Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » National Literature 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 Favourite Themes: A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/favourite-themes-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/favourite-themes-a-national-literature/#comments Wed, 09 Oct 2013 13:20:32 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5564 Favourite Themes: A National Literature Highlights from what became one of the most popular themes of the Conference, A National Literature, are collected together for you]]> NATIONALITY AND IDENTITY IN THE NOVEL TODAY

Since the first Edinburgh Writers’ Conference in 1962, there has been a renaissance in Scottish literature, bringing the voices of Scottish people of different backgrounds into ground-breaking novels by writers such as James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway and A L Kennedy among many others. Over the past year, the Edinburgh World Writers Conference has asked the question: have there been similarly powerful developments in the ‘national literatures’ of other countries? The answer is yes.

Some of the highlights from what became one of the most popular themes of the Conference, A National Literature, can be found below:

Irvine Welsh spoke in Edinburgh on Nationality and Identity in the Novel Today

Anjali Joseph spoke in Cape Town on A national literature: reading and writing across boundaries

Sema Kaygusuz spoke in Izmir with a response by Panos Karnezis on A National Literature

Marlon James spoke in Trinidad and Tobago on A National Literature

 

 

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BIRCH & HYLAND – A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/hyland-birch-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/hyland-birch-a-national-literature/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:25:36 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5113 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 5:30pm AEST A National Literature Keynotes: MJ Hyland & Tony Birch Chaired by: Peter Goldsworthy]]> Birch-&-HylandMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 5:30pm AEST

A National Literature

Keynote: Tony Birch joined by MJ Hyland
Chair: Peter Goldsworthy


Author Biographies:

Tony Birch‘s books include Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009), and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award (2012). His new collection of stories, The Promise, will be released in 2014. Tony teaches at the University of Melbourne. He holds a PhD in history and a Master of Arts in writing. His short fiction has been published widely, as have his critical essays. In addition to his creative and critical writing Tony Birch works with community groups and secondary students as an educator. He also does collaborative work with artists and activist. Tony lives in Carlton, just around the corner from where he was born.

MJ Hyland is an ex-lawyer and the author of three multi-award-winning novels: How the Light Gets In (2004), Carry Me Down (2006) and This is How (2009). Carry Me Down (2006) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won both the Hawthornden Prize and The Encore Prize. M.J Hyland has twice been longlisted for The Orange Prize (2004 and 2009), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2004 and 2007) and This is How (2009) was longlisted for the Dublin International IMPAC prize.

M.J Hyland is a lecturer in Creative Writing in The Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester where she has run fiction workshops alongside Martin Amis (2007-2010), Colm Tóibín (2010-2011) and Jeanette Winterson (2013). M.J Hyland also runs regular Fiction Masterclasses in The Guardian Masterclass Programme, has twice been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Prize (2011 and 2012) and publishes in The Guardian ‘How to Write’ series and The Financial Times, the LRB, Granta and elsewhere. Hyland is also co-founder of The Hyland and Byrne Editing Firm. She has made more than a dozen appearances on national and international radio, including Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, and has been appointed as writer-in-residence in programmes at Arizona State University (Feb, 2014) and writer-in-residence at Griffith University, Australia (June/July 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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‘It was not only valuable, but historic’ – Junot Diaz on the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/it-was-not-only-valuable-but-historic-junot-diaz-views-on-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/it-was-not-only-valuable-but-historic-junot-diaz-views-on-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference/#comments Mon, 19 Aug 2013 23:04:04 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5283 JunotDiaz_9611Junot Diaz is an early bird, it seems. He first suggests a call at 5.30am his time, which later gets changed for 8.30am due to our schedule, not his. But then, if in the last few years your literary output has been rewarded with, among many others, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Macarthur Fellowship (a no-strings attached award of $500,000 for “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”), and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for ‘Miss Lora’ – the richest short story prize in the world – as well as holding down the day jobs (fiction editor at Boston Review and Professor of Writing at MIT) – you have a lot to fit in. His most recent book is the award-winning This is How You Lose Her. He will be taking part in the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Melbourne this Friday.

EWWC: You must be very busy. How come you’re keen to fit in a trip to Melbourne to take part in the EWWC there?

JD: Australia was one of the first places that I ever got invited to as a writer, so I have a lot of affection for the place. I met a lot of really interesting, smart people who were involved in a lot of activism around immigration, and they became real friends. Also, the literary culture both in Melbourne and Sydney is incredibly vibrant, and on the personal side, a lot of what is happening in Australia, vis-a-vis immigration and bizarre politics, feels familiar to me. There aren’t that many analogues – countries that are Western, democratic, ex-colonies – to the United States. So for me, that makes Australia an incredibly interesting model.

The other thing was that the first novel I ever attempted to write, when I was a senior in high school, was a ridiculous Stephen King pastiche set in, of all places, Australia. Though the Australia I described resembled in every detail the Dominican Republic I grew up in. So that’s a third nostalgic connection.

EWWC: You took part in the EWWC in Edinburgh last year. What did you make of the Conference?

JD: Given the kind of pressure that’s being placed on literary culture both local and international from corporate forces, I think there is an absolute importance and necessity in both encouraging and developing and practising literary culture at both a local and a global level. It almost becomes a human rights issue to make the arts available to people.

