is the value of a country-- any country, all countries-- when, as Abdu says, you have no country? Or is that a question that only applies to those who literally have no country and live perpetually in the hope of being let in? Especially not, as we see with Ibrahim ibn Musa, when your own country is infinitely less desirable to you than even those which would exploit you, and then, without remorse, rudely expel you. Especially not when the opposite of the illegal immigrant or the refugee is not the native, the legal immigrant, or even the citizen, but a more peculiar subject. The corporate businessman-- my colleague called him the CEO-- who can always or must even relocate that infinitely mobile, infinitely welcomed subject, who not only goes where the money is, but creates wealth wherever he goes.
Awkwardly, tentatively, sometimes even pretentiously, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer strives toward finding, toward producing in this novel, a word, if necessary, from another language-- a language that is not hers or Julie Summers'. A language that can address the critical issues of immigration-- hospitality, kindness, dislocation, the importance of place, and, yes, even love. The white self falling in love with-- learning to love the black, Arab, North African other.
It is in the discourse of love that what I'm calling the libidinal economy, the ways in which desire works in this novel. That the libidinal economy of the novel reveals itself in The Pickup. And here, it seems to me, is where I take issue most strenuously with Gordimer. It is the white South African woman that Julie determined to make Arabic or to acquire the Arabic of North Africa who stands, dare one say, as the truly African subject.
Julie stands in sharp contradistinction to the Arab man who wants perpetually to escape Africa, to live outside it permanently, to live anywhere but North Africa-- Australia, Britain, Europe, and, of course, the very promised land for and of immigrants, America-- Detroit, LA, New York. A single-roomed apartment shared by countless single immigrant men, men sending much needed remittances, or not, back to places such as the Sudan, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and on and on. The Arab man, such as Abdu and his brother, who can only escape to the lucrative, promiscuous life of, we presume, the Sudanese oilfields. The men who live in the hope of taking up residence, legal or not, in any place that is not Africa, simply because it is not Africa.
The libidinal economy of The Pickup is, for this reason, not simply a matter of love or sex or even desire for the other, but more importantly a matter of racial politics. And I grant that they're all tied into each other. So my separation is for rhetorical purposes only.
The project of this novel is to write white South Africans into an Africanness historically denied by the apartheid regime. The Pickup seeks to make rooted authocthonous Africans out of white South Africans. It is then no small matter that there is an alliance of women, North African and South African, a region and a country, impoverishment and a continental superpower. These women who were banded together around, because of their love for a North African man-- the Arab man, lover, husband, brother, son.
Is the white South African woman determined to learn the language so that she might not be rejected in this place where her presence marks a dramatic disruption of the ways of life that have, in any case, long been under threat? It is Julie who functions only as the guarantee, if we might use such a word, that Ibrahim ibn Musa might return to the sandblasted village in the desert. It is Julie who commits herself to Africa. It is Julie who refuses the temptations, the possibilities, her dysfunctional family in America living, where else? In LA, of course.
The most important word in the language of the African immigrant is precisely that-- refusal to say no to America. That is the only way to make an African out of an African immigrant. In the libidinal economy of this novel, love is what enables the African to become an African by choosing his country and refusing the xenophobia and the historic racism that is hers. Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you so much for that presentation, Professor Farred. And I want to say, just before we begin to open the floor up for discussion and question and comments, that Professor Farred's talk, perhaps in particular, was an example of the very kind of open discussion and reflection, even on things where we might disagree quite intensely, that this book project was meant to generate. So I hope all of you will appreciate the great richness of a paper and a presentation that forces us to think about a book in a way maybe we didn't expect.
And again, I thank also Professor Woubshet and Professor Kalantry for their contributions to the discussion. So if I might open the floor up for discussion, are there people who are willing-- particularly, are there people who, in fact, liked the book?
A show of hands? Oh, it's definitely a minority?
Let me tell you one quick story before the discussion begins. During the spring of 2007, several of our then freshman who were volunteers at the Tatkon Center, which you will get to know about on North Campus, sat down with the director of that center to try to think up some programming that might build on the themes of the book. And they loved the book. So we were quite-- I'm really quite struck, frankly, by how many don't like it.
