Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » All Keynotes http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 Al-Barghouti in Egypt – Keynote on Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/al-barghouti-in-egypt-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/al-barghouti-in-egypt-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/#comments Sat, 07 Sep 2013 11:57:11 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5067 Tamim_Al_BarghoutiShould Literature Be Political?

Keynote address by Tamim Al-Barghouti (translated by Adam Talib)


Previously scheduled to be presented at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, Cairo 8-9 December 2012. The Conference was cancelled at late notice in consideration of the events in Cairo at that time.

 Tamim Al-Barghouti Keynote

“Poetry and Politics”

(Original Arabic text below)

Poetry is a form of language, which itself is the product of a given community. The history of a community is a combination of its current state, as well as its past and future. This history records the community’s times of war and peace, and is itself a conflict between the way a community sees itself and the way it is seen by others. Poetry, though, is itself a means of regaining control over how we name things. A poet might for example choose to call death ‘martyrdom’, or anger ‘love’, or fire ‘a tree’, or the sun ‘a gazelle’. I call my country Palestine; my opponents call it Israel. I refer to the rebellion of my people as a resistance; my opponents call it terrorism. I call those who are killed by airstrikes martyrs; my opponents either say, ‘they had it coming’ or ‘that’s collateral damage’. I agree with those who say that poets usually try to steer clear of topics like these, and I swear to you I’ve tried to steer clear of the the airstrikes, but they won’t leave me alone. We tried writing about what’s on the inside, but it didn’t take us long to discover that even in our hearts, there are tanks and jets and children under siege, grandmothers stranded at border posts, families with no hope of reunion—or at least not until the global balance of power shifts somehow. We decided to try our hand at singing and we realised that if we imitated those who invaded and occupied our lands and learnt to sing Opera, our rulers would borrow money to build a monumental Opera house for us to sing in, except no one we knew would turn up. Then when the ruler found he couldn’t afford the interest on the loans he’d taken out to build the building, the whole country would be taken over, occupied. But then when it’s time to recite our folk epics like The Saga of Bani Hilal, or The Hero of Hashim, they get recited in coffeehouses and village squares. Millions of people know the lyrics to these epics by heart but no one pays any attention when one of the famous epic-reciters dies and if you want to know why a reciter of epics has to sit on a wooden chair in a coffeehouse while the audience at the opera house luxuriate in cushioned seats, remember what Ibn Khaldun said: ‘The oppressed love nothing more than imitating their oppressors.’ This brings us back to the shifting balance of power—and to politics—whether we like it or not.

I was born in 1977. I hadn’t yet turned five-months old when the Egyptian authorities ordered my father to leave Egypt. Anwar Sadat had decided to make peace with Israel so he ordered everyone in Egypt associated with the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) to get out and he ordered the closure of the PLO media bureau where my father worked. My father finally settled—after stints in Baghdad and Beirut—in Budapest, and the only time our family could be together was during summer holidays. At my Hungarian kindergarten, the teacher insisted that my name, Tamim, was the Arabic version of the name Tamás (Hungarian for Thomas) or other European varieties of the same, and my parents were unable to convince her that the name Tamim is actually the name of an old Arab tribe and not a derivation of Thomas or Tamás. Later when I was old enough to read, I learnt that Tamás, or Thomas, is the Greek version—adopted via Latin into other European languages—of the Hebrew name T’oma. T’oma in Hebrew means twin; that is, one of two children born in a single pregnancy. By definition, one cannot be a twin unless one has a twin sibling; a twin needs another person in order to be itself. Historically, Arabs thought of twins as deficient, or weak, because they grew in the womb alongside someone else. Consider, for example, the verse by the pre-Islamic poet ʿAntara b. Shaddād al-ʿAbsī:

What a hero! His clothes cling as though wrapped ‘round a tree,
his feet are encased in softest leather. No lowly twin is he!

My name, on the other hand, is Tamim. He who ‘completes completely’ from the verb tamma (‘to complete, finish’). It’s an exaggerated form of the active participle ‘completer’, as if to say Tamim is ‘extra-complete’. Thus in reality my teacher was insisting that my name means the opposite of what it actually means. She was a good person, and well intentioned, but imperialism, which forcefully installed itself as the teacher and guardian of all conquered peoples, deliberately changed our names. Imperialism transformed us from a whole people into a nation of twins, each in need of a sibling who’s nowhere to be found. The Arabic language bears this out: we don’t call the people living between the borders that the invaders drew for us nations, we call them peoples, a word that comes from an Arabic root meaning ‘to branch out’. For us, these peoples are like branches split off from the whole. At the beginning of the last century, the generals overseeing the foreign occupation drew some lines on a map, which they called nations, and in turn they expected us to call them our countries. But the truth is that they’re nothing more than oil companies with massive security apparatuses plus some flags, and anthems, and a border patrol. The armies, police forces, and rulers in these places are just middle-men who mediate between us and the world powers who drew these borders. We didn’t choose these borders, or these names, or these instutitions. And like any occupation, or tyranny, the system isn’t complete unless it penetrates the imagination of the subject, and even though our nation was indeed occupied by others, they never succeeded in colonising our imaginations entirely. They may have divided up the ground beneath our feet, but they could never split up the language we share. Arabic poetry is still Arabic poetry. It’s not Kuwaiti poetry or Jordanian or Libyan. This unity of language reflects a unified imagination, and that in itself—no matter what a given poem is about—makes it a political act, an act of resistance.

It’s been said that poetry in standard Arabic is pan-Arab, whereas poetry in colloquial Arabic is national and confined to national borders, but this doesn’t begin to explain how three of the most important Egyptian colloquial poets: Bayram al-Tunisi, Fouad Haddad, and Salah Jahin all had non-Egyptian backgrounds. If you look at the way they express themselves, you’ll see there’s nothing Pharaonic to it. Their colloquial poetry is Arabic in the same way that the Epic of Bani Hilal is Arabic. What makes them Egyptian is what makes them Arab.

Arabic poetry, like other varieties of world poetry, is connected to the rise of an imagined community. The nomadic Arabs couldn’t know every member of their own tribes personally so they had to devise a symbolic system in order to link all the members of their tribe together. And while city dwellers in the ancient world could feel at home in their cities, imagining the roads, temples, and state institutions that bound them together, Arab bedouin who were constantly moving camp couldn’t exactly build temples and roads or foster a sense of identity centred around place. The classical Arabic poem, the Qasidah, tells the story of the tribe: their lineage, the achievements of their knights, where they found water, the dates on which they fought their battles, the moral principles by which they lived, etc. and being part of the tribe meant memorising these poems of praise and belonging. If a tribe were to leave a place, there would be no trace of its having been there except for what the poets recorded. And the sons of a tribe could never be true sons of the tribe unless they imagined themselves to be so. The Qasidah was one way of binding the individual to the community, and individuals to other individuals, and two people to a third, and three to a fourth. The poem, therefore, itself created a community in the political sense.

Moreover, Arabs were in the habit of turning eloquent lines of poetry into proverbs; folk wisdom with moral authority, which could be applied to situations other than the one which prompted it. The implicit belief operating here is that something that is well said must be true. The eloquence of an expression is an indication of its veracity and the moral authority implicit in it. The poet Abu Tammam went so far as to mock people for the extravagant powers they granted to eloquent poetry, while at the same time boasting about it, in a verse praising his own poetry:

They say it’s wise, though it’s really a joke.
They do its bidding, though it becomes their yoke.

A poem’s eloquence didn’t just give it credibility, and moral weight, it also helped poetry circulate and gain fame among the tribes, elevating both the poet’s reputation and that of his tribe. In the pre-Islamic period, whenever a poet’s line of verse was made into a proverb, he and his tribe got a boost in the societal hierarchy of the Arabian Peninsula, provoking the envy of the other tribes.

This habit of mind made its way into mediaeval Islamic philosophy. According to Muslim belief, the Quran’s eloquence gives it its credibility, and it is this eloquence that makes it inimitable, unique. This inimitability, in turn, is proof that it is a divinely authored text. It is also, therefore, the foundation of its moral and political authority. The Quran is divinely authored because it’s eloquent. And because it’s a divinely authored text it should be respected and all governments should derive their political legitimacy from one interpretation of it or other. Just as the poem, the Qasidah, created the tribe, the Quran created a community of believers: a tribe of individuals who memorized a text in rhymed prose that told the story of a specific community, detailing their attributes, values, and culture, and thus their political life.

Ever since the pre-Islamic period, Arabic poetry has been linked to the way the community defines itself. When the community regarded itself as a tribe, poets were tribal poets. And then when the community became a caliphate, and after that a collection of kingdoms, poets were called court poets. In the modern period when the community began to call itself a nation and a people, poets became known as poets of the people, or national poets. After the collapse of the Pan-Arab movement in the late 1960s and up until the late 1990s, as communal cohesion gave way to self-interested individualism, poets sang only of the self. This was the period that saw the rise of literary theories claiming that poetry is the expression of personal freedom, totally divorced from communal authority; that comprehensible language is produced by the community and that a poet’s dependence on it hobbles his creativity and by giving into the community he constrains his freedom; that a poet must invent his own language, which hardly anyone other than him or those like him can understand. Poems intended to be incomprehensible to most everyone were all the rage, but the aloof and gloomy poets who wrote them were simply reflecting the attitude of society at large by running away; they belonged whether they knew it or not. Then, from the 1990s on, and especially in the period of successive American wars on Iraq, whose victims during the sanctions regime from 1991 to 2003 totalled more than one million people—more than half of whom were children according to UNICEF estimates—as well as more than a million people who died as a result of the American invasion and the subsequent civil war that raged from 2003 to 2011, from that period on, there has been, I believe, a growing trend among Arab writers toward isolation,  grief, and depression. Although inventing a language that no one else can understand is a luxury we cannot afford. Rather—in order to survive—we desperately need to muster strength from any and all sources, and our cultural heritage is one of them; it bears weight, it does not burden.

Imperialist control over the affairs of Arab countries is the greatest threat to the Arabic language today—to its use and the feeling of belonging it engenders—and poetry is under threat because it is the densest form of the language. The language was never divided up like the land and that’s why a poem written by Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi could be turned into a chant in Tunisia and be echoed in Yemen and a poem written by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab in Iraq could be repeated in Egypt and The Saga of Bani Hilal as told in Upper Egypt could come to be told in southern Tunisia. What’s more, most colloquial poetry, which one would have expected to participate in creating national identities, canonizing these tiny states, which had been given borders and governments by the invaders, actually ridiculed these identities. The Saga of Bani Hilal, by far the greatest work of colloquial poetry in Egypt, links Egypt to a cultural sphere that stretches from the Caspian Sea to Tunisia. The epic recounts the history of the Bani Hilal tribe, some of whom live in Upper Egypt today: their origins in Najd (in the Arabian Peninsula), the marriage of their hero to Naʿisa daughter of Zayd al-ʿAjjaj, king of Persia, and their journey westward to Tunisia to take revenge against the ruler there, himself of Yemeni origin, who had mistreated their uncles from the Hijaz (also in the Arabian Peninsula). In the modern era, when the cultural flank of the Egyptian nationalist movement—led by the Wafd party, which is now no more than a shell of its former self—was championing Egypt’s ancient pharaonic heritage to the exclusion of everything else and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was being built along European lines—don’t forget of course that Egypt’s rulers had been hellbent on making the country into a slice of Europe ever since the mid-eighteenth century—it was Bayram al-Tunisi, one of the great Egyptian colloquial poets of the first half of the 20th century, who ridiculed the government’s entire project. Ahmad Shawqi’s poems in standard Arabic and Bayram al-Tunisi’s in the colloquial in praise of the Ottoman army during the First World War defied, and even threatened, the authority of the Sultan of Egypt, who had been appointed by the British after they’d made the country a protectorate in 1914.

Therefore, Arabic poetry, whether in standard Arabic or colloquial, is a threat to the current structure of power in Arab countries simply by virtue of its existence. It is the voice of the people, and the people are, by definition, the body politic.

Poetry also affects the imagination, however, and rulers exist only in the imagination of those whom they rule. If enough people decide that their ruler is actually a vegetable peddler, he’ll have no choice but to take his cart to the market the very next day. The only power a ruler actually has can be covered by a shirt and trousers; everything else comes from the obedience of others. They will only obey him if they imagine that it is their duty to obey, whether motivated by dread or delight. And of course these notions—dread and delight—are themselves products of the imagination. Words give the imagination form, and if poetry is words best expressed, then it is better able to shape the imagination than any other form of expression, and is therefore a ruler’s greatest threat.

The modern governance of Arab states began with Napoleon’s occupation of Cairo and ended with George Bush’s occupation of Baghdad. These modern states—with borders, bureaucracies, police forces, militaries, and economic policies imposed on them by others—have failed. They have failed to achieve the most important mission for which states are founded: to protect their people. What we have now is the occupation of Iraq and Palestine, the presence of American military forces in the Gulf, and in all the other nominally independent Arab countries abject economic, political, and military subservience. There was a time during the Cold War when Arabs thought there was a chance they could succeed by following a non-colonialist European model of government–the model proposed by the socialist camp in its many guises—but the defeat of 1967 and the catastrophes that followed all the way up to the occupation of Iraq, drove people to give up the idea of taking control of the state. Rather they began to build an alternative state: one without borders or bureaucracy, without a externally dictated economic system, free from international law and military transparency. Since the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, we in the Arab world have seen numerous examples of non-governmental organization: groups that engage in defence and policing, that provide health services and education, that run media networks, and that even carry out foreign relations, with little regard for the government. They don’t aim to seize control of state institutions; they simply carry on as if those institutions didn’t exist.

The Lebanese resistance fought without the army and the first Intifada set up local councils in Palestinian townships without any institutional structure resembling a state. During the Tunisian Revolution, the people of Tunisia were able to organise themselves outside the governmental framework and protected their neighborhoods when they were attacked by Ben Ali’s thugs after the fall of his regime.

In Egypt, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces itself acknowledged that twenty million Egyptians took part in the demonstrations and sit-ins that gripped the country from January 25th to February 11th. The people who were gathered together in Egypt’s squares practiced medicine without any Ministry of Health, covered the news without any Ministry of Information, protected themselves without any Ministry of the Interior, defended themselves during the Battle of the Camel without the army, and negotiated with Mubarak’s collapsing government without any ambassadors or Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Egyptian society carried on for several months despite the complete absence of the police, and  in fact the Ministry of the Interior’s support of this complete and criminal withdrawal was an attack on that society. The police forces were the main driver of the crime wave and still the society managed to stick together. The people made do with an unwritten constitution and instinctive laws and they triumphed.

Poetry is political in the same way that those people were politicians. They managed to pursue a politics more beautiful and more successful than anything they’d been offered by the modern state with its colonial pedigree. This was thanks to the way they spoke to one another and the way they imagined themselves to be a cohesive unit. The only leaders of the revolution were the people’s demands, their thoughts, their imagination. The people followed their imagination; an image of themselves they’d dreamt up and decided they wanted to be.

A nation, ummah in Arabic, is nothing more than a group of people who follow a leader, an imam, and in Arabic an imam can be a person, a book, or an ideal. In fact, the tool that builders use to measure a building’s centre of gravity, the plumb-line, is also called imam in Arabic. Furthermore, the nation, the ummah, is itself an imam; it is its own leader. The nation pursues its own idealized, imagined notion of itself. In Arabic, a nation (ummah) can consist of a single individual. If someone has an image of his or her self that they decide they want to live up to, then that individual becomes a nation and its own leader.

That’s why the verb amma, the root of the word ummah (‘nation’), is one of those linguistic contradictions in Arabic: it means to lead and to follow. If you say ‘amamtu so-and-so’, it either means you led someone in prayer or you went toward someone, as though they were a target. It’s a verb of movement and it’s no accident that the verb ‘to head toward’ should be the origin of the word ‘nation’ (ummah) just as another verb meaning ‘to head toward’ (qasada) gives us the origin of the word for poem, qasidah. A poem, a qasidah, is an ideal image of the world as imagined by society. If they head toward it, they will become it. By this logic, the people gathered in Tahrir Square wrote a poem and were themselves its verses. They brought into reality on the ground an imaginary, idealized image of themselves and turned the imaginary into politics, power, and authority. They were a nation who challenged the state, poured out from it and overwhelmed it. But of course this wasn’t anything new. As I said before, the ruler only exists in the imagination of those who are ruled. When enough people had decided that Hosni Mubarak was no longer their ruler, and that the leader that should take his place was in fact this idealised, imaginary vision of society, and that every individual was responsible for making sure that they were behaving in such a way as to accord with this vision, Hosni Mubarak fell and the idealised vision took over. The dictator fell and the nation rose; the state fell and the poem ruled.

