My heading for our McKay session was “Mistranslation.” Edwards draws our attention to the way that Francophone black internationalists were inspired by what we might call a mistranslated version of Banjo—not only because the French version literally diverged from the English but because those readers needed to quite selective in their reading of the novel in order to find it an inspiring statement of racial vitalty. At least, this is the implication of Edwards’ claim that Banjo is “is paradoxically also a radical critique of black internationalism” (210). It didn’t look that way to Léopold Sédar Senghor or the editors of the journal Légitime défense. When we looked at English-language reviews and publicity for Banjo, we also found ourselves dwelling on the reductions of the novel and its author, which seemed to us to leave out an extraordinary amount of what is palpably available in the text. But I am quite skeptical about the reliability of our judgments of what is “really” in the novel. Our own interpretations, no less than earlier readers’, are shaped by our circumstances and our training. That doesn’t mean our readings might not be more valid as literary interpretations, but it does mean that the things we see “in” the text may not go very far to explaining the historical trajectory of the novel.1
In a sociological perspective, the inquiry would turn from the seeming errors of past readers to asking what shapes those mistranslations and misreadings (if that is what they are), what ends they serve, what resources they use and what resources they seek to appropriate.2 And that might tell us a bit more about why Banjo is the way it is: not pure naturalistic reportage though it seems like it is at points, not a novel of pan-Africanist ideas though it seems like it might be… not a “jazz” novel either. Rather than saying that the text is uncategorizable, we might see that the unavoidable force of categorization provokes McKay’s resistance in advance. At the same time the novel predicts its own misappropriation in its representations of audience—most obviously the patronizing whites who are interested in Ray, but also the scenes of clogged print circulation at the Café Africain, the perpetual disruptions to Banjo’s orchestra, and the distrust of Ray as “book fella” (326) who is ultimately on the beach to collect material. And the novel also predicts McKay’s own subsequent trajectory: though it is not identical to Ray’s, he does become more and more removed from any international cultural circuit.3
Speaking of categories, is The Practice of Diaspora a sociology of literature? It’s not a label the book uses, but Edwards is concerned with the relationship between the social formation of black diaspora and black diasporic literary expression. Edwards’s key intervention is to show that diasporic texts, and diaspora as a formation, are not expressions of shared roots by a scattered yet integrated “community.” Both the social formation and its expressive products are instead characterized by décalage or mismatch; they might even be said to be produced through mismatch. This can be compared with Benedict Anderson’s much-cited idea of the nation as an “imagined community” held together by a print culture which allows very different people to imagine themselves as members of a group having shared experience in time. But Edwards, and McKay in Banjo are less concerned with print culture as a “glue” than with its ungluing potential.
Around the world with G.V. Desani
All About H. Hatterr is a fairly challenging novel. There’s no Hatterr Annotated for me to tell you to ignore: readers just have to muddle through layers of reference and linguistic mixture without annotation. As I always do, I’ll suggest that this dimension of reading is what you should reflect on: and in particular how Desani’s refraction of modernist difficulty might work differently from the other versions we have encountered so far.
As for Desani himself: “Arriving in London in 1926, Desani spoke only Sindhi and some Swahili,” says his short DNB entry. In one sense he’s an Indian Ocean writer, which is very on-trend just now, though these statements of origins are meaningless in isolation, as Desani’s novel will teach you. On desani.org—so far as I can tell, an anonymous and impressively extensive fansite—you can find quite a bit more in the way of Desani lore and media. The section on memorials points you to comments on Desani from a whole range of leading Indian writers in English. I find there a document I missed when I was working on Desani, a 2000 Tehelka interview with Khushwant Singh relaying the following anecdote:
Sometime in the mid 70s, a charming man in a zari kurta stood up at a small gathering of book lovers…and declared that there were “only two people in the English world who had been able to write a novel. The first one,” said he, “is James Joyce with his Ulysses. And the second one, if I may [say] so, is your humble self.” This was G V Desani.
“Faithfully,” he signs the preface to Hatterr…
This is the point of my article on Desani—there, now you don’t have to read it.↩︎