I might start by asking maybe our panelists to weigh in on this, what you think might be some of the reasons. Or do we have a question? Well, actually, we've got a question, so we'll come to panelists later. Here, at mic number two.
ASA CRAIG: OK. Hello. My name is Asa Craig. I'm from the College of Arts and Sciences. And my question is about her style. It is very unique and different from what many of us read on a daily basis, and what is its importance for the book?
In looking at it, my opinion was that it speaks a lot about interracial relationships. We haven't really talked about this. But when you look at the loss of quotations and the loss of identity from each individual character in a certain situation, the readers thus then do not know who is exactly speaking.
And, for this reason, I think that it shows a mixing in a society where we always want to know who is speaking, who says what. But instead, Gordimer blends together black and white to present us with her new style, and that's why I think it is important. But what else-- I'm curious to see, why this style and what is its importance?
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thanks for our question. Any panelists want to weigh in?
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: It's a great question. And in this text-- I mean, this is a style that-- Gordimer, in general, she writes a dialogic novel, so there's a lot of dialogue. And you're uncertain, at a given point, if it's a character speaking, if it's the narrator speaking, so that's a style that, for example, you see as back as something like July's People, in the late '70s. This is a style that's been with her.
In this specific text, I think it has a certain kind of utility, just as you mentioned, precisely because we are uncomfortable when the narrator-- if it's the narrator saying grease monkey or throwing these epithets around, or if it's characters. And if it's specifically characters using these epithets, which particular characters?
And that technique puts the reader in a kind of ambivalent position. So we're ambivalent. We're much more questioning. So it has a way of, on the one hand, calling attention to itself, to the writing itself. But also making you a much more attentive and critical writer, so that you begin to distinguish if there's complicity in terms of the narrator. Or if it's characters, if characters are complicit in this particular action. So in this work, I think it certainly helps underline some of the themes in discussion.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Let's go to the mic here in front, number one.
LAUREN: I'm Lauren. I'm from the College of Ag and Life Sciences. And I have a general comment, but it also parallels something that Professor Woubshet said about the table. What I thought about that and Nadine Gordimer's use of a table is that a cause like diversity or I think the rainbow movement that you mentioned, it shouldn't be something one takes up because it's fashionable. It's a good idea. But I think her criticism is that it's not genuine if one is doing it for reasons of current taste or political conduciveness. It's just more important to recognize the difficulties and to really, really address them than to just take it, I think, in a superficial way. Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Anyone want to respond to that?
So let's go to the mic in the back here. It's microphone number three, I believe.
MARSHALL SUTHERLAND: All right. Hello. My name's Marshall Sutherland. I'm in the College of Arts and Sciences. And to be quite honest, I was a little bit disappointed by the 2007 new student reading project. I'll tell you what my problem was, and then what I think the solution to this problem might be.
I read a great book this summer. I don't know if any of you up there have ever read it. It's The Guns of August, and it's about the early days of World War I and the tragedy that went into that conflict. And so I read that in July. And it was about just how human beings failed to communicate and millions of people died unnecessarily. And then you think about 30 years later, that happened again.
And I read this book after it, The Pickup, and it just-- the problems seemed so trivial compared to what happened in The Guns of August. I mean, here you have 10 million people dying, and here you have two people with family problems and illegal immigration.
So what our real problem is and what we need to think about is, how can we make sure something like that doesn't happen again? I mean, that problem overshadows everything. And the communication and the inclusiveness that go into that is something that we should really be learning about.
So I have a suggestion for you. And in my AP English class last year-- I hate to bring up high school. You know? It's college now. But we had a reading list of anything we could read. And then we would come in, and we would all discuss. We would take one thing from that book, and we would sit down together, and we would talk about it. And I read The Invisible Man, my friends read all kinds of other things, and I learned more about-- I don't know if you want to call it humanity. I don't know if you want to call it communication. I learned more from all those books than 20,000 people reading 268 pages of the same thing, you know?