I think that the Conference was enormously successful. On a personal level I was able to meet and talk with this incredible spectrum of artists from all over; artists I’d grown up reading, artists who I knew and artists who I’d never met. For me the historical nature of those events cannot be overplayed, it cannot be over-exaggerated. For many, many of us – for me coming from the Dominican Republic – the whole theme of a national literature is not a minor question, not an irrelevant question. And to be able to thrash that out I thought was not only valuable, but historic – and really important.

EWWC: You’ve come from the margins, and you are generally interested, it seems, in representing unheard voices. Now with the accolades you’ve received in recent years, you’re part of the mainstream. Have the awards changed anything for you at all?

JD: I think we’re sometimes simultaneously mainstream and simultaneously not. So frequently magazines will list a top hundred contemporary writers and not a single one of those writers are Latino; in the last year I can think of three such lists and in every single one, all the Latino writers were left out.  As an immigrant writer we’re typically being reviewed by people who have literally no experience of or interest in the issues we’re exploring – it’s like reviewing a book on Freud and the reviewer having zero experience of psychoanalysis or psychiatry, it’s insane. On the other hand, as a writer I’ve been incredibly blessed and incredibly fortunate; but I also notice the gaps.

EWWC: In her keynote address last year in Edinburgh Ahdaf Soueif said: “In Egypt, in the decade of slow, simmering discontent before the revolution, novelists produced texts of critique, dystopia, of nightmare. Now, we all seem to have given up – for the moment – on fiction.”  Do you have any views on whether particular periods in history or current events tend to correlate with one form of literature or another?

JD:  Literary culture, from what I’ve studied, has never been static. Genres rise and genres fall. Today the novel is predominant in the US but perhaps tomorrow perhaps it will be spoken word poetry. Who is to say and more vexing, who can ever know? For me what matters is that we defend literary culture as vigorously as we can. Literary culture has been a consistent defence against tyranny, against solitude, against despair, against the wanton cruelty, stupidity and senseless of our species. The form matters less to me at the moment than the fact that I’d like to see literary culture, which I love so deeply, to survive and perhaps one day become more than just a minority interest.

EWWC: If there was a writers’ conference in 50 years time, what questions do you think it would address?

JD: Hopefully we will be in a better place as a planetary culture and we will be wrestling with how to cope with all our humane awesomeness but I doubt that that’s where we’ll be. I fear, the way we’re going, environmental degradation and its social costs will be at the top of the agenda. Unfortunately.

EWWC: If you had to move permanently to one of the EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur & Melbourne – which would you choose and why?

JD:  That’s a tough question. Let me visit all these cities first and then I’ll see what I can come up with. As an immigrant, as someone who always seems to roam, living anywhere permanently would be a mighty big challenge for me.

Thank you Junot!

Catch Junot Diaz at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Melbourne on Friday 23rd August.

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Airborne: Anna Lea on her artwork commission for the EWWC http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/airborne-anna-lea-on-her-artwork-commission-for-the-ewwc/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/airborne-anna-lea-on-her-artwork-commission-for-the-ewwc/#comments Fri, 09 Aug 2013 13:08:01 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5242 bird box 3The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference 2012-13 is a remarkable project, unrivalled in its scope and depth. I feel honoured to create an artwork to celebrate the conference at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where the conversation began.

My first thought was to capture the excitement I felt when I first came across the conference. Here were writers from around the world talking about what mattered to them, how it felt to be a writer today in South Africa, Russia, China, India… and on and on. The speeches, and the conversations that follow, are firecrackers – energetic, unpredictable, exciting. How could I recreate the joy of discovering them?

Most importantly, I wanted to work with the strengths of the material.The speeches are, of course, beautifully written – but they are also delivered with conviction. And when you listen to the recordings in succession, you begin to hear the chorus of voices that the conference is intended to be. As an audio producer, I have been spellbound by readings, drawn into another world just by the lilt and sway of a single voice. I found that again when listening to writers speaking at the conference. So I knew I wanted to use just the power of their voices to quickly engage and move audiences. I listened to the conference’s recordings and carefully selected clips from twenty two authors. I then constructed five short sound installations, each of them introducing listeners to a central theme of the conference.

The next stage was to think about how audiences would experience those voices. The site of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is Charlotte Square, a green and tree-filled space in the city centre. I wanted to respond to this space in a playful, enjoyable way – and to offer audiences a journey, the sense of ideas connecting across space and time, just like the conference itself. The result is simple and playful. The installation uses motion activated speakers housed in bird boxes, mounted in five trees around Charlotte Square. This way, audiences discover the voices of writers for themselves and the ideas, the words, which are at the heart of the conference, take flight. They are airborne.

Listen to ‘A National Literature’ by Anna Lea:

For more about Anna, visit her website.  To attend the EWWC event in Edinburgh on August 17, book tickets here.