The party politics we see today is a step backward. People have given up on the ideal vision of politics in the hopes of getting their hands on those same state institutions, which the colonial regimes established. Today a given party or a given president is prepared to defy the will of the people—defy the sovereignty of the people as encapsulated in that ideal vision—in exchange for control of the legal authority of the modern state as established by Lord Cromer. This person would prefer for the people to obey him—not because he resembles the ideal in their imagination—but because the founding documents, which Lord Cromer drafted for them and were approved by all the puppet rulers who followed, say they should. Because the UN and the US and some judges and some army generals say he’s the president.

Turning away from the ideal vision—or in other words, abandoning the leader (imam)—has broken the rhythm of the collective poem and this has dire consequences. A poet, or an experienced listener, notices a break in the rhythm straightaway, and though it may take a poetry novice slightly longer to notice the interruption, the ruler will realize sooner or later that the true source of power is the people’s imagination. Document and laws and constitutions are nothing more than a means of persuasion; a pointless means of persuasion. And if he should abandon his leader, i.e. the vision set down by the people, the ideal upon which they built their expectations, he will lose his power over them sooner or later.

A love poem by a Palestinian poet in standard Arabic may not seem like it’s political, but it joins with thousands of other images, imaginings, reports, and visions, to create a sense of Palestine in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria. It helps to shape—alongside other creations—Egyptians’ conception of what power should be, of what is meant by war and peace and justice. This notion, if it grows and matures, and if it attains self-confidence and esprit de corps, soon becomes feet on the ground, tearing down thrones and putting up new ones.

Copyright: Tamim Al-Barghouti, 2012

الشعر والسياسة

تميم البرغوثي

الشعر لغة واللغة صنع الجماعة، وحال الجماعة وماضيها ومستقبلها معا تاريخها، وتاريخها سجلّ حربها وسلامها، والصراع بين تعريفها لنفسها وتعريف الآخرين لها. والشعر استعادةللسيادة على الأسماء، كتسميتك الموت استشهاداً والغضب حباً، والنار شجرة، والشمس غزالة.  أنا أُسَمِّي بلادي فلسطين وخصمي يسميها إسرائيل، أنا أُسَمِّي تمرد أهلي مقاومة وخصمي يسميه إرهابا، وأنا أسمي موتهم تحت القصف استشهادا وخصمي يسميه عقاباً عادلاً أو أضراراً جانبية، ومن يقل إن الشعر في العادة يبتعد عن هذا كله، أوافقه، ولكن حاولت والله أن أبتعد عن القصف فلم يبتعد القصف عني. وحاولنا أن نكتب عن دواخل أنفسنا فوجدنا في قلوبنا دبابات وطائرات وأطفالاً محاصرين وجدات يهنَّ على الحدود وعائلات لا تلتئم حتى يتغير ميزان القوة على الكوكب، حاولنا أن نغني فوجدنا أننا إذا قلدنا غزاتنا وتعلمنا منهم فن الأوبرا فإن والينا يستدين ويبني لنا داراً فخمة نغني فيها ولا يحضر إليها أحد من أهلنا، ثم يقع البلد كله تحت الاحتلال لأن الوالي لم يستطع تسديد فوائد الدين، أما إذا غنينا ملاحمنا الشعبية وسير بني هلال أو مقاتل بني هاشم فإننا نغنيها في المقاهي والقرى، ويحفظ الملايين أغانينها، ولكن يموت حافظو هذه الملاحم  ولا يلتفت إليهم، فإذا سألنا عن سبب الفرق بين مقعد راوي السيرة الخشبي، ومقعد الأوبرا الوثير، قال لنا ابن خلدون: “إن المغلوب مولع بتقليد الغالب”، فردَّنا راغمين إلى ميزان القوة المائل، وإلى السياسة.

ولدت في عام 1977، وقبل أن أكمل الشهور الخمسة كانت السلطات المصرية تطلب من والدي مغادرة البلاد. كان أنور السادات قد قرر أن يسالم إسرائيل فأمر بترحيل كل من كان له علاقة بمنظمة التحرير الفلسطينية في مصر وإغلاق دار إذاعتها حيث كان الوالد يعمل.استقر بأبي الترحال، بعد بغداد وبيروت، في بودابست، عاصمة المجر، وكان شمل الأسرة يلتئم في الإجازة الصيفية. كانت مدرستي في دار الحضانة المجرية تصر على أن اسم تميم هو تعريب لاسم تماش أو توماس بالمجرية وغيرها من اللغات الأروبية، ولم ينجح الوالدان في إقناعها بأن اسم تميم هو اسم قبيلة عربية قديمة غير مشتق من توماس أو تماش. وحين أصبحت في سن القراءة، عرفت أن تماش أو توماس هو النطق اليوناني ثم اللاتيني ثم الأوروبي عموماً لاسم توما العبري. وتوما بالعبرية تعني التوأم، والتوأم اسم يطلق على أحد أخوين يولدان من حمل واحد، فإن لم يكن للتوأم أخ فهو ليس بتوأم، فهو محتاج إلى آخر ليكون نفسه، وعند العرب كان التوأم يظن ناقصاً أو ضعيفاً لأن غيره يشاركه الرحم، وفي معلقة عنترة بن شداد العبسي يصف رجلاً قوياً قال: “بَطَلٌ كَأَنَّ ثِيَابَهُ فِي سَرْحَةٍ…يُحْذَى نِعَالَ السِّبتِ لَيْسَ بِتَوْأَمِ”. أما اسمي فتميم، وهو من تمَّ تماماً، أي كَمُلَ كمالاً، وهو صيغة مبالغة على وزن فعيل، فكأنه الشديد التمام. إن السيدة كانت تصر في ترجمتها اسمي على تغيير معناه إلى العكس منه تماماً. ومدرستي كانت طيبة حسنة النية، ولكن الاستعمار الذي أخذ على عاتقه عنوة دور المربي والمعلم للشعوب المغزوة، كان يغير أسماءنا عن عمد، وينقلنا من أمة تامة، إلى شعوب توائم يحتاج كل منها إلى شقيقه ولا يصل إليه. وفي اللغة العربية ما يبين ذلك، فنحن لا نستخدم لفظ الأمة للإشارة إلى سكان الأقطار التي رسم حدودها الغزاة، بل نسميهم شعوباً، والشعب من شَعَبتَهُ فانشعب انشعاباً، أي كسرته فانكسر وانفصل عن بقيته. أقول رسم القادة العسكريون لقوى الاحتلال الأجنبي في أوائل القرن الخطوط على الأرض وسموها دولاً، ثم طلب منا أن نسميها بلادنا، وما هي إلا شركات لبيع النفط وأجهزة أمن متضخمة ركب عليها علم ونشيد وحرس حدود، جيوشها شرطة وحكامها وسطاء بيننا وبين الدول الكبرى التي أنشأتها. نحن لم نختر هذه الحدود ولا هذه الأسماء ولا هذه المؤسسات. وككل احتلال، أو سلطة غاشمة فهي لا تكمل إلا في خيال المحكوم، وإن كان احتلال الآخرين لبلادنا اكتمل فإنهم لم يحتلوا خيالنا كاملاً، وإن كانوا قسموا الأرض، فإنهم لم يستطيعوا تقسيم اللغة. إن الشعر العربي، بقي عربياً ولم ينقسم إلى شعر كويتي وشعر أردني وشعر ليبي. وحدة اللغة هذه انعكاس لوحدة الخيال، وهي في حد ذاتها، وبغض النظر عن موضوع القصيدة، عمل سياسي، وعمل مقاوم.

وقد يقال إن الشعر الفصيح عربي، أما الشعر المكتوب بالدارجة فقُطري، محكوم بحدود لهجته. ولكن هذه المقولة تعجز عن تفسير كون ثلاثة من أهم رواد الشعر العامي المصري مثلاً من أصول غير مصرية، بيرم التونسي وفؤاد حداد وصلاح جاهين، وإذا نظرت إلى محتوى لغتهم وتعبيراتهم لما وجدت من فرعونية مصر شيئاً، وشعرهم العامي هو في عروبة السيرة الهلالية، وعروبتهم من عروبة مصر.

وللشعر العربي، كغيره من أشعار الأمم،  قصة مع خلق الجماعة في الخيال. إن العرب الرحل لم يكونوا قادرين على أن يعرف أحدهم كل أفراد قبيلته، وكان لا بد من منظومة من الرموز يتوحد بها كل فرد من أفراد القبيلة وينتمي إليها، ولما كان ممكنا لأهل المدن من سكان العالم القديم أن ينتموا إلى مدنهم، فيتخيلوا شوارع ومعابد وحكومات يتوحدون بها ومعها ومع أقرانهم من خلالها، لم يكن لدى البدوي العربي المرتحل من مكان لآخر أن يبني معابد وشوارع وأن ينمو لديه إحساس بالهوية قائم على المكان. كانت القصيدة تحكي قصة القبيلة، أنسابها ومآثر فرسانها وموارد مائها وتواريخ قتالها ومراجعها الأخلاقية، وكان الانتماء إلى القبيلة يعني أيضاً حفظ هذه الأشعار والمفاخرة بها والانتماء إليها. وإذا رحلت القبيلة من مكان فلا دليل على مرورها فيه إلا ما يذكره شعراؤها. وإن أبناء القبيلة لا يكونون أبناءها إلا إذا استقر في خيالهم أنهم أبناؤها، والقصيدة كانت وسيلة من وسائل التوحد تلك بين الفرد والجماعة. وبضم الفرد للفرد، والفردين لثالث والثلاثة لرابع، كانت القصيدة إذن تخلق الجماعة خلقاً من الناحية السياسية.

وأكثر من ذلك، إن العرب كانت إذا استحسنت بيتاً تمثلت به، أي جعلته مثلاً سائراً، كلاماً له سلطة أخلاقية، يستخدم كمرجع في مواضع غير تلك التي نشأ فيها.  ويكمن في هذا افتراض معرفي قوامه أن القول إذا حسن فقد صدق، وأن بلاغة القول هي علامة صدقه ومصدر مرجعيته الأخلاقية، حتى أن أبا تمام حبيب بن أوس يسخر من هذه السلطة المفرطة التي يمنحها الناس للشعر البليغ ويفخر بها في آن واحد إذ يقول في مدح شعر له:

“يُرى حِكْمَةً ما فِيهِ وَهْوَ فُكَاهَةٌ…ويُقضَى بما يَقْضِي بِهِ وَهْوَ ظَالِمُ”

إن بلاغة الشعر لم تكن تمنحه سلطة تصديق الناس له وسلطة كونه مرجعية آخلاقية لهم فقط، بل كانت تمنح الشعر سيرورة وشهرة بين القبائل ترتفع بها مكانة الشاعر ومكانة قبيلته، وكلما تُمُثِّلَ بقصيدة شاعر، فإن اسمه واسم قبيلته يكتسب من السمعة السياسية في مجتمع الجزيرة العربية ما قبل الإسلام ما تحسده عليه بقية القبائل.

وقد تسربت هذه الافتراضات المعرفية إلى الفلسفة الإسلامية في العصور الوسيطة، فتبعاً لما يؤمن به المسلمون فإن بلاغة القرآن هي دليل صدقة، وهي مصدر الإعجاز فيه وعلامة كونه نصاً سماوياً، وهي لذلك سبب سلطته الأخلاقة والسياسية. فلأن القرآن بليغ فهو سماوي، ولأنه سماوي فهو واجب الطاعة، وعلى كل نظام سياسي أن يستمد شرعيته السياسة من تأويل ما للقرآن. وكما كانت القصيدة تخلق القبيلة، فإن القرآن كان يخلق الأمة. قبيلة من الناس، يحفظ أفرادها نصاً مسجوعاً يصف المجموع ويحدد ملامحه وقيمه وثقافته، وبالتالي كيانه السياسي.

وقد ارتبط الشعر العربي منذ عصر ما قبل الإسلام بالطريقة التي كانت الجماعة تعرف بها نفسها، فحين كانت الجماعة تسمي نفسها قبيلة، كان الشاعر شاعر قبيلة، وحين سمت نفسها خلافة كان الشاعر شاعر الخليفة، وحين عرفت نفسها بالإمارة أصبح الشاعر شاعر الأمير. وفي العصر الحديث، حين أصبحت الجماعة تسمي نفسها أمة وشعباً صار الشاعر شاعر الأمة والشعب. وحتى حين انهزم المشروع الجماعي للشعب والأمة من أواخر الستينيات إلى أواخر التسعينيات من القرن العشرين، وانفرط عقد الجماعة إلى أفراد منطوين على أنفسهم، أصبح الشاعر شاعر الذات المفردة. وراجت النظريات الأدبية التي ترى أن الشعر ممارسة للحرية الفردية المنفلتة من سلطة الجماعة تماماً، وأن اللغة المفهومة هي من إنتاج الجماعة، والتزام الشاعر بها إنما هو اقتراض يقدح في إبداعه، وخنوع للجماعة يقدح في حريته، فوجب عليه أن يخترع لغته الخاصة التي لا يكاد يفهما إلا هو أو من كان يشبهه، وكثرت القصائد التي لا يفهمها معظم الناس عن قصد. ولكن هؤلاء الشعراء المنعزلين المكتئبين كانوا في هروبهم من الجماعة يعكسون حالتها وينتمون إليها دروا بذلك أم لم يدروا. ثم، ومن التسعينيات فصاعداً، خاصة مع الحروب الأمريكية العراقية المتتالية، والتي كان ضحاياها أكثر من مليون نفس في الحصار بين عامي 1991 و2003 أكثر من نصفهم أطفال حسب تقديرات اليونيسيف، وأكثر من مليون نفس آخرين في الغزو الأمريكي والحرب الأهلية التي تلته من عام 2003 حتى 2011، أقول من هذا الزمن فصاعداً، نَمَى في الأمة تيار يرى أن الانطواء على النفس والحزن والاكتئاب واختراع لغة لا يفهمها أحد ترف لا نملكه، وأننا في حاجة، لكي نعيش، أن نستمد القوة من كل مصادرها، وأن تراثنا مصدر من مصادر هذه القوة وهو سند لنا لا عبء علينا.

إن اللغة العربية اليوم، والشعر أكثر أشكالها تكثيفاً، يهدِّدُ الانتماءُ إليها والتكلُّمُ بها الترتيبَ السياسي الاستعماري لبلاد العرب. إن اللغة لم تقسم كما قسمت الأرض، وهذا خلى شعراً يقوله أبو القاسم الشابي يُهتَفُ به في تونس فيتردد صداه في اليمن، وشعراً يقوله بدر شاكر السياب في العراق يتردد صداه في مصر، وسيرة هلالية تروى في الصعيد تردد في الجنوب التونسي.

بل، لقد كان أكثر الشعر العامي المفترض فيه أن يخلق هويات قطرية تكرس للأوطان الصغيرة التي رسم الغزاة حدودها ولحكوماتها، يسخر من هذه الهويات، فالسيرة الهلالية، أعظم أعمال الشعر الشعبي في مصر بامتياز تربط مصر وأهلها بفضاء ثقافي يمتد من حدود بحر قزوين إلى تونس. في الملحمة يروي بنو هلال الذين يسكن بعضهم صعيد مصر اليوم قصة أصلهم النجدي، وزواج بطلهم من الناعسة بنت زيد العجاجي ملك بلاد الفرس، وتغريبهم إلى أرض تونس ليثأروا من ملكها ذي الأصول اليمنية والذي كان قد ظلم أخوالهم الحجازيين. وفي العصر الحديث، بينما كانت الثقافة الرسمية للحركة الوطنية المصرية التي يقودها حزب الوفد القديم تركز على فرعونية مصر، وبينما كانت السلطات المصرية مولعة منذ منتصف القرن التاسع عشر ببناء مصر تكون قطعة من أوروبا، وبينما كان المتحف المصري يبنى على طراز أوروبي، كان بيرم التونسي أحد أهم مؤسسي شعر العامية المصرية في النصف الأول من القرن العشرين يسخر من مشروع الدولة كله.ومدائح شوقي بالفصحى، وبيرم بالعامية، في الجيش التركي في الحرب العالمية الأولى كانت تناقض وتتحدى تماماً السلطة الناشئة لسلطنة مصر التي عين البريطانيون سلطانها بعد فرض الحماية على البلاد عام 1914. وبيرم يختار في كثير من قصائده عن حرب الأتراك واليونانيين البحر الطويل المغنى على الربابة وهو القالب الذي تبدأ به عادة أبيات السيرة الهلالية التي ذكرناها أعلاه، أطول قصائد الحروب في الوجدان الشعبي المصري. أما فؤاد حداد، ففي دواوينه من نور الخيال وصنع الأجيال في تاريخ القاهرة، والحضرة الزكية ما يغني عن الشرح.وإذا خرجنا من مصر إلى غيرها وجدنا في مواويل الشام والعراق، وشعر الرحبانيين ومسرحياتهم في لبنان، والشعر البدوي في جزيرة العرب واليمن وشرق السودان وفي فن الملحون المغربي ما يربط بين الناس أكثر مما يفرقهم. إن الشعر العربي دارجه وفصيحه اتصال بين الناس، والدول العربية ذات الحدود الاستعمارية انفصال بينهم.

