Francine Prose’s Problem

CERTAIN PEOPLE are ill read, and maybe they need a brown savior to tell them how to read. This is the conclusion I have come to after looking at this non-controversy boiled up by writer Francine Prose — on Facebook, of course, where perhaps one should let non-controversies lie.

But I cannot. Francine Prose has accused Sadia Shepard, writer of the short story “Foreign-Returned,” about Pakistanis in the United States, of plagiarizing Mavis Gallant, writer of the short story “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” about Canadians in Europe. The good thing about the controversy is that it made me read both stories (both are good). The bad thing about the controversy is that I got tired, again, of readers who seem to have no clue what the imagination means beyond the borders of narrow, realist strategies, and who evince no curiosity and have no clue about the writing or reading ways of others. This country is now led by President Shithole, also a social media author, like Francine Prose, but of dumb tweets, a man who has no imagination beyond the borders of his narrow, racism-clogged brain, a brain that evinces no curiosity or clue about the thinking or living ways of others. It’s uncomfortably similar to the way readers like Francine Prose read stories by people like Sadia Shepard, as if there were only one way, the white-dominant way, to think and read and write fiction.

Many decades ago, in the amusing story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges put side by side two exactly identical quotations from the Quixote. His sly narrator states that the second of the two, written by Pierre Menard (Borges’s made-up, French-symbolist-poet avatar) in the 20th century and not by Cervantes in the 17th, is the marvelous one — “Cervantes’s text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” Of course, there is trickery and mischief and even foul play on the Quixote (if you’d like to see it that way) in Borges’s story about the synchronic pleasures of a text. What is fascinating in Borges is the dialectical and constant and provocative use of inversions in his work — in “Pierre Menard,” author is actually reader; in “Shape of the Sword,” hero is traitor; in “Gospel According to Saint Matthew,” savior is victim; and so on. Through this strategy of inversion, his plots become invariably reflexive — one has to retread ground to read his plots well because his inversions require our reimagining of the words that came before.

On one hand, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” is a classic explication of a poststructuralist theory of reading. You have to literally reread the Quixote passage then recognize — ah, he means that a reader is always “rewriting” a story on her own terms, thus the act of reading changes a story. Specifically, in Borges’s wicked formulation, the French symbolist’s Quixote is infinitely richer than Cervantes’s because of Menard’s historical and cultural difference: Menard has a history of reading Cervantes does not have. (Note: This play on reading is one of Borges’s favorite jokes, appearing in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors” and alluded to in the short story “The Immortal,” in which all human texts turn out to be made by one ancient Greek bard — among other stories.)

I’ve written elsewhere of a way of coupling such readings of Borges through the postcolonial lens — it is productive to apply a reading of the colonized subject to his stories. A postcolonial reading might highlight, for instance, Borges’s destabilized novel in “Menard” — the Quixote that is a key text in any Argentine’s colonial patrimony.  This is a deconstructive way to read Borges, perhaps — as Borges is preeminently a man of radical philosophical and aesthetic, not primarily political, play, as people tell me — but to read him postcolonially makes him, in his own words, “almost infinitely richer.”

In “Menard,” Borges’s sneaky and startling converging of two identities in one passage — one might call it an identity plot — is a simple revelation of the act of reading. As readers, our subjectivities are entwined in the text so that the text, in a sense, is doubled and always has at least two “authors,” the empirical, historical one, and ourselves, the reader in the text.

This doubling makes any reading of a white-dominant text by a person of color quite fascinating, and in my view almost infinitely richer — because how often, as a reader of a culture not my own, do I transpose and reflexively imagine my own island world of a much-colonized town, Tacloban, in Leyte, Philippines, with, say, Jo March’s snowy and quite untropical Concord in Little Women or Elizabeth Bennet’s trim-hedgerow and not-so-inclusive Hertfordshire in Pride and Prejudice, to name just two indelible texts I have “authored,” made my own? My sense is that Concord, Hertfordshire, and Tacloban all gain from such intertextual couplings.

Reading Sadia Shepard and Mavis Gallant side by side, I recognize the richness of Shepard’s work that I did not get when I read the story on its own. The first time I picked up “Foreign-Returned,” in fact, I did not get past the first paragraph. I am not a fan of fiction in The New Yorker — I feel guilty at times about how bored I get by the dull prose of everyday life that fiction in The New Yorker almost always offers me, so that even though I wanted to see how a Pakistani American reworked the New Yorker–realist story, even though I was excited to see Sadia Shepard’s piece in The New Yorker, I put it aside to read Freud instead; for some reason, rereading “Mourning and Melancholia” is always more amusing than quotidian realist fiction.

But when I went back and finished Sadia Shepard’s work, I admired it: it is controlled, it is soulful, it is lovely in its details, it tells a story of our times. I loved above all Shepard’s use of inversion — she subverted the usual immigrant plot of adaptation. One could almost call the trick Borgesian, though it was realist, and a reflexive, playful strategy was not apparent. The Pakistani couple returns to Karachi during the Trump era instead of staying, and they reminisce about their time in the blandest town I do not want to live in: Stamford, Connecticut. Their (and the story’s) departure from nostalgic Americana is a sly cut on the wistful or tormented immigrant story of determined assimilation, all told by Shepard in delicate, resonant strokes.