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Shifting, questioning, fragmented: Suzanne Joinson on the ambiguities of a national literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/suzanne-joinson/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/suzanne-joinson/#comments Mon, 01 Jul 2013 13:20:33 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5090 Before talking at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Kuala Lumpur recently I had never particularly considered myself an ‘English Writer’. My family on one side are Irish, the other Welsh. I was born in the North of England and now live in the South. I spent many years in London and could confidently call myself British, but English is a more complicated matter, as is the idea of a national literature. I live a few miles from where William Blake wrote his love poem to England, ‘Jerusalem’. Not so far from Virginia Woolf territory, too, and I spend much of my time shuttling between the small coastal town where I live and London. Despite the atmospheric architecture of the city – Soho, Bloomsbury, Pimlico in particular – or the beauty of the coastline or the South Downs, the most emotive places for me are actually the points of exit: Victoria Station and Gatwick airport. It is as if I don’t fully belong either in the city or by the sea and am only happy in England if I can leave on an aeroplane, and I regularly do. I write in English, within an English tradition, but I’m unsettled within those confines and any sense of contributing to a literature that sits within the framework of national borders is as paradoxical and complex as my feeling towards home.

The mongrel English are islanders, much as they conveniently forget this. The sea is everywhere and the houses are small. It is a claustrophobic country and people cling to a regionalism to fend off the conflict or tension that comes with a national sensibility. Writers from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, London and the North of England are often fiercely territorial. They stake their ground with pride and dignity. They reference themselves within a context, emit a sense of community. Most of all, they seem to belong to a geographical collective. I happen to live in a scrap of land so over-shadowed by the metropolis of London that it almost has no regional identity of its own. It is closer to France than most of the rest of England, chalky, mild-weathered. Often people choose to come to this part of the country to fade away quietly in nursing homes, to watch seagulls, to feel rain or to drink tea while, as Auden said, ‘In headaches and in worry, Vaguely life leaks away’.

There are no specific prizes for English writing, no awards, no self-referencing colloquiums and certainly no Southern Writers Awards. Yet these are, if not corridors of power, certainly parks and side streets and corner shops of power, all operating within the language of the global coloniser. What is left of Englishness and the literature that sits within its contours these days? Following what we might call a melancholic withdrawal of empire and faith, there isn’t much left but a profound state of identity crisis, and the literatures arising from this are by necessity shifting, questioning and fragmented forms.

A London walk I take regularly is from Victoria Station to Soho, via St James’s Park. Four pelicans live in the lake in St James’s park, presumably they belong to the Queen, it being her front garden. There is a sign that says ‘Do Not Feed the Pelicans’ and I have observed that while three of the pelicans spend much time together, happily doing their thing on a small island in the middle of the lake, the fourth pelican is always ostracized. To be an ‘English Writer’ can feel a little like living the existence of that fourth pelican. You comfortably inhabit the Queen’s posh park. You are well fed amongst fountains and tulips and weeping willow trees. You are surrounded by stately buildings and the drumming of procession soldiers in rehearsal. You are at the heart of it: this (once) great nation! But you don’t feel so great. You’re not sure who you are and you regularly feel lonesome.

Nationhood is about identity, but the more one hunts down one’s own stories, the more fractured any sense of identity becomes. Writing, by virtue of what one chooses to write about and what one leaves in or takes out, is about creating narrative meaning from your life. Despite my inclination to dismiss the label ‘English’ I can see that my first novel, ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ is in some senses an exploration of Englishness. It is about English missionaries in China in the 1920s, and it is true that I am drawn towards stories and narratives that explore a legacy between colonial histories and how they resonate today. In my writing, the islandness of England becomes highlighted: the sea around it, a compulsion to leave it, the isolation, all of that examined. Yet, I couldn’t possibly write with a consciousness of my national identity because what kind of writing would that produce? A writer can only tell the stories that haunt her, but hauntings are chaotic, slippery and contradictory. Writing is subversive and uncontainable, and if it so happens that a particular line of thought relates to or explores a specific question or theory relating to national identity then so be it, but it could only be accidental or, at least, not the central impulse behind the creation of the book.

Not many people think of Virginia Woolf as a travel writer but in 1906 when she was 24 years old she visited Constantinople. Sitting at a window looking down at the city she wrote in her diary, “And in all this opulence there was something ominous, and something ignominious – for the English lady at her bedroom window.” Framed by a window, an English lady at the fading end of an empire, she feels an obscure shame as she looks over a city that is as unreal – and yet real – as any city dreamt up by Calvino and it is clear that the unsettledness of her being English  comes into sharp relief.

I read novels in English, written by writers I am interested in, either in translation from other languages into English or written directly in English. The authors are sometimes English but more frequently they are from other places. I am lucky enough to operate in a language into which many books are translated and I am interested in the worlds the novels convey, the stories they tell and the way they use language. I don’t really believe in nationality, or a literature that confines to the edges of a rigid definition.

My grandmother, the Irish one, did not have very much money but she liked to travel. She would take a train from her home in Cheshire to the port in Holyhead and spend a day watching ferries go across to Ireland. Or she would visit Manchester airport, watch planes taking off and landing, and look at the departure boards flicking through the destinations. I have inherited her love of looking into the horizon, of wanting to be both on the move and stay still. One’s national identity does not feel meaningful when one is in the inside of writing, it is just one detail in a more universal story. Yet perhaps from another point of view – the other side of an ocean, the end of a train journey or with the passing of time – national signifiers may in the end seem relevant; I’m not sure. I do know that stories are more often than not born in the no-man’s-land of not-quite-belonging, in transitory existences or inbetween places and those zones and states of mind and landscapes tend to have no borders, but perhaps distance will show otherwise.

