John Burnside is one of Scotland’s finest and also most prodigious writers, with an oeuvre that straddles the genres of poetry, novel and short stories. His most recent work is Something Like Happy, a collection of short stories. Last week he participated in the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Jaipur, and we caught up with him on his return to chat about the dynamism of India, the long game of dissident politics and the Dalai Lama’s incredible laugh.
EWWC: You took part in the EWWC event at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India last week. What was that like?
JB: There was huge energy there, it was buzzing – I came back buzzing! It was my first time in India and the overwhelming sensation I had throughout, from the moment I arrived, was a sense of dynamism. A sense of people with really passionate beliefs pursuing things with great dynamism. One guy I met worked for a software company; he had sat down and said to his boss: ‘I want to set up a book club here. I want to do it in office time and I want you to pay for it.” and the boss said “Yeah!” So he went out and bought books for people and it grew from one person to a hundred.
The thing that I heard over and over again from people is you can become prosperous but if you don’t keep your culture, if you don’t keep your intellectual and spiritual values, what use is all that prosperity? I was heartened to hear that because from the outside, people will see a country like India as pursuing just its material prosperity – and god knows they deserve it, they’ve been denied it long enough – but it’s nice to hear people saying let’s not forget our traditions, let’s not forget our values, our art and culture.
And – I saw the Dalai Lama, which was amazing! He has an incredible laugh; it made me believe everything he said.
EWWC: Any downsides?
JB: One thing I didn’t get a chance to do, which was a bit frustrating, was some birdwatching. There’s a wonderful area about 70 miles away from Chennai where you get painted storks and flamingos and all sorts; it was tantalisingly close. But it was an amazing place and whole new experience for me.
JB: It was very focused on free expression and the notion of taking offence. It could have gone on for four hours and no-one would even have noticed, because there was just so much urgency and the questions were so impassioned. The questions were very bound up with Indian politics; there was a lot of discussion about various local issues which were of strong urgency to the people there. The two local writers on the panel [Basharat Peer and Shoma Chaudhury] directly shared a lot of the concerns of the people in the audience. It seems that a certain section of the population in India does take offence very easily.
It made me think about the writer Shirley Jackson in the United States. She wrote this wonderful story called ‘The Lottery’; for her it was just an intriguing idea that was published in the New Yorker, but then she just started getting sacks of mail, often from people who felt somehow that she had offended them or even that it shouldn’t have been written. [The story was about a woman who was stoned to death to preserve the wellbeing of the community]. Things can be interpreted the wrong way; but you can say ‘it’s not for me, I don’t care for it’ without feeling offended.
EWWC: I’m interested to know what you think about literature festivals and the role they can play in society, particularly given your recent experience in Jaipur.
JB: The first thing to say about Jaipur [Literature Festival] is it’s free. It was great to see school kids, students and other young people from all walks of life, all highly engaged – it adds a certain vibrancy to the atmosphere. People often had quite strong feelings and strong opinions, and it’s nice to hear them.
I had the chance to go and see Javed Akthar, the poet and Bollywood scriptwriter; I’m very interested in the ghazal song and verse form, which he talked about. I can’t think of any poet, not even Seamus Heaney, who would get on stage and sing or recite in his traditional form and people in the audience would be really participating in such a spirited way, calling out and bursting into spontaneous applause. His message was, ‘let’s always listen to our hearts. Let’s use our brains and make ourselves more prosperous but let’s also remember the natural world and people’s traditions.’ It felt very ‘real’, the reactions there at Jaipur; quite different from the kind of simple liberal consensus you might get in other places.
EWWC: In Edinburgh at the EWWC you spoke several times about the role of writers as dissidents. In the debate on ‘Should Literature be Political?’ you said “Maybe the question should be ‘should literature be dissident, rather than political? I follow Emerson in that I believe every state is corrupt. Our duty is to resist it.” How does that statement square with your experience of larger perhaps more complex societies, such as India?
JB: The thing I get most worked up about is the environment. There was a lot of interest in that India, and of course people like Arundhati Roy have made big sacrifices and have done a lot to try and raise awareness. But there are a lot of other questions and issues that are so urgent in there, that questions about the environment seem to have to wait.