I got more perspective on more genres than anywhere else. And I think that for 2008, the students who come in for the class of 2012, should each find something that means something to them-- a book with a message for them, like me-- I found that from The Guns of August-- come in and try and relate it to what everyone else reads. And I think that will accomplish more than anything else. Thank you very much.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you for your comment. Thank you for your comment. It's a two-part comment that is really worth listening to. You didn't like this book, and you think some other book might have been more useful. I might ask our panelists to see if they agree that the themes of this book are really as unimportant in comparison with The Guns of August, as you suggest.
And then you make a very interesting second suggestion, that it's very hard to find one book that will appeal and engage everybody equally. And that remains a challenge of this project. And again, we thank you for that observation.
100 universities and colleges across the nation haven't yet come to that understanding of this kind of project. They all pick one book. Maybe we ought to give that some additional thought, and I thank you for the comment. Anybody on the panel want to respond to the characterization of the themes in the book? That's a separate issue.
GRANT FARRED: I guess that's as provocative a welcome as I've ever received. I feel completely at home at Cornell now.
It's like, yeah, I don't like this book, and I'm going to tell so many thousand people what they should be doing. [INAUDIBLE] I have a question in response. Why the disconnect between what you perceive to be-- and I'm calling this history and literature. And why do we only have to learn from one kind of reading?
And why, furthermore, is it not possible to extrapolate-- and, hey, I'm on your side. I'm no fan of Nadine Gordimer. I'm on public record as calling her a pamphleteer. Not a nice thing, but here's the newsflash. The work of being a student-- and whether one is a faculty member or not, one continues to learn-- the work of the intellectual is perpetually to be confronted with that which discomforts.
So while I share your trepidation about our [INAUDIBLE] Gordimer's book and what you perceive to be the trivial, I wonder why we might not ask another kind of question, which is to say, what can we take from The Pickup that will enable us to think differently about the world? What might the connection be between the devastation so beautifully captured, so horrifically captured by Rupert Brooke and Rupert Owen and those other war poets, the lost generation of brilliant minds? Why might we not make the connection between that and The Pickup? So the work, it seems to me, is all yours, actually. You're going to have to make the connection. I'm continuing to ask the questions.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you.
Why don't we go back to the microphone in front on the right, number two there?
BRANDON: Hi. I'm Brandon from the School of Hotel Administration. And my question is--
--my question is directed at the entire panel and it's on-- Nadine Gordimer, in the book, when she first introduces the character of Abdu, it reminded me a lot of the stigma that as Americans we put on Muslims after 9/11 and how we connected Muslims immediately with terrorism. And I wonder if you would comment on the fact of how Gordimer perceives a Muslim as an outsider in South Africa and how Americans today, or more or less back then in the 2001-2002 years, connected a Muslim towards an outsider here. So--
SITAL KALANTRY: I think that's a very good question, and it's interesting. One of the things I'd like to point out is that he's not just considered a Muslim by people in South Africa, right? He's actually always confused as being Indian, because that's the stereotype of the person that they just sort of viewed as somebody who occupies the place of someone not belonging necessarily to the country. So the table refers to him as Indian. The party refers to him as an Indian. So he almost has an identity predefined for him and that's stereotyped for him, right, in the same way that others are stereotyped in this country.
So I think that-- September 11, you raised sort of an interesting question. And this book was written before September 11. However, I think that it gives us a lot of insights into the Muslim and Arabic communities in a way that we maybe didn't have and that we're much more interested in after September 11, I think, that people are far more interested in cultures and communities than they were before then. So I think that there is a lot of replaying of stereotypes in South Africa that do also apply to this context.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you.
DAGMAWI WOUBSHET: I would also-- this is a story of two immigrants. When we talk about The Pickup as an immigrant novel, we have a way of underlining only Abdu's experience to South Africa. But we also, I think, ought to think of Julie as an immigrant who goes to a different place.
And to take up this idea of Julie as an immigrant, I think there we have to carefully analyze how exactly is this place, which is so foreign to her, being described, right? So she's an immigrant who has a certain kind of status, goes into a certain country, and begins to describe the place through the perspective of a privileged immigrant.
So I think when we think about The Pickup as an immigrant novel, it's interesting, at least, to parallel the description of an immigrant from Ibrahim, who is on the underside, the margins of his society. But Julie, in part because of her race, has a certain kind of status and has a certain kind of privilege in the country she's immigrating to and think about the immigrant experience in that kind of complicated way.