Credit: Cheem Photography

National Literature panel: Chuah Guat Eng, Suzanne Joinson, Alfian Sa’at, Pak Samad & Bernice Chauly. Photo by Cheem Photography

The #Word Cooler Lumpur Festival has been a fascinating experience. I spent time with writers from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Discussions ranged from colonial history to the politics of language to the terrible pollution drifting into the city from Indonesia. I don’t know if national borders and identities are the crucial signifiers of the world or not, but I do know that conversations such as those that happened in Kuala Lumpur are exciting and inspiring and that it was an honour to be involved in the ongoing dialogue.

Copyright: Suzanne Joinson

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SAID, JOINSON, ENG & SA’AT – A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/thida-said-saat-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/thida-said-saat-a-national-literature/#comments Sat, 22 Jun 2013 17:41:52 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4810 #Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur Saturday 22 June 3:30pm MYT A National Literature Panelists: A. Samad Said, Suzanne Joinson, Chuah Guat Eng, Alfian Sa'at. Moderator: Bernice Chauly]]> Suzanne-Joinson#Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur

Saturday 22 June 3:30pm MYT

A National Literature

Panelists: A. Samad Said, Suzanne Joinson (image left), Chuah Guat Eng, Alfian Sa’at. Moderator: Bernice Chauly


Author Biographies:

Abdul Samad bin Muhammad Said, pen name A. Samad Said is a Malaysian poet and novelist who, in May 1976, was named by Malay literature communities and many of the country’s linguists as the Pejuang Sastera (Literary Exponent). He also received the 1979 Southeast Asia Write Award and, in 1986, an award for his “continuous writings and contributions to the nation’s literary heritage”, Sasterawan Negara. He is the author of over 17 works.

Suzanne Joinson’s first novel ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ was published by Bloomsbury in 2012. It was reviewed in the New York Times, was an LA Times Bestseller, a Guardian/Observer Book of the Year 2012 and translated into 12 languages.

Chuah Guat Eng published her first novel,  Echoes of Silence, in 1994. Her other works are  Tales from the Baram River (2001), The Old House and Other Stories (2008), and a second novel, Days of Change (2010).  She read English literature at University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur, and German literature at the Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich. In 2008, she received her PhD from the National University of Malaysia for her thesis, From Conflict to Insight: A Zenbased Reading Procedure for the Analysis of Fiction.

Alfian bin Sa’at is a Singaporean writer, poet and playwright. He is a Muslim of Minangkabau, Javanese and Hakka descent. Alfian published his first collection of poetry, One Fierce Hour at the age of twenty-one. The book was acclaimed as “truly a landmark for poetry [in Singapore]” by The Straits Times, and Alfian himself was described by Malaysia’s New Straits Times as “one of the most acclaimed poets in his country… a prankish provocateur, libertarian hipster”. A year later, Alfian published his first collection of short stories, Corridor, which won the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award. Alfian’s plays, written in both English and Malay, have received broad attention in both Singapore and Malaysia. They have also been translated into German and Swedish, and have been read and performed in London, Zurich, Stockholm, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

Bernice Chauly is a writer and poet. Born in George Town to Chinese-Punjabi teachers, she read education and English literature in Canada as a government scholar. For over 20 years, she has worked extensively in the creative industries as a writer, photographer, actor and filmmaker and has won multiple awards for her work and her contribution to the arts. In 2012, she was invited to be writer-in-residence with the Nederlands Letterenfonds (Dutch Foundation for Literature) in Amsterdam where she began work on a novel. She has toured and performed in literary festivals in Suriname, the Dutch Antilles, South Africa, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Netherlands. She is the Festival Curator of the George Town Literary Festival in Penang, Malaysia.

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Literary Orderlies & Specialists of the Unknown: A Dispatch from EWWC St Malo http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/#comments Thu, 06 Jun 2013 12:10:39 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4830 Ben McConnell attended the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in St Malo, 20 – 22nd May 2013.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Sansal giving his keynote speech on Censorship Today
Photo: Gael-FestEV

For more than twenty years, the literary & film festival Étonnants-Voyageurs has summoned francophone writers from far and wide to join in the sleepy seaside medieval city of Saint-Malo to discuss the vital elements of their craft.  Inspired by such fathers of travel writing as Stevenson and Conrad, its founder, Michel Le Bris, chose to create an international forum surrounding the ideas of travel literature and of a world literature.

Over the course of three days of intense debates, lectures, and literary cafes some two hundred writers gathered under this year’s theme of “Le monde qui vient” (The world to come) and were joined by an enthusiastic audience of many thousands.   Despite the typically wet Breton weather there was a palpable energy in the air.  Throughout the city each evening one could recognize huddled groups of writers smoking and conversing beneath awnings or gathered in leaning old bars engaged in animated conversation.  The structure and formality of the day’s events seemed to spill over into a jovial nightlife sparking  discussions between writers and readers alike.

