Rethinking Working-Class Literature
Sonali Perera, an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers, has published an engaging new essay in this year’s first issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies that dovetails in unique and productive ways with much of what I’ve been writing here for Harriet the past two months. “Rethinking Working-Class Literature: Feminism, Globalization, and Socialist Ethics” performs a detailed comparative analysis of the writings of Tillie Olsen (with particular attention to Yonnondio and the documentary poem “I want you women up north to know”) and the Dabindu (sweat or “drops of sweat”) worker-writers from Sri Lanka’s free trade zones.
Perera focuses not on the “transparent documentary realism” of so much writing in the working-class tradition but rather rotates her analysis toward works that “anticipate a new shape and ideological grounding for the concept of a collaborative subject and other subjectivities…Characterized by interruptions, speech interferences, anti-Bildung, and strategic anonymity, these texts produce the concept of working-class history as always partial, uncompleted, and anti-developmentalist.”
In my perhaps one-person project here at Harriet of keeping the five-letter word Zizek in the rear view mirror for a fortnight (aka, as I’ve called it before, the almost exclusively (white, male) figures most critics seem delimited to invoking in academic literary Marxism), I turned to Perera’s analysis of “[w]omen’s texts of nonrevolutionary socialism” because, as she eloquently points out, these and related works “present us with new figures and concepts for thinking unorganized resistance, everyday experience, and the shape of the ethical within globalization… one[s] not connected to the conditions and constraints of the revolutionary conjuncture, but to other measurements and templates for thinking socialist ethics.”
One of Perera’s central questions rephrases a question I’ve been asking in my posts for several weeks: “How do we write about the necessarily disappearing objects of working class literature without sentimentalizing them—without freezing them into emblematic objects?” And in this particular case, as Perera continues, “[i]n a Sri Lanka riven by an inter-ethnic war, [where] working-class history is daily being erased and reconstructed by political institutions such as the Sinhala Commission.”
Dabindu (1983—) was organized after the first free trade zone was created in Sri Lanka in 1978 as a condition of global aid under the auspices of the IMF and the World Bank, according to Perera. Early on, without resources for a printing press, the founding members “pieced together a first edition from photocopies of anonymous letters, protest poems, testimonials, and worker biographies (how’s that for an multi-genre publishing policy!). Dabindu would expand to include bits and pieces of political analysis, romantic melodrama, nationalist poetry, didactic leftist literature and stories critical of Sinhala ethnonationalism, poems dedicated to soldiers on the front lines, poems addressing the Tamil tea plantation workers, reportage on local strikes…a “unity-in-dispersal,” as Perera calls it—“heterogeneity and contradictions gathered under a collective signature.”
Here, for example, is a poem called “Padada Pathum” (Vagabond Wishes) which appeared in the June 1994 edition of Dabindu:
Garment for girls
Army for boys
Heavenly comforts for us...
……….Say the Multinationals
……….Together with those-who-lay-waste-to-the-country…
“Wishes,” Perera writes, “is quite simply a short list of actors in the staging of postindependence Sri Lankan history. The list includes working-class women of the export-oriented garment industry, men of the Sri Lankan armed forces fighting a savage war to maintain a unitary state, as well as multinational corporations (Bahu Jathika Samagam) and a set of unnamed agents, “those who ruin” or “lay waste to the country.” Her reading calls attention to erasures in the translation process (how, for example, readers of the English version will miss the embedded proximity of the words for those who rule (deshapalana/palaka) and those who ruin (deshapaluvan). “In the contemporary context,” Perera concludes, “the poem is crucially significant in that it shifts the focus of dominant narratives of the Tamil-Sinhala interethnic conflict, placing blame not on Tamil separatist nationalism, but on the governing elite who collude with global capital to perpetuate the war industry.”
Overall, I found Perera’s fusion of poetries (and other poly-genre writings) that scale working women’s experiences across varied histories and geographies both insightful and inspiring. Having taught nearly two decades at an open enrollment community college for working women, the narratives of global struggle in the workplace (from home work to factory work and everything beyond and between) rang, unfortunately, only too true. Perera’s articulation of “Feminism, Globalization, and Socialist Ethics” projects a passage for verse culture that, I think, holds tremendous possibilities for bringing working-class literatures into the present conditions of not nearly late enough capitalism.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...