Make Room for Disrespect

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

ARE WRITERS above politics, above the news, above issues? Do writers have responsibilities over and above that of being good writers? What is the relationship of the writer with society, with the State, with institutions? These are, as the novelist, critic and composer Amit Chaudhuri told me in Jaipur, the air escaping his lips with a slight, weary hiss, “very old questions”. They were asked, for instance, in 1962, at a famously truculent writers’ conference in Edinburgh. At a restaging of that conference, a new set of writers found themselves just as exercised by the questions as their counterparts some half a century earlier. In Edinburgh the second time around, the writer Elie Shafak invoked Theodor Adorno (“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”), to ask whether writing fiction in politically fraught circumstances was a luxury.

She was asking the question of the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who in her keynote address argued that the writer’s job in a crisis was to be a responsible citizen and take to the streets: “The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form… Your talent at the time of crisis is to tell the stories as they are, to help them achieve power as reality, not as fiction.” Onstage at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, the academic Timothy Garton Ash asked that his fellow panelists address the relationship between the writer and the State without recourse to those homiletic standbys of ‘bearing witness’, ‘exposing the evils of the State’ and ‘speaking truth to power’. But, as Soueif, who was also at Jaipur, suggests, when faced with an oppressive government, what else is a writer to do?

Garton Ash, an expert on Eastern Europe, is possibly jaded by the Cold War embrace of every dissident writer from the Soviet bloc, every mediocre prose stylist who brandished anticommunist bona fides. In the end, it is the work that survives and writers must be judged on their work. When I spoke to the Dutch academic Ian Buruma, he argued that if a writer lives in an “authoritarian society, the international audience awards dissidence, and if you don’t write dissident literature you’re criticised for it, as is the case with Mo Yan”.

The double standard Buruma identifies — one in which writers in democracies are free to write what they like, while other writers, particularly Anglophone writers in non-Western countries, must conform to certain expectations for their writing, for the subjects they choose — was described to me by other writers in Jaipur. Laleh Khadivi, a young writer of Iranian, particularly Kurdish, descent who lives in San Francisco, said she felt free as an American to write whatever she chose. “As writers,” she said, “we’re going to write about human tension and internal conflict. I don’t necessarily feel we have a responsibility to be a voice of the body politic in which we live.” She makes an eloquent defence for the writer’s right to deal “not with the politics of the moment but the politics of the heart in that moment”. Still, Khadivi admits that as an Iranian- American writer, the questions she gets from readers are inevitably political. “I always say, ‘I’m a civilian and before I’m a civilian I would like to be a poet.’ That’s where I’m coming from. You put yourself out there and people use you as a body of knowledge. But, you know, I just spent the past three years reading Faulkner!”

It is the fate of hybrid writers, insider-outsiders by definition, to be cultural interpreters. Selma Dabbagh, a promising British-Palestinian novelist, said she felt “no freedom just to create beauty”, that she felt a “responsibility to appeal outwards, to put the benefits of an education and the English language towards a legal and moral cause”. It sticks a little in Khadivi’s craw, just as it must in Dabbagh’s, this pressure to represent. “I don’t know if you should put this in there,” Khadivi told me, “be delicate.” Essentially, though she lives in an open society, the sort of place in which, according to Buruma, the writer has the right to be apolitical, the market logic of the publishing industry dictates Khadivi’s choices. “I’m pissed about this, actually, because if I had started my writing career by writing Chekhovian short stories and my characters had American names and my name was Iranian, I would never have gotten a book deal. My book deal is directly a result of my capacity to translate culture from one to another.”

Writers in totalitarian states either have a profoundly risky, oppositional relationship with the State, the sort of relationship that can see historians and novelists alike thrown into prison, or they compromise in order to produce their art — a category that includes Mo Yan and the now fêted Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech writer who did not sign Charter 77, who was not a darling of the Western intelligentsia like Václav Havel or, especially, Milan Kundera. Ariel Dorfman, part of a distinguished group of novelists at Jaipur this year, went into exile in 1973 when Pinochet grabbed power. In an essay, Dorfman wrote that mass-market stories, comic books, digests and romantic novels were “probably our most dogmatic form of communication”. “The points they make are simple and unambiguous; the interpretations they demand are straightforward and inflexible; and the readers they entertain are asked to be nothing more than uncritical and passive consumers.”