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference series of five debates were hosted in the Palais Du Grand Large overlooking the English Channel and the old Fort National.  Saturday, Algerian author Boualem Sansal, whose books are currently banned in his homeland, introduced the first debate, Censorship Today.  Sansal spoke of censorship historically and psychologically, but returned again and again to the climate of Islamic fundamentalism that he fears is hastily blotting out freedom of expression in the Arab world.  Sansal related with absurdist humor being awarded the 2012 Éditions Gallimard Arabic Novel Prize for his book “Rue Darwin” only to have it revoked before the fifteen thousand Euro prize had been delivered.  Although no one would admit to it, this was clearly a reaction by the Arab Ambassadors Council to his having attended the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival earlier in the year.  Sansal said, “I went to Israel on principle, to demonstrate my power as a free man who does not obey orders.”  He was told his award ceremony was indefinitely ‘postponed.’  Later, the entire jury resigned in protest, and a wealthy Swiss offered Sansal an equivalent consolation prize which he then donated to the A Heart For Peace foundation.  Together with the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem they finance costly cardiac surgery for Palestinian children living in the West Bank.

“Ironically”, said Sansal, “silence has become a form of freedom; saying nothing is saying it all but it is also depriving yourself of any action, while the struggle for freedom requires, first and foremost, a practical commitment.”  But at what cost?

Julien Mabiala Bissila from Brazzaville spoke of the violent censorship occurring at home, where it’s “safer to shut up” than risk imprisonment or mutilation.  French writer Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès mentioned that in a democracy such as France, censorship exists through financial groups and its partners, making it more insidious and therefore more accepted.

The next day began with Velibor Colic introducing the debate on National Literature.  Colic is from Bosnia, where he has witnessed first hand the inherent dangers and devastating consequences of nationalistic thinking.  He believes that while a nationalist literature’s role in war is never direct, it points the finger at the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, and strengthens the dualisms which are necessary to war’s very existence.   This kind of literature may even replace history in the popular consciousness, as in Serbia where certain nationalistic novels were actually taught in schools as history proper.  Not only does this type of literature dehumanize the so-called enemy, but the writer as well, reducing her to a mere tool of propaganda.

Colic declared, “This confusion between genres, between history and literature, was a tragedy.  For everyone.  The distinction between myth and reality lies in intelligence and common sense, in the ability to distance oneself and to reason…   But, unfortunately, new national literatures work on an emotional and a collective level, they inexplicably erode convictions that were set in stone.  And at that point, there is but a step between national and nationalistic literature.”

Amongst those present at this debate, it seemed relatively safe to assume that most were in accord with Colic’s sentiments, but it was impressive to hear them uttered by a man whose home had been burned, and life turned upside down all in the name of nationalism.  He hopes that, “After the era of politics, which is only a perverted game that we will eventually have to put an end to, and after the era of crazy and bloodthirsty national bards, will come the era of literature.  A nomad and human literature, a mobile and multicultural literature, disheveled, undisciplined, without visas and without passports.”

The second debate that day was Style vs. Content, hosted by French-Tunisian writer, Hubert Haddad, who opened with a poetic (if not esoteric) introductory speech, itself highly stylized, infused with paradox.   Haddad’s conviction that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension, at the same time allusive, lethal, unpredictable, marvellous, and wildly open to interpretation…” seemed to equally apply to his own words as well.

Haddad argued that both style and content were inexorably bound saying that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension” and discounted factual description as a means of conveying anything intimate or crucial.  With sincere passion, Haddad delivered mystical proclamations such as “Literature is just reality becoming aware of itself in its enigmatic, symbolic and secular activity.” and “The origin of the world is to be found in the mind of a poet admiring Courbet’s painting or the depths of the Milky Way.”

Haddad scoffed at Norman Mailer’s opinion that “Style is an instrument, not an end in itself.” retaliating, “Only a literary orderly could say that.  If style is an instrument then Proust and Rimbaud are operating theatres.  No, style is no more an instrument than art, in and of itself, would be an ‘instrument of propaganda and education.’  On the contrary, it distorts all instrumentations and is life itself, replicated ad infinitum in the mysteries of language.”

Haddad closed his speech with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “the magic scribbler, for she alone, beyond language and beyond all authoritative pronouncements, uttered the only truth; for what, really, is style?”

A something in a summer’s Day

As slow her flambeaux burn away

Haddad’s lofty sentiments left some scratching their heads and even agitated, such as Mbarek Beyrouk who said, “I don’t understand this.  Literature has to be magic, instinctive, and from the guts!” which was met with broad applause.  And Azouz Begag, who grew up in a shanty town with illiterate parents, responded, “I really believe if you can dig through the different layers [of your heart] and extract a book from it, it works.  I’ve never worried about style.”  I don’t believe these convictions were at all at odds with Haddad’s, but afterwards Haddad simply stood up and walked out.