لذلك، فإن الشعر العربي، سواء كان فصيحاً أم دارجاً، مهدَّدٌ للسلطة القائمة في بلادنا بمجرد وجوده، هو كلام الناس، والناس كيان سياسي بالتعريف.

والشعر خيال، والحاكم لا يوجد إلا في خيال المحكوم، ولو قرر عدد كاف من الناس أن حاكمهم بائع خضرة مثلاً فلن يجد بداً في الصباح التالي من جر العربات في الأسواق. لا يملك الحاكم من قوة إلا ما ضم قميصه، وكل قوة أخرى نابعة من طاعة آخرين له، وهؤلاء لا يطيعونه إلا إن كان في خيالهم واجب الطاعة إما لرهبة أو لرغبة، والرهبة والرغبة فكرتان، مكانهما الخيال، والكلام يشكل الخيال، والشعر، إن كان أكفأ الكلام، فهو أكثر تشكيلاً للخيال من غيره من صنوف الخطاب، وأخطر على الحاكم منها.

إن الدولة الحديثة في العالم العربي، بدأت باحتلال نابليون للقاهرة وانتهت إلى احتلال جورج بوش لبغداد، فشلت هذه الدولة الحديثة التي بنيت على حدود وبيروقراطية وجيش وشرطة واقتصاد حددها لها غير أهلها، فشلت في أهم ما تخلق الدول لأجله، الدفاع عن شعوبها، وانتهينا باحتلال العراق وفلسطين، وبوجود قوات أمريكية في الخليج العربي، وبتبعية اقتصادية وسياسية وأمنية في كل الدول العربية الأخرى المستقلة استقلالاً اسمياً. وقد مر بالعرب وقت، أيام الحرب الباردة، ظنوا فيه أن هناك إمكانية للفلاح باتباع نموذج أوروبي غير استعماري للدولة، هو النموذج الذي كان يقدمه المعسكر الاشتراكي بأطيافه المختلفة، لكن هزيمة عام 1967 وما تلاها من كوارث حتى احتلال العراق، أدى إلى عزوف الناس عن محاولة السيطرة على الدولة، بل قاموا ببناء دول بديلة، هي بلا حدود وبلا بيروقراطية، وبلا نظام اقتصادي تابع، متحررة من قيود القانون الدولي، والتبعية الاقتصادية والانكشاف العسكري. ووجدنا في العالم العربي منذ نهايات القرن العشرين وبدايات القرن الحادي والعشرين نماذج للتنظيم خارج الدولة، أناساً يمارسون الدفاع والأمن والصحة والتعليم والإعلام بل والعلاقات الخارجية متجاهلين الدولة، لا يرغبون في السيطرة على أجهزتها بل هم يتعاملون كما لو كانت هذه الأجهزة منعدمة.

إن المقاومة اللبنانية قاتلت خارج الجيش، وإن الانتفاضة الفلسطينية الأولى أقامت إدارات محلية في أحياء البلدات الفلسطينية خارج أي بنية مؤسسية تشبه الدولة، وحين قامت الثورة التونسية إستطاع أهل البلاد أن ينظموا أنفسهم خارج إطار الدولة، وأن يؤمنوا أحياءهم حين هاجمهم بلطجية نظام بن علي بعد سقوطه.

أما في مصر، فقد شهد المجلس العسكري الحاكم أن عشرين مليونا من المصريين شاركوا في المظاهرات والاعتصامات التي عمت البلاد بين 25 يناير و11 فبراير 2011. كان هؤلاء المجتمعون في الميادين يمارسون الطب بلا وزارة صحة، والإعلام بلا وزارة إعلام، والأمن بلا وزارة داخلية، والدفاع، يوم موقعة الجمل، بلا جيش، والمفاوضات مع نظام مبارك الآيل للسقوط بلا سفراء ولا وزارة خارجية. وعاشت البلاد لعدة أشهر في غياب كامل لوزارة الداخلية، بل وهي تتعرض لهجوم من وزارة الداخلية عبر تشجيع الانفلات الجنائي، كانت أجهزة الأمن هي المصدر الأساسي للجريمة، ورغم ذلك حفظ المجتمع تماسكه، تعامل الناس بدستور غير مكتوب وقوانين حدسية، وانتصروا.

أقول إن الشعر سياسي، بقدر ما كان هؤلاء الناس ساسة. لقد أستطاعوا أن يمارسوا سياسية أجمل وأكفأ مما يمكن أن تقدمه لهم الدولة الحديثة ذات الأصل الاستعماري، ولقد كان لكلام أحدهم مع الآخر، والتشكيل الجماعي لخيالهم، الفضل في ذلك. لم يكن للثورة قيادة غير مطالبها، غير أفكارها، غير خيالها، كانوا أناساً يتبعون خيالهم، يتبعون صورة لأنفسهم في خيالهم يريدون أن يكونوها.

 والأمة مجموعة من الناس يتبعون إماماً، والإمام في لسان العرب يكون رجلاً، أو كتاباً، أو مثالاً كائنا ما كان، بل إن الميزان الذي يستخدمه البناؤون لقياس استواء البناء يسمى في اللغة إماماً. وفي اللغة أيضاً، الإمام هو الأمة. أي أن الأمة تتبع نفسها، تتبع صورة نفسها المثالية المتخيلة. والأمة في اللغة ايضاً قد تتكون من رجل واحد، إذا تبع صورة له عن نفسه في خياله وأراد أن يكونها فقد أصبح أمة ذاته وإمام نفسه.

لذلك فإن فعل الأَمّ، وهو الأصل اللغوي لكلمة الأمة، هو من الأضداد في اللغة، فهو يعني القيادة والاتباع، تقول أممت فلانا، أي كنت إمامه فتبعني كما في الصلاة، أو كان هو وجهتي ومقصدي فذهبت إليه كقولك أممت البيت أو القِبلة. وفعل الأَمّ، هو فعل القَصْد، وليس من قبيل المصادفة أن الأَمّ وهو أصل الأمة، مرادف للقصد، وهو أصل القصيدة. إن القصيدة صورة مثالية عن الناس في خيال الناس،  إذا تبعوها فقد كانوها، وبهذا المعنى فإن المجتمعين في ميدان التحرير كتبوا قصيدة هم أبياتها، فقد حققوا على الأرض صورة مثالية خيالية عن أنفسهم، وجعلوا الخيال سياسة وسلطة وحكماً، كانوا أمة تتحدى الدولة وتفيض عنها وتتجاوزها. وليس هذا بدعاً، فكما قلت من قبل الحاكم لا يكون إلا في خيال المحكوم، فحين كان ثمة عدد كاف من الناس يرى أن حسني مبارك لم يعد حاكمه، وأن الإمام الذي يحل محله هو هذه الصورة المثالية الخيالية وأن على الفرد منهم أن يحدد سلوكه بناء على توافق هذا السلوك مع الصورة الخيالية تلك، سقط حسني مبارك وحكمت تلك الصورة المثالية، سقط المستبد وحكمت الأمة، سقطت الدولة، وحكمت القصيدة.

 إن ما يجري اليوم من سياسة الأحزاب، هو عودة إلى الوراء، فقد تم التخلي عن هذه الصورة المثالية للسياسة طمعاً في السيطرة على مؤسسات الدولة التي بناها الاستعمار. أعني أن حزباً ما أو رئيساً ما أصبح مستعداً أن يأتي من الأفعال ما يفقده الإقرار الشعبي، الشرعية الشعبية الصادرة عن هذه الصورة المثالية، مقابل حصوله على الشرعية القانونية للدولة الحديثة التي بناها  اللورد كرومر. أي أن فلاناً يفضل أن يطيعه الناس، لا لأن سلوكه يقترب من الصورة المثالية التي في خيالهم، بل لأن الأوراق التي كتبها لهم  اللورد كرومر، ومن بعده حكام البلاد تباعاً تقول لهم أن يطيعوه، لأن الأمم المتحدة والولايات المتحدة ومجموعة من القضاة ومجموعة من الضباط تعترف به كرئيس.

إن الخروجَ من الصورة المثالية، أي الخروجَ على الإمام، كَسْرَ وزن القصيدة الجماعية، له عواقبُ وخيمة، وقد يدرك الشاعر أو السامع المتمرس الكسر الطفيف أو الزحاف مبكراً، وقد يأخذ غير المتمرس وقتاً أطول في كشفه، ولكن سيعلم الحاكم عاجلاً أو آجلاً، أن مصدر السلطة الحقيقي هو خيال الناس، وأن الورق والقوانين والدساتير ليست إلا وسائل إقناع، وأنها وسائل إقناع غير ناجعة، وأنه إن خرج على إمامه، أي خرج على المثال الذي وضعه له الناس وبنوا عليه توقعاتهم منه، فإنه سيفقد سلطته عليهم عاجلاً أم آجلاً.

قد  لا توحي قصيدة حب يكتبها شاعر فلسطيني بالعربية الفصحى بأنها قصيدة سياسية، لكنها تساهم، مع ألاف الصور والخيالات والأخبار والأمثال، في خلق عاطفة ما في مصر والمغرب ولبنان وسوريا عن فلسطين، وتدخل مع غيرها في تكوين خيال المصريين عما يجب أن تكون عليه السلطة، وعن شكل الحرب والسلم والعدل، وهذا الخيال، إذا تراكم وتعتق، وكان من مكوناته الثقة بالنفس والاتصال بين الناس، تحول إلى أرجل على الأسفلت، تهدم عروشاً وتقيم أخرى.


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Behrendt in Australia – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 12:01:16 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5323 1-behrendtlCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Larissa Behrendt

First presented at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Larissa Behrendt keynote text: “Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow”

At the end of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, there is a powerful image of a colonial mansion, the new home of ex-convict-turned wealthy land-owner, William Thornhill and his family, being built on rock that has a sacred Aboriginal carving of a whale on it. The house represents the wealth of the new settlers, those who have conquered the Australian landscape, made their fortune and built their future here. The foundations of the house are the Aboriginal people and their culture.

The power of Grenville’s metaphor is that she preserves the Aboriginal presence and connection to land. It is not destroyed in the face of the on-coming colonisation; it is buried. Although it lies hidden, one day, when the civilisation eventually crumbles, the rock with its carved etching, will once more be revealed, the ancient connection to land continuing.

It is easy, when thinking of censorship, to think first of legal definitions. But Grenville’s image evokes a broader, more complex reflection on the concepts of silencing, one that goes beyond the arbitrary and shifting concepts within the dominant legal system. What lies hidden beneath and unseen – like the foundations under a stone house – is also silenced.

Winners vanquish losers; we all know they write history. But each instance of conquest has its own historical peculiarities, its own legacies. And within those historical distinct events and repercussions are a multitude of experiences, the plethora of stories. Some of those stories triumph and become canonical. Others are supressed, still handed down from parent to child and transmitted amongst subgroups and subcultures, but outside of the dominant national narrative.

The capacity of Indigenous people to tell their own stories was impeded in several complicating ways as part of the process of the colonisation of Australia. As an oral culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures relied upon transmission from generation to generation through stories, ceremony, dance, music and art. The high mortality rate from introduced diseases, the processes of dispossession, dislocation and relocation, and the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, are all factors that made the continuing transmission of these oral traditions difficult, especially in the areas where colonisation was most aggressive.

And secondly, while the removal of Aboriginal children was supposed to give them the advantages of dominant culture, education levels were appalling and Aboriginal young people, no matter what their talents, were ear-marked for manual labour. Boys were to work on cattle stations; girls were to work as domestic servants. Among all of the insidious ways a peoples can be colonised, denying them the tools that allow them to communicate in the imposed and dominant culture is one of the most effective in disenfranchising, disempowering and continually marginalising them.

Literacy rates in Australia have improved gradually but even today there is a large gap between the literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5. By Year 7, the gap has widened, even more so for numeracy and competency in science. As Indigenous children get older, the gap continues to widen. Indigenous students are 2.2% of the population in the age groups that can engage in higher education yet Indigenous students make up only 1.3% of student numbers. While 82% of all Australian students enter tertiary education through their previous educational attainments, only 46% of Indigenous students enter university this way. The gaps in their earlier education mean that Indigenous students often have to do additional studies to be able to enter university. It is not a matter of the students not being clever enough for tertiary studies but they were denied the shortest pathway and come to university studies later in life and through a more circuitous route.

The resilience of living cultures must frustrate those hell-bent on assimilation or achieving a cultural hegemony. Attempts to assimilate – no matter how extreme or how subtle – often have the opposite effect. They further bind an identified and persecuted group through a shared suffering and its associated experiences and trauma. Discrimination only succeeds in reinforcing difference, in testing attachment to culture and reinforces a sense of identity.

Attempts to reintroduce marginalised voices into the dominant narrative are not always welcome. My grandmother was removed under the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Her experiences as a ward of the state – and my father’s childhood in an orphanage – inspired my first novel, Home. Growing up, I was surrounded by other children, well-meaning but innocently ignorant of these historical practices of separating Aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of assimilation. Their views were sometimes crudely racist and often lacking in empathy. I had always thought that if Australian children were taught this history, it would increase the understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people. Even if it would not win people over to the Indigenous point of view, at least it would explain why Indigenous people face the issues we face and why we have the political agenda we have.

But the response to the publication of the Bringing them Home report – the detailed national investigation into the extent and impact of the children removal policy – was instructive and sobering. The official response was to dismiss the report by saying that “only one in ten” Indigenous people were removed, that the term “cultural genocide” was too emotive and that, whatever the report concluded, the motivation for the removal of children was often done with the best of intentions and for the best interests of the children involved.

Aboriginal poet, novelist and historian, Tony Birch, wrote of this response to the Bringing them Home report:

Indigenous communities across Australia have become the memory bank of white Australia’s violence by proxy. It is time for white Australia to take over that responsibility. Perhaps it is time to make an ethical withdrawal of responsibility. Such a need has become more acute in recent years, with the outcome of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Bringing Them Home report providing an opportunity for white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past in a more than selective manner. Unfortunately the backlash against Bringing Them Home has been more substantive than any acceptance of, and responsibility for, the colonial violence that it has provided testament to. It was the delivery of the report that motivated the most ferocious elements of the History War; an orchestrated campaign conducted by the right in Australia against the legitimacy of Indigenous memory.

Birch’s observations resonate with me and are a reminder that these “history wars” or “culture wars” that waged amongst academics and writers of opinion pieces may have argued the semantics and the numbers in the halls of universities and on the pages of broadsheets but, like the stone hidden under William Thornhill’s house, the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by those polices remained unchanged by those debates. The ideological battle was not really about Aboriginal history; it was about the competing narratives that non-Indigenous Australians want to tell about themselves.

And this reaction, which included the official government response, showed me that I was wrong to believe that hearing the stories of people who had suffered under the removal policy would be the pathway to better understanding of Indigenous history and culture.

The response was much more complex than that. What it did show was that evidence in its most human form can be so powerful that it is simply too confronting and the easiest way to deal with it for some people is to attempt to silence it, dismiss it by falling back on to contested statistics or distract from it with semantic debates.

This reaction does, however, give testament to the power of stories. The Bringing them Home report was littered with extracts from testimony – not just from those taken away, but from the parents, grandparents and siblings left behind. So many government reports are written after investigations, contemplation of the research and a list of sensible recommendations to address the problem to sit on shelves, gather dust and fade into the mists of bureaucratic memory. What challenged people more than any legal or historical argument made in the report, what made it so dangerous to those who felt so challenged was the power of human testimony, the power of their stories. George R. R. Martin, author of the now culturally iconic Game of Thrones wrote in another novel, A Clash of Kings, that “when you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

The impact of the removal policy has been a strong theme through much Indigenous writing – not surprising since it formed such a large part of the contemporary Indigenous experience. Sally Morgan’s My Place and Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence are quintessential examples of this – and the response to the Philip Noyce film adapting Pilkington’s book to the screen was met with a similar response to the Bringing them Home report from, predictably, the same quarters.