BRANDON: Thank you.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thanks very much. Let's go to the mic in front here, number one.
NIKKA ROSENSTEIN: My name is Nikka Rosenstein. I'm from the College of Arts and Sciences. And I wanted to suggest, as long as somebody else brought up the point of how the book was picked, that it seems that every time that a book is discussed in its historical and cultural context and the book is chosen for that reason, which I feel was definitely the purpose of this book, to discuss in a historical and a cultural context in terms of diversity and the situation of the world today, it's always a romance, and it's always a realistic romance or it's a family story and it's always something that could be happening somewhere in the world. It's always very true, fiction in the sense of it didn't happen, but it could have.
And I spent a lot of time in high school reading books like this. I read a book that I don't even remember the name of where there was a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy who were both from families that had moved to America. And two years before that, it was an African-American girl and a Caucasian boy. And I feel like this theme is repeated so much that maybe part of the descent of the book is not just that the grammar was confusing, but that we've heard this before.
And there's so much diversity to be found in so many other types of books. Like I recently read a book called American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which is a science fiction book-- thank you. It was a science fiction book, but it dealt very heavily with the consequences of so many different types of religions coming to America at the same time and how those religions conflict with the new religion of technology. But it did so in a science fiction context.
And similarly, Good Omens completely rips up on religion as we see it from a Judeo-Christian perspective. But it does so by actually having angels and demons and it deals with things in a science fiction fantasy context. But those books never show up on reading lists, because for some reason they're not as good as the same kind of romance, diversity, conflict between two people in love that we've seen over and over again. And I just wanted to make that comment.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you.
Thanks very much. Any remarks or response from our panel? Thanks for your comment. It's duly noted. Let's go to the microphone in the back. Is this microphone number three?
SHARICE: Hello. I'm Sharice.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Hello.
SHARICE: I'm from the College of Arts and Sciences. And I just want to make a comment. I really didn't like the book at all. I had trouble reading it. And at times, I felt like it was extremely boring. But I also felt that it was very relatable to what was going on today. And while I did not enjoy it and it took me a really long time to finish it and I considered not finishing it, I felt like this subject is very important.
Even though it might not have been interesting and it might not have been something unique in its subject area, I do feel it's very important that we consider the differences in those around us. And how even though we're not directly affected, it is important to know what's going on in other places, in other countries, even though we may not really-- I just really feel like people around our age don't really care about other people. They don't care about other countries. They don't care about the hardships people go through to get the education, the status, the comfortable settings in which we all live and all take for granted.
I'm pretty sure there are millions of people dying to get what we already have, and we complain when we have to wake up and go to school. We complain about how much money college is. And we complain about, oh, I miss my home. I'm 12 hours away from my home. And there are some people who would die to come here. People who get on rafts and people who sneak over our borders, yes, they're illegal. But they're just trying to have the things that we're born with.
Is it our right to have it because we were born in America? Is it wrong for people to want what we wake up and have for no reason other than we were born here? I feel like this book raises those questions, even if you didn't really enjoy it or feel that it was really a great assignment.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thanks very much.
Thank you for your comment. Did anybody on the panel want to respond?
GRANT FARRED: To invoke the earlier and first critic, there's this amazing line at the end of Invisible Man. It says, who knows, but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you. Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you. That notion of entitlement, privilege, hospitality, kindness, violence, intimacy, love, sex, desire, that are all wrapped up in the condition of being an immigrant seem to me to make Gordimer's book at least worth thinking about-- whom she might be speaking for, how she might be trying to articulate those issues, and why, it seems to me, we should keep these questions in mind as we think about, or you think about and I certainly do, embarking on life in Ithaca, New York.
What do those questions mean? How do they resonate? We don't have to hear them in the same way. But it seems to me the value of the book is what kind of questions we extrapolate from them and how we make those questions work for us.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thanks very much. We're going to take two more questions, since we're fast-approaching the end of our time. And we'll take that question from the front mic here.
SPEAKER 2: Hi. First of all, I'd actually like to echo the sentiment earlier that it would be appreciated if there were more sci-fi genre books.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Science fiction, OK.