Style is a slippery topic indeed, difficult to gain a toehold on and open to infinite definition; however, Haddad delivered the best that any of us could hope to do: he offered a poem full of wonder, passion, and the very mystery of existence.  The highest poetry does not answer any question or posit a belief, however, it also doesn’t leave much to say afterwards.  If just for a moment, I relished the reigning silence which resonated across the sea like a temple bell.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Rahimi at St Malo
Photo: Gael-FestEV

The third and final day of the festival began with Atiq Rahimi: Should literature be political?  Rahimi related his personal history as a former member of the Afghan resistance in the 80’s, and the complications of having a communist brother – continually threatened by radicals, and later killed.  Rahimi’s novel, Earth and Ashes, was his way of dealing with his brother’s death.

Throughout his keynote speech, Rahimi reiterated a theme that had been present throughout the entire conference: that literature must first come from a sincere depth, an ‘inner experience’, which compels the writer to express himself out of a necessity.  This in a way transcends the concepts of politics, style, nationalism, and censorship (these are all afterthoughts in the creative process), but at the same time does not exclude them.

The closing debate of the EWWC conference was on the future of the novel, introduced by Étonnants-Voyageurs’ Michel Le Bris. Le Bris spoke of some of the difficulties that we as a society face at this transitional point in our history, with television, Internet, and so many other technologies competing for our ever-diminishing attention span. But he was equally optimistic, saying, “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.”

Throughout the weekend, the festival and the EWWC debates in particular were an intense source of high-caliber literary discussion. Revisiting the original debate topics from the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference in 1962 provided not only a sense of where we’ve come from, but where we might be headed as well.  Also, as a native English speaker – and I admit, I read mostly in English – I was delighted to discover several very impressive French writers whom I look forward to reading – in French of course.

Ben McConnell, 5 June 2013

Click here for a photo album of the weekend’s events in St Malo. You can browse all the keynote speeches from the French edition of the Conference here.

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ČOLIC – A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/colic-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/colic-a-national-literature/#comments Sun, 19 May 2013 10:39:25 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4371 Etonnants Voyageurs, St Malo Sunday 19 May 10am CEST A National Literature Keynote by: Velibor Colic]]> © Hélie GallimardEtonnants Voyageurs, St Malo

Sunday 19 May 10am CEST

A National Literature

Keynote by: Velibor Čolić

Participants include: Olivier Weber, Kenneth White, Atiq Rahimi, Lyonel Trouillot, Alain Mabanckou, Yanick Lahens, Sami Tchak, Helon Habila, Gary Victor, Henri Lopes, Insa Sane, Maryse Condé, Anne Nivat, Janis Otsiemi, Nick Stone, Henry Kenol, Julien Mabiala Bissila, Ian MacDonald, Geneviève Damas, Elliot Perlman, Murray Bail.


Author Biography:

Velibor Čolić is a Bosnian writer living in France. He was born in 1964 in a small town in Bosnia. Enlisted in the Bosnian army, he deserted in May 1992, was taken prisoner but escaped and fled to France in August of the same year.  His first book published in France, Bosnians, is about the Bosnian war. His 2005 novel Perdido is about the world of jazz. He evokes tragic conflict in Archangels roman a cappella, writes bitter thrillers like Mother Funker, and dreamy autobiography aka. Jesus and Tito. He writes in French.

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Čolić in France – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/colic-in-france-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/colic-in-france-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Sun, 19 May 2013 09:50:43 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4691 © Hélie GallimardA National Literature

Keynote address given by Velibor Čolić

First presented at EWWC St Malo, France


Velibor Čolić keynote text: “The Warriors’ Cry – Nationalist Literature”

The wrinkles of a nation are just as visible as those of a person.
- Emil Michel Cioran

*

During a visit in Switzerland, a journalist asked Ernesto Sabato:
-Mister Sabato, why are there so many epic novels and poems and myths in Latin American literature, whereas we hardly have any here in Switzerland, if at all?
-Look young man, Sabato answered; when William Tell MISSED his son, you missed your one chance of a national tragedy…

Literature as a political project

This paper doesn’t question national literature and certainly doesn’t claim to be based on science. Rather, it is a bitter observation: the line between national and nationalist literature is very fine. Unfortunately, back in ex-Yougoslavia, I was the witness of an “elitist literature” which suddenly became a “national literature”; where first “writers” came, and, through their books and their “national language”, defined the spiritual and national space of the people; then came the military to outline the borders proper.

This of course led to that triple crime – genocide, memoricide and urbicide – which took place soon after in my country as the by-product of a national literature.

In his novel Koreni (published in 1954 by French publisher Les Racines), the writer Dobria Ćosić , also nicknamed “the Tolstoy of the Balkans”, “the father of the Serbian nation”, who would go on to become the future ex-president of small Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro – 1992/ 1993), concocted a manifesto of sorts for a national literature infused with Balkan juice. According to a spellbound critic, his great rustic and family-oriented roman-fleuve addresses and glorifies “Serbian cults of freedom, their ancestral and national mythology, their patriarchal despotism…”, and, according to the same critic, it also magnificently denounces “the Europeanization of Serbian intellectuals, the destruction of the farming world and of individualism”. The result being: the uprooting of the people and even the complete disappearance of the nation.