Telling these is not just an essential part of Indigenous culture; love of stories is instinctive and primal to all human beings. So it is no surprise that there is a vibrant creative drive within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia to continue to tell stories. The renaissance of Indigenous writing, which has been driven by writers such as Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kim Scott and a pantheon of others. It been accompanied by other Indigenous storytellers using other mediums – Stephen Page and his work through the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Wesley Enoch and his work on the stage, the rise to eminence of Indigenous art whose aesthetics point to ancient connections to country, the new wave of Indigenous film makers, including Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton and the establishment of National Indigenous Television Ltd. All these new technologies have been adopted for the telling of our most ancient stories.

So coming from this perspective, it might seem natural that I would blindly embrace the concept of the “right to free speech”. But it is more complicated than that. An essential part of any rights culture and of any human rights framework is the complex balancing of rights. I believe free speech is important but, like any other right, needs to be balance with others, including the right to be free from racial discrimination and vilification. Where that line is drawn should be the debate of a healthy and inclusive participatory democracy. Observing the psychological and emotional scars of racism enacted as policy or disseminated through popular culture and political narrative, I am wary of blanket claims of absolute rights, suspicious of extremes demanded by a dominant culture that has only championed well its own interests, not those of the groups it has marginalised.

The heightened precedence given to the right of free speech against other rights is a particularly American value but also symptomatic of the way that our civil and political rights are often given precedence over economic, social and cultural rights. For marginalised and culturally distinct groups, exclusion from economic and social participation and freedom of cultural expression are perhaps valued more and seen as being of equal importance to the civil and political rights that more easily engage members of dominant cultures and political elites. Besides, the notion that any society supports the concept of free speech in an unfettered way is absurd. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to defamation and libel. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to trade practices, to ensure that consumers are not duped by unsubstantiated claims.

I find it difficult to support blanket statements about the concept of censorship. For me, the arguments about where to draw the lines in theory are slippery and contradictory. Of more interest, and of more importance, is the question of what is seeking to be censored and why. When the censorship is one where the weight of the dominant culture is used to silence dissenting views and to silence the marginalised, I think it raises a complex set of moral and ethical questions. I don’t pretend to know where that line is but I believe that the balancing of the right to free speech against other rights is one of the on-going conversations in a healthy participatory democracy. This might sound utopian but I say this as someone who is inherently suspicious of the way the dominant cultures laws sometimes draw lines. The fact that the dominant culture often gets to decide that line is often problematic. Its adjudicators are never without their own cultural bias even though they often assume that they can be objective on such matters. But I do think the discussion about where those lines are drawn needs to be an open, honest and fluid one and needs to include voices that are often marginalised within the dominant culture.

It strikes me that one of the deepest cultural differences between Indigenous culture and dominant Australian culture is around the concept of knowledge. Within the spiritual life of Indigenous societies there was a clear delineation about knowledge holding. There were issues that were “men’s business” and “women’s business” and the concept of “secret and sacred” knowledge, which only the custodian or the initiated were entitled to know. The concept that there is information that you are not permitted to know is one that sits uncomfortably with European intellectual tradition. It remains the case today across Australia that there is still knowledge, images, practices and artefacts that remain sacred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cannot be shared.

Respecting that, I do not, however, ascribe to the view that a non-Indigenous person can never write from the perspective of an Indigenous person. Writers with talent can write from any perspective. The trick is to get the authenticity – the truth – of the situation, the characters and the essence of the interaction. The challenge in crossing any divide – gender, religious, cultural – is that unless the writer can stand in the shoes of the character, can adeptly interpret the perspective, the writing will ring hollow, will ring untrue.

In this way, Indigenous writers are advantaged. They better understand, by virtue of their interaction with the dominant culture, the views from the other side of the cultural divide. It has always challenged Australian writers – even writers of great skill – to be able to interpret well the world of Indigenous people. That is not because it is impossible but just because the level of understanding needed to write authentically is so deep, that the general ignorance of Indigenous culture often makes the translation a challenge for those seeking to interpret it from the outside.

Patrick White, one of our greatest writers, meditated on the perspectives on Indigenous people within Australian culture in several of his books. He did so reflectively in Riders of the Chariot and Voss. But he was much less successful in his novel inspired by the shipwreck of Eliza Fraser in the 1860s, A Fringe of Leaves. During the heroine’s time amongst Aborigines, she becomes closer to her more natural state and, as part of this psychological reconnection, engages in a ceremony that includes an act of cannibalism. Instead of understanding that there was no practice of cannibalism within Indigenous communities in Australia, White buys into this myth – and thus perpetuating it – but seeks to excuse it by using the act of consumption of flesh as a metaphor for our most primitive desires, the instincts our society represses. White paints the Aboriginal people in this novel in the classic noble savage role. I’ve argued elsewhere that the depiction of Aboriginal people in this romanticised role is an unhelpful and dangerous as the portrayal of Aboriginal people as savages.

Grenville avoids this trap in The Secret River. She tells the story of William Thornhill’s conquest of his land and the Aboriginal people who lived there before him without romanticism. Her novel also tells the story of Aboriginal people and she chose not to do this by creating an Indigenous character to guide us through this perspective but by telling us the same story from the unsympathetic viewpoint of a white Australian who sees Aboriginal people fearfully – fearful they will retaliate, they will fight, they will challenge. And through the eyes of such characters, she says so much with deep truth about the underlying unease which not only pervades the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal people and the dominant Australian culture, she also explains why so much unease and conflict remains amongst that dominant culture about the way in which they tell the story of their own history.

This is a deft skill but I want to conclude by celebrating what uncensored, unselfconscious writing can achieve even when it misses the mark. Another great Australian novelist is Thomas Keneally. Of his enviable body of work sits a book, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, written in the 1970s when Australia was confronting a new political era in its relationship with Indigenous people. Influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, a black power movement and a land rights movement had emerged , along with a new kind of Aboriginal activist. Keneally’s novel is inspired by the outlaw Jimmy Governor and explores the inevitable consequences of trapping a young man between the ambitions available to white people and the discrimination against his own black skin. What blind ambition to try to write a book about this subject matter. And in the most part, Keneally succeeds. But the portrayal of Aboriginal women seemed so one dimensional, especially contrasted to the insights Keneally showed for Jimmie’s own plight as an Aboriginal man. That aspect of the book annoyed me n contrast but I have a great affection for both the book and the author for its audacity. Keneally has since written that he would write the book differently if he wrote it now. I am glad he wrote it when he did. It gave me more to think about, more to contend with, a greater slate against which to try to articulate my own views about my feminism and the intersection between my gender and my race and what that meant in contemporary Australia against this historical backdrop. Along with A Fringe of Leaves, Keneally gave me a book that provoked me to articulate my own views, providing me with a conversation of depth and intelligence I could find nowhere else within Australian society. That is the gift a brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writer can give.

So I don’t think the territory is off limits but I think that the challenge for writers who want to explore that terrain is that the extent to which one must be familiar with it if coming from the position of the privileged, from a position where many of the voices will be hidden, is very difficult.

And such is the skill of great writers. They translate. They interpret. They hold a mirror up. And that s why they are, when talented, so threatening.

 © Larissa Behrendt, 2013

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Birch in Australia – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/birch-in-australia-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/birch-in-australia-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 07:30:26 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5364 2-birchtA National Literature

Keynote address given by Tony Birch

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Tony Birch keynote text: ‘A Post-National Literature?’

I want to thank the Melbourne Writers Festival for allowing me the opportunity to recall my discovery of the post-national novel, which occurred on North Richmond railway station in 1971 when I was fifteen years old.  I had been expelled from school after falling through a shop window in a fight with another boy.  I was slight but never bullied as my father had taught me to box and punch above my weight.

While his training held in good stead in the street, it equipped me for little else.  I was an angry teenager, prone to settling all disputes with my fists.  I was taught by the Christian Brothers in primary school.  I was a good student and thrived in the highly regulated atmosphere as opposed to the chaos of my home life.

Such was not the case at the state high school I attended.  We were left to our own devices (and vices) by a group of young teachers, fresh out of university, fueled by the politics of the anti-war movement.  Although I learned little in high school, I remained a voracious reader.  I’d held a public library card from the age of five, and picked up secondhand paperbacks whenever I could.  My train was cancelled that day and I had a further half hour to wait.  I retrieved a novel from my bag that I had borrowed from the library.

Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave was published 1968.  It is set in the depressed working class north of England, geographically a long way from inner Melbourne.  Those around him – a bullying older brother, schoolyard thugs and psychopathic teacher – repeatedly whack Billy Casper, the slightly built boy at the centre of the novel.  His respite from violence is discovered in his love for a bird, a headstrong but graceful kestrel, and in the wonder of a nearby wood, itself a relief from the grime of coal mines, slag heaps and narrow overcrowded terraces of the town.

I had read many novels by the time I picked up Kes.  My older brother was a champion of many pursuits, including football, handball, marbles, any game requiring skill and sharp reflexes.  But he was no student of literature.  So, despite my relative delinquency, I was his scholarly proxy, devouring his English school texts, including Catcher In The Rye, Travels With My Aunt and To Kill A Mockingbird.  I penned his school essays and would have sat exams in his place had I been half a foot taller.

No book left the impression on me that Kes did.  I was convinced it had travelled the globe to find me.  From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him.  I was sure I was Billy.

When my train finally arrived I continued reading, and after I got off the train and headed home, open book, I found myself walking into light-poles.  Buried deep in the novel I went to my bedroom and finished it.  Closing the final page, I rushed from the house, ran through the narrow streets of my life.  I didn’t stop until I reached the banks of the Yarra River, which, at the time was a maligned and neglected stretch of water, home to car wrecks, the homeless and neglected, and water rats.  I lay in the long grass on the riverbank and thought more about the book until I became so excited I ran back home and read it again.

That night I broke the expulsion news to my mother.  She shrugged her shoulders dismissively.  Clearly, the information was of little surprise to her.  She sternly instructed me to ‘get a job in a week or I’ll find one for you.’

I found gainful employment, as a telegram boy, riding a pushbike across the city.  Whenever I could pinch a few minutes I would ride along a back lane and sit and read.  I was never without a paperback in my pocket.  I was arrested around this time out the front of a local dancehall.  Along with some mates I was lined against a brick wall and patted down.   The subsequent police discovery included half bottles of vodka, flick knives, a touch of mascara and lipstick to enhance the collective glam-rock persona, and a suspicious article in the back pocket of my powder-blue flares.

A copper pulled it from my pocket and shoved it in my face.

‘What the fuck’s this, hard boy?’

‘Ahh … it’s a novel, The Outsider, by Albert Camus.’

He hit me over the back of the head with the book.

‘Never heard of him, smartarse.’

This potted history of my life of crime, punishment and books does little more than state the obvious.  Good fiction has traditionally impacted through its ability to transcend boundaries of class, ethnicity and collective identity, even, as is the case with Kes, a story deeply embedded and invested in the regionalism of northern England.  Barry Hines and Billy Casper touched my heart in a manner that no Australian book had done at the time, or has achieved since.  I understood the challenges of inequality that Billy faced with clarity.  Sadly, I related most strongly to his sense of shame.  It is the shared emotion of people relegated to the social and economic scrapheap.  You keep your head down, just as Billy does, ashamed of your own identity and burdened with the discrimination society becomes strategically blind to.

Therefore, we don’t require a national literature to draw attention to issues of the human condition – or the heart – in Australia.  As my experience of Kes indicates, good writing migrates and finds a home.  Granted, there have been important novels published in recent years in Australia that draw attention to important issues from a domestic perspective.  Michelle de Kretser’s multi award-winning Questions of Travel is such an example.  And of course, it will travel and impact on global readers interested in good writing and the plight of the globally stateless.

A particular issue to a discussion of both national and post-national fiction in Australia is Aboriginal writing and writing about Aboriginal people (which can be both inter-related and mutually exclusive).  Historically, Aboriginal writers of fiction have produced, if not definitively anti-nationalist writing, a sharp critique of an inclusive and collective sense of identity that pervades popular culture and the politics of populism.

White Australia’s twentieth century approach to the so-called ‘Aboriginal problem’ was dominated by the twin policies of child removal and limited assimilation.  In attempts to legitimate dubious and often cruel policies, successive governments, national and state utilised the spectre of the ‘half-caste menace’ to support the violence underpinning assimilation.

Not surprisingly then, Aboriginal writers have often focused on issues of identity, the politics of colour, and the hypocrisy of miscegenation, first interrogated in the seminal Wild Cat Falling, by Colin Johnson in 1965; a novel presenting an unflattering and tragic portrayal of the modern ‘half-caste’, understood through the experiences of a young man emotionally and culturally detached from society.

The novel represents the failure of an obsessive national identity project.  No other writer in Australia, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal would apply a similar literary critique to the assimilation project until Kim Scott’s award winning Benang was published in 1999.  This novel, which ranges across the period of ‘Aboriginal Protection’ under the leadership of A.O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, is subtitled from the heart.  And it is with heart and humour and pathos that Scott lances the festering sore of assimilation, exposing its devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.

Other Aboriginal writers have since produced intelligent and engaging portraits of the nation, through fiction that defies the nation.  This list includes Alexis Wright, Bruce Pascoe and Melissa Lucashenko, amongst others.  Wright, in her novels Carpentaria (also a Miles Franklin winner), and the recent The Swan Book provokes Australians to come to terms with the impact of British occupation on Aboriginal land and people. Her writing provides far more than a critique of a dominant national story.  She is offering us another way of engaging with place and people, be they the first inhabitants of this land, or as with de Kretser’s work, the plight of the displaced.

Such novels are perhaps a version of national fiction looking beyond the nation.

In recent years the wider literary community in Australia has celebrated Aboriginal writing, although it also continues to be received and consumed defensively, within a mindset stuck in the colonial imagination.  I call this the ‘disloyalty effect’, whereby some critics, commentators and readers respond to what they feel is a negative critique of the national story; an act of ingratitude.  The degree of disloyalty is compounded when delivered by ‘mixed-blood’ Aboriginal writers, who are, after all, the wayward children of the benevolent nation.

There are those of course, who understand the potential for Aboriginal writing to productively shift the national story.  Geordie Williamson, literary critic of The Australian newspaper, in his review of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book commented on the ‘urgent importance’ of the novel and the themes it tackles, going far beyond the borders of a national story, dealing with issues such as climate change, refugees, and the outsider.

The Swan Book is an ideal example of post-national fiction.

Both Scott and Wright are widely read outside Australia, particularly in Europe, where their work has been translated.  Global readers have little or no investment in ensuring that our fiction underpins an unwritten patriot act.  Accepting that my belief here is largely anecdotal, but based on international readers I have engaged with largely as an academic, a global engagement with Aboriginal writers increasingly locates the writing in a global context.

Let me be clear, Aboriginal writers in Australia are not alone in this achievement.  To argue such a point would invalidate the impact that A Kestrel for a Knave had on a fifteen-year-old boy both lost and in love with books.  It would also display a deep level of disrespect for both the writers and readers enjoying this festival.  I would argue though, with confidence, that too many Australians remain ignorant of the creative and intellectual reach of Aboriginal writing, knowing little beyond the degree to which it serves us and fits within a national narrative.

In February this year I was invited by Screen Australia, along with a group of Aboriginal writers, to spend a week at Uluru with the acclaimed film writer and novelist, Guillermo Arriaga.  Amongst other achievements, recognised with a BAFTA nomination and the Cannes festival award for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006), Arriaga wrote the screenplays for Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.  He has visited Australia previously, and has a passionate interest in Aboriginal storytelling, through both writing for film and fiction.  In several conversations I had with Guillermo, he returned to the same point.  While he is excited that Aboriginal writing has introduced him Australia’s domestic story, it spoke directly to, and resonated with him most particularly as it provided him with an additional insight into the story of his own country, Mexico.  He was not referring to indigenous issues, but human issues.  He is also adamant that Aboriginal writers in Australia were some of the bravest he’d met, when choosing how subject matter is shaped into story.  ‘It speaks to the world,’ he said over and over again.

Before concluding with a comment on two books that have influenced me greatly I want to briefly discuss the elephant in the room.  This elephant impinges on discussions of both Aboriginal writing in Australia and writing about Aborigines.  I want to offer a position that I hope is helpful and pertinent when contemplating both a national and post-national literature in this country.

I have been teaching at university for close to twenty years now.  I also regularly appear at writer’s festivals.  It is rare for an event concerned with Aboriginal writing to pass without the question coming from the floor, ‘can non-Aboriginal people write an Aboriginal character?’

Let me dispose with the mundane and move onto a (hopefully) productive response.

Firstly, the point is moot.  Non-Aboriginal authors have been writing about Aboriginal people for more than 200 years now, and enough of them will continue to do so in the future.  As a writer and educator I’m interested in questions such as, in what ways do non-Aboriginal writers portray Aboriginal characters in fiction?  And what might be the intellectual and creative motivation behind this writing?