SPEAKER 2: And I would actually recommend the book that she talked about, Angels and Demons, in addition to the Cushling Legacy. But anyway, I do have a question. And earlier, the second presenter talked about how culture and goods are allowed to freely cross borders. And it really begs the question of if globalization is starting to equate with westernization, especially with the rapid westernization of Asian countries, such as Japan and China. Additionally, how does the fact that the most mobile pricing is the CEO, a concept that is still tied to capitalism, which is, in fact, tied to westernization?
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Anybody on the panel?
SITAL KALANTRY: I guess, you've said so many different things. I mean, globalization doesn't necessarily have to be westernization. It just is sort of unfolding in that way, because the US is sort of the importer of culture through movies and information. At one point in time in history, I don't think there was eastern cultures and easternization was more prevalent. So I think that it's an unfolding in this way, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.
And there is, I think, even in The Pickup, there's sort of a fusion you see. There's easternized pop music playing in radio stations. So it's not necessarily a one-way stream, but it is being fused with other cultures and reverberating back. So Bollywood's popular in this country and you hear splices of Indian music in rap music, so globalization could be-- and I think Gordimer actually, in one of her essays, has written that globalization is circular and not necessarily one way.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thanks very much. And we'll take our final question from the mic on my right here, mic number two.
SPEAKER 3: OK. One of the panelists raised an interesting question about language and if learning the language makes you not an immigrant. And in The Pickup, Julie-- even though Ibrahim knows the language, she sort of dismisses him when they're talking about poetry. She says the William Plomer poem and she goes, oh, but you wouldn't know who he is. And I think that that's an interesting concept. Even though Ibrahim knows the language, he's still treated as an immigrant, because he doesn't know the culture. Do you think that there could ever be a thing such as full assimilation and you can ever not be an immigrant?
GRANT FARRED: That's a really good question, and I'm not sure there's a full or proper answer. There are many schools of thought on that. There are folks like Emmanuel Levinas who say that the only way we understand ourselves is to understand the other. There are people who disagree with that, and call that-- and I think Professor Woubshet's hinted at some of this-- a kind of orientalist fascination or what we might call xenotropia, a kind of deeply erothisized attraction for those people who are not like us.
But it seems to me we should, at the very least, think about assimilation as a critical and dangerous concept, as though full belonging were ever fully possible. It seems to me that Gordimer, in interesting ways here, and sometimes not so interesting ways, raises the question of Julie's being from somewhere else. And I think holding that intention, holding that notion of never fully acquiring a language, of always having to think in translation, of always having to turn that word a second time to decide whether or not it's the right word, and then deciding not, because it is the right word, but it seems, for that moment, the most appropriate useful word. And it seems to me that kind of uncertainty and ambiguity relieves some of the tension of assimilation.
So that it's never simply a question of whether I fully belong here. But the difficulty of living with that means that one lives here always with some sense of the interrogative, some sense of a question. And that full belonging, it seems to me, is a kind of laziness. It's a kind of retreat from thinking, a retreat into a sort of unreflective privilege. And that is much more dangerous, it seems to me, than having to hold intention perpetually, permanently, with all the kind of labor that that involves. And I don't think we should underestimate that.
As much as reading is pleasurable, it's also hard work. And it seems to me, if one is not working, one is not thinking. And if one is not thinking, one should at least be uncomfortable about that. So I think assimilation, maybe. But I'd rather have discomforture than assimilation.
SPEAKER 3: Me too.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Thank you so much for your comment. At this point, I'd like to ask you to join me in thanking our faculty presenters again.
And I'd like to thank you, the audience, for attending and for being willing to be provocative in your comments and your questions. And I hope the provocative discussions will continue. Thank you very much.
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The Class of 2011 joined Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, and three other faculty members in Barton Hall on August 19, 2007 to discuss Nadine Gordimer's "The Pickup."
The novel, about life in post-apartheid South Africa, was the work chosen for this year's New Student Reading Project. The panel gave critical interpretations of the text, followed by frank exchanges with student questioners.
Dagmawi Woubshet, assistant professor of English Sital Kalantry, assistant clinical professor of Law Grant Farred, professor of English and Africana Studies