In 1954, the nation (made up of farmers, who were patriarchs and traditionalists as well as libertarians) had the same enemies as today: Europe, cultural diversity, the West, cities, individualism.

So “the Tolstoy of the Balkans” was in favor of a proper home-made, serious, perhaps boring and tragic national literature, in which, according to Ćosić, “Serbs always lose in peace time what they gain during the war”.

In this literature, which isn’t entirely devoid of interest, more objective observers discovered the premise (which has since been emphasized and argued in Ćosić’s works) of the country’s future woes, and the premise of this triple crime (genocide memoricide, urbicide), committed by Ćosić’s very own disciples in the name of the nation, “the youngest nation of Europe”, Yugoslavia (a good example is Radovan Karadzic, head of Bosnia’s Serbs, who was a psychiatrist and a nationalist poet).

A writer’s involvement in a war is never direct, but it seems to me that the root causes of this evil lie in this so-called national literature: it recognizes our soil, our spiritual borders defined by language and religion; it more or less openly accuses our neighbors of being the true enemies (the communists, the Albanians, the “Turkish” Muslims in Ćosić’s works), or it points the finger at hidden enemies, which is much more insidious because that includes everyone, anyone…

This Serbian and then Croatian or Bosnian nightmare started precisely at the time when the masterpieces of Ćosić and his disciples became a political project, and when their novels started being read as history school books.

And vice versa.

This confusion between genres, between history and literature, was a tragedy. For everyone.

The distinction between myth and reality lies in intelligence and common sense, in the ability to distance oneself and to reason…

But, unfortunately, new national literatures work on an emotional and a collective level, they inexplicably erode convictions that were set in stone.

And at that point, there is but a step between national and nationalistic literature.

When there is but a step left, writers step aside and give way to the military.

The spiritual space of a nation

Just as hell is other people, borders are other people too. These imaginary geographic and political lines are like thorns in the soft flesh of humanity. For a long time, everywhere, we have lived with our walls and our languages, our Norths and our Souths, our rich and our poor. Borders are also our gods and our colours, our faces – gypsy moustaches and Jewish noses, Aryan grey-blue eyes and the plump lips of a jazz singer. For a long time, we have made and destroyed empires, democracies and dictatorships, and we’ve lived at ease within our communities, not with others. In order to change or to “protect” our borders, the military wage war incessantly, and the last customs officer still standing at the border tells the story. This narrow space, stuck between the arrogance of invaders and the destiny of their victims, which is stuck between all those borders, can become mankind’s new geography. It only takes a bit of courage and some talent. Great History is but statistics, whereas literature names and tells the small tragicomedies of mankind. It doesn’t seem like much, but to me, it is worth it.

*

During a recent televised debate on the French governmental project of “marriage for all”, Mr. Eric Zemmour (who, according to Wikipedia, is a French writer and political journalist) explained the violence of some “anti gay marriage” protests as the result of the May 1968 events in France.

According to him, protesters at the time were demanding freedom, therefore individualism (does he mean the current ultra liberalism???) and the children of today want to get rid of a politically correct world that was imposed on them by 1968 rioters…

The idea of a national culture, of a national way of life, which you find in speeches such as Zemmour’s in France or speeches in the Balkans, all originate from the same place. This idea stems from short-cuts, ready-made wording, the reinterpretation of history, Holocaust denial, populism, nationalism…

Once again, you see that nationalist literature behaves like a chameleon. Back in ex-Yugoslavia, we sometimes call it “patriotic literature”, regularly we call it “traditional literature” and very often we call it “popular literature”.

I’d even go so far as to say mandatory literature, the one and only…

*

In his book “The Balkans – the terror of culture” (published in Belgrade in 2008), Ivan Čolović, the Serbian ethnologist, talks about the “national, cultural and spiritual space of a people”, and about the paraliterature that feeds off this Holy Trinity that the nation represents.

Yet, in a multinational state, where religions and cultures are manifold and blended (such as all ex-Yugoslav countries despite attempts at ethnic-cleansing during wars) this idea of one space, one language and one literature, is problematic.

The common points between different nations (the origin, the language, the mentality), they are analyzed, cut open, reinterpreted, as are all the weaknesses of our spirituality. Because nationalist literature is by essence exclusive. No other literature is tolerated, least of all the national literature of our neighbors.

*

The form and the essence of national literature go against modernity. Generally, novels of that genre are written in an “outdated” language (using popular and anti-elitist wording). Long poems intentionally blur the lines between ancestral epic tales and the current (and usually tough) situation of the nation. Ivan Čolović gives an example: during the latest war in Bosnia, in the middle of the battleground, Serbian soldiers cried out names of heroes from popular literature, as though bringing historical evidence to support the idea that their fight is universal.

In the name of the people
(a few tips to becoming a nationalist writer)

National literature goes against world citizenship. In this “Weltanschauung”, we wash our nation of all its sins, and turn it into a metaphor. Our homeland is no longer a country or a state, but often it is a pretty young woman who has been raped and tarnished; our nation is also the cemetery of our grandfathers, it is our religion, it is a white dove, or a mother.

Recent national works of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian writers show our motherland as a sort of monster, always expecting that we give our blood and life for it. A popular Croatian song says: “Do not be sad oh mother Croatia, call us, just call us/ and, like falcons, we will sacrifice our lives for you”.

