Overview from the ‘National Literature’ debate in Brussels
When we first heard that the chosen theme for the Brussels leg of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference was A National Literature?, I have to admit we were slightly nervous about the whole thing. We’d proposed to invite authors from Belgium, Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland – countries where there are so many sensitivities surrounding the word ‘nationality’ – and at first, it seemed almost dangerous to let them get on a stage and say whatever they wanted. Perhaps, we thought, it might be better to choose another, ‘safer’ theme…
As it happens, however, I’m glad we didn’t. We really couldn’t have chosen a more fitting topic to discuss in the heart of Brussels’ European quarter. This is a city in which almost 30% of the population are foreign nationals; where the 27 EU nationalities come together every day to work in 23 languages. It should have been obvious that Brussels was always going to bring a fresh perspective to the National Literature? debate.
Kapka Kassabova kicked off the evening’s discussions with a beautifully delivered key note speech, in which she described that the idea of ‘a national literature’ gives her a headache. The very notion, she argued, is hard to pin down, linked to a multitude of different questions that are difficult (if not impossible) to answer. In exploring the theme of the evening, our panellists were forced to ask themselves: ‘Who am I?’; ‘What is my home?’; ‘Who are my people?’; ‘What does this all mean?’
It’s not difficult to see why these questions might have been hard to grapple with. Just like the many members of our audience who had moved from country to country and learned to express themselves in a new language, many of our writers admitted to feeling unsure of exactly how to define themselves. Christopher Meredith and Arthur Riordan, for example, said they know they are regarded as a ‘Welsh writer’ and an ‘Irish writer’ respectively, but only feel themselves to be so when they are outside of their home country. Rachida Lamrabet is bilingual and has dual nationality (Moroccan and Belgian), but fears that she can’t be loyal to one national identity without being disloyal to the other. Stella Duffy described having the ‘English’ or ‘British’ label stamped on her as a matter of routine, when she’s far more content to be regarded as a Londoner. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘can all of your life not be your nationhood? Why can’t we simplify things?’
In the modern world, characterised by globalisation, accessible travel and information, you would think that readers and critics would welcome our writers’ admissions of confusion. After all, everyone agreed that writing and reading the experiences of others can help us to construct our identities, especially in cases of exile (Kundera, Nakobov and Milosz were cited as good examples of this.) Interestingly, though, our panellists felt that readers and publishers were keen to see their work compartmentalised, filed away into neat little drawers marked: ‘Irish’, ‘English’, ‘familiar’ or ‘foreign’ – any label that would give an indication of whether it fits with an agreed norm and narrative.
From exploring these issues, we got to the root of a growing problem in the literary world today. Whilst the stories of authors have moved on from a mono-faceted ‘national literature’ in the true sense of the word, readers and critics are struggling to adjust their perceptions to accommodate the change. Stella Duffy gave the example of the ingrained assumption that characters she writes about who live in London are white and middle class, when in reality, the ethnic and socio-economic mix in the city is extremely diverse. Rachida Lamrabet, in the second key note speech of the evening, described her readers’ perception that her characters from stories based in Antwerp are ‘strange, exotic individuals that have nothing to do with them’, just because they have foreign-sounding names. We seem to have become so obsessed with the idea of ‘home’ and the ‘nation’ that we just can’t see past them.
Another problem identified related to this was the prevalence of English in the publishing industry. Everyone agreed that globalisation has imported a power that comes with speaking and writing in the language, but lamented the fact that this means that writing is so often ‘lost in translation’ or even worse, just not read at all. The point was driven home beautifully when Gearoid MacLochlainn took the floor to read his poem, Aistriúcháin, and everyone looked slightly uneasy. There he was, exotic-sounding Irish words tripping off his tongue, and almost no-one had the faintest idea what he was talking about. Of course, we expected a translation and we got one, but it was full of reproach for making him turn the ‘red wine’ of his native tongue into ‘Coca Cola.’
In her introductory remarks to the conference, Kapka Kassabova stressed the importance of ensuring that the theme of A National Literature? is always punctuated with a question mark, and I think this was particularly appropriate given the many questions it raised in Brussels. Two hours just didn’t seem to be long enough to figure out what the word ‘national’ meant, never mind whether there’s such a thing as a literature related to it. Roland Gulliver, the conference chair, had the unenviable task of trying to rein everyone in and bring the event to some kind of conclusion, but everyone seemed reluctant to end the debate. In fact, it continued for hours afterwards at our conference reception, and it was only when our venue, the Goethe Institute, was closing that we had to lay the subject to rest, at least for the remainder of the evening. After all, it was quarter to eleven and most of us had work in the morning.
I was all ready to go home, phone poised in my hand to call a taxi, when I noticed some of our writers and audience members trickling across the road from the venue, all seeming to be heading in the same direction. Undeterred by the fact that the conference was over for the night, they were heading to continue the discussions elsewhere. Work or not work in the morning, it would have been rude not to join them…