Secondly, and problematically, many would-be writers who ask the question are seeking absolution and endorsement; a misguided notion on two counts.  If the Aboriginal writer endorses their ‘right to creative expression’ a beaming smile appears on the face of the would-be writer.  He or she has been saved, cleansed and become ‘entitled’.  If an endorsement does not follow the question, perhaps with the blunt comment ‘don’t do it’, the would-be writer is prone to either break down in tears or verbally attack the Aboriginal writer.

My advice is simple.  Please do not ask as refusal may offend.  If I were to offer advice it would be that the responsibility for what is written sits with the author.  Totally.  Whenever I feel uneasy about subject matter I come to a clear decision to tackle the material and, hopefully do it justice.  Or leave it alone when I don’t feel equipped to write well.

This, by the way, is the reason I don’t write sex.

What I would like to say, which I hope is a more generous point, one that I hold with conviction, is that there are many non-Aboriginal writers in Australia who have produced vitally important novels dealing with Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships.  Just a few of these writers include Randolph Stow, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville and Peter Goldsworthy.  Other writers have failed the task miserably, unable to rise above two-dimensional stereotypes, sentimentality, moral superiority or guilt, sometimes in the one book.

But our measuring stick must be novels of quality, the stories that attempt to question and shift the culture.  I guess I want to have a bet each way here.  I like stories about this place, this country.  But not those that do little more than mimic the rah-rah of the sporting field.  Nor those that want to uphold a shallow lie about this country, even when posing as fiction.  I also want to read stories that travel, like a bird I adore, the Arctic Tern, which bravely navigates the globe each year to nest on the beaches of southern Australia.

Finally, I want to mention two heroes.  When I read Junot Diaz’s first book, his 1996 linked story collection, Drown, I had a similar experience to that on discovering Kes.  I was a lot older, calmer and more settled.  Here was a book set in both the Dominican Republic and New Jersey that again spoke to my heart and head.  Once I had put the book down I understood that it was time stop scribbling around with the occasional poem and short story and try to become a writer.  For better or worse, Diaz is partly responsible for my first book, Shadowboxing, a linked story collection following the life of Michael Byrne, from the childhood badlands of inner Melbourne to an adulthood of resolution.  Drown, as with Kes, as with other books I am sure people in this audience have read and will always transcend the nation.  Clearly, a post-national literature has always been with us.

While preparing for this festival and this event I have been reading a new book, Ali Alizadeh’s Transactions.  It is a story cycle that traverses the globe, dealing with the greed and cruelty of rampant capitalism, the displacement and exploitation of vulnerable people, and the yearning for a home that exists, not in a slogan, a t-shirt, or a pledge of loyalty, but in the blood that flows through the body, in the spiritual resonances that we sometimes attempt to deny.  While Transactions has been favourably reviewed in Australia, we have also been reminded that it is ‘bleak’.  It is not.  It is a book of love that refuses an easy exit.  It is fiction that exposes the prejudices and violence of society.  In doing so Alizadeh generously offers us a better ‘way of seeing’ the world and ourselves.  It is truly a book without borders.

© Tony Birch 2013


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Lohrey in Australia – Keynote on Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-in-australia-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-in-australia-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 05:30:19 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5347 9-LohreyaShould Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Amanda Lohrey

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival


Amanda Lohrey keynote text: “Can Literature Affect Political Change?”

My argument in brief is that the novel has little power to make an effective political intervention. The novel comes after the event; it is a chronicle of or argument with the event but does not shape it. Only in repressive societies can the novel achieve a form of symbolic power as a gesture of resistance which may help to fortify the morale of activists on the ground but it cannot do more than this to overthrow regimes. To quote Marcuse, art by itself can never achieve transformation but it can under certain circumstances ‘free the perception and sensibility needed for the transformation’.

The first half of the twentieth century was characterised by fierce debates about the relationship between politics and art, largely inspired by militant Left movements throughout Europe. One thinks of Bolshevik agitprop on the role of art to enlighten and inspire the masses by unmasking false consciousness and modelling possible utopias. My generation of Left artists was influenced by debates between European Marxists on the politics of representation and the most politically effective genres of realism. Among the most robust of these was the argument between German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and the distinguished Hungarian theorist George Lukacs and the strategic nature of all literary forms was encapsulated in a checklist of questions posed by Brecht: Who is this sentence of use to? Who does it claim to be of use to? What does it call for? What practical action corresponds to it? What sort of sentence results from it? What sort of sentences support it? In what situation is it spoken? By whom? (Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans John Willett 1977).

In the post 1945 Cold War era debates on politics and aesthetics continued with decreasing potency of address and penetration, especially in the Anglo-American world where influential and often CIA funded critics and academicians maintained the line that political fiction was mere propaganda. Literature transcended politics; it was about the fundamentals of love, death and the landscape. True poetry was a meditation on how light was reflected in a rockpool or the outline of a maidenhair fern at dusk. Political fiction or poetry was ‘didactic’ and it ‘dated’. Meanwhile Left writers and critics continued to argue that writers should make it an integral part of their project to contest official histories, to interrogate the so-called master narratives of the culture and show how history and politics construct the personal. At the very least, such writing could give a voice to the voiceless so that the oppressed could recognize themselves in the work of art and gain strength from a mirroring effect that validated the experience of the marginalized.  In addition, sales and critical acclaim could endow the writer with a prestige that he or she could wield on the campaign trail, as in the case of German novelist Gunter Grass who campaigned actively over two decades for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP).

Whichever side you are on it is important to acknowledge that writing about politics is inherently problematical. Brecht’s questions are a blunt address to the cognitive but what of the unconscious? How sound are the rationalist assumptions that underlie the Left/liberal political project, namely that all people are inherently reasonable? Social utility is a Victorian notion that does not sit comfortably with post-Freudian perspectives on the riddle of human subjectivity. Art that aims to make a political intervention must grapple first with the unconscious, that substratum of desire, pleasure, fatalism and pain. This is a potential quicksand for the artist who is aiming to do more than write as a navigator of the psyche, who has specific goals of social utility in mind, namely converts. There is always a danger that an artist who paints a lurid picture of the apocalypse will seduce not repel; consider audience response to the character of Colonel Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

In his essay ‘Right and Wrong Political Uses of Political Literature’ (1997) Italo Calvino attacked the ‘wrongheaded notion of the committed writer’ and raised this question of the unconscious. ‘We can never forget that what books communicate often remains unknown even to the author himself, that books often say something different from what they set out to say, that in any book there is a part that is the author’s and the part that is a collective and anonymous work.’ In other words, in any text the writer’s unconscious engages with the reader’s and the outcomes are highly unpredictable.

But there is a further factor at work here and it is an historical one. The second half of the 20th century saw a decline in Left politics, the rise of affluence, consumerism and the mass media and the triumph of neo-liberalism and globalized capitalism, promoted during the ideological counter-attack of the 1980s which saw the foundation of a number of business financed right-wing think tanks in developed countries (see Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, 1995). I think you can argue that these think tanks have been far more influential than literary fiction is constructing public narratives of the political. They have, for example, successfully planted in the mainstream media a number of pundits and columnists whose vicious paranoid narratives continue to be retailed ad nauseam.

Some artists may strive to counter this but who is listening? Artists are a product of their culture, as are their potential audiences. One of the insights of the Frankfurt School was to predict that when the utopian impulse in western culture was converted to consumerist mode and the project of a purely individual and psychological model of salvation, the artist who sought to make political interventions would become enfeebled. And so it has proved. Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci made two of the most remarkable political movies in the history of cinema, The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1976) but when asked in 1988 why he had abandoned political cinema, Bertolucci replied: ‘The cinema always depends on reality. I couldn’t make 1900 today. Even though it was an historical story it corresponded to something in Italian society in the mid-70s…It is very difficult today to talk about politics…Or even to talk about what is Left and what is Right. Everything is mixed up in this soup called consumerism’.

Fredric Jameson has written of the power of systems to co-opt and defuse even the most potentially dangerous forms of political art by transforming them into cultural commodities, especially in the case of case of modernist art but also in the domain of fiction. In his scarifying critique of the postmodern novel, The Postmodern Aura (1985) Charles Newman writes of ‘the redundancy of the adversary style’ in an era in which avant-gardism becomes fashionable and a consumer passion for novelty creates ‘an entire culture of short-term traders’. What is new and temporarily shocking soon passes into the banality of the over-exposed and in first world countries the ‘problem’ of art becomes not its repression but public indifference to it.

One could argue at this point for satire, for making your readership laugh and your opponent look ridiculous, but if we consider the fine tradition within North American literature of the anti-war novel (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) the political outcomes are not encouraging. Widely acclaimed on publication, Catch 22 sold millions of copies and is still taught in schools and universities. But has it inhibited any further US military adventurism? One of the criticisms of Heller’s novel is that it deflates into a lame ending when its hero Yossarian deserts to Sweden. In his essay, ‘The Deserters: The Contemporary Defeat of Fiction’ Carl Oglesby, a radical student activist in the 60s and later a writer, castigates Heller for this tepid resolution. Why, asks Oglesby, doesn’t Yossarian assassinate the villain of the novel, Colonel Cathcart?  Instead of rebelling within history, Yossarian rebels against it in a narrative in which Sweden stands for the ‘beyond’ of history. The possibility of rebellion is foreclosed. What I find interesting here is that in the best novel about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) the regular soldiers have indeed made this progression and do assassinate their officers; it’s called fragging. But for them there is no escape either. Or rather, they escape into fantasy and the novel has no exit other than into a form of magical escapism and the pathos of men who can envisage no authentic political agency. Theirs is an even more extreme form of desertion than Yossarian’s. And thus we progress from Vietnam to Iraq and a culture in which the writer, in Oglesby’s words, is a figure of ‘privileged impotence’. Unless, of course, like Arundhati Roy, she chooses to abandon fiction for polemical non-fiction and a role as a frontline political activist.

The end of the Cold war and the advent of the postcolonial moment to some degree reconfigured the critical and artistic terrain that prevailed up until the 1980s.Writers in Britain’s ex colonies produced a wave of novels about imperialism and its effects and these invariably won the Commonwealth Writers Prize which became a mirror of the postcolonial moment. In Latin America the Leftist writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez made of magical realism a romantic form of political opposition but one that for readers in the West was read mostly for its romance rather than its oppositional politics which, in any case, tended to be occluded by the ‘magic’. The early works of Salman Rushdie promised a new form of story-telling based on a richly inventive bricolage of cultural reference and hybrid modes of rhetoric but in James Wood’s recent and famously adversarial view the genre eventually declined into a decadence which he provocatively labelled ‘hysterical realism’ (2000). Such novels, wrote Wood, ‘accumulate meaning only to disperse it’. With their ‘cartoonish’ plotting and bizarre characters they create a manic surface the effect of which is to deny the possibility of character development and hence of reader empathy (‘no-one really exists’). Wood writes of a ‘weightless excess’ that is not genuinely experimental: ‘the practical effect is a grammar of realism that challenges nobody and nothing’. Newman too has a great deal to say on this subject, citing its ‘easily purchased surrealism, wilful randomness and cheap narrative collage’, its ‘logorrhoea’, its decline into a ‘routinized disturbance available to any middle-class terrorist’. The initial freshness of perception that Marquez and the early Rushdie introduced has proved to be short-lived.

Wood doesn’t offer a political explanation of this but Jameson might characterize it as a form of postmodern panic or hysteria in the face of globalising capitalism’s colonization of every sphere and dimension of experience, its totalizing character which can only be escaped through wilful indeterminacy and chaos, including in fiction. This, however, creates a form of weak narrative which offers weak resistance to strong or fundamentalist narratives. To this I would add the decline of the writer as sage or oracle, along with the decline of the potency of the serious literary novel in the hectic, multi-vocal world of television and the internet with their ‘flood of secondary realities’. The novel is now a very small player in what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the ‘consciousness industry’.

What is left? Two things, I would suggest. Firstly, the revelatory power of the documentary and secondly the mythic power of the story. The novel as honest chronicle is still a means to documenting and celebrating, in Newman’s words, ‘the particularity of partial knowledge.’ It can still bring news, it can still bring to our attention those areas of human experience that are passed over or denied in the mass media. But to have political influence it must be first be read, and read sympathetically, by a large audience and that is another matter.

On the mythic plane, I would argue that the novel takes its place as one agent, along with cinema and television, within the Levi-Strauss model of the function of myth, namely to mediate between and resolve within narrative those contradictions that are not susceptible to resolution in everyday life. In other words, mythic story-telling offers substitute gratification within, and compensation for, a fraught reality. As such the primary function of narrative is the opposite of reformist; it is to console and pacify, to dissipate rage rather than to incite it and to relieve the pain of the incomprehensible. To borrow from that prodigious reader Karl Marx, story-telling is the heart of a heartless world.  Is it then the opiate of the masses? Probably.

© Amanda Lohrey, 2013



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Gunn in Australia – Keynote on Style vs Content http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/gunn-in-australia-keynote-on-style-vs-content/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 03:30:53 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5335 6-gunnkStyle vs Content

Keynote address given by Kirsty Gunn

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Kirsty Gunn keynote text ‘Style vs Content’:

Generally, it seems to me, when people get together to talk about style and content in the novel they talk about just that: There’s the way a story is written and there’s what is written about. And the two, as any Literature Professor in charge of any introductory undergraduate course on the novel would say, are inextricably linked.

But nobody talks much about form. Or if they do, as the programme notes for this event suggest, they use it as another word for style.

And we need to talk about form. “Significant form”, as Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf had it. Form that is the shape and idea and raison d’etre of the novel. Form that sits behind the style and generates it, that informs the presentation of content and makes sense of it, giving context. If content is the “what” of a novel – what it’s made of – and style the “way” – in which way it is written – then form is the “how”. How a story is made in the first place, the plan for its very being. And it’s form, the mother of style and content, I may say – if I want to be rather classical and 18th century about things! -  that I want to concern myself with here today.

As I say, it’s something we don’t hear much about. Form is fancy. It’s “highbrow”. It’s the word used by Modernists and for Modernism, it’s for academic papers and critical theory and discussions about aesthetics. Form, for all that it is talked about in general literary circles, in the papers and at Writers Festivals (though not this one!) may as well be a dirty word.

Yet, I return through the mists of time to my undergraduate English programme, headed up, no doubt, by that same professor I talked about earlier, who tells us that “style and content are inextricably linked” and the core course: Introduction to the Novel 101. And what I remember is this: That as we marched our way through the canon that year, from “Pamela” and “Clarissa” through to “Robinson Crusoe” and “Tristram Shandy” and “Tom Jones” and all the rest, stopping resolutely as we did in those Oxbridge syllabus dominated days with DH Lawrence, it was form that gave instruction to the writer I wanted to be. I had no or little interest, not really, in what went on in those books. All the stuff that was happening, riveting and dramatic as it may have been. I wasn’t turned on by the stories’ historical contexts, either; I didn’t care to keep track of the characters’ individual actions and remember what happened to whom, and when. No, I was interested in how they were made, those books, for what purpose their authors deemed they were fitted. I was interested in how an imaginative idea was going to be made as real to me and as necessary and vital as anything else that might be going on in my life. Once that was in place, I could figure, all the rest would follow.

And follow it did. The exam questions kicked in and I knew exactly what to do: “In what way does the word of Middlemarch reflect a changing England? “Forget it. “At what point in the novel and why does Dorothea realise her sense of independence has been challenged?” Pass. “Show passages of speech and description that reflect class prejudice.” Not now. But once I got to “How has George Eliot gone about creating a social document within a novel?” I was off and running.

Form was my way in, then, to those often lengthy, densely written, character rich narratives that have all of us flipping back pages in the midst of our reading to remind ourselves of whether such and such was the same one who had said something to so and so in the first section, or whether he was her uncle. There was so much content! And then the paragraphs, the circumlocutions of period speech, the details of descriptions that were needed in a world before photographs and films. There was so much style! Getting through the canon of English language literature in three years – it’s a relentless business, alright! But what books! What mighty books! And each one utterly unlike the other – no two authors writing in the same way and each literary project with its own unique shape. Like exciting novels we read now that transport us, that take us fully into their reality and keep us there, that aren’t just some copycat project based on research, or that follow a trend, or trick us with a fancy style or overwhelm us with plot. The books that have form have unity and wholeness. They answer fully and with integrity the question: How am I going to create a world for this story to live in? That’s what form does. It brings content and style together in unity in a novel. Without it, the style, original as it may be, is just echoing in an empty chamber. The content, box new perhaps but without its own form, dull and second hand and boring to read.

