Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Should Literature Be Political? 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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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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LOHREY & DIAZ – Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-diaz-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/lohrey-diaz-should-literature-be-political/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 01:20:16 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5111 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 3:30pm AEST Should Literature Be Political? Keynotes: Amanda Lohrey & Junot Diaz Chaired by: Jeremy Harding]]> Lohrey-&-DiazMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 3:30pm AEST

Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote: Amanda Lohrey (read by Alison Croggon) joined by Junot Diaz
Chair: Jeremy Harding

Author Biographies:

Amanda Lohrey‘s first novel was The Morality of Gentlemen, published in 1984. It was followed by The Reading Group and then Camille’s Bread, winner of the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1996. Her most recent novel is The Philosopher’s Doll (2004) which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She is the author of the novella Vertigo (2008) and of the short story collection Reading Madame Bovary (2010) which won the Fiction Prize and the Steele Rudd Short Story Award in the 2011 Queensland Literary Awards.

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the cofounder of Voices of Our Nation Workshop.

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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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MARKOVITS, SULAIMAN, FLINT & LI – Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/markovits-rashid-flint-li-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/markovits-rashid-flint-li-should-literature-be-political/#comments Sat, 22 Jun 2013 17:45:05 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4815 #Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur Saturday 22 June 12:30pm MYT Should Literature Be Political? Panelists: Benjamin Markovits, Huzir Sulaiman, Shamini Flint, Di Li. Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan]]> Benjamin Markovits, Credit: Charles Glover#Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur

Saturday 22 June 12:30pm MYT

Should Literature Be Political?

Panelists: Benjamin Markovits (image left), Huzir Sulaiman, Shamini Flint, Di Li
Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan

Author Biographies:

Benjamin Markovits is a UK based writer with six published novels including the trilogy on the life of Lord Byron: Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment and Childish Loves. He is also on the recently announced list of Granta Magazine’s Best Young British Novelists. Benjamin teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Huzir Sulaiman  is a Malaysian actor, director and writer. One of Malaysia’s leading dramatists, acclaimed for his vibrant, inventive use of language and incisive insight into human behavior in general and the Asian psyche in particular. His plays, often charged with dark humor, political satire, and surrealistic twists, have won numerous awards and international recognition. He currently lives in Singapore.

Shamini Flint writes children’s books with cultural and environmental themes. She also writes crime fiction. Shamini has sold over 500,000 books since she began writing six years ago.

Nguyen Dieu Linh better known as  Di Li is a Hanoi based writer. She has published thirteen books and especially well-known with Red Flower Farm which is the first mystery horror novel in Vietnam. She’s a member of the Vietnam Writers Association, Hanoi Writers Association and the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association.

Sharaad Kuttan is a producer with BFM89.9 – a business radio station in the Klang Valley. He produces a weekly review of the media – The Week in Review – as well as a show that discusses philosophy and social theory – Night School. A member of the International Art Critics Association, he is a graduate of the National University of Singapore, where he obtained a Masters degree from its Department of Sociology and Anthropology. He is co-editor of a collection of essays on cultural politics in Singapore, “Looking at Culture” (1996).


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Benjamin Markovits on Literature & Politics, Byron & the Longevity of Lists http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/benjamin-markovits-on-literature-and-politics/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/benjamin-markovits-on-literature-and-politics/#comments Fri, 21 Jun 2013 11:24:06 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4998 Benjamin Markovits, Credit: Charles GloverBenjamin Markovits, recently announced as one of Granta magazine’s Best Young British Novelists, has published six published novels including the highly acclaimed trilogy on the life of Lord Byron: Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment and Childish Loves. He was brought up in Texas, London and Berlin and was at one time a professional basketball player. Not afraid of stretching the form of the novel, his works are marked by dazzling, layered narratives and intense, gorgeously effective and affecting prose. Critic Mark Lawson, writing in The Observer, said “Childish Loves is a very, very odd book, although I mean this as a high compliment in a time when so many authors are content to write again a novel that either they or others have previously written.” He is taking part in EWWC Kuala Lumpur this weekend discussing ‘Should Literature Be Political?’.

EWWC: Have you been to Malaysia before?

Markovits: I haven’t been to Malaysia but I have been to a megacity before, São Paolo. I like megacities; that combination of mega corporations and high rises with wonderful little traditional areas scattered in between. I’m really looking forward to it.

