Obstacles to a Mormon Literary Globalism

In her essay “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism,” critic Rachel Adams argues suggests that twenty-first-century American fiction has been moving in a transnational direction as “a constellation of authors” have resisted “the stylistic and conceptual premises of high postmodernism” by focusing instead on “the intensification of global processes” that have developed over the last half-century (250).[i] Using Karen Tei Yamashita’s excellent novel Tropic of Orange (1997) as a model, she describes this new focus as “American literary globalism,” a kind of post-postmodernism that builds upon certain conventions of postmodernism (like fabulation), yet has an entirely “new set of genealogical, geographic, and temporal referents,” including an interest in the global politics, multiethnic perspectives, geopolitical cleavages and tensions, border crossings, national and transnational relations, economic flows, and polyvocality that characterize contemporary globalized society (see Adams 261-265). For Adams, this literary globalism opens up a “shared perception of community whereby, for better or worse, populations in one part of the world are inevitably affected by events in another” (268). It is the new direction American fiction is headed.

It would be incorrect, of course, to suggest that Mormon novelists have embraced “American literary globalism” as Adams defines it, or even a kind of “Mormon literary globalism” subspecies. While transnational concerns have had a place in Mormon novels since the days of Nephi Anderson, these novels hardly constitute a majority within the still-developing genre. In fact, I think the relatively small number of writers producing Mormon literature today is enough to explain why more novels aren’t being written that address Mormonism from a global or transnational perspective–especially when you consider that most Mormon novelists who are able to find publishers for their work come from the United States and have strong ties to Utah and the Mormon Corridor. As Mormon fiction goes, Nephi Anderson remains the most important immigrant Mormon novelist. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but Mormon poetry, with poets like Alex Caldiero, has fared much better in this respect.)

Coupled with this lack of talent pool are market- and audience-related obstacles. Of the seven major publishers currently publishing overtly Mormon fiction–Cedar Fort Books, Deseret Book, Parables Publishing, Peculiar Pages/B10 Mediaworx, Signature Books, Strange Violin Editions, and Zarahemla Books–all but three are located in Utah, and these are still located within the continental United States and market their products almost exclusively to English-speaking North American Mormon audiences. Furthermore, translations of Mormon novels into languages other than English are particularly rare, with none of the current publishers offering non-English titles or translations of their English-language fiction titles. Under such conditions, the cultivation of a “literary globalism” like the kind we see occurring more broadly in American fiction seems impossible. In a sense, the borders between English- and non-English-language Mormon fiction are too impenetrable. Without access to the major works in the Mormon novel tradition in their primary language, international non-English-speaking Mormon writers must learn the complexities of English in order to gain access to the existing tradition and build upon it with works informed by their own global perspectives. Furthermore, English-speaking writers similarly lack the resources (translation services, foreign-language skills) needed to benefit from the work of their international counterparts. The infrastructure of Mormon publishing is simply too weak to support this kind of transnational movements and exchanges.

Added to this is perhaps a more subtle obstacle. Both the Book of Mormon and early church teachings established America as the future home of the New Jerusalem (see Ether 13:1-12; D&C 57:1-2; Articles of Faith 1:10). While Joseph Smith affirmed near the end of his life that “[t]he whole of America is Zion itself from north to south,” suggesting that Zion’s borders transcended those of the United States, later Church leaders have employed this doctrine towards more nationalistic ends, particularly in the post-World War II era of apparent national consensus (History 6:318-319). For instance, Ezra Taft Benson famously spoke and wrote extensively about America’s place as both Zion and the Book of Mormon’s Promised Land, often blending these principles with his American exceptionalist views.[ii] In his 1974 book God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties–essentially a compilation of his political sermons from the 1960s–Elder Benson characterizes the United States as “the Lord’s base of operations” and follows the standard Mormon view that America’s Founding Fathers were as men who were divinely foreordained to establish the Constitution and leave “a legacy of liberty” that would prepare the world for Christ’s Second Coming (325-26).

More than a decade into the twenty-first century, these notions of American exceptionalism persist among Mormons at at least a grassroots level–even though General Authorities tend to be more guarded about expressing their thoughts on America’s divine role in God’s plan–even to the extent of doing away with it entirely (at least in General Conference) to emphasize the Church’s world-wide growth. Still, even though the trend now is to think of Zion as anywhere in the world where God’s people are gathered, America remains very much at the center place of Mormonism’s popular imagination.

Could it be that this privileging of the United States in doctrine and folklore as a “Promised Land” has created a sense that the United States is ultimately of more interest to Mormons–and Mormon readers–than other nations? Personally, I find the obstacles imposed by the Mormon fiction market to be a greater influence on the development (or lack thereof) of a Mormon literary globalism. I think experience shows that Mormon beliefs about America will adapt themselves to a more global perspective as the international Church grows and comes to be, by necessity, a more active player in church discourse and policy. Changing the market and content for Mormon fiction will be trickier. Without a demand for Mormon fiction outside of the United States, it will remain an American novelty. And that demand will likely not happen unless Mormon fiction can make itself relevant to an international church. That probably won’t happen if we a) never translate our works, and b) persist in privileging the American-Mormon experience.

