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Literature of Cultural Exchange
edited by Phillip Sterling
Mammoth Books ($19.95)
by C. A. Tenz
Recipients of Fulbright grants situate themselves intimately in the countries they visit for educational scholarship, whether they arrive as student, scholar, or lecturer. The position affords these people a prestige that shines through in many of the pieces included in Imported Breads: Literature of Cultural Exchange, an anthology comprising work by American Fulbright grant recipients. Editor Phillip Sterling, himself a Fulbrighter, chooses pieces that express each writer's distinctive situation as temporary resident in a foreign society. This exploration of academic life abroad takes readers deeper into these distant destinations than most travelogues or tour books.
"Fulbrighters are not mere tourists," Sterling states in the foreword, and this collection of memoirs, poems, and short stories proves his point. James Plath's poem, "The Colonizers Return" offers a critique of Caribbean cruise ship passengers as the speaker views them:
their skin is
shockingly pink, the folds of
affluence more pronounced.
And they hide, always: wallets
in camera bags, cameras in
fanny packs, credit cards in socks,
and eyes behind glasses gradually tinted
like the windows in stretch limosines.
But it's obvious most are new to this,
assuming the (im)position for one or two
weeks and hoping to avoid discovery
as much as discomfort or danger.
Some readers might regard this anthology as elitist or disconcerting because of the distinction editor and contributors make between tourist and Fulbrighter. However, readers interested in conversations with local people and gritty descriptions of local living conditions will find pleasure here.
Offering astute meditations on life in a foreign country, these writers relate folklore and reflect on cultural ceremonies, partake in the quotidian details of life and immerse the reader in specific locales. Each author addresses his or her experiences abroad uniquely, and the collection includes a variety of poetic and prose forms. Poems follow essays; a piece on Indonesia precedes one on Iceland. These differing experiences told in various styles produce an incoherence that the anthology's alphabetical-by-author organization cannot address. Nonetheless, an assortment of powerful cultural material resides within these pages, a worthwhile read for anyone contemplating life in a foreign land.
Turn one page and venture through a war-divided Ireland with Bostonian émigré John Hildebidle as he crosses the fortified border into Derry. Turn the next page and relive Korea though Anthony Petrosky's eyes, "in a claustrophobia of humidity, cars, people / as thick as particulates in parks and palaces." This combination of outsider versus insider perspectives continues throughout the anthology, as the works pay homage to an assortment of encounters. In Donald Morrill's poem, "Junket" for example, he contemplates his time as a foreigner visiting China:
:Through which—excepting banquet toasts and drunken singing—
we avert our faces from the Ministry's cameras,
while still getting to visit this restricted area,
transported by private train, no less.
This experience, written from the point of view of a welcomed guest, differs significantly from Morrill's later essay about riding a train from Soviet Russia to eastern bloc Poland during the Cold War. After watching armed Russian soldiers steal jewelry from a fellow passenger, Morrill writes, "The trip has been variously wonderful and horrible, exhausting." The descriptions of travel in foreign destinations glimmer alongside the stories of hardships, no matter the locale.
This inclusion of hardship makes Imported Breads all the more necessary. As other new books, such as George Gmelch's Behind the Smile: The Working Lives of Caribbean Tourism (Indiana University Press, 2003), discuss the problematic elements in tourist travel, Sterling wisely anthologizes the literature of these less-intrusive Fulbrighters. Scholarly exchange affords Fulbrighters access to experiences an ordinary traveler cannot gain; in turn, these Fulbrighters share with readers customs and events generally often invisible to outsiders. Robert Lima embodies this point with his memoir of an elder-making ceremony in Cameroon, in which he becomes "The White Elder of the Menda Hills." The stance of knowledgeable purveyor can prove disturbing as well, as in Richard Jackson's poem of war's scars: "I would like to be able to report / that the 9 year old Rwandan girl did not hide under / her dead mother for hours. There are so many things / too horrible to say." In both depictions, the Fulbright experience offers a realistic portrayal of life in a foreign land. The poems and prose sound not like the narcissistic, confessional literature of expatriation, but instead serve as distinctive reflections on incorporated living.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004/2005