And when I reread “Foreign-Returned” after reading Mavis Gallant’s “The Ice Wagon,” both stories became infinitely richer. Francine Prose accuses Sadia Shepard of plagiarizing Mavis Gallant in the following diatribe:

In both stories, a man is assigned to work with a prim, religious co-worker from a background like his own. G: “In Geneva, Peter worked for a woman — a girl.” S: “In Connecticut, Hassan shared a desk with a woman — a girl, really.” Gallant’s Agnes brings a Bible, a vase, and a box of Kleenex and arranges them on her desk, Shepard’s Hina brings in a vase, a box of tissues, and a Koran. In both stories, the men have beautiful, socially ambitious wives. The couple are taken up by rich people, but when the wife tells a lie, the rich people drop them. Then they find out that Agnes/Hina has been taken up by the same rich people. Fishing for information, they invite her to a hugely awkward dinner at which she refuses to eat. The rich people give a party at which Agnes/Hina gets drunk, and the husband is assigned to take her home. They have a moment in her apartment that’s unclear … the shadow of sex? Suicide? The next day at the office she says she’s embarrassed, and he says nothing happened. They have an intense, long, revelatory conversation. Agnes: “You’re all educated people, and you’re nothing but pigs. “Hina: “You’re all so confused and selfish.” At the end of the story, the man, who has returned to his native country, thinks of Agnes/Hina and her younger siblings. Near the conclusion: Gallant: “When, on Sunday mornings, Sheilah and Peter talk about those times, they take on the glamor of something still to come.” Shepard: “Always, when they speak of Connecticut, it seems as if the best part of the story hasn’t happened yet.”

I almost begin laughing as I keep reading Francine Prose’s short-sighted rage. Such useless dudgeon over details that in fact should have given Prose a clue, if she could read 21st-century prose — if she could read outside her lens. The clue to reading the richness of Shepard’s story lies precisely in its bald appropriations — the obvious details of comparison, if you read them Menardly, side by side, cue us to Shepard’s lovely, in fact reflexive strategy in composing her story. What made the Shepard story infinitely richer to me after reading Mavis Gallant was that Shepard’s homage to Gallant’s story was a Menardian inversion, a Borgesian trick — it was more than a New Yorker–realist tale of immigration.

By invoking Gallant through fiction so clearly and carefully, Shepard relays the double-consciousness that might lie in a reading of Gallant by a writer of color — particularly a woman writer of color. Thus, an entire world of Asian-American reading becomes encased in “Foreign-Returned,” alongside the ghost of Mavis Gallant. When one reads Gallant, after Shepard, it is hard not to read the Pakistani world in the Canadian returnees of Gallant, just as it is hard not to read Gallant’s failed world travelers in Shepard’s Pakistanis.

Shepard has gallantly doubled our pleasure in Gallant.

After reading Shepard, small details in Gallant become striking, such as these remarks on the rich Burleighs’ “second-guest-list Christmas card”: “It showed a Moslem refugee child weeping outside a tent. They treasured the card and left it standing long after the others had been given to the children to cut up.” One can picture Shepard, daughter of a Muslim from Pakistan, imagining “Moslem refugee child weeping” on a Christmas card and wanting to see it a different way. There are a few other keys in Gallant that turn the ignition on Shepard’s story — Gallant has a phantom couple from Pakistan whom the rich Burleighs use as an excuse to dis-invite the social-climbing Canadian couple to their summer cabin; and, of course, Gallant’s white couple goes on to Ceylon and Hong Kong, not Paris, in the quest to be part “of world affairs.” Reading via Shepard, Gallant shrewdly paints a wistful, white world of dull semi-Orientalist dreams, and reading Menardly, one understands more deeply how Gallant’s story is an identity tale, thus bestowing on Gallant a 21st-century cri de coeur. Gallant’s characters are North American outsiders in a European world, and the vital issues of Canadian identity and class displacement set in the 1950s (not the fount of identity politics) are etched sharply, post-Shepard. In fact, one might miss them, pre-Shepard. (This reminds me of Borges’s lovely, humorous reading of Kierkegaard via Kafka: “if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality.”) At the same time, the near-identical details Francine Prose decries — “a vase, a box of tissues, and the Koran,” in Shepard’s piece — become intolerably wicked and knowing after one reads the list in Gallant — “her Bible, her flowers, and her Kleenex.” The interchange of “vase” with “Bible” and “Koran” with “Kleenex” is too amusing, too double-brained (not to mention the blasphemously obvious, wink-wink switch of Bible with Koran): Shepard’s cleverness enriches both stories. And so on and so forth: one can read the textual intercourse in the two stories ad infinitum — almost infinitely richly.