Even in relatively open democracies, ambiguity and complexity are the enemies of institutions. Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker Prize for The Finkler Question in 2010, said in Jaipur that the novel, unlike politics or religion, for instance, “saved us from the single voice”. The novel, that ‘baggy monster’ Henry James wanted to tame, is an argument, admitting querulous voices, doubts and questions and weakness. The State, as with any institution, seeks to convey strength through certainty. Anything that jeopardises that certainty, that seriousness is a threat. This is why fools have always been subversive.

ON THE last day at Jaipur — a relatively quiet Monday, controversy fatigue having already set in — the wry, wise Francophone writer Tahar Ben Jelloun spoke (wryly and wisely) about the panic and fear provoked by fiction. It’s more dangerous than reality, he said; the powerful tremble when people are allowed to laugh. “The enemy of religion,” he said, quoting Umberto Eco, “is laughter.” The same is true of governments. And men. The day before, ignoring his tea on the expansive lawns of a palace hotel, Jacobson sat on the edge of his chair, his shoulders thrust towards me as if to add forward momentum to his emphatic disquisition on the masculinity in Philip Roth’s novels being distinct from that in Ulysses, or in the novels of Saul Bellow: “There’s an arrogance in Roth, a male principle. The proud male erect principle is not going to take laughter at itself. The strong man will laugh at other things, including women, but he won’t laugh at himself.”

Ben Jelloun writes in French, as opposed to classical Arabic, because “authors must be allowed to mistreat language”, to disrespect it. At another session in Jaipur, the Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade told an audience with some asperity that in India there had to be “an end to respecting things”. The writer, Nemade said, operates in “the gap between chaos and order”. It brings him into conflict with those who purport to keep that order; in this, the dissenting writer shares an affinity with the rebel, the revolutionary. “India is a country where revolution is not appreciated,” Nemade said, “but a bit of revolution is necessary to clear out the junk.” Have our contemporary English-language writers armed themselves with brooms? The prizewinning Pakistani novelist, Nadeem Aslam, whose new book, The Blind Man’s Garden, set like his last in Afghanistan (at least partly), is out next week, told me that if he were an Indian writer he would be as critical of Indian society as he is of his own. “Pakistan’s problems are the problems of a developing country. Ninety-nine percent of Pakistan’s problems are India’s problems. Female infanticide is an issue here; health is an issue here; illiteracy is an issue here; the place of women in society is an issue here; the great inequality is an issue here; child labour; everything is the same. Writers should ceaselessly be looking at what is wrong with their society.” The implication is clear, that perhaps Indian writers (in English) are not.

Sudeep Chakravarti, who writes fiction and non-fiction, charming bildungsroman alongside carefully researched accounts of Maoist rebellion, told me it was “nearly a sacred duty for literature [in India] to be political: to be engaged to safeguard progress, freedom, identity and dignity”. Chakravarti is not asking for writers, particularly creative writers, to be activists, what I think he is referring to is the writer to be empathetic, to feel sympathy for those without power, to feel estranged from the established. “You always write,” Ben Jelloun says, “from the exterior. The writer is always an exile even when he lives at home.” TS Eliot, in The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, wrote: “The artist being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, and orthodox when everyone else is heterodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values.”

In Jaipur, the Iranian-American writer and professor Reza Aslan offered the example of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose poetry gave Pakistani nationhood its heartbeat and then, almost as soon as Pakistan came into being, was sent to prison, an enemy of the state he did so much to define. No writer can easily belong to a club which would have him as a member. As the all-too-serious farce ensnaring Ashis Nandy shows, the literalists, the humourless, the prigs and scolds are everywhere, our leaders and politicians chief among the massed ranks. Do our English-language writers, so comfortably ensconced in the upper middle classes, have the appetite for the fray?