EWWC: Do you think the experience of being a writer varies according to where you live or what your nationality is?

Markovits: I think writing seems to mean something very different everywhere. A few years ago I played in something called the Writers World Cup. We were playing against Hungary, and all the Hungarian writers were authors of books of literary essays, a form which basically doesn’t exist here anymore. They were thinking up complicated responses to Beckett and getting paid to have that published; and you could tell that what it meant to be a writer in Hungary was something very different [to the UK/US]. I raised this same question in Moscow [Markovits travelled to Moscow as part of the Granta / British Council Best of Young British Novelists global launch series] about how the idea of censorship can seem bizarre to an English writer because the best way of getting people to ignore a book is to publish it.

There are class associations with being a writer [in the US / UK]. I’m a product of the usual chain of events: my great-grandparents were immigrants; my grandfather’s family were in retail, and he then went to law school; my dad became an academic and I became the artist. You first get a financial foothold in a country, and once you feel confident you can produce kids who don’t need to overly concern themselves about making money and who can do what they want to do. There are writers who buck that trend but I don’t think mine is an unusual pattern.

EWWC: You’re going to be discussing Should Literature be Political? this weekend. As a writer steeped in the literature and lives of the Romantics, whose work famously intersected with politics in various ways, what kind of parallels do you see between that time and ours in terms of politics and literature?

Markovits: As you say, there was a political element to a lot of the Romantics’ thinking. Byron died fighting for Greek independence; Shelley could have been imprisoned had he returned to England and published some of his political essays. I like Byron’s politics actually; he’s a mixed figure and there are lots of unlikeable things about him, but there’s this wonderful line (in the Douglas Dunn edition of Selected Byron, quoting Disraeli) that people forget Byron’s sagacity, his shrewdness. He could play the buffoon and be completely ridiculous but he had a shrewd sense of human weakness and he was quite tolerant of it. Despite his political involvement he didn’t get too caught up in serious political theories. One of the things he said was: wealth is power and poverty is deprivation and this is true wherever you go. That’s what his political thinking came down to. And that seems persuasive to me.

He also thought about writing as an alternative to politics. He liked to sign himself as “Noel Byron” – “NB” because, even though he got the ‘Noel’ from a wife he didn’t much like, it gave him the same initials as Napoleon Bonaparte; he liked to think of himself as a sort of Napoleon of verse.

Sure, all writing is political in some way, but there’s something that I would say makes up a particularly ‘writerly’ kind of world view that’s different from a politician’s world view. Politicians don’t tend to be into moral ambiguity in the same way as writers. The politician’s response isn’t usually ‘I can see it from both sides, I’m not sure what to do about it. Maybe I won’t do anything.’ – that’s not their business. Even though there’s something political about that neutrality, it may not tell you things you want us to hear.

The other thing is that there is a distinction between Byron’s writerly political involvement and his human political involvement. When he was in Greece he wasn’t writing – he was organising people and weapons and munitions and making decisions; writing didn’t get in the way of any of that. But even in his day Byron was an outlier.

EWWC: Is there such a thing as a community or fraternity of writers? Historically we look at the Romantics as a movement with cohesion, common ground, form, linked concerns, complex personal relationships. What about now?

Markovits: We look back on the Romantics and see them as a group, a band of writers writing together in relation to each other. And that’s partly true, but the reason we see them like that is because the writers who have survived are the ones who were good at keeping their name alive. Byron and Shelley’s relationship is famous but they weren’t really that close, there were people he liked more. So I wouldn’t want to overstate the writerly intensity of their lives.

One thing which has changed since then is that there’s more gender equality now, definitely. And there’s also a big middle class. And the association with writing and men and a certain kind of privilege which was certainly significant in Byron and Shelley’s lives, just doesn’t work that way anymore. Writers nowadays are looking after kids and doing different jobs and living probably not very well.

Having said that it’s totally true that writers, like any kind of job, have common concerns and struggles. Bankers hang out with bankers and writers hang out with writers and I’m sure bankers sometimes think ‘I could do with a weekend not hanging out with bankers …’

EWWC: You were recently awarded the accolade of being one of the Best of Young British Novelists. What would Byron have made of this?

