Kazim Ali thinks about genre the same way he thinks about gender: performed categories with codes and expectations for behavior.
“My argument about genre itself is that it, too, is a constructed category, and it can be performed in a way that privileges the vision of the artist and the impact of the work of art itself,” Ali said. “(Art) can have a broader and wider reach if it eschews traditional boundaries of genre — and gender.”
When readers pick up a book, they want it to fall into a specific genre, Ali said, and perform the associated tropes and conventions.
“We have a relationship to genre that is much more conservative,” he said. “We don’t want a book to be too badly behaved.”
As the judge of the inaugural Chautauqua Janus Prize and the Week Five prose writer-in-residence for the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, Ali will deliver his Brown Bag lecture at 12:15 p.m. Friday, July 27, on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
Ali is an associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College. He is also author of the poetry collection, Inquisition, and hybrid memoir, Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies.
In light of the Janus Prize, which celebrates unconventional form in a short work, the tradition of innovation and experimentation of prose in American literature has been on Ali’s mind.
In his Brown Bag, titled “Genre-Queer: Notes Against Generic Boundaries,” he will argue that what “we define as innovative or experimental literature is not necessarily brand new in American literature; it actually has a long tradition.”
This includes “mainstream” writers such as Herman Melville, Willa Cather and Mark Twain, Ali said.
“These are not people you would normally think of as experimental writers, but what they were doing with prose (and) narrative is intimately related to the geography of the American continent,” he said, “and the political and military project of the settling and occupation of the North American continent.”
The literature of Melville, Cather and Twain engaged with this American project in different ways. In his talk, Ali will address this relationship between innovation and experimentation in writing and the development of American literature and culture in the early 19th to 20th centuries.
According to Ali, when people think about genre, they want a reader, a publisher or a reviewer to “ fix a position for how the literature is making its meaning” and what the literature means. Works of literature that fall in between categories are often dismissed completely or “privileged” for being one genre or another.
He pointed to Melville’s Moby Dick as an example. There are “social realist” parts of the book and poetic approaches to structure to form meaning — all of this in addition to the “hunt,” which, Ali said, is often readers’ sole takeaway.
Breaking these boundaries, embracing the idea of genre-queer, gives readers more opportunities to expand their readings. For example, if readers only followed the plot of the whale hunt in Moby Dick, they would miss out on the full impact of the work, Ali said.
“I hope listeners carry away a greater sense of adventure in the types of literature they encounter,” he said, “in particular, those works of literature that fall in between genres or … are a hybrid.”