Despite money, glory and power, in these parts of Europe it is not easy to be a national writer. But it is worth sacrificing everything, absolutely everything, even the nation, for the nation.

*

The Golden age of national literatures in South-East Europe matches the end of communism. This evolution was first seen in dissident writers, then in those who left communism, and then in self-proclaimed nationalist bards.

Of course, they received the full support of the church and of new “freshly and democratically” elected powers, which represented the renaissance of our people.

Nationalist literature always speaks out in the name of the people with heroic rhetoric. It tries and succeeds in finding scapegoats, it makes our enemies visible, and it always either accuses or forgives, always in the name of the people.

True writers need time and silence, whereas their nationalist colleagues need a stage, a crowd, they need sound and fury, “blood and tears”… This shoddy and wholesale literature only sees humanity in very simple terms: good and bad, us and the others, victims and perpetrators… Just like American westerns, the good guy always wears a white hat, and the bad guys a black one.

In this epic and eternal struggle, we are the good guys, who defend true values, whereas on the opposite side you have the barbarians, whose names and faces may change, but whose nature stays the same, it is wild, destructive and decadent.

A world as simplified and divided as supporters in a football game.

As a rule, this type of literature should stay where it belongs, at the margins of this world. But unfortunately, behind the wanderings of my country’s “heralds” lies a real tragedy, a fratricide war, with over 100.000 deaths and two million refugees.

Among those responsible for this massacre, some writers rank high. Their patriotic tirades, their works and their call for war still find an echo in victims’ heads, like a gruesome celebration.

*

National literature is like a church. Everything in national literature is sacred. Our soil is sacred, our language and most of all our freedom are sacred. It is also necrophiliac. In that literature, writers are either already dead, about to die, or about to be sacrificed on the altar of the nation. In patriotic texts, we, the Righteous Among the Nations, are no longer truly human. We have no name or occupation, we are neither married nor single, tall nor little. We have no personal destiny, only a common one, which, of course, is tragic.

National writers prefer to see us as victims.

Victims of the spread of Islam, of globalization, of various world conspiracies. We are but a handful of brave and lucid people who stand up to a rich, cunning and ruthless enemy.

A Serbian satirist said “before the war, we had nothing. Then, the Germans came and destroyed everything”.

*

A national writer always has a bone to pick. But first and foremost he is a sentinel who safeguards our language, which is vital and essential for any writer. The problem is that our language never fits the borders of a country.

In order to correct this anomaly, there’s always a drunken colonel ready to free the people all by himself. A German philosopher said “Repeat tragedies can become farcical…”

And I would add, unfortunately, repeat farces can become tragedies too.

Just as hell is other people, borders are other people too. These imaginary geographic and political lines are like thorns in the soft flesh of humanity. For a long time, everywhere, we have lived with our walls and our languages, our Norths and our Souths, our rich and our poor. Borders are also our gods and our colours, our faces – gypsy moustaches and Jewish noses, Aryan grey-blue eyes and the plump lips of a jazz singer. For a long time, we have made and destroyed empires, democracies and dictatorships, and we’ve lived at ease within our communities, not with others. In order to change or to “protect” our borders, the military wage war incessantly, and the last customs officer still standing at the border tells the story. This narrow space, stuck between the arrogance of invaders and the destiny of their victims, which is stuck between all those borders, can become mankind’s new geography. It only takes a bit of courage and some talent. Great History is but statistics, whereas literature names and tells the small tragicomedies of mankind. It doesn’t seem like much, but to me, it is worth it.

Should we believe in literature?

Let’s hope that after the era of politics, which is only a perverted game that we will eventually have to put an end to, and after the era of crazy and bloodthirsty national bards, will come the era of literature. A nomad and human literature, a mobile and multicultural literature, disheveled, undisciplined, without visas and without passports.

In 1992, during the war, I wrote a text in my soldier’s logbook. Perhaps it was foolish, certainly naïve, but I was frightened. I wrote it as a kaddish of sorts for my country. This text is entitled “Believing in literature”.

In times of war, believing in literature means not accepting ready-made wording, not choosing necrophilia or death as biblical « necessities » symbolized by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It also means working on the magic which makes words come together and recognizing evil and condemning it. That is how, in Bosnia, we can go beyond a purely aesthetic literature.

It means, time and again, remembering the bright and sacred nature of the sacrifice of victims, in order to believe there is meaning again, in order to breathe new life into literature, without thinking about the fact that this story has already been told numerous times. It means believing in the primeval cry of life, as wise and old as the hills, the cry of the child, who, pushed by survival instincts, tears his mother’s womb to announce the clear and definitive triumph of creativity over absurdity, and violence and destruction.

Yes, that is what believing in literature means.

A literature that cannot be altered.

Because it holds the secrets of life’s eternal nature.

Only a few months later, the soldier I was went into exile, and this text, which I’d written on my knees in the trenches, became a book.

A gypsy proverb says “they can kill off all the swallows, but they won’t stop the arrival of Spring.

 

Copyright: Velibor Čolić, Spring 2013

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