I have a million examples of writing of the other kind, that miss the point of form, and still the books are praised and bought and read. Seemingly, just because we’re talking about novels, that great rag bag of a genre that can hold anything from chick-lit to “War and Peace”, we can throw form out the window. Because in the novel, anything goes. But should it be that way? That a writer putting together a novel about, say, insanity in rural Ireland in the 19h Century, (and I’m making up the examples here, by the way, to be polite) a novel with an uneducated central protagonist who is keeping a diary from her cell, has not considered a form for that book that would make sense of that woman’s status and condition? So, for example, she would not write at all –because she can’t. She’s not educated. She wouldn’t be able to fill the pages of a journal in her cell. But still there would be some other way of the author creating that character’s thoughts and life on the page? Can’t that writer think about that, instead of just relying on the substance of his content, to make the story real? James Kelman knows how to solve that kind of challenge. He knows about form. He has characters who don’t read, who’ve gone blind, yet still move through the pages of their stories in a way that’s rich in literary terms because of how he has invented his books, to have come up with a form where, as the great late Dr Gavin Wallace, former head of literature at Creative Scotland described it, “the life being lived is contiguous with the writing that describes it.” Kelman’s form is made up of his very characters, who talk to themselves continually, apprehending, sensing, understanding, not understanding. What we read on the pages of his books are the entire contents of their minds. It s a world away from the tried and tested journal style used by that other writer, and countless like him, who’ve all copied in turn from Defoe – because Kelman has form. He’ s not like anyone else. Form doesn’t want to be.

Or, to take another example, that a book, say, written from a child’s point of view might consider issues of vocabulary and understanding in a young mind, that it might encapsulate a sensibility more fractured and acute than the sophisticated adult who’s writing it? Yet how many writers – some of them very successful – really capture in their words what it is to be a child? Carson McCullers did, perfectly, in “Member of the Wedding”.  She knew about form. Frankie’s world, in that book, is complete, but made up of parts of disparate seeing and understanding and she grows up in the story with different ways of being, and speaking. Everything about the construction of “Member of the Wedding” is idiosyncratic and wild, mixed up as a dream. That’s what a child’s world is like. It’s not a version of an adult novel cut down to size. It’s not a controlled narrative, or masses of character and interiority. It’s scattered and intense. Why don’t so many authors who write from a children’s perspective get it? That kids’ worlds aren’t like theirs? Why doesn’t form seem to matter to them, that they should think that just by inventing a young voice they’ll pull off the trick of making childhood seem like childhood?

As I say, I could go on and on here, with examples. Books written from the first person that have never considered what it is about the first person that might be exciting actually, that the reader might not feel she’s been stuck in someone’s solitary company for too long. Books written that seem to be about character, until, ten pages in, you realise they’re only about stereotypes; or books set in ancient times with all the research in place, all those details about iron vessels and agriculture,  only the teenagers who live in the freezing hovels sound like they come from LA. Or books that seem to be about fancy writing but the writing has no context because there’ s been no central aesthetic governing it, nothing to put it in. Or books that seem to be about plot but really it’s the setting that the writer loves, that could have been the plot in itself, if only the author had thought about form, if only, if only, if only… The writer had thought about form so many of the novels might come together.

But then, form is a challenge. It’s the hardest part. It’s why most writers stick with the tried and tested, that good old workhorse, the realist novel. Broken and harnessed to plough the fields of 19th century fiction, we know what to expect of it, what it’s supposed to do. Indeed, how many other, very different kinds of books are always held up to it for comparison? If you listened to enough of the hugely successful realist novelists at work today talk about the novel, their novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the canon stopped its march right there, in the turned earth of the classical English novel, with its showing and telling and character development and narrative arc.

Yet the examples I gave before describe two ways form may have stepped in and created something new and exciting from the materials in hand without having to revert to copied and repeated methods. And I gave two masters of form, two great artists, as examples of how one might find solutions to the basic challenge of writing fiction, that is, making the words on the page believable and real. These are writers whose every book shows them having thought through completely the requirements of what they need to do to tell their stories. They know that idolect does not form make. Nor crazy looking chapter headings or multiple fonts. Nor content designed to impress or over-act. They know that form is not just tackling certain challenges of plot or character in isolation – but is the very “how” of their work, as I said at the beginning of this talk, its beginning and its end.

Virginia Woolf’s novel  “The Waves” tells the unbroken story of six friends from childhood into age. By creating a kind of banner of prose, without break, that segues from the mind of one character to the next, she tells about the private and public circumstances of their lives. So that’s the style, that’s the content. But the “how” is how she gets started. Two places divided by a corridor, is how she first thought of “To the Lighthouse”. It was music for “The Waves”,  “rhythm”. Yes, the work unfolds, as it does to any writer as she or he is writing, but it took shape first as a concept, an idea that was abstracted from the imagination and the intellect and sometimes, too, from the psychological make-up and even psyche of the author and then fashioned into fiction. I can imagine writing a novel that would be like a ship at night “strung about with lights” Katherine Mansfield wrote as though in response to Woolf’s own definition of the novel as a “row of lamps”. How far these ideas are removed from the rigid, rectilinear narratives, that flinty mass-produced form, that constitute so many novels today. How wild, by contrast, how trippy, how exciting and involving…This other kind of novel that has as its beginning a complex, aesthetic idea to do with the story’s origin and design, that is nothing to do with what is safe and familiar.

In a recent lecture to writing students, critic and author Gabriel Josipovici talked about the “terror” of creation. He was addressing the modernist condition of making art in the void, described so beautifully in his recent polemic “Whatever Happened to Modernism?” as the “fading of the numinous”, the relaxing of a religious medieval mind, content with its world order and heaven, into the troubled, questioning condition of humanism. There is time in which to create, Jospipovici said, and out of that time can come the excitement – of making something new – but alongside it is the terror, too, that the writing may not succeed. All we have to hold onto is the sense of the form of the project.

So to finish: There’s writing as representation, and there’s writing as a living thing. There are novels that are about, and like, and for. And there are other novels that …Simply are. To consider form, the shape, the concept of a work of fiction, is to go at reading from the most exciting perspective – one that gifts us with fresh sight, that makes reading not passive – part of out consumer consumption, an extension of the entertainment industry – but something active, engaging, affecting and real.

Let me conclude with a remark made by science-fiction-writer China Mieville, who had much to say on the future of the novel at the conference in Edinburgh last year and who was talking about novels there again this past week and at a book reading he gave a couple of months back. The word he had for what I’m wanting to get at here, in this talk of mine about what novels are made of, was “uncanny” – the notion of a thought, or a sentence that is homeless, somehow, in the text. He was referring to future-fiction and fantasy, and also the modernist idea of looking at something anew, so that the familiar seems strange  – saying that both these concepts need to find a home in the story so the reader can make sense of them. But the idea works beautifully for us here, today, too. Because that’s what form does. It gives the words, it gives style and content, a home.

© Kirsty Gunn 2013

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Cole in Australia – Keynote on The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/cole-in-australia-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 01:45:59 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5318 4-coletThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Teju Cole

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Teju Cole keynote text: “The Novel After the Novelist”

“A great writer is one who elongates the perspective of human sensibility,” Brodsky wrote. This is one understanding of what novels do: they take us to the limits of experience and of ourselves. For Brodsky, exemplars of such writing were Platonov and (he cites her memoirs) Nadezhda Madelstam. In the twentieth century, we can think of any number of writers who might fit Brodsky’s criterion. Among those whose work is more troubled and strained, there are Camus, Woolf, Beckett, and Blanchot, just to name a few. But there are many others who also show us that human sensibility is more than we might have guessed. Our world is bigger because of Achebe, García-Márquez, Laxness, and Yourcenar. The diversity of these names indicates the obvious: excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional. It is a capacious form, one which allows for many kinds of victory.

But another kind of novel exists, one which Brodsky perhaps would not have recognized as elongating the perspective of human sensibility. When we talk about “the novel,” are we referring to the examples cited above—literary novels of high achievement, diverse as they are—or are we talking about novels that are written as a product for the publishing market? It is true that the line between a purely commercial novel and an accomplished work of art is not completely clear. Some bestsellers are very well-written, and some magnificiently strange books sell well; but we cannot claim that they are indistinguishable. So, when we talk about the future of the novel, it is worth acknowledging that there are distinct ambitions, independent of style, in the works classified by the very term “novel.” I would like to follow Brodsky and be concerned only with those works that elongate the perspective of human sensibility. I acknowledge the existence of the other kind, the kind that an author can write many of in one year, the kind that the reader hardly remembers reading, the kind that fits neatly into a genre and whose main purpose is to help the reader pass some hours on a plane: the survival or evolution of this more ubiquitous type of novel is not of particular interest to me.

Instead, I want to think about the health of that artificial line that goes from Rabelais to Flaubert to Joyce to Jelinek. What will become of this tradition of the novel which, as Randall Jarrell wrote, is “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”? If there is more and more pressure from the other kind of novel, the neat and untroubled novel that has nothing wrong with it, how shall we sustain the novel that has something wrong with it?

But we are thinking about a tradition whose founders, Rabelais and Cervantes, did not consider themselves “novelists.” What they did was write long (very long) prose full of productive defects. This, I think, might be where the novel will begin to return. There might be a homing instinct inside the novel that is carrying it back home to its wild origins.

The novel’s great flourishing, market-wise, was in the nineteenth-century, when Pride and Prejudice and Effi Briest and the French roman d’analyse entered fully into the life of the middle classes. It was a flourishing and it was also, of course, a poisoning, because one strand of the novel intensified what was human—ragged and flickering—about the form, but another strand became the crammed attic of all that was sentimental and settled. The early twentieth-century kicked against this. We entered the era of the future of the novel: one answer to the question “What is the future of the novel?” even now is still “Ulysses.” Another is “Mrs. Dalloway.” Yet another is “The Man Without Qualities.” It was in this era that the novel began to escape the novel again, with all kinds of inclusions that had not been seen since the early days, since Rabelais, Fielding, and the other rough-mannered originators. The twentieth-century modernist novel made itself a home for a long narrative about characters and their interactions, but it also allowed for their thoughts, their philosophical digressions, and their walks. The novel contained memoir, philosophy, law, letters, history, theology, yesterday’s news, and, with full gusto and disorienting commitment in Finnegans Wake, even dreams and incomprehensibility.

It was electrifying, but we had gone too close to the edge. We had to retreat. And so—and of course I’m simplifying terribly—the Anglo-American novel in particular became quite a conservative thing (the French continued to fight the good fight). For every Faulkner in the US, there was a highly-praised Pearl Buck and a deified Steinbeck. What could not be understood and enjoyed by everyone was considered with suspicion. We, particularly in America, entered the age of prizes and consensus. Experimentation remained alive, particularly as the novel found its way to cultures that had hitherto not written many novels, but the biggest names in Anglo-American publishing tended to be safe, the sort of names that did well on school curricula or found themselves quite happy in book clubs. The Pulitzer Prize for literature was unerringly middlebrow. This was the age of Austen and Dickens all over again, but with little of the sparkling quality of those popular but brainy novelists.

All the while, though, futurists of different stripes carried on their work, for the most part with less glare on their enterprise. Barth and Coover, Ondaatje and Naipaul, Frame and Murnane, Bender and Shields: many kept on sewing the suit of experimentalism in the shadows, influenced by their contemporaries in poetry. The Latin American boom and the Indian and African literatures it infected carried this work forward. Tristram Shandy migrated to Cartagena and to Bombay.

This was the work of the full-dressed post-Ulysses school (though no one is post-Ulysses; we are all somehow still catching up to it). It is against this backdrop that we might try to understand what the Internet in general, and Twitter in particular, mean for experimental prose. For isn’t this, in all its narration and ungoverned excess, where we might now be going? Isn’t Twitter the most vivid illustration since Ulysses of what full inclusion might mean? There are two-hundred million people on Twitter. They are all writing, and all are writing under a formal constraint.

This leads one, almost, into a mystical formulation: on Twitter there is no “novelist” but there is a novel: Twitter is the continuity of the published thoughts of all the people present on Twitter. It had a beginning, but it has no end. And each second, thousands of pages are added, millions of contributions per day. And each person who reads it, as Heraclitus might have promised, reads something different from everyone else. This is an inclusiveness, from an unexpected direction, that might begin to affect even the practice of the conventional published novel. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t: most young novelists are themselves active on Twitter now. The atomized mode of information dispersal is more and more natural, and less and less “experimental” or elite.

Consider this statement: “Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” This was written by William James’ in 1890, in The Principles of Psychology. It was later taken as an apt coinage for the efforts of Joyce, Woolf, and Mansfield. The description fits, even more exactly, the experience of reading Twitter.

Though there are interesting individual experiments on Twitter, I am drawn to the original meaning of “individual”: that which is undivided. It is the undivided, undifferentiated cascade of thoughts streaming past the timeline that makes me suspect that Twitter is, indeed, elongating the perspective of human sensibility. I want to suggest, then, that Twitter is one of the futures of the novel. In a time of commercial publishing and excellent television, the novelist is smaller than ever before. But the novel itself, it seems, is suffering the opposite fate: it is getting bigger and bigger, and gradually swallowing the whole world.

 © Teju Cole, 2013


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El Mougy in Egypt – Keynote on The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/el-mougy-in-egypt-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/el-mougy-in-egypt-keynote-on-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Mon, 01 Jul 2013 11:41:29 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=2255 EWWC Cairo, Egypt: Keynote released Please note: This event was scheduled for 9 December 2012 and was cancelled. The Future of the Novel Keynote: Sahar el Mougy]]> The Future of the Novel

Keynote address by Sahar el Mougy


This event was previously scheduled to be presented at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, Cairo, December 9th 2012. The event had to be cancelled due to the upheavals in the city at that time.

Sahar el Mougy Keynote text: “The Egyptian novel: questions and challenges”

In the last decade, the world as we have known it since World War Two has changed, is still changing. We are actually in the very heart of this change now. The internet revolution is one facet of this change. It is both a reflection of the ongoing strong current of change as well as one of its many causes.  And in parallel with the internet revolution, waves of social upheaval have been gaining force in different parts of the world since 2004, and culminating in the huge wave of protests of 2007 till the present moment. The two factors of the internet revolution and the social upheavals raise questions related to the novel and to what extent the genre is affecting and being affected by this change.

I believe the internet has led to a multi-layered state of democratization. It has led to an expansion of readership, with readers gaining access to free books online, the classics as well as the hacked. Culture is no longer accessed only by those who could pay for its products. Yet the democratization of culture raises questions related to the publishing business: has this access enjoyed by the “people” been as fortunate to the publishers? Is there a threat to the business? Will the publishers have to think of ways of competing, or maybe minimizing the damage?

The internet has also democratized writing and self-publishing. Since the year 2000, millions of people around the world have enjoyed the free space for self expression offered in blogs and on the pages of social media. Some of those bloggers happened to be/ turned out to be writers. They were young writers with hardly any access to the publishing world. But through the virtual space, they could write and with a tap on the keyboard their writings were out there, readers reading and responding. Online self-publishing would not bring the writers money, yet their works would be read, they would be given feedback and offered a chance to pool with other writers/ bloggers.

In the Egyptian case, blogging was not just an escape from and a challenge to the publishing business. More importantly, it has lead to some radical psychological change in the 1980s generation, which I call “the Emergency Law generation”. This is the generation which has been born to a multi-faceted marginalization. They called themselves “the Egyptian expatriates in Egypt” as shown in the slogan of an internet radio station- “Teet”- whose mission statement reads: “The Voice of the Egyptian Expatriates in Egypt”. Funny but true. Blogging eventually meant resistance, the cultural resistance of the oppressed as Bill Ashcroft puts it in Post Colonial Transformations, though the colonizer-colonized relationship has acquired new dimensions. Blogging has offered those writers a zone where they can deconstruct and reconstruct their sense of identity against the social and political mainstream. Lately, many Egyptian blogs have been popular enough to seduce publishers into publishing such works (novels, poetry collections and short stories)! In order to keep up with this phenomenon, Amazon has started a self publishing line of E-novellas sold for one dollar. A certain percentage goes to the writers. Is this the door to a deeper and wider change in the world of writing/ publishing? Does it pose a challenge to the critic and to the reader?

The other element which I believe will impact the novel in many ways is the social/ political upheaval the world has been witnessing since 2004. From Iceland to Greece and Spain, from the Arab world to the UK, Russia to the US, ripples of anger against the failure of governance are growing. How will this new consciousness impact on the novel? While I do not have the answers regarding world literature, I can attempt to trace some signs of change in Egypt. In parallel with the work of the civil opposition groups, the world of culture/ writing has enjoyed a revival. New publishing houses have been founded, many of them introducing new voices. Quite a number of new novelists have emerged. Some of those writers came from the blogging world. More bookstores have opened. Signing events are taking place, a newly introduced tradition which did not exist before 2004. Private book clubs, operating away from the cultural institutions which monopolized all cultural activities for decades, have mushroomed. Meanwhile, Writers and Artists for Change was founded in 2005, a branch out of Kefaya, the mother movements to many offshoots. On 5th September 2005, fifty five Egyptian artists and theater critics were burnt to death in a fire that took place in a small performance hall in Beni Soueif.  The tragedy came as yet another bitter reminder of the dilapidated state of the political regime. Writers and artists left their desks and  protested for months on end against the Ministry of Culture and the corrupt regime which protected the minister for twenty three years in office. Serious questions related to the state’s continuous efforts (since the 1970s) to “tame” the Egyptian writers have surfaced.

