Disorienting Reading

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Editor: Tom Burns
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,495 words

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[(essay date spring 2007) In the following essay, Donovan suggests that Staples's Pakistani-set young adult novels are not "bridge texts" to a foreign culture, but rather "disorderly" readings meant to challenge readers' assumptions.]

A descent into the swirl of particular incident, particular politics, particular voices, particular traditions, and particular arguments, a movement across the grain of difference and along the lines of dispute, is indeed disorienting and spoils the prospect of abiding order.--Clifford Geertz, "Which Way to Mecca," New York Review of Books, 12 June 2003.

When Suzanne Fisher Staples wrote Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (1989) and its sequel Haveli (1993), she was moving into sparsely settled territory in American publishing for children. Searches of the Comprehensive Children's Literature Database, Books in Print, and World Cat reveal that only eleven books for children and a series of educational readers featuring Pakistan and/or Pakistani cultures were published between 1980 and 1999 in the United States. The fictional titles are all picture books rather than novels for older children, and only one of those picture books, Roses in My Carpet (1998), by Rukhsana Kahn and illustrated by Ronald Himler, portrays contemporary events in Pakistan. Even that book focuses on an Afghani, rather than Pakistani, central character. The nonfiction titles published during the time period divide evenly between general introductions to the culture and geography of the country and focused examinations of child labor and child slavery, which feature particularly Iqbal Masih who, as a child, advocated for the human rights of children in Pakistan and was murdered. This paucity of books about Pakistan for American children during the 1980s and 1990s, when Staples was writing her own novels, meant she could not assume that her readers would know much about the culture, geography, or modes of living in Pakistan. Consequently, Shabanu and Haveli offer particularly useful examples of the kinds of complexities involved in cross-cultural novels--that is, novels that seek to represent an unfamiliar culture to readers.

The risks associated with cross-cultural representation can be numerous. For the past three decades postcolonial critics such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Mary Louise Pratt have documented the ways that cultures are represented by Western writers, often to the detriment of the non-Western culture. The analyses took a particularly personal turn in the 1990s as children's literature scholars defending postcolonial and multicultural authors in the United States sought to protect the publishing space of minority writers. Critics were especially skeptical that a cultural outsider could convincingly represent another culture. Staples was swept up in these concerns, and in multiple interviews and essays she described her compositional practices and successfully defended her authority to write about the nomads of the Cholistan Desert.1 But a novelist's thorough knowledge of the represented culture is the prelude to an act of representation. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism, who makes the representation is less important than the representation itself and the ways the representation transforms the reality for the author's culture: "The problem is not that conversion takes place....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420084951