Markovits: If they were making lists of people whose writing counted, I think he would have been on that list. But the writers who make the list aren’t always the ones who count. That was true then and it’s true now. I think also the nature of the lists have changed, immensely. There’s a different publicity machine around it and it’ll mean a different thing in the future than it does now. But even in Byron’s day you needed a break to get attention; it wasn’t just the work, you needed something else. Scandal, fame, his looks – they all helped sell his books.

EWWC: The EWWC questions are the same as those discussed at the International Writers Conference in Edinburgh 50 years ago. What questions do you think a World Writers’ Conference in 50 years’ time from now might address?

Markovits: There are people who think that nothing ever changes fundamentally very much, and there are people who that that everything is changing fundamentally all the time. I tend to be in the camp that thinks nothing changes fundamentally, so I would suspect that in 50 years we’d be asking the same questions. But I could be wrong.

The big forms change. The novel in Byron’s day was a long poem – now the long poem is mostly dead. It’s possible that the evolution of e-books may play a part in that change. One of the things you can do in an ebook that you can’t do in a paper book is take people off in two different directions at once; but what’s really happening there is that you’re taking control out of the hands of the writer and putting it in the hands of the reader, and the reader won’t have thought about it so much. I think that will happen, but I don’t think it’ll become dominant because of the basic fact that you can still only read in one direction at a time. So there’s a limit to its uses, but it might be an interesting experiment.

I think the novel’s a really good form – it’s got a lot of life in it yet. So I suspect things won’t be too different where the novel’s concerned, but I could be wrong about that too.

EWWC: And finally … If you had to be exiled 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?

Markovits: I’d love to live in Berlin again. My kids could learn German properly.

Thank you Benjamin!

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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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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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DOS SANTOS – Should Literature Be Political? http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/dos-santos-should-literature-be-political/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/dos-santos-should-literature-be-political/#comments Sat, 25 May 2013 16:12:48 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4097 The Lisbon Book Fair, Lisbon Saturday 25 May 4pm WEST Should Literature Be Political? Keynote by: José Rodrigues dos Santos. With Rute Pinheiro Coelho.]]> Jose_360pxThe Lisbon Book Fair, Lisbon

Saturday 25 May 4pm WEST

Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote by: José Rodrigues dos Santos. With Rute Pinheiro Coelho.

Author Biography:

José Rodrigues dos Santos is the bestselling novelist in Portugal and his fiction is published or is about to be published in 20 languages. He is the author of five essays and ten novels, including Portuguese blockbusters Codex and The Einstein Enigma, both long listed for the 2010 and 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (respectively). His novel The Wrath of God won the 2009 Porto Literary Club Award. His overall sales are above 1.5 million books, astonishing figures considering Portugal’s tiny market. He was elected by readers the 2012 and 2013 Reader’s Digest Trusted Brand Novelist of Portugal.

José is also a journalist and a university lecturer at Lisbon’s New University. He works for Portuguese public television, where he presents RTP’s Evening News. José has a PhD in war reporting and as a reporter has covered wars around the globe, including Angola, East Timor, South Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia, Lebanon, Georgia and Libya. He has been awarded three times by CNN for his reporting and twice by the Portuguese Press Club.

Rute Pinheiro Coelho graduated in Law at the Faculdade de Classica da Universidade de Lisboa. Although currently devoting her time to advocacy (civil rights, commerical, employment and criminal), she has always been dedicated to writing. Rute published her first articles in the weekly supplement of the Diario de Noticias, DNJOVEM, and won some ‘young writer’ literary prizes. The theme of Freemasons was something that captivated her early and is something to which has been devoting much attention, not only for its latent symbolism but also for its influence on political life. O Inmigo Invisivel is her first romance novel and she has already started to write her second, to be published in 2014.

