We’re reading “Amy Foster” by Joseph Conrad in my English class on Native and Foreign Literature, and I had a lot of thoughts on the prompt, which was to talk about the fate of knowledge, its limits, and alternative modes for engaging with people. Personally, I think “Amy Foster” is as prescient and relevant today as it was when it was published in 1901. Refugees and migrants at the border can relate to Yanko’s struggle to understand his surroundings and to comprehend what’s happened to him.
Out of all of it, I think the deepest tragedy of this story is the utter loss of knowledge about Yanko himself. He could have been a surgeon for all we know. People who were surgeons or doctors or lawyers in a “Third World” country and who come to a “First World” country like the United States or the United Kingdom are often forced to go into working class or manual labor jobs.
And it has to suck, because their professional knowledge never leaves them but it acquires a different (too often, a lesser) value as they cross the border between knowing and not knowing their environment.
Yanko’s language barrier makes it impossible for us to make any assumptions about his life before the shipwreck, but there is nothing to indicate that he was not educated in his own language, and capable of performing at least menial tasks successfully.
Honestly, when I was in France, there were a lot of moments where I wanted to scream that I wasn’t an idiot, but it would’ve been highly inappropriate at the front of the line at the Orangerie.
Kennedy’s lack of knowledge on Yanko’s pre-Kent life also does Yanko a grave disservice. Kennedy basically forces the reader to perceive Yanko as wholly uneducated because of his lack of knowledge about the social customs of a different country.
But how many of us who have traveled to another country know the standard protocols immediately? Really, my favorite phrase is “I don’t know the protocol,” and I apply it to situations that aren’t even taking place in a different country. Sometimes I just need to voice my discomfort at the ticket desk of the Orangerie and admit that I have no idea what I’m doing in Paris by myself in the first place.
And even if Yanko does know what he’s doing, we don’t think he does because Kennedy doesn’t think he does, and Kennedy’s knowledge is limited by his bias and biased by his limitations.
But like, not many people who visit Italy for the first time would know that it’s rude to refuse food that your host offers to you, to offer help with household chores, or to ask for a menu in an osteria, where menus are sometimes considered insults to the chef’s ability. Simply Kennedy’s lack of knowledge about Yanko’s previous life in his country does not mean Yanko was wholly unknowledgeable about anything, but that is the image we receive and all the knowledge we have of him.
Our knowledge, like Kennedy’s, is limited; in fact, the only person in this case with any knowledge of his pre-Kent life is Yanko himself, the very person perceived as simultaneously unknowledgeable and unknowable. Which is so frustrating to read and has to be exponentially more frustrating to experience.
Even more frustrating is that as a result of his unknowability, no one ever really engages with him. Their fear of his unknown keeps them at bay, preferring the comfort of judgment.
The combined unknowability and unknowledge of Yanko ultimately weave his fate as a “disaster of loneliness and despair.”
You’re probably reading this like, “Okay, so what? Who should care about some hundred-something-year-old short story about a Sirius Black-esque stowaway?”
Some of you might even be on the “He’s an illegal! Who cares!” warpath. And to you I say, you may want to consider getting your reviews of hundred-something-year-old short stories elsewhere. But to those asking the very valid question about why this matters, just look at the news. Migrants are dying in police custody at the border. Trump is holding the country hostage for a border wall. The Yankos among us need our help.
Will we foster them? Or like Amy, will we turn and run?