A couple of weekends, I discovered the strangest thing at the City Lights Bookstore. It's one of the most popular and renowned bookstores in the city, known originally as a congregational home for San Francisco Beatniks and still widely acclaimed for its selection of leftist, underground, and sub-cultural literature. A purveyor known for its radical and revolutionary spirit, for its advocacy of intellectual freedom, City Lights is supposed to be (or I supposed it was) forward-thinking and socially progressive. To my shock, I discovered otherwise...
That Saturday afternoon, Rob was looking for a couple of books recommended to him by his friend Graham. One of those books was The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I've heard is very good. Rob and I had parted ways when we entered the bookstore, but I found him in a side room looking for this book.
"Is this the fiction section?" I asked him.
"Nope it's the foreign section," he replied.
"But Kazuo Ishiguro is British," I said. "It's not a translated novel."
Kazuo Ishiguro, though born in Nagasaki, Japan, moved to England when he was five. He went through schooling completely in the British school system, and I would argue that his books are distinctly British. The Remains of the Day is narrated by the butler of an English countryside estate.
"I don't know," Rob said. "The guy who works here told me it's in this section."
This categorization piqued my interest. I scanned the bookshelf, my eye searching for "Ishiguro." On the bottom shelf, I found the book.
"Here it is," I said. But before I gave it to Rob, I flipped open the book to the copyright page. I wanted to check that it wasn't translated.
"See, he totally wrote it in English," I said. There were other books on the shelf, like Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered. I checked that both were written in English. They were.
"What is this section, then?" I asked. "This isn't the translated section," I said, though I did notice a few Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels.
A man who worked at the bookstore passed through the room. Rob asked him what section we were in and he barked back, quite angrily, "This is the third-world room."
The third-world room?! What?! What is City Lights trying to say about these books, that they don't belong to the other works of fiction? I understand the utility of a "translated" section, but a translated section would include the works of Marcel Proust and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, both of whom you would never find in the third-world section. These men are white, after all. As an Asian-American, who was born and raised in Mountain View, California, I suppose if I ever wrote a book, I would be siphoned into this third-world section as well, though my voice and my background and my education, I would argue, is American, the way any daughter-of-an-Immigrant is American, the way any tenth-generation-descendant-of-the-pilgrims is American. These authors are writing in the English language, not a foreign tongue, and yet, it's their skin color that separates them as authors? Uncertain what the purpose of this separation is; it accentuates difference, relegates a group of people to another category of literature. Here is white man's literature and here is non-white man's literature. The two are not the same. We are over here and you are over there. That a man's skin determines his place in literature, that a non-white man is immediately third-world, the world beyond the white-man-centric first-world, seems at best, a reinforcement of supremacist and segregational ideals. City Lights, let's move past this soon.