Reading the Novel of Migrancy
Pages 579 - 594
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This essay argues that novels like Marlon James’s "A Brief History of Seven Killings", Viet Thanh Nguyen’s "The Sympathizer", Colson Whitehead’s "The Underground Railroad", and Mohsin Hamid’s "Exit West" exemplify a new form of the novel that does not depend on national identification, but is instead organized around the transnational circulation of people and things in a manner that parallels the deregulated flow of neoliberal capital. In their literal depiction of the movement of people across borders, these four very different novels collectively address the circulation of codes, tropes, and strategies of representation for particular ethnic and racial groups. Moreover, they also address, at the level of critique, the relationship of such representational strategies to processes of literary canonization. The metafictional and self-reflexive qualities of James’s and Nguyen’s novels continually draw the reader’s attention to the politics of reading and writing, and in the process they thwart any easy conclusions about what it means to write about conflicts like the Vietnam war or the late 1970s in Jamaica. Likewise, despite their different settings Hamid’s "Exit West" and Whitehead’s "Underground Railroad" are alike in that they are both about the movement of stateless people across borders and both push the boundaries of realism itself by employing non-realistic devices as a way of "not" representing travel across borders. In pointing to, if not quite illuminating, the “dark places of the earth,” the novel of migrancy thus calls into existence, without really representing, conditions for a global framework that does not yet exist.
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