Saturday, August 18, 2007

Brand India's soft power of literature

Siddhartha Deb on India's soft power of literature. Read the intro of his piece; the history described there should not be forgotten:

The relationship between Indian writers and western publishers has been in many ways a necessary collaboration, and one that does not always take the form of accepting big advances from multinational conglomerates: for instance, Arundhati Roy, in spite of the bestseller status of her novel, The God of Small Things, has published most of her essay collections with the smallest of American publishers, the radical Cambridge-based South End Press. But publication in the west has also produced a kind of dual identity for the Indian writer in English. If successful in the west, especially in the amount of noise made by the publicity machine, the Indian writer is understood to be part of Brand India, using the "soft power" of literature to consolidate the more muscular geopolitical reach of the state. Some writers play along with this, performing the role of the native informant with ease. But for others, and I believe this is what makes them attractive to publishers and readers in the west, writing is shaped by their sense of literature as an engaged art, one that interprets the world as an imperfect, unfinished place rather than one where a universal system has laid down the perfect, eternal gridwork of inequality.

I don't think, by any means, that it is only Indian writers who are working in this manner, or that they have some sort of special dispensation to do so, but they seem to have the advantage (and the drawback) of using English, at a historical moment when the west has turned its attention on India and China. It is a crossroads that offers very different alternatives to Indian writers: that of cashing it in by becoming minor entertainers for the powerful and the privileged, or that of looking for new forms and new ways of engagement with the stories that demand to be told. The upheaval we are caught up in is so vast, and so uncertain - is this the best of times? the worst? - that Indian writing has barely begun to take the measure of the conditions in which it functions.

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