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Dispatch from a Conference Abroad: Globalization and the Short Story
by Cyril Dabydeen

It was more than serendipity that brought me to the 7th International Conference on the Short Story in English in New Orleans, Louisiana, in July; and the Conference's theme of globalization forced me to confront¨or confirm¨my own assumptions about the genre. But first, why the term ŠGlobalization'? In Bharati Mukherjee's words, because of how widespread the form is, and because organically, a story is interpreted differently by readers of different backgrounds.

The Conference featured writers such as Clark Blaise, Margaret Atwood, and Robert Olen Butler (among others from Europe), though it was mostly Americans who attended the three-day event organized by the Society for the Study of the Short Story. A panel on Canadian literature, in which I participated, was a highlight¨for me, as I got to see Margaret Atwood up close in this international context.

The venue: Steamy New Orleans, the crescent-shaped southern Mississippi River, and the distinctive French Quarter. This city is also known for stellar writers: Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, Anne Rice, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams: "Don't you love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't an hour¨but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hand¨and who knows what to do with it?"(A Streetcar Named Desire).

I reflected on my own introduction to the short story form with readings of G.K Chesterton, Somerset Maugham, H.E. Bates, James Joyce; and closer to home, West Indian writers, Sam Selvon and V.S. Naipaul. Later would come Malamud, Cheever, Faulkner, and a panoply of others like Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant (in translation). Later in Canada, I would read Hugh Garner, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Atwood, and, eventually, Ottawa's Norman Levine and John Metcalf.

The Conference drew an even mix of writers and scholars, established as well as emerging ones. I had the pleasure of spending time with fellow Canadian scholar-writers Allan Weiss, Tamas Dobozy, and Michael Trussler.

To provide a brief morphology: what is the short story? How multifarious is the form? Not unexpectedly, views varied with consideration of sub-genres and narrative techniques. What emerged was that there are no constraints on form really¨instead, near endless possibilities. The term "slippage" became "enrichment" for Clark Blaise. And Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street) spoke of her own technique as being analogous to the making of "a quilt", or getting into the right "zone": "I begin with something personal," she mused.

I heard other descriptions like "Metaphoric" and "a dream verbalized." In my own reading I evoked Proust's ubiquitous unconscious. And indeed the short story is unlike a novella, which is "one continuous kind of breath" (Phillip Roth). The story consists of short, artful narratives, composed of penetrating images, tropes, figurations.

Prose-poems and the story-cycle, the long story and the narrative essay, and stories without boundaries were also discussed and read. I heard it said, in addition, that "genre is formal, but fiction is reality"; it's "something apocalyptic in a small cup," as I think Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler put it. Bharati Mukherjee reminded us of the rise in minority discourse without fancy image-making a la the subaltern critics' stance. Vancouver's W.H. New asked about whose reality matters, and about the authority of space, and it was noted that epic cycles are also integral to the genre.

As for technique, discussions focussed on the story's beginning, point of view, character and plot (life is "full of plots and no plots at all"), interiority, closure, contexts of post-modernism, and the cyclical nature of the form¨"in the story's beginning is its end." I offered my own notion of sprung rhythms.

The most interesting panel for me was that which dealt with the impact of 9:11¨a tragedy described as the "dark premonition of our own death." Ground zero symbolizes many things for and about Americans. Some pointed to the failure of the imagination among those with a militaristic mind set¨"to imagine other people's suffering." Writer Katie Singer added that in America, "We are denied continuity of grief." And Maurice Lee, Conference Director, reminded us that "Creativity comes out of chaos."

The good short story combines the poet's sense of style and the novelist's sense of drama, I concluded. In Margaret Atwood's wise words: "Poetry and fiction are the most complete forms of human consciousness on how we live on earth." Echoic effects, all.

Cyril Dabydeen's recent short fiction books are My Brahmin Days (TSAR) and North of the Equator (Beach Holme).


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