In the meantime, a question related to the content of the novels written by the writers of the last two decades poses itself. Children of the internet have been exposed to the world in a different way. The image has been part of their perception of the world. Would the content and style of such writings reflect some change as compared to the works of the previous generations? In certain cases, a happy marriage existed between narratives and the image, as in the case of the graphic novel. In some other cases, novels were affected by the blogging medium in that they show a tendency to pull down the wall between writer and reader. There is always an addressee with whom the writer engages. I would borrow Maggie Gee’s question here: will the novel develop into an oral saga? It very well might.

In some novels, the language and tools of the internet have been adopted and adapted within the narration. The formatting, for example, of emails, chats and fragmented conversations have inspired some novels. Some blogs have been converted, with minimal or no changes, into books. To what extent will the genre, already flexible and receptive of new elements, evolve or change? Could it be that what is happening represents the early seeds of a more radical change yet to materialize?

But one can already register some change in the content of the Egyptian novel, a change which coincided with the awakening taking place since 2004. Many Egyptian novels stopped turning their back on the political. Unlike the works of the writers of the 1990s (myself included), which dealt with the subjective and the personal, some novels built bridges with the socio-political context. Examining the novels of the 1990s, one finds out that the writers turning their backs on the reality that was out there was both a need and a statement. The novelists explored their sense of estrangement, both on the level of the self- self or that of self-surrounding reality. The rejected self busied itself with its quest. There was a need to wrap one’s self in the inner cocoon. I guess what took place in many novelists’ minds then was that maybe the existentialist quest would bear fruit, unlike the engagement with the political. This was also a statement against the mainstream which alienated writers and pushed them to the far away desert of indifference.

Significantly, some of those same writers (who enjoyed the cocoon in the 1990s) showed some degree of involvement with their context as revealed in their novels in the mid 2000s. For instance, in my 1999 novel Daria, the reader can hardly trace the time frame of the story, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey towards some degree of self-knowledge and her fight against patriarchal pressures. In 2007, I published Noon, which takes place in Cairo between 2001- 2004. It begins with 9/11 and takes the reader to the fall of Saddam Hussein. Though it is not a political novel, it reveals a state of re- engagement. Now the journey of the self (of the four characters) could be located in a specific time, against a specific background which impacts the characters in many ways. Many novels showed direct engagement. Then the revolution happened.

During the revolution, social media platforms revealed a change in the position of Egyptian writers. It has made their voices louder when it comes to issues of change. Egyptian writers, who complained back in the 1990s of closed circles of readership, were both witnesses to the social change as well as active agents in it. Their position changed from the marginal to the focal. During the Egyptian revolution, writers’ tweets, facebook statuses, article quotes and youtube clips helped steer public opinion and raise debates. Their presence in the streets and on social media reflected the awakening of the people and endorsed it simultaneously. Ironically, such presence was highlighted because of the virtual space, which was no longer “virtual”. The internet, rather than the media, became the treasure house of the collective consciousness.

Now I believe the question of the collective consciousness has put writers in a difficult position. How would the novel capture a moment that is larger than life? One of the major successes of the revolution is the deconstruction of the image of the collective self, carefully etched by the dictator who has worked really hard to deform/ defame it. We found out we are not “lazy”, “submissive”, “indifferent” and “ignorant” as they have told us about ourselves. On the exact contrary, we are beautiful, compassionate, brave and wise. We have an insatiable craving for freedom and justice and dignity. And we are willing to pay the price of what we want. In the first eighteen days of the revolution, we were larger than life. Memory keeps record of amazing moments which challenge the writer. Can he/ she portray these moments of grandeur? How can writing capture and frame glory and bliss and the painful but joyous experience of rebirth?

Photography can do it. Poetry can do it, now. But the novel tells the novelist “Wait, this is not the right time. Live the experience. Take photographs and notes and enjoy the poetry. Join the marches and write articles if you wish. Sleep on it. One day you will revisit the squares and be able to write”.

The question of how the novel can keep up with such a radical change of consciousness is open to infinite possibilities. When Egyptian novelists will write about the revolution is unknown to me. But I am certain that the Egyptian novel of the next decade will turn into a playground of experimentation and aesthetic adventures based on the principle of “the sky is the limit”. Haven’t we seen it happen? And most certainly the novel will reflect new perceptions of reality and a reconstruction of the image of the collective self.

Sahar el Mougy, 2012

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Thida in Malaysia – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/thida-in-malaysia-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/thida-in-malaysia-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Sun, 23 Jun 2013 12:55:43 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5007 Ma-ThidaCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Dr Ma Thida

First presented at EWWC Kuala Lumpur, #Word – The Cooler Lumpur Festival

Dr Ma Thida keynote text: “Freedom and Literature”

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

First of all, I’d love to express my pleasure and gratitude for being here to make this lecture happen.

Indeed as a native of Burma or Myanmar, the title ‘Freedom and Literature’ seemed surreal to us in the recent past. However, for me, literature itself, either creating or reading it, always relates to freedom.

Literature itself is truly a medium which conveys, maintains and appreciates freedom between writers and readers. Compared to other forms of art, literature is the most modest art form which mainly relies on or includes ‘words’ only. For music, we need not only words but also a tune or sound to have a song. For a movie, we need more. But literature always simply does not include sound, color, motion and image. Without the assistance required by music, movies, pictures, and other art forms, ‘words’ and ‘sentences’ make themselves into ‘literature’. So literature is a form of art which is free from dependency on any other assistance like sound, picture, colors.

Without this assistance, how does literature work as an art which relates to writers and readers? The way literature connects people – writers and readers or readers and readers – is with freedom. For a movie, viewers need to just follow one scene after another in order to know it. Viewers are voluntarily forced to just look at the screen, and accept the scene provided and the actors or actresses performing it as characters of the movie. For example, while watching the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’, viewers experience Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. But while reading the novel by Margaret Mitchell, readers can imagine anyone else or themselves as Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara. Imagination through words is truly more boundary-less or free than imagination through pictures.

While reading, readers have full freedom to imagine the literature or words as they comprehend them. ‘Words’ and ‘Sentences’ alone encourage readers in their imaginative power, free in their right to use their preconceived knowledge to expand or add on the knowledge provided by literature. For example, a simple sentence saying ‘The Sun rises’ can be imagined differently by different readers. But a movie scene of a sunrise can only be the same for every viewer. That is why literature is such a truly free art form for both writers and readers. And even among readers, the perception of a single work of literature will be different. According to their own private knowledge, readers try to imagine what the characters or setting of a novel looks like, or try to relate their experiences to the experience of the characters at a particular period in a short story, or also try to empathise with the feelings of the poet or writer in his or her poems. Even for a single work of literature, perception, feeling and appreciation by different readers could be totally different or more or less similar. It is totally unpredictable and so it shows the nature of freedom in literature. That is why I would like to say literature is truly freedom for both writers and readers, and even among readers themselves.

However, publishing literature might not be related to freedom. For example, in my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorship board prohibited publishing some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from 1 to 2 years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish his or her own works because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board. But at that time, for periodicals, we didn’t need to submit manuscripts before printing, but we did need to submit the print copy before distributing. In the early 1990s, the censorship board asked to remove paragraphs or whole short stories or articles from printed periodicals before distributing them. So we put black or silver ink over the paragraphs or glued facing pages together or ripped out some pages to remove them from magazines/journals. In the early 2000s, the censorship board asked us to submit before printing any form of literature or books including advertisement pages. So we needed to submit them two times, before printing and before distributing. Then there were no more ugly magazine pages. All forced editing was finished before printing. So just before the censorship board abolished its process in mid-2012, a weekly current affairs journal would be submitted three times before it was printed and one time before it was distributed. That is why it is impossible to have regional papers in places far from the office of the press scrutiny board and where people from ethnic minorities live. For this reason, media or literature in ethnic languages was almost impossible establish. This process also prohibited not only the freedom of the press but also pluralism in the press.

For that reason, the investor or owner didn’t want any editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship or take the risk to reprint all time-and-cost consuming manuscripts. Then some editors refrained from accepting any literature or works which might be censored heavily. And no definitive rules were mentioned by the censorship board. So it is sometimes hard to imagine which one might be censored or not. Since all publication houses need a licence to operate, there were risks in publishing some works. These risks could be terminating a licence, going to trial under one restricted printing law, or a person being putting into prison without any other reason. Eventually writers were forced to give up their freedom to think and write as they wish, ever having to count on the risk of censorship. This is what our Burmese literature has been through. This is how the role of the government’s censorship prohibited the freedom of publication and literature. And consequently this is how media ownership prohibited the freedom of editors and writers also.

Here I would like to tell my personal story. I had been writing many short stories in the 1980s. But because of my political activities and written criticisms of the government, my pen name was on the brown list and most of my short stories were banned. And in 1993 I was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for four accused crimes, and two of them were the printing and distribution of illegal materials. Then all of my writing was banned and I became on the black list. Though I was released after 5 and a half years, most editors didn’t dare to publish my works and no publisher wanted to publish my books. And furthermore I couldn’t get permission for a media licence. I really wanted to run a news or current affairs journal. But I knew it was impossible. I tried to apply to get a licence to run a health journal in mid-2000s but I didn’t get it. And because of the censorship board’s heavy pressure, neither did any publishers want me to be an editor of their publication. The press scrutiny board had the power to refuse any works by particular writers to get published anywhere by any means. So even if a writer weren’t arrested in person, the censorship board could prohibit him or her to become an editor of any official periodical or to write under their own name or a pen name. If this happened, no editor would dare to publish my works. So even though a writer is not inside prison, he or she has very limited freedom, not in creating literature but in publishing it.  Then in 2011, I was awarded a freedom of expression prize by the Norwegian Authors’ Union. But at that time the situation inside Burma was not very good and I was still working as an editor of literature magazines and writing for many other periodicals. So I decided not to go to Norway and accept the prize but I sent a video thank-you note to them.

Here I want to read some passages from this thank-you note in order for you all to understand much more about our Burmese freedom and literature:

What a shame for a Burmese writer who was rewarded the prize but she decided not to come and accept it in person? What made this? I dare to say the reason of making this decision is not to save me but to save my ‘words’ or ‘creativity’.

Writing creatively is indeed very basic and simple needs for any writers around the world. However for us, creativity is not with freedom but with hunting for freedom.

Though I have been trying a lot of new forms and presentations of writing, content and message of my works are usually not out of our struggle and hope. Why? Why I keep writing these? I do care of expressing my feelings and suffering of my people freely. I really do care of creating works to convey our speeches to the others. With free creativity, world has been experienced about rest of the world. I just want the world to be exposed to our creativity on expression of our speechless people. I cannot confiscate both creativity and freedom of expression in my works. We, Burmese writers, use creativity to get freedom of expression at the expense of losing our writing career or physical freedom. And we love to do it. 

For me, loosing chance to be a writer in Burma is worse than being imprisoned. To keep freedom of expression, I have to create and my works should be reached to my beloved people who have full of imaginative power. In other words, freeing the words with efficient creativity is more important for me than freeing myself.

That is why I dare to say that it might be easy to prohibit writers to write but indeed it is hard to prohibit both writers and readers to lose their freedom of creativity. For writers, creativity in their writing itself always helps to expand the boundary of freedom permitted by censorship. So for Burmese literature, creativity is not because of the freedom we have, but it is for the freedom we want to have. And for readers, creativity in their imagination helps them to read between the lines, among words or even inside a vocabulary. For Burmese readers, imaginative power is a very basic need, to understand or appreciate more about literature. For this, they just need freedom in their imaginative power. And for writers too, they do not need to get permission from the censorship board in order to be creative. So writers and readers remain free in their own creative and imaginative power though under a period of heavy censorship. So in this sense, we can still say literature is a kind of art which can still hold freedom. This is the role of writers, to still keep freedom in literature by their creativity, and the role of readers by their imaginative power.

Therefore literature needs freedom but it also brings freedom. Censorship indeed prohibits only the publishing of the literature, not its freedom. The free nature of the creation of literature and its appreciation still remains, even in censored works. However, in order to have freedom of literature, we need more than one party to try hard. So in order to keep freedom in literature, we need not only governments to abolish censorship, but also investors/publishers and editors to be free from the fear of being at risk, and writers to be creatively strong or readers to be imaginatively strong.  Therefore, what we, writers, need in order to have freedom both in creating and publishing literature, is also freedom or independence from fear, greed, hate or dependency.

Eventually I would like to say this; freedom and literature is mutually inter-related and cannot be separated from each other. Then we do not only to fight for freedom but also to keep it in our literature. Let’s be free ourselves to do the best for literature and freedom or freedom and literature. Thank you. Thank you.

© Dr Ma Thida, 2013


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Dos Santos in Portugal – Keynote on Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/dos-santos-in-portugal-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/dos-santos-in-portugal-keynote-on-should-literature-be-political/#comments Sat, 25 May 2013 16:12:49 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4786 Jose_360pxShould Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by José Rodrigues dos Santos

First presented at EWWC Portugal, Lisbon Book Fair

José Rodrigues dos Santos keynote text: “Should Literature Be Political?”

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be the finest crime mystery ever written. It tells the story of how Hercule Poirot investigates a killing – and stuns us when he identifies the culprit. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendez-vous with Rama is the most awarded science-fiction novel ever, and tells the story of an unidentified spaceship that crosses the solar system and leaves behind more questions than answers. José Saramago’s Blindness is frequently pointed out as one of the best 20th century novels in world literature, and it tells the story of a sudden epidemic of blindness in Lisbon.

Apart from the obvious quality of these books, a quality that arises either from their storyline or their written style, what do they have in common? Well, they are not political. Even José Saramago, who has never hidden the fact that he was a Communist, and an active one at that, never actually wrote an obvious political novel.

What is, then, a political novel? Politics is not necessarily something that involves political parties, as we might immediately assume, but rather an activity related to the management of societies. Decisions and actions that affect us all are politics, but also ideas and concepts. Actually, it’s the latter that provide the blueprint for the former.

We can find many quality novels that do have a clear political message. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary questions the social anathema of 19th century female adultery; George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm are powerful critical metaphors for Communist totalitarian dictatorships; Eça de Queirós’ O Crime do Padre Amaro brings us a strong critique of the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy towards priests’ celibacy; and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath shows us the misery spread by unregulated capitalism in the wake of the Great Depression.

Should we say that O Crime do Padre Amaro is a superior novel compared to Blindness because it has a political message? Can we honestly claim that Animal Farm is more literary than The Book of Illusions just because Orwell’s novel conveys a political meaning and Auster’s novel doesn’t? Incidentally, is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a political book? How can we say it isn’t if it deals in a critical way with deep political issues such as who Jesus Christ really was, how his legend was shaped for political purposes, the role of women in the religious system of power and what the Opus Dei really is?

These are not easy questions, but they do point in different directions and help us clarify things a bit. A novel can be literary without an obvious political message. And the fact that the novel has a political message is not tantamount to a quality novel.

By the way, who decides what a literary novel is? Is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a literary novel? Who can say that it is? Who can say that it isn’t? Me? My friends? The newspapers? A committee for good literary taste? Who belongs to such a committee? How was he or she elected? Does each one of us have to obey and accept the critical judgment of such a committee? How many times have committees of the day misjudged a work of art? Nobody cared about Fernando Pessoa’s poetry when he was alive, and today he is considered the pinnacle of contemporary Portuguese poetry. Dashiel Hammett was thought of in his day as a second-rate popular author, but today his The Maltese Falcon is cherished as a classic. In his prime, Pinheiro Chagas was praised as an immortal author, but today nobody has even heard of his name. If we probe deeper into what is and what is not literature, we find many questions and no solid answers.

So, we get back to the starting point. Should literature be political? Well, some might say that this is like asking: should art be beautiful? Yes, by all means, art should be beautiful! Can’t we, then, create ugly art? No, we can’t! If it’s ugly, it’s not art, it’s a failed attempt at it.

