Not reading Brick Lane

Summer 2011

This essay asks how we can account for the experience of inventiveness when we read a work that arises from, and on its initial publication spoke to, a significantly different cultural context from our own. To what extent does a responsible reading of such a work imply a project of countering any sense of inventiveness that arises solely from the cultural distance between the contexts of production and of reception? If so, how can this be achieved? How can we know if it has been achieved? If, on the other hand, it is legitimate to capitalize on effects of inventiveness that arise from cultural difference, how can we avoid reducing the work to an example of pleasurable exoticism? The example of Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building is used to discuss these issues, concluding that the inevitable disparity that arises under such circumstances need not disqualify a reading; the responsibility of the reader is not to undertake a reconstruction of the original moment of reception in the home culture but to allow the norms of the host culture to be challenged by whatever is experienced as inventive in the work.

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