Imagining the People

By: Caroline Sarda

    Two weeks ago, The Lannan Center held its annual symposium on campus. This year, it was titled, “The Global Soul: Imagining the Cosmopolitan,” featuring authors from John Freeman and Kapka Kassabova to Viet Thanh Nguyen, recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer.

            Nguyen gave the closing address to the symposium, which spent two days meditating on the ideas of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism—what these recent additions to the vocabulary of our identities mean, how they manifest in people’s behaviors, and how we deal with them in a world so embedded in racial, cultural, and physical divide and conflict. Although I am not technically a “transnational,” defined as someone who has lived in and experienced the cultures of multiple nations, as a biracial person in an increasingly global world, I found the themes of the conference and the themes of Nguyen’s final speech to be particularly poignant, engaging, and applicable beyond the realm of cosmopolitanism.

            The most widely relevant idea that Nguyen brought up, I believe, is that of humanization in literature written by minorities. Throughout the talk, Nguyen stressed the need for minority writers to resist translating their work to the majority and to resist simplifying their characters to fit the majority’s idea of an “acceptable” minority character. Beyond the literary, I believe this also applies perhaps more visibly in television and film. In the former, we can see it in the thoughtful analysis of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and the simultaneous hatred toward his wife, Skyler. In the latter, we can see it in audiences’ desire to label Katniss Everdeen’s weakness and fragility as “out of character,” instead electing to view her simply as a “strong female character.” Or in the need to paint Gone Girl’s Amy as either psychotic housewife or feminist icon, with no room for nuance. To return to Nguyen, it is found in the desire to paint The Sympathizer as an “immigrant novel,” instead of what it is—an honest, unapologetic portrait of a refugee and communist spy. In both our written and our visual media, it seems that the most subtle, yet pervasive weapon of the majority is simplification for the sake of maintaining a narrow vision of the world. By keeping minorities out of the realm of figurative complexity, they are effectively kept out of the realm of actual complexity, justifying the blow of labelling them as “criminals,” “rapists,” or “terrorists.”

             Toward the end of his talk, Nguyen stated that the way he combatted this desire to whitewash his narrative was by focusing specifically on the capacity of his characters to be inhumane instead of constantly trying to prove their humanity to the reader. This final point summarized perhaps the most important idea that I came away from the symposium with—the necessity for an inherent humanity and complexity of the individual, whether in literature, film, television, or reality. Only from there can we begin to enter into conversations regarding that individual’s place in a particular country, ethnicity, culture, or in the world.