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“Every book is political” – Jose Rodrigues dos Santos gears up for EWWC Lisbon http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/every-book-is-political-jose-rodrigues-dos-santos-gears-up-for-ewwc-lisbon/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/should-literature-be-political/every-book-is-political-jose-rodrigues-dos-santos-gears-up-for-ewwc-lisbon/#comments Wed, 22 May 2013 12:33:36 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4763 Jose_360pxJosé Rodrigues dos Santos is a bestselling author of ten novels, including Portuguese blockbusters ‘Codex 632′ and ‘The Einstein Enigma’, both long listed for the 2010 and 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award respectively. José is also a journalist, and presents RTP’s Evening News. As a war reporter he has covered many conflicts including Angola, East Timor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq, Bosnia and Libya, and he has been awarded three times by CNN for his reporting and twice by the Portuguese Press Club. He will deliver the keynote speech on ‘Should Literature  Be Political? ‘ this weekend at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Lisbon. He was the Portuguese delegate at the inaugural Conference sessions in Edinburgh 2012.

EWWC: Let’s go back, first of all, to that week in Edinburgh eight months ago. You spent a week discussing, listening, and conversing with fellow writers from all over the world in an effort to assess, collaboratively, why literature is important, and what challenges and issues it faces today. What sticks out most clearly in your memory from the Conference?

JRS: Actually, method. I enjoyed the concept of having someone starting a discussion and then having the writers contribute at their will. I thought this was a good and lively way of approaching things. As for contents… well, I guess one way or the other we’ve all previously considered the issues raised in the conference.

EWWC: You are by trade, originally, a journalist specialising in war reporting, with a varied and illustrious career in that arena under your belt. You have also achieved international recognition and success with a string of bestselling novels. One of the subjects being discussed this weekend in Lisbon is The Future of the Novel. Do you see any parallels or similarities between the changes affecting these two writing genres (journalism and novels) as technology advances and reading habits adjust and change?

JRS: That’s a hard one. We can only guess, I suppose. Journalists are still needed to sort out what is reliable information or not. We’ve all seen how un-mediated news is prone to manipulation on the internet, haven’t we? It’s the right atmosphere for innuendo and rumours. That’s why journalists are still needed – to separate news from innuendo. As for writers, they surely will always be around, even if their works aren’t written in books, but in other media. I’m told that the best American writers don’t write books anymore – they write scripts. The point is, they write. They will always write, even if they don’t end up as traditional books.

EWWC: Your subject this weekend will be ‘Should Literature be Political?’ In your dual careers as reporter and novelist, are there any particular novels with a political element or message which have informed your thinking?

JRS: My point is that every book is political, even if unintended. Agatha Christie is political - and so is Donald Duck.

EWWC: In Edinburgh one of the clearest interventions you made was in the Style vs Content debate, when you brought up the subject of translation. You said that “some works which are based on style [alone] are untranslatable”. You underscored this point by saying that you felt that, for example, “Jose Saramango’s Blindness is untranslatable in English” – a point rebutted by Ali Smith.

JRS: Sure some books are untranslatable. Look at the Italian author Andrea Camilleri. Signore Camilleri’s books feature il comissario Montalbano and are hugely popular in Italy, but not so much in other countries. Why? The thing is, Italians laugh at the way Montalbano talks – you see, he uses a very peculiar and funny Sicilian jargon. When he says “Montalbano sono”, Italians burst out in laugher as this is a very funny Sicilian way of talking. But how can you translate that into English, Japanese or Portuguese? Will you use a Scottish accent? Or a Welsh one? If you do, won’t it sound strange that a Southern Italian policeman talks with a Scottish accent? And is there a funny way for a Scotsman to say “Montalbano sono”? It’s bloody untranslatable!!!

EWWC: And finally … If you had to be exiled 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?

JRS: I happen to know most of the cities you mentioned and I have to say that  Lisbon is still unbeatable. Why? Well, I live in a forest, under a medieval castle, 30 minutes away from Lisbon. Five minutes away from my home there are beaches with golden sands, a marina, a casino, cheap and delicious fish restaurants, the weather’s mild and sunny, the people are soft and nice, the airport’s 30 minutes away and I can be in London or Paris in less than 3 hours. Just point me a city in the list you presented that could beat this.

EWWC: Thank you Jose!

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Lisbon will take place this Saturday 25th May at the Lisbon Book Fair, presented by The British Council Portugal, European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) and APEL (Association of Editors and Publishers in Portugal). Participating writers include José Rodrigues dos Santos, Rute Pinheiro Coelho, Denise Mina, Mathias Enard, Rosa Liksom, Dulce Maria Cardoso and João Tordo. The two sessions will be livestreamed on this website at 4pm and 6.30pm WEST.

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