[i] Specifically, the “global processes” Adams names are “the unprecedented integration of the world’s markets, technologies, and systems of governance; surprising and innovative new forms of cultural fusion; and the mobilization of political coalitions across the lines of race, class, and other identitarian categories” (250-251). Among the “constellation of authors” whose works fit within this framework, Adams lists Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandra Cisneros, Chang Rae Lee, Junot Diaz, Ruth Ozecki, Jessica Hagerdorn, Gish Jen, Bharati Mukherjee, Susan Choi, Oscar Hijuelos, and Edwidge Danticat (251).

[ii] According to Sheri L. Dew, Benson’s authorized biographer, Benson “viewed freedom as an essential factor in the Church’s ability to take the gospel to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples [“¦] and if individual freedom and agency were curtailed in the United States, the spread of the gospel might be threatened.” Between 1960 and 1969, fifteen of Benson’s twenty sermons at the Church’s annual and semiannual general conferences addressed the “defense of freedom, free enterprise, fiscal responsibility, the Constitution, [“¦] or his opposition to the underlying premise of socialism and communism.” His sermons at the Mormon-operated Brigham Young University also treated the same themes (366-367).

7 thoughts on “Obstacles to a Mormon Literary Globalism”

  1. I just want to use this opportunity to plug two works by LDS authors written outside the United States:

    If you can read German, you should buy Gerd Skibbe’s “Konfession Mormone” today:
    It’s a memoir of growing up Mormon in eastern Germany during the Nazi and Communist eras. A very cool read.

    In English, I recommend Sylvester Amara Lamin’s “The Coconut Bond”:
    Br. Lamin’s family joined the church in Sierra Leone when he was a teen, and he wrote the book during his undergrad at Fourah Bay College, Freetown (which happens to be the oldest Western-style university in West Africa). There are no LDS characters in this book, but some LDS-resonant concerns. And it really does drop you straight into the characters’ culture, which I found refreshing relative to books with more polished-but-distant styles of cultural exposition.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this thing about translation a lot too, and have a sort of a dream of one day translating Mormon lit to Finnish or Swedish. Especially in regards to fiction for a youth/YA audience, since there is very little chance that a person at that age will have had enough of English language learning to be able to tackle a novel, but it could be a very positive thing to be able to read something at that age written by a fellow church-member. (For example I’ve noticed many of the youth here point out with some pride that Twilight is written by a Church member. That sort of association means a lot to them. I’m sure the series would be popular among them even if it weren’t by a Mormon, but it’s an additional coolness-point here.)

  3. .

    James, above, has written a number of works that are internationally flavored. Last week I enjoyed his faux interview with an Indian Saint that Sunstone published a couple issues ago.

  4. As a scholar of non-English-language American literature I’m not convinced by Adams’ arguments about globalism and transnationalism as unique conditions of the present. I think for MoLit there was more of a literary global presence when there were still foreign-language periodicals being produced in Salt Lake and abroad. There seems to have been more circulation of texts between the various periodicals as well. I was also interested to see a number of translations of “Added Upon” (Danish, Swedish, Finnish, German, Dutch, and Tahitian), some done with church sponsorship and others by independent publishers.

    Seems like church periodicals, with their team of translators, would be a great place for fostering a global literature. Even though they’re English-centric, it’s too bad they don’t really publish fiction anymore. Jack Weyland being translated into every language was better than nothing, right?

  5. “Seems like church periodicals, with their team of translators, would be a great place for fostering a global literature. Even though they’re English-centric, it’s too bad they don’t really publish fiction anymore. Jack Weyland being translated into every language was better than nothing, right?”

    Yes. In fact, it might be worth looking to see old issues of The Liahona actually have translated short stories.

    I think you make a good point about Adams, who is perhaps too eager to be the one to label the next big literary movement. That said, my first paragraph probably does not do justice to her argument. I think she is on to something when she states that the high postmodernism of Pynchon, with its ties to Cold War-era politics, is beginning to show its age. American literary globalism, I sense, is a kind of post-modernism (or post-postmodernism) that substitutes anxieties about globalization for the old anxiety about nuclear annihilation. Of course, it isn’t the first so-called literary movement to look beyond borders–and perhaps not the only direction American literature is moving–but it seems to be a good way to think about a lot of what is being written (and anthologized) today. For example, I think it is telling that the Norton Anthology that I’ll be using this summer in class anthologizes Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Li-Young Lee, and Junot Diaz, but not George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, or Michael Chabon. The works of the former seem to make more of a break with tradition than the latter–at least on a thematic level.

  6. Anxieties about globalization has driven a lot of the science fiction written of recent vintage as well — and may also explain the popularity of post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings.

  7. I actually googled “Jack Weyland” on archive.org because some of the foreign-language church periodicals are available there. He had some short stories published at least in German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages.

    I read some of Adams’ article and I’m more convinced (as you suggest) by the contrast with cold-war-era postmodernism. The question of canon you bring up is of course also important. I like the idea of literary globalism as a better way of engaging the multicultural impulse. It would be great to see it fostered in Mormon literature.

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