Monday, November 02, 2009

‘I would rather settle for a mediocre novel…’: Voices from chaos

The Singapore Writers Festival 2009 came to a close on Sunday (1 Nov). Between the opening (23 Oct) and closing of the festival, scores of writers from across the world held forth on literature and writing. The star of the festival was clearly the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman who attracted long queues for autographs. His session was held exclusively in Victoria Theatre and all the tickets were pre-booked. I don’t read fantasy fiction so this did not mean a thing to me. But Singapore’s young readers found an idol in him, this cannot be denied.

Honestly, I did not get to meet all the writers—it was not possible for me. Therefore, I focused on only those writers who interested me. In this post, I am not going to talk about individual sessions. I will freely refer to writers or themes that seem most relevant to my interests or sensibilities.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Undercover’. Of course, this theme lends itself to myriad semantic possibilities. But personally speaking, ‘Chaos’ would have been a better choice. Indeed ‘Chaos’ was one of the themes of a discussion that included writers from the sub-continent, namely, novelists Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Elmo Jayawardena (Sam’s Story), Shashi Warrier (Hangman’s Journal) and Ahmede Hussain (Editor, The New Anthem). The discussion was moderated by the Hong Kong-based Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, the articulate and charismatic author of The Long Walk Home.

Except for Captain Elmo, all these writers were new to me. I had exchanged emails with Hussain before but that was like two years ago. I had met Hanif several years ago when he was with the BBC’s London office. I tried to remind him of our meeting that he vaguely seemed to remember. Or was he being polite? I don’t know. Anyway, I did not want to press on it as it was a brief professional encounter. I was glad I could meet him again, that too in a new avatar, I told him.

Throughout the festival, I was looking for one word or one term that could summarize the essence, the zeitgeist of our times. I looked at the books that were there on display in the Arts House bookstore. I tried to listen to the questions that people posed to their favourite writers. What was the gist, what was the spirit, I tried to figure out.

Looking at the titles on display, one of the themes that strongly emerges is that of political power, violence and tyranny. While Elmo’s Sam’s Story (republished in India by Penguin) deals with the futility of ethnic conflict and war, Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes deals with the life of a dictator and state repression. Manreet focuses on the violence in Punjab in The Long Walk Home and Warrier’s recent books study the human condition in the Indo-Pak conflict zone, Kashmir. Hussain, in his first anthology of short stories from many new and well-known sub-continental writers, collects voices that again raise issues of conflicts and fundamentalism of all stripes, among other themes.

Writers are not supposed to offer solutions. They are supposed to ask questions, pose moral dilemmas. This is what these writers have done with their novels—I have not read all of them but that is the sense I get (I have read Elmo’s great novel and have reviewed it here; I have also read Hanif’s novel and it is marvelously funny and biting). Still, emerging from the sub-continental chaos and America’s war on terror, there isn’t a single theory or philosophy or vision that can inspire us to a new future. From these books, from the discussions that these books spawned, the absurdity of violence is evident. But where is the hero or the protagonist that can show ‘us’ in our complete nakedness? We can laugh at General Zia’s antics but what about our passive collusion in this chaos? Where is the rebellion? Where is the man or woman who refuses to go along with the side of cruelty?

The most dangerous place on earth

During Hanif’s session, most people were curious about the daily life in Pakistan. How quotidian was it? Hanif satisfied people’s queries with his quintessential humor. People in Karachi still went out for dinner with family and friends, he said. Their discussion would range from fashion shows to the next possible bomb blast. He said that the 24 hour news cycle had made the things worse. Journalists are excited when there are terrible stories to tell but they feel crestfallen when it is quiet for a few days. Hanif, who lived in London for about a decade, now permanently lives in Karachi. I wish for more peace, more normality, he said.

Hanif said that he was suspicious of lists such as the top 10 most dangerous places in the world and the top 10 most beautiful people in the world. These lists keep changing, he said.

Should writers become activists, I asked the ‘Chaos’ panel. I had Arundhati Roy in mind when I asked this question. I don’t feel any moral responsibility, said Hussain. ‘I see, I don’t touch,’ is his motto. Hanif said that writers are generally self-centered people who care more about a turn of phrase than an actual cause. But I do what I can, he said. Warrier was also of the same opinion. It was only Captain Elmo who said that he was actively engaged in charity work in Sri Lanka.

Someone from the audience asked if chaos was necessary for creativity. This question came in various forms in different fora: Singapore, despite being an advanced country with all kinds of material comforts, does not produce much literature, whereas the sub-continent, despite the chaos and fracas, creates world-class literature. Why is that so? According to Warrier, the problem is essentially arithmetical. India alone has more than a billion people while Singapore has about 5 million people. So, a billion people naturally produce more writers. Also, there are many regional languages in India which support the culture of reading and writing. Print runs of vernacular titles go in the range of 20,000 to 200,000 whereas novels in English become best-sellers when they sell more than 5,000 copies.

According to Hanif, chaos does not necessarily help create great literature. The Swedes still manage to get out some decent novels, he said. Prosperity is good for writers, Hanif said. I would rather settle for a mediocre novel in a less chaotic situation than a great novel in a chaotic and violent set up, he said. One could understand where Hanif was coming from. Father of an 11-year old son, the safety and security of his family must be most prominent for him. I found both Hanif and Hussain ruthlessly honest—only Hanif is more humorous and Hussain a bit more philosophical.

On and off stage, Elmo voiced his concern about the difficulties that first time writers face in finding publishers. A first time writer’s failure (in getting published) discourages many other would-be writers, he argued. He also lamented about the greed of publishers who sold books with marked up prices, taking them farther from the reach of ordinary readers. He wants the gram sellers in Sri Lanka to become book-sellers!

I also had an opportunity to listen to Qiu Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine) and Naldo Rei, East Timorese resistance fighter. Both talked about political repression and violence. Xiaolong’s father suffered during the Chinese cultural revolution and his brother never recovered from it. What if I was in his place, wondered Xialong. He also mentioned the censorship in China that he faced while getting his books translated for the mainland.

Naldo is a different case. He was a freedom fighter and a torture victim during the occupation of East Timor. He was imprisoned when he was 9. Later he became a student leader and learnt English in Australia. His poetry now inspires thousands of his countrymen.

Though my interactions with the writers were personally enlightening, I came home depressed because I have a feeling that the chaos would not end anytime soon. Did people between the two Great Wars feel the same? Only, we don’t have the Camus and Sartres of our age to explain the chaos to us. The world is becoming more violent and life more absurd by the day and there are no heroes to look up to in the post-modern anarchy. It is a difficult challenge for any writer to make sense of the world that we live in. I only wish more power to the pen of writers like Hanif, Manreet, Elmo and Warrier and Ahmede!

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