But I do think the writer has a duty one way or another to play a political role. Whether it’s to give a model, such as ‘I refuse to accept the BS that they’re giving me. I’m going to investigate it for myself and find out what’s really going on.’ Or whether it’s simply what a poet does, which is insist on the more sophisticated, subtle and meaningful use of language as a way of not capitulating to the kind of forces that make language simplistic, so they can control the market or control the way we think about things. I think that’s what all writers do: they renew language. And that’s a start, a fundamental, the biggest building block of them all.
I think also we have a duty as citizens to be dissidents. To question ‘Well, is that so? Is that the best thing for us? Best for the 1% or for the 99%? I’m not saying that writers should be going on marches all the time, but that they should be asking questions, even if that is in quite indirect ways. It can be boring if a writer stamps around overtly proselytising. In my writing, mostly in fiction, I’ve tried here and there to make people aware of issues to do with, for example, pollution. During the Conference discussion in Jaipur we were discussing the kind of things that are being done to people by the state or police, where real physical human rights are being taken away from people. My message was this: once they’ve given up doing that to you, this is how big business or whoever it is will do it next time. But it’s not much use to the people there now who have much more urgent things concerning them, such as getting colleagues or family members out of jail.
EWWC: You were one of the most actively engaged of the 50 writer participants during the EWWC week in Edinburgh last summer. Five months on, do you have a view on the potentiality, usefulness or otherwise of that concentrated series of writers meetings?
JB: Even if nothing concrete had happened, nothing at all, there were still some good discussions. I’m not suggesting that some writers getting together and signing a petition is going to turn everything around just like that, but when Junot [Diaz] raised the issue about what was happening in Arizona, and we decided we wanted to put our names to an objection to that, at least it made people aware about the situation; a lot of people don’t know that sort of stuff happens in America, the land of the free, so that itself was a result.
I think in politics we tend to think too often about the kind of result you get in sport; are you breaking the record or winning or losing the race. In politics it’s a lot slower. It’s about awareness raising and consciousness raising, and it takes a long time. At the moment I’m researching a novel that has at its centre the politics that started in the late 50s in the United States. Many people think that those politics died out in the mid 70s – the civil rights movement, students for democratic society, the peace movement – that they formed a cycle and died with the Reagan years. But that’s not how it is at all. People who are activists now in many ways are inspired by or have had conversations with the guys who started it all and who we think of as historical. For example Bill Ayers; he’s still a political figure, just focusing on it in a different way, through education. It’s a much bigger and longer picture; there have been breaks here and there but the line continues in some other way, it meanders, it’s not straight. I think that’s important, that chipping away. It’s that old sandpile thing, how many grains of sand before it becomes a sandpile? I think that’s how politics works. You keep on going. It may not feel like you’re making any progress but any time you raise anybody’s awareness – even just one person – that’s a step forward.
There were some surprises at Edinburgh too. I think it was Janne Teller who said that ‘All I want is to make a living from my writing’; someone in the audience said ‘Well, get a job then’ – so writing’s not a job for that person? We’re a culture that doesn’t respect the intellectual; if that had happened in Italy, for example, that guy would have been laughed out of the auditorium. I don’t have much time for writers and thinkers who don’t do their homework, who don’t do their best to be informed and say ‘Well I’m going to say something, and it might not be a very big thing, but I’m going to try anyway.’
EWWC: And do you think that a group of serious, engaged writers have real power in that sense?
JB: I’m not sure if they have power but they have the power of the word and of conscience. There was a picture in a newspaper in India of women in the street who had tied black blindfolds over their eyes as a symbolic gesture of defiance against the systemic problem of misogyny. Two pages later there was a story about how some boys had harassed a woman in police uniform. So for those women to stand out in public with symbolic blindfolds over their eyes in a place where even the women police officers are harassed – that’s exemplary, that’s something amazing. Will it change things? Maybe a little bit, because it changes consciousness.
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?
JB: I would choose Berlin. Because I love it so much, but also because due to a stupid accident I missed the Berlin Conference event I was scheduled to take part in. I have had an immense affection for Berlin for a few years now. It’s such a great place, there’s so much going on – again there is that sense of dynamism and creativity in technology and the arts. There are some who want to turn it into another Munich; the Tacheles cooperative, that’s something that Berlin should be proud of – but instead they’re shutting them down. But as long as it retains some of that dynamism – and also there are some damn good writers in Berlin – I’d go there.