The Use and Misuse of Literature as ‘Bridge’

People often speak of translators, and translated literature, as the stuff of “bridges” between cultures:

The ferry to Guantanamo.
The ferry to Guantanamo. Illustration: Molly Crabapple.

I have resisted this metaphor, in part because of This Bridge Called My Back; in part because I prefer to draw attention to literature-as-literature and not to literature’s socio-political (or architectural) “function.” Bridges are attractive things, in theory: If only we could erect a giant cement behemoth between Baghdad and Boston, then we could walk back and forth, shaking hands, slapping backs, sharing one another’s lives.

Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security would get in the way of that one. So, instead? We have a metaphorical bridge. A literary one.

Still, translation as a “literary bridge” is awfully one-sided. While I was reading Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, there was not, I don’t think, a corresponding reader in Baghdad perusing Toni Morrison. Or maybe there was, but I had no way to touch this person. If The Iraqi Christ brought me in any sort of contact with a “real” Iraq, it was through a tinted mirror. It was through, as Molly Crabapple writes, “dark water.”

Further, when a book is praised as a cultural bridge-builder, it often is because the author — let’s say Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal in Germany — is saying something the folks on the other side of the imputed bridge really want to hear. (Islamists = Nazis!) This is less like a bridge and a bit more like an echo chamber.

But a yet more disturbing sort of “literary bridge” has been, over the last decade, the dozens of gossipy articles about “What Gitmo Prisoners Read,” with the most recent crop focused on whether or no prisoners were reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Rep. Jim Moran, who made the claim about detainees reading Fifty Shades, said — in what we can only presume to be a tone of mild hilarity — “I guess there’s not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell.” Moran’s claim was (Muslims! sex!) widely repeated throughout the media, although one of the inmates’ lawyers denied it, saying it was either “some sort of a joke” or “some sort of disinformation campaign.”

Most of the recycled articles about what prisoners read in the US’s off-shore City of Lost Souls don’t have this sadistic edge to them. They bring us stories of normality — ooh, they’ve got Harry Potter in there! — which should, in a literary-bridge-world, lead to empathy. (Hey, I read Harry Potter, too!) But, more likely, these stories don’t lead to any sort of connection. Instead, they encourage us to forget the lives of Gitmo “detainees.”  After all, their lives are pretty normal.

Literature, here, functions not as bridge, but as whitewash. There is no foot traffic between Guantanamo and Greensboro. We hear that the “detainees” (prisoners of war?) have a library and lots of other fancy things. (It’s also “sunny, fun, and unique.”) If “detainees” are allowed a peek at our lives, it is not across a bridge, but through an entirely different one-way mirror.

Some reporters do allow US readers to feel a sort of contact. Molly Crabapple (@mollycrabapple), who has been regularly reporting on the US’s non-legal prison, said that, even for her, the official tours are like looking at the detainees’ lives “as if through dark water.”

Crabapple writes in a recent piece, “No One Reads Kafka in Gitmo,” that:

Before making it in to the library, each volume is read by two minders. Banned are books with sex or horror, extremism, prisons, military maneuvers or anti-establishment ideas.

Whatever the view is on the other side of this mirror, it is free of “horror, extremism, prisons, military maneuvers or anti-establishment ideas.” It is a lens that’s happily Kafka-free.