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“Where is your ‘White literature’ section?”

Author, professor, and provocateur Amitava Kumar has a very specific question for New York City book clerks.

By Amitava Kumar

The man nodded.

She said, “Down at the back, turn right.”

Wait, did that mean they actually had a “White literature” section?

But the woman was saying, not hiding her scorn, “It’s mixed up, along with the brown and black and other literature… We don’t split it up.”

St Mark’s Bookshop

What to buy here, if only to show that he hadn’t come in looking for a white race manifesto? He chose Stephanie Vaughn’s new collection of stories, Sweet Talk ($16.28). There was a thin book by Patti Smith on the counter. The man said to the woman with the glasses, “Is this someone famous?” The woman was very kind, her eyes turned away this time, telling him about Smith in the punk movement and her memoir, Just Kids.

The man had time to do one more bookstore before meeting a friend for lunch. But he needed a break. At each bookstore, after each confrontation, he wondered what the salesclerks said to each other when his back was turned. He would look at books and imagine people snickering at him. He asked himself if any of the staff at the bookstores he had visited felt like lobbing questions back at him. “Where did you come across this term, “white literature”? Are you being ironic? Are immigrants actually capable of irony? Do those people, immigrants, really have fun?”

There was enough time left, but he decided to make his way to the restaurant instead. Take a well-earned rest from trying to be the Sacha Baron Cohen of literary criticism. The man’s friend arrived. The friend’s book on Mumbai had been a finalist for the Pulitzer in nonfiction some years ago; the man told him why he was in the city, and his friend began to laugh. They ordered food and a bottle of pinot grigio. The man was drunk in no time. When the two men came out of the restaurant, two hours had passed. There was very little time left; the man would be late picking up his second child from daycare. The friend pointed to the Barnes & Noble on 17th Street. The man had forgotten about it! On the awning outside it said “World’s Biggest Bookstore.” He rushed inside, alone.

An Indian woman, or maybe she was Bangladeshi, tiny, with large expressive eyes, frowned at his question. She looked at the man’s earring. It occurred to him he might be slurring his words. No, it was the question itself. She called her supervisor, a tall, beefy white guy in a black t-shirt. The man’s name was Richard. He was quick and full of understanding. No chance of disavowal there! He said, “Well, the running joke is that much of literature is white literature.”

Barnes & Noble at 17th Street

When they were out of earshot, walking among tall, cavernous stacks, the man said to Richard, “I felt your colleague back there was perhaps confused by my question.” Richard, again full of understanding, admitted that the man’s “request had not been made in that form before.” Then he pointed to some thick anthologies, saying these were the best places to look. The man took out his notebook but was interrupted by another staff-member who had probably been sent by Richard. This person’s name was Harry. He came prepared with answers. He said that the classifications that would best aid the man were “English Literature” and “American Literature.” He was holding the fat Norton anthologies. He also gestured to another set of books and said, “These are more inclusive. They are anthologies of World Literature.”

Harry asked the man where he was from, and when he heard the answer, he said, “I love your country.” He informed the man that he had gone to India in 2003; he had gone up to Manali and then north, to places like Leh and Ladakh. The man was feeling drowsy from the wine. Meanwhile, Harry was being helpful. He asked the man if he had any questions. The man said yes. He said, “Barnes and Noble. Were they famous White authors?”