Chaitali Sen, writer of a beautiful novel, The Pathless Sky, cued me to Shepard’s moves. She wrote in a Facebook post:

As someone who was familiar with the Mavis Gallant story and recognized the parallels, I enjoyed it as an homage … It was a re-imagining of a story … I also wonder if I have a different bias as a South Asian immigrant who grew up here consuming literature that was considered universal and never seeing myself or my community in the stories I loved. So I grew up constantly, constantly re-imagining those stories with characters who were not white, thinking what would this story be without that default? Would it still be universal?

It is precisely this hidden history of an experience of reading (what Sen calls her “bias”) that makes the Shepard story more lovely. “Ambiguity is richness,” Borges says in “Pierre Menard.” The richness of the imagination of the immigrant reader lies in her straddling of multiple worlds. Ambiguity and splitness are the fates of all humans — no one has a singular identity, as all of us know as we move from one role to the next, office to subway to home to death. But the ambiguous identity of the immigrant on that subway is often visible, sometimes tragically. More importantly, the ways of immigrant seeing are double-brained — there is the majority world that encompasses you and that you would be foolish to reject outright; and there is the world of your specific upbringing that you would also like to bring to the world.

Shepard writes “Foreign-Returned” with that hidden history of an experience of reading — with that double-consciousness in mind. I say, after Gallant, her story becomes Borgesian, “almost infinitely richer” because by speaking to Gallant so plainly, her story tells us of another way that the empire reads back. By reading Shepard beside Gallant, like Menard beside Cervantes, one sees the genius behind Sadia Shepard’s story. Like one of Borges’s tricks, it turns out that “Foreign-Returned” is a reflexive story in its strategy, though simultaneously realist in its effect. I am not being generous in saying that; I am being accurate. As Chaitali Sen notes, for an Asian American to read Gallant and love her is constantly to be struck by the difference yet commonality of the Asian world and Gallant’s — to be “constantly, constantly reimagining those stories with characters who were not white.” And thus, in writing “Foreign-Returned,” Shepard both encodes a history of Asian-American reading of white-world literature as well as returns us to a memory of a Gallant story she must have loved. She gives us therefore both a larger history of reading, and an individual response to a story loved. Brava. I imagine that is why she gave the title those double-edged words. In Shepard’s sharp hands, Gallant is “foreign-returned,” and beautifully so.

I write here sharply about Francine Prose not because I disdain her — she is, of course, entitled to her ways of reading. But I do not understand why she cannot immediately claim for Shepard what is so obviously an old literary trope: the appropriation of texts. Dante did it to Virgil who did it to Homer — all of them replicating another’s underworlds in their versions of a hero’s descent into his inferno. The history of appropriation in literature is too long, an old truism, but Prose seems incapable of imagining an Asian-American writer would be doing so strategically, purposefully. (The New Yorker smartly presented “Foreign-Returned” unexplained, sui generis.) I imagine this is because Prose does not get different ways a writer of color might read Gallant. She lacks that hidden history of reading experience that a person of color has — one saturated in a quotidian world of whiteness that one can easily transport into one’s own world, using one’s imagination to do so (that is, read the white Gallant couple as Pakistanis), knowing that such wistful reading in fact elevates (and powerfully rereads) Gallant.

One thing I do understand is that damning a writer with plagiarism has a dire history with writers of color. I think of the African-American Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, author of the brilliant, transgressive novel Passing, whose career was doomed by accusations that she plagiarized the work of a white British writer, the now-unknown Sheila Kaye-Smith. Larsen’s 1930 short story, “Sanctuary,” was the object of a case for which Larsen was exonerated, but after the controversy (and it is terrible for us now to remember) she never published again. We prematurely lost Nella Larsen’s voice. As the critic Kelli Larson notes:

In recasting Kaye-Smith’s original tale of the trials of the British working class to depict the racial, social, and economic barriers of the American South, Larsen engaged in a widely recognized literary mode particularly common to African-American theater of the period.

The great Filipino writer, Carlos Bulosan, author of the seminal novel-autobiography America Is in the Heart, was another writer of color accused of literary theft for the story, “The End of the War,” written for The New Yorker in 1944. In both Larsen’s and Bulosan’s cases, the critic Joshua L. Miller notes, “the authors were negotiating ambivalently modernist relations to folk forms they were trying to recover.” Bulosan, who was also a labor leader and communist pursued by McCarthy, was also silenced.

There are ways in which a noisy white voice, unknowing of the ways in which others read or write, can narrow our view of art and destroy a career. I imagine that will not be so in the case of Sadia Shepard, who happily has The New Yorker behind her, but I write this essay to give Shepard’s readers another lens — the lens of one who reads “Foreign-Returned” with pleasure precisely because of its strategic, chosen literary modes, its intertextuality, and its art.


Gina Apostol is the author, most recently, of Gun Dealers’ Daughter. She has previously written for LARB about Jorge Luis Borges, José Rizal, and Imelda Marcos.