• Sunday, 24 February 2019

Beyond boundaries and narrow brackets of national identities, the Empire writes back

Jaipur, Jan 26 : One of the constant identities that writers are repeatedly bracketed in is their national and ethnic backgrounds. From readers to publishers to major literary awards -- the likes of the Booker and the Nobel for literature -- all take this facet into consideration. So once you have a Brazilian winning the Nobel Prize for literature, the writers of that country are automatically seen out of the league for the next decade or so. But what happens when the empire writes back?

The empire -- a vague term used so often these days to refer to colonisation -- is very much alive today in the form of English language, which is recognised and read, arguably, across the globe. A distinguished panel comprising Pico Iyer, Jeet Thayil, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Charmaine Craig and Linda Spalding sought to unravel the need to look at writers beyond their national and ethnic backgrounds at the ongoing Zee Jaipur Literature Festival.

Iyer explained that the identities of writers have come a long way -- though a lot more needs to be done -- and highlighted that until a few years ago, it would be impossible to think of somebody like Jhumpa Lahiri as an American writer and Rudyard Kipling, an Indian writer. "When I hear the empire writes back, it sounds both quaint as well as extremely relevant today to me. Just 25 years ago, when there was no Skype or smartphones, such an analogy was unheard of," 66-year-old essayist and novelist said.

Nigerian author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who has often been at the centre of volatile issues in his home country for writing in English, maintained that writing in the language was a very easy decision for him to make. "For me it seems like a question that people shouldn't even ask me about," he said before explaining the massive impact of slavery, followed immediately by the colonisation in Africa. "When you subjugate people for so long, it takes a while for them to regain their consciousness. So the first generation of African writers wrote to express that we too had sentiments, emotions and a right to exist," he said.

But the wounds of slavery as well as colonisation seems to have healed, or at least healing fast, as he quipped that the current generation of writers feel that maybe it is now time to write about the larger picture. And English thus comes as an appropriate medium, reaching out to both Nigerian readers, where English is taught in most schools as well as is an official language.

Acclaimed novelist and a poet extraordinaire Jeet Thayil said that one of the most significant things that he tries to avoid is writing, in his own words, "monsoon-soaked, family stories" that somehow paints the picture of what is expected internationally from an Indian story. True, both of Thayil's novels "Narcopolis" and "The Book of Chocolate Saints" are devoid of this stereotypical imagination of an Indian novel and are lulled in the bliss of little things that often go unnoticed.

Thayil also expressed his disappointment over the repeated attempts to question Indian writers for the language that they are writing in. "I look forward to a time when Indian writers writing in English will not have to explain why they are writing in English. There is nothing to be apologetic about," he advised.

When probed by Iyer on the reason behind Thayil's return to India after a childhood full of travels in New York, Hong Kong and other parts of the world, and his decision to stay back forever, Thayil explained, quite casually, that geographical locations are not of significance as long as a substantial work of literature is produced. Agreeing with Iyer's assertion where he mentioned that New York or London is longer the capital of writing, Thayil said: "No matter where you live in the world, you write a book of substance and that will surely get noticed, sooner or later. It wasn't the case 40 years ago. You could not even think of it -- more power to globalisation," he said.

Thayil also maintained that writers are meant to break boundaries, whether in practice or in their writing and challenged the question of "cultural appropriation". "That's what writers do. And if they didn't do so, art would be so much poorer," he contended.

A packed house greeted the panellists with warm appreciation and, among many other renowned writers, festival co-director William Dalrymple was seen sitting on the floor, right below the stage, with his attention focused on the discussion. One of the sublime scenes customary to the annual gathering of writers in this Pink City.

(Saket Suman is in Jaipur at the invitation of the organisers of Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. He can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

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Beyond boundaries and narrow brackets of national identities, the Empire writes back

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