The Jaipur LitFest is a celebration of all things related to writing. Whether you are a reader, novelist, aspiring author, screenwriter, poet, graphic artiste or just a lover of books, Jaipur Lit Fest should definitely be on your to-do destination. It had been on mine for the last four years and finally, this year I had the good fortune of visiting the Litfest between 17th and 21st January. Nothing, not even the unusually cold winds and grey skies, could dampen my enthusiasm. And I wasn’t alone! As thousands of visitors defied the winter chill and trooped into the Diggi Palace complex, the spirit of globalism seemed to imbue the atmosphere with warm bonhomie. With authors and readers jetting in from India and all over the globe, it was only apt that there would be discussions about globalism and the publishing world.
A session titled “The Global Novelist” included authors whose writings reflect their global sensibilities. Jhumpa Lahiri, US author of Indian origin, Xiaolu Guo, who writes both in Chinese and English, Maaza Mengiste whose roots are in Ethiopia but now lives in the US and British author Jim Crace—who has worked in Sudan—shared their thoughts about the advent of “the global novelist”.
For Xiaolou Guo, being a multi-lingual author is a “liberating” experience. It allows her to play with different identities as an author. “When I’m in China, I write in Chinese but when I’m in the UK, I write in English. I feel liberated because when I write in Chinese, I’ve to be very careful or else I can be thrown in jail.”
Jhumpa Lahiri on the other hand feels that globalism is more of a marketing concept. Novelists, however, have always aimed at “being universal”. The effort is to “transcend the barriers that limit us” in our real lives through art. At a personal level, Lahiri admitted to have always “known confusion” and has always recognised the “seemingly irreconciliable differences that can rent us apart and yet keep us together.”
To Ethiopian-born Mengiste the impact of books going global has enormous implications. She talked of the time when after the riots in Ethiopia in the 1970s, a political prisoner spent his days painfully translating a copy of Gone with the Wind, that one of his friends had smuggled in, on scraps of cigarette paper for the benefit of his fellow prisoners. It took him years but with that one act transformed Margaret Mitchell’s book into a global novel. “It’s readers who make a book global,” said Mengiste. “A novel becomes global when it captures more than the imagination of the people and forever changes our understanding of a country.”
Yet at another level, the commoditisation of global culture is inescapable. Lahiri pointed out that “the focus on English is distressing as non-English literature is losing significance.” She remarked that in Italy, where she currently resides, seven out of ten top books are in the English language and not Italian.
Guo maintained that globalism has had yet another effect: mainstream media is dictating reading habits. As a result, narrative-driven works dominate while other non-narrative oriented literature is not getting the attention it deserves. The lack of level playing field for different kinds of literature is becoming a constraint for other cultures, particularly in the non-English speaking world, to narrate their own stories. Inevitably then, translation as a bridge between cultures becomes hugely importantly. Lahiri said, “Power should be with the reader and more energies should be put into translation.”
The emergence of digital technologies has come as a boon and is empowering writers all over the world to tell their stories in their own languages and get them published at the press of a button. Web publishing has enabled more and more writers to reach out to audiences across the globe. British author Jim Crace pointed out that when he spoke with a group of young writers in Malta, all of them wanted to write in English even though they would be much better writers in Maltese.
So then are local narratives giving way to grand global ones? Is the local flavour being subsumed by the “McDonaldization” of the publishing world? When DNA editor, CP Surendran, posed this question to veteran Indian author M.T. Vasudevan Nair, whose works have been translated from his native tongue Malayalam into English, Nair, categorically denied it. “The idea of a global market doesn’t affect me as a writer. I am still motivated by the stories that were told to me by my mother, aunts….Loneliness and hunger were the wounds that formed the basis of many of my stories. And people all over the world can relate to those stories. They are universal.”
Even though many authors expressed fears of a ‘homogenisation’ of global narratives and experiences, the scenario is more positive than bleak. Lahiri who grew up in the US talks about the impact of inhabiting two different places – one that’s real and immediate and another that’s distant and tinged with nostalgia. Her new novel, The Lowland, is an outcome of this experience. “Something happens when you leave a place,” she said, “The day to day routine goes away and it takes on a surreal quality.”
As I pondered about the differing views what remained in my mind was Nair’s telling comment: “The past haunts me. I continue to write about the village of my childhood even though it no longer exists. Nor are the people the same. That village is lost to modernisation, external forces, affluence and urbanisation.” And yet, “the lost dream” still continues to live on in Nair’s writings and will continue to capture the imagination of his readers and fans all over the world.
That perhaps is the greatest gift that globalisation has to offer to readers.
Watch this space for more reports on the Jaipur Lit Fest… and do share your thoughts and views. 🙂