This is an interesting point, because, faced with the definition that something to be artistic has to be beautiful, French artist Marcel Duchamp presented in a 1917 New York art exhibition his latest artistic work, which he called La fontaine, or The Fountain. It was actually a porcelain urinal made in an industrial factory. La fontaine created an uproar because it introduced the world to a new concept: art that is disgusting. It is ugly, and yet it is art.
Marcel Duchamp made a powerful point. He told us that an art work is what the artist decides. So, what is a literary work? Well, it’s what the author decides. Me, you, my friends, the newspapers, the committee for good literary taste may or may not like it, that’s not relevant, because art can be ugly and yet be art. A literary work can be political or not political, and yet be a literary work.

Should literature be political? Hell, who cares? It is political if the author thus decides, and it isn’t if the author so wishes it. The literary quality of a book is not linked to its political message, in the same way the artistic quality of a sculpture is not linked to its beauty. They are different issues.
Well, are they really?

What is then a political novel? Can Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a simple, albeit interesting, crime investigation somehow be a political novel? The book does present us with a political message, though probably not even its author is aware of it. And that message is simple: Thou shall not kill. How more political can a message get? Thou shall not kill is a political order given by the highest ruler of them all, God Almighty Himself. It is a sheer political message, created for social management.

French sociologist Louis Althusser once wrote that, when a woman visits a shoe shop and buys high heels shoes, she is making a clear ideological statement. By wearing high heels shoes, she is expressing her idea of what society is and what her role in society should be, and what can be more political than that?

So, the question is not indeed if literature should be political. The real question is: could it be otherwise?

© José Rodrigues dos Santos, 2013

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Le Bris in France – The Future of the Novel http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/le-bris-in-france-the-future-of-the-novel/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/the-future-of-the-novel/le-bris-in-france-the-future-of-the-novel/#comments Mon, 20 May 2013 13:38:50 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4733 © Michel Le BrisThe Future of the Novel

Keynote address given by Michel Le Bris

First presented at EWWC St Malo, France

Michel Le Bris keynote text: “The Future of the Novel”

What is the future for the novel?  A very dark one, and perhaps none at all, a view expressed with grave concern by the most highly regarded critics at a time when we all sense that we are entering, with the new century, a period of momentous change.  How could we fail to perceive that the new era brings with it a new sensibility and fundamental changes in our mental bearings? Standing on the threshold of a new century…Fear not: I speak of course to the dying days of the 19th century and the start of the troubling 20th century.  In 1891, Jules Romain had prophesised the ‘end of the novel form’. The same year Ludovic Halévy agreed, ‘All novel genres have been exhausted’. Edouard Rod then added, ‘The novel has no future’. In 1905 Jean Lorrain observed, ‘The French novel is dead; killed by journalism.’ Maurice Leblond, the very same year, qualified the verdict, saying ‘the novel was in its death throes’, ‘a victim of these industrial times when the launch of a book is not dramatically different from, say, the launch a new cocktail, or quinine drink’. Or, as Lucien Maury was to claim in 1907, it had fallen victim to ‘parisianism; snobbism, a mix of cruel and light irony, dryness of sentiment and moral scepticism’.

In short, as Camille Audigier railed in 1911, we have had enough of these ‘adulterous mondaines and swooning neurasthenics’, enough of this ‘agitation and theatricality’, chimed in Louis Bertrand in 1912.  It seemed as if there was nothing left to rejoice over. Gide, when asked by a major newspaper in 1913 to name his ten favourite French novels, wondered if French letters could even lay claim to the novel as a form.

This long preamble is in fact intended to urge us all to take an optimistic view: all of this took place a century ago, and we are still here.

We continue to ponder, question and argue just as passionately as we did then, often in the same terms.  So much so that one could hold that the novel form thrives in times of crisis, and that concern over its future is a sign of its good health…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Indeed it was then that some new voices emerged: Marcel Schwob, discovering the work of Stevenson ‘in the flickering light of a railroad lamp’, found what was might be expected of the times : an adventure novel that wove together the ‘crisis of the inner and outer worlds’ ;  Camille Mauclair saw in it the Novel of Tomorrow, free from social determinism à la Zola and individual psychology à la Barrès ; André Gide discovered Conrad and undertook to translate Typhoon, in 1913 Jacques Rivière published his spectacular ‘Adventure Novel’ in three instalments in NRF, in the form of a manifesto.  Then came Plon’s ‘Feux croisés’ collection, Stock’s ‘Cosmopolitan Cabinet’ and ‘Scandinavian Library’.  So that just when many were lamenting the novel as a lost cause, French readers were able to discover, in rapid succession, the likes of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Hamsun, Kafka, Henry James, Kipling, James Joyce, Pirandello, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Conrad – in other words, proof of the amazing ability of fiction to relate the world in the very process of becoming.  A new generation of French writers followed, many of them travel writers, keen to take to the road.

One might wonder if it is not precisely in periods of crisis and profound change that fiction deploys its full power. Suffice it to think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. The debates and controversies are strangely familiar; they took place a century ago, but ring just as true today. So there are grounds for optimism.

But what precisely can we be optimistic about? If the talk is about the Internet, digitisation or the programmed obsolescence of paper, it is always predicated on the assumption that the globalised market leads to fatal outcomes.  There are writers who, having initiated these debates in other festivals, have gotten bogged down in them. I know that the digital revolution will have an impact on the form of works through the new opportunities it creates – in terms of images, sound, branching, interactive media just to name a few – not to mention  the huge potential it holds for places like Africa where books struggle to survive.

As we know, new literary forms are emerging, notwithstanding the medium of production, whether paper or digital; these are made up of a blending of previously separate genres – fiction, storytelling, essays –in a shifting and dynamic balance, as if the ability to switch between genres compensated for the ever-present risk of the others failing to deliver. Back in 1992, when I was director of the ‘Voyageurs’ (Travellers) collection with the Payot publishing house, we published John MacPhee, the pioneer of a new genre that would become known as ‘creative nonfiction’, and that has finally, it seems, been discovered in France.  There was an extensive session dedicated to creative non-fiction yesterday. This, I believe, shows just how important these developments are. However, and this might come as a surprise, as important as they may be, I believe they are secondary, in that they come after what is essential. What I mean by essential is the ability to perceive what is at stake in novel writing, therefore, to understand why the novel form is more necessary today than ever before.

In 1990, when I created the Etonnants Voyageurs Festival, which owes its name to a well-known Baudelaire poem, it was survival instinct on my part : I opened a space in which I, as a writer, could breathe freely, standing in resolute opposition to the literary fashions that were then ruling over the French literary scene: both an avant-garde ideology that postulated that literature had but one object: itself, thus reducing it to nothing but formal play – a play on words, and also the other vogue of marvelling in the contemplation of one’s own navel as the one and only centre of the world. As for me, I wanted to assert that never has literature been as strong, as alive and as necessary as when it has taken on relating the world.

A world was disappearing, this I felt with great intensity, as my generation had dreamed of ‘doing away with the old world’.  I lived very intensely through the lovely days of May 1968 in Paris.  The shock waves of this movement, that took various forms and acquired a global dimension, had shaken the whole edifice, toppling the ideologies that the reigning thinking gurus claimed covered ‘the whole range of thought’. It carried our most trusted reference points and most of our certainties away– save for one that led to the birth of Etonnants Voyageurs: that only artists and writers can delve into the unknown and give it a voice. Thus it always is. The pundits had failed to foresee the events of May 1968 – remember the infamous words of the most famous editorialist from Le Monde, ‘France is bored’, a pronouncement made just 13days before the start of the events –  yet the movement had  already been in the works for a decade, through music, comics, science fiction and everything we call “counter-culture”. All the worthy pundits, be they specialists in politics, economy, and sociology et al. had been deaf and blind to it, as they are again today. Pundits are by definition specialists of what is already known, and are thus the least competent in perceiving novelty and breaks.  Better to listen to Bob Dylan that to read editorials in Le Monde if one wanted to understand the rising tide of the 60s!  The only specialists of the unknown that I am aware of are precisely artists and writers.  As a result, they are needed with a renewed and special urgency in this period of momentous change of ours.  Thus it is that the novel form is critical to our times.

Possibly even more than one imagines. For the change we are undergoing is completely singular. We have thought for centuries in terms of stable categories: nation-states, territories, borders, foreign/domestic oppositions, families, communities, identities but also concepts. It may well be that the world to come very quickly forces us to ditch stable categories and to risk ourselves into moving thought, in other words, as the Indian philosopher Arjun Appadurai puts it, in Modernity at Large, forces us into thinking in terms of flows and no longer in terms of structures.

Flows of population, whether voluntary or imposed, greater than ever the world has known, flows of capital, flows of images, flows of sounds, flows of information: we must acknowledge the fact that they have overwhelmed all the structures which up to now attempted to contain or regulate them. They are followed by fantastic cultural collisions: a veritable maelstrom in which an old world expires while a new one is being born, the outlines of which we can hardly perceive, even though we know it will force us to rethink our mental coordinates. It is becoming vital for individual and collective imaginations both to get back to centre stage, in terms of power of creation.

We are entering a world in which it is not exaggerated to say that someone born into a culture will be led to live in another, or that a second generation immigrant will be torn apart between two worlds or two cultures. In fact this can occur within one’s own country, thanks to the acceleration of transfers of rural populations with traditional cultures to tradition-crushing, family-rending megalopolises, which in their turn are also sources of new social behaviours and new cultures- in short a world in which imaginary, flowing, perpetually renewed plural communities will be born, will constantly change and will disappear. But it is also a world in which everyone, standing at a crossroads of multiple identities, will find themselves forced to invent a “personal story” in order to make sense of themselves, which will make a coherent whole of this multiplicity.

It is a dangerous world in which the imagination will be challenged, at the risk of hankering after nostalgic roots, be they real or fantasised, after illusory homelands, all the more murderous as they are disconnected from reality, after dreamt-of undivided communities, in which we can be “among ourselves”, delivered from the tragedy of history, when one wants to reject the new world with all one’s might, which, not far from us, is what they call ethnic cleansing or delusional identity wishes or genocidal mania.

But it is also a fascinating world in which creative fiction will play a central part, something that Arjun Appadurai appears to overlook in his essay, perhaps because of his perspective as a sociologist. For what is literature if not the creation of worlds, the crisscrossing of multiple voices, the questioning, in its very movement, of the certainties of identity? Of course, it is form, but contrary to conceptual thought, it is open, and therefore at the origin of “togetherness”. It stands at the crossroads of uniqueness and multiplicity and stubbornly tries to take up the gamble of nomadic thought- it is, in action, the very thought of flow. It explores a flowing space in which the inside and the outside become interchangeable and in which the self can deconstruct and reconstruct itself. Thus literature- and particularly the novel- stand more than ever at the core of what the world to come holds at stake.

Fiction is once again centre stage. It is striking that the social sciences and literature are tackling similar issues, after a period during which these disciplines attempted to displace literature, to take its place and place it behind bars.  Do we learn less from Conrad and Stevenson about the tropics than we do from Malinowski or about man in society from Proust and Chateaubriand than from Lévi-Strauss? Why do writers do a better job of telling us about the world than recognized anthropologists?  Alan Bensa and François Pouillon, both anthropologists, raise this question in their collective work titled Terrains d’écrivains (‘Land of writers’).  Sylvie Laurent, a historian fascinated by the TV series The Wire, writing for the magazine Esprit, asks: ’What if fiction were closer to the truth than the social sciences?’ An idea apparently appealing to sociologists, since David Simon, the author of the series, gets invited to lecture at Harvard. Why do psychoanalysts, whose knowledge is often tinged with arrogance, quote so liberally from literary works, although they are not writers? This is the question that the psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard asks in his book ‘Peut-on appliquer la littérature à la psychanalyse’ ? (Can literature be applied to psychoanalysis?)  It is almost as though literature holds a form of knowledge that psychoanalysis is eternally searching for but unable to reach – the very topic of another recent book on Freud and writers. In a book that just came out, fifteen young historians ponder the question ‘What are historians thinking about?’, working under the guidance of Christophe Granger. Well, about literature, of course, ‘to the point of obsession’, expresses with dismay a critic from Le Monde. It has taken on an obsessional dimension: through various colloquia – ‘History and Literature’ in Lyon, at the Collège de France, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) – while the journal Sciences humaines devoted a special issue to ‘Literature, window on the world’. Not to mention all the philosophers who have reflected on the power of literature, such as Pierre Cassou-Noguès, who takes it quite far, positing that  philosophy is fiction. Why is everybody all of a sudden so intent on the power of literature?

The fact that the social sciences, thrown into crisis as a result of the general state of upheaval in the world, are looking to the powers of literature is especially meaningful. We should head this, as it shows that the arrogant theories that allowed the social sciences to exist self-referentially, excluding the outside of world, are truly dead. And this brings us back to literature’s ability to relate the world.  I have no complaint: this has been my position since the Festival was created, and this is what led me to espouse the concept of world literature in 1993.

This is what led, in 2008, to the drafting, along with Jean Rouaud, Alain Mabanckou, Anna Moï, and Abdourahman Waberi, of a Manifesto for a French-language World Literature, signed by 44 writers.  This is what I have fought for since my first book came out in 1977, L’homme aux semelles de vent. This is what I have been fighting for starting as far back as I can remember…

It is not all about signs or systems of signs, contrary to what the gurus of structuralism tried so forcefully to drum into us. The unutterable exists. And literature exists precisely because the unutterable exists, as does humanity, with its acceptance of the other. If everything could be uttered – if everything were transparent, translatable, and exchangeable – everything would already have been told, and nobody would make a fuss about it. But the fact is: we have never stopped, wherever, whenever, in all places, in all cultures, from the beginning of times, to tell stories, to write stories. Such obstinacy makes one suppose that there must be some imperious necessity to this compulsion to approach the unutterable, to make it rise to the surface, to take us to the core of its mystery. We are, to quote Nancy Huston’s beautiful expression a “story-telling species”.

How strange is fiction. It is not truth, obviously. But neither is it untruth. Evidently, it says something – otherwise we would be indifferent, but not so,  we read, voraciously, we cannot be stopped, we are enthralled – something which cannot be said in any other way. Its figurative meaning cannot be reduced to literal meaning. If it could, fiction would be but an ornament, kid’s play, a waste of time. But we hold it as essential. When we finish reading a great novel, do we not have the feeling that it was delivering something unique about the world and about human beings? Perhaps even more: the feeling that it allows the perception of the unknown world to come, it gives it a face, it makes it inhabitable. It makes us discover the other in our selves.

Fiction is not truth. Neither is it untruth. Thus, it forces us to suggest there is another way of knowledge than the discursive: that of imagination: it forces us to think in terms of creative imagination. Science is deployed in the space of sameness, indeed it rests on the assumption that from a founding rule one can replicate experience perfectly. But how can we think of ‘the Other’, without reducing it to the likeness of ourselves, to the Same? The other is unknowable, but otherness can be met and embraced, and in so doing we discover the otherness within ourselves. And this we do through our imagination and the shifting interplay of fiction, and that is momentous indeed. This is where  the secret of our becoming human can be found; from here springs and grows our ability to ‘be together’, an infinitely richer path than the one established by a rule or law, for this is the very essence of common rules accepted by all.

If a work written several centuries ago in another culture can still move me, when the times that saw it come to life are long gone, and its context – of which I know nothing – has been abolished, it must mean that there is something in it which cannot be reduced to the conditions of its enunciation, something that is capable of overcoming death and the passing of time, and beyond the narrow confines of cultures, is capable of talking still to our present. Has it not been said that a true work of art can be recognised in that it has “passed the test of time”? But if there is transcendence in a work of art, it becomes obvious that it is due to a dimension of transcendence in its creator, due to a power in him – and therefore in his readers, that is to say in every man – that crosses over time and culture. And the power of works of literature is to continuously bring us back to this dimension within us that we tend to forget, caught up as we are in everyday life.

Perhaps our questioning about literature will appear futile to today’s great minds: they would have us believe that the time is now for ‘serious matters’. In their shadow theatres, they have attempted to bring back to life the old illusory recipes and tired slogans: in turn, let us not be afraid to assert that the ‘human poem’ we carry within ourselves and the richness of fiction is what brings us back to the essential in these chaotic times: this greatness in each one of us which producing and consuming have not yet exhausted; a power of creation, a verticality that is the very essence of being human. Our need for the novel is therefore as imperious and real as it has ever been!

We believe that no thought of the new times, no policy, and no philosophy will be worth anything if it not built on an idea which is vaster than mankind and which artists and poets invariably take us back to. In 1981 in an essay titled Le Paradis Perdu (‘Lost Paradise’), I wagered that ‘out of the ruins of the Theoretical Age a new Age of Fiction will be reborn’.  These words may not have been heard, but thirty years later I do not believe that I was wrong in making such a statement.

 Copyright: Michel Le Bris, 2013



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