Minor literature and the language of the minorities (by Mehdi Babaei)

Enclosed in my own four walls, I found myself as an immigrant imprisoned in a foreign country;… I saw my family as strange aliens whose foreign customs, rites, and very language defied comprehension;… though I did not want it, they forced me to participate in their bizarre rituals;… I could not resist.”

The Metamorphosis

While I was reading the above lines from Franz Kafka’s diaries, I wondered how many immigrants today feel the way he felt during 1910-1923. Though his trajectories were different from those of today’s immigrants, I wonder if any immigrants feel “imprisoned in a foreign country,” or if they are forced to participate in “bizarre rituals.” The analysis of Kafka’s literary works set the scene for what is known as minor literature, which I will elaborate on below. I have come up with the topic of this post for a good reason. As part of my story reading group, this month I have been reading and analyzing Kafka’s stories. Also, as someone who has recently completed a doctoral project on language, identity, and immigrants’ lived experiences, I am enchanted with the narratives of immigrants. The unadorned triad of this post is thus Kafka, minor literature, and immigrants’ narratives. 

Kafka (1883-1924) was born to German-speaking Jewish parents living in Prague. He received his doctorate in law in 1906. His parents, fancy-goods retailers by profession, were proud of being both parts of the Jewish community and the higher echelons of Prague society. There was, however, a hostile relationship between the German and Czech language speakers (not sure if this is the case today). While Kafka grew up in Prague as a German-speaking Jew, he felt no attachment to his parents’ heritage and even alienated by his minority status. Kafka wrote most of his stories in German, but he also wrote and spoke in Czech. He authored several terrific books, including The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis. His works are a fusion of elements of realism and surrealism. The word Kafkaesque is applied to bizarre and nightmarishly complex situations where an individual feels hopeless and powerless to understand or control what is happening around him or her. In retrospect, I recollect the Kafkaesque experience of the immigrant participants of my research in their early years of arrival in Canada.


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and his sister Ottla

Inspired by Kafka’s works, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1983) introduced the term minor literature (or minority literature), defined as a literary production created by a minority using the majority language, as opposed to the literature created by a minority in their own minority language (similar terms are littérature mineure in French, and small/minor literatures). Minor literature, however, seems to be the widely accepted term. Deleuze and Guattari based their work on Kafka, who used the German language for writing his stories when he lived in Prague, the Czech Republic. According to Deleuze and Guattari, minor literature has three characteristics: “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (2003, p. 18). In all its manifestations, literature is an effective representation of these three characteristics. Literature can project a true image of collective expression of a nation, albeit altered, torn, or disturbing. In minor literature, however, what the writer writes is essentially political and even revolutionary (leading to great improvements) – and this is what glorifies it: being minor, while revolutionary in the broader term of literary works.

Minor literature also speaks to the migrant literature – the literature produced by migrants and the literature which tells the stories of migrants and their migration experiences. Since the 1980s, migrant literature has gained significant momentum due to increasing transnational mobility. An avalanche of stories has been written on people who have left their homes in the hope of starting a new life in a different land. This way, every immigrant’s narratives, which has the three characteristics of being deterritorialized, political, and collective, is lodged in the minor literature sphere.

Kurdish refugee’s painting. Source: MotionAgeDesigns

The 21st century’s growing trends of globalization, diversity, and cultural flows have created societies with hybrid and dynamic features, accelerating mass migration and creating multi-layered communities and diasporas. When immigrants move from their home countries to the receiving societies, they bring along a series of snapshots of their histories, identities, and values, as well as a strong feeling of self-affirmation. In the host society, immigrants strive to establish themselves while making attempts to retain their roots. This retaining process is manifested through activities such as heritage language maintenance, social and cultural activities pertaining to one’s country of origin, and preserving one’s norms, values, and social knowledge. A more sophisticated layer of value transfer is represented in the minor literature: an obscure and often politically-overlooked socio-cultural space in the host society. That said, minor literature cannot be ascribed to immigrant literary writers only. To me, an immigrant who reads and writes on immigration and immigrants’ stories is part of the minor literature. More so, as aptly described by the author of four novels, Mohsin Hamid, in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine, “In the 21st century, we are all migrants.” The author backs up this statement by saying:

 “…None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory…”

How many people today live in a language other than their own language? How many immigrants have forgotten their language or have not yet had a chance to learn it? More importantly, how can an immigrant writer write in the language of the majority and become the revolutionary figure of his own ethnic community? What are the new layers of identifications in the literary production of immigrant literature? Is literature produced by immigrants regarded as a third space (Bhabha, 1994) bridging a me-them cultural duality? And how would this new hybrid identification enhance our understanding of issues of belonging and attachment? Minor literature is about the experiences of immigrants and their children: the minorities. Minor literature, nonetheless, is an issue concerning all of us. In a broader sense, the identities, networks, and practices of the minorities directly affect all of us and should inform our language choices. The term minor literature thus brings to the fore other related terms and concepts such as endangered language, language minority, marginalized language, minorized language, native language, non-territorial language, indigenous language, or even social movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #antibullying.

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an autobiography written by Behrouz Boochani about his journey to Christmas Island. The book was written on a mobile phone using WhatsApp and “smuggled out of Manus Island as thousands of PDF files” (Wikipedia).

Kafka’s social position as a marginalized author – a Czech Jew who wrote in German – brings to mind the narratives of many immigrants: those who bring their literature from their home countries to the receiving society, but might be restricted to use the language of the majority – the language of the host society. From a minor literature lens, language is regarded as a collective means of communication, and not associated with a body or person. In this sense, minor literature is the language and literature of any groups such as immigrants or refugees – those who seek new identities through their languages and stories. Minor literature is about the language of search, of becoming, of belonging. It is the language of refusal of predominant identities. It is the language of finding new forms of expression in order to forge new identities: the identities of migrants, women, LGTBs, marginals, or aboriginals. Minor literature is a major element of today’s world.

References

Bhabha, H.K. (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., & Brinkley, R. (1983). What Is a Minor Literature? Mississippi Review, 11(3), 13-33. Retrieved February 26, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20133921

Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. (2003). Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by D. Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.    

Hamid, M. (2019, August 16). In the 21st century, we are all migrants. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/08/we-all-are-migrants-in-the-21st-century/.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *