Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Non-Stop Rushdie; PEN World Voices Festival

Salman Rushdie is everywhere, man. Last week it was introducing Ray's The Home and The World at Masters of Indian Cinema, before that the SAJA Tsunami Benefit.

This week, he's hosting the PEN World Voices Festival, and denouncing the Bush administration by way of publicizing the event.

The most interesting panel at the event, which of course I can't go to, might be The Post-National Writer. I'm becoming increasingly skeptical about whether writers can really pull this off; most "post-national" writers are really better described as "trans-national." Post-national would imply going beyond national boundaries entirely. But you always carry a passport (and therefore a nationality); you always have a mother-tongue you speak (and read); and the space you live in is always limited. Even people who are serial migrants remain bounded as they move.

I think national boundaries define one's sense of space in ways that are hard to shake; the nation is still a kind of defining imaginative frontier for the novel. It's one reason why I mistrust the category "South Asian literature," for instance. Most Indian writers are defined by the borders of India. They barely know Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka, and they certainly don't sit down to read Mohsin Hamid or Jean Arasanayagam to get a sense of what's happening in the "South Asian literary scene."

One might think this disconnect happens because India is in a sense the "center" of South Asia, and people at the center often forget those at the margins. But this nation-oriented provincialism is, I think, equally applicable in the smaller countries as well. If you read Sri Lankan writers like Jean Arasanayagam (based in Colombo), there is very little sense that there is a huge country called India just a few miles off the north coast of the island. The foreign reference points in most Sri Lankan literature are London, Toronto, and New York, not Madras or Trivandrum.


coolie said...


Happy Vaisakhi to you and your family. May Guru Gobind Singhji's wisdom guide us for another year.

8:32 AM  
coolie said...

What would a post-national writer write about?

Every great writer is trans-national because their work crosses borders and speaks Esperanto through its power and universality.

With the post-national writer comes the implication of transcendence, the idea of the writer unleashed, above and beyond mere petty concerns of his or her nation. Whilst this is a nice theory, it seems to me a kind of mytho-mania, a tendency to self-aggrandise. The universal always comes from the specific. A risk is that something deracinated and pompous comes from those writers who aspire to be 'post-national'. Joyce tussled with Ireland, the minutiae of Dublin, he was the epitome of cosmopolitanism, but could you call him 'post-national'? I have grave doubts about this concept, and the kind of writing it will achieve.

From Pankaj Mishra's review of The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

Examining these leads one to unlikeable conclusions. For instance, belonging and non-belonging, the one theme Rushdie returns to obsessively, as if to some perennially unfinished and urgent business. Well, in so far as every writer presents an individual case, Rushdie is the colonial child who has had to reinvent himself for the west. He is not alone in this: all of us, growing up in colonised societies and cultures, and working with the imported form of the novel, all of us who have known the damaged and damaging modernity of colonialism, have had to become mimics of sorts. These adjustments, made at so many levels of our private and public lives, can be traumatic, especially for people forced by various deprivations to relocate themselves to the western metropolis....

...If the lack of nuance makes you uneasy, you begin to feel acute discomfort when the expatriate's glee over having successfully crossed frontiers degenerates into something approaching contempt, even hostility, for the people he has left behind him. In one of the many disquisitions on belonging/unbelonging in The Ground Beneath, Indian society is likened to a "squirm of germs on a glass slide", and people who live in it are pitied as "moronic micro-organisms"


8:50 AM  
Laura said...

I agree that "trans-national" would be more apt. But I am not sure that the nation remains the defining imaginative frontier. I think we are in the doddering last days of that mindscape and on the verge of a paradigm shift even though I could probably point to less than a dozen novels or short story collections to support this argument. Just as the nation shaped our personal and cultural expressions in literature because it was the mechanism for defining, shaping or at least regulating the political and economic forces that affected us, it seems we are wandering toward trans-national organizations to fulfill those purposes in the future--for good or ill.

9:09 AM  
Amardeep said...


I totally forgot that today was Vaisakhi. Shows how out of touch I am, I guess!

And Laura, I think I see what you're saying, but I would be curious to know what collections you're thinking of.

When I read the postcolonial lit I know best, including some of the newer writers I mentioned (say, Mohsin Hamid from Pakistan), I do see a direct engagement with globalization. But that engagement remains to a large extent grounded in the soil of a particular national history, language, and cultural center. Even if it touches on issues having to do with liberalization and IMF/World Bank loans, Mothsmoke is fundamentally a novel of Lahore and Pakistan.

Most Indian lit. I know (and I admit I don't know it comprehensively) is not just national, it's actually sub-national in orientation. David Davidar is attached to Tamil Nadu, Arundhati Roy to Kerala, and Githa Hariharan to Delhi.

That said, I do feel strongly that it's possible to be defined by one's national context while still being critical of nationalism.

There is more that needs to be said about this...

2:23 PM  
coolie said...

That said, I do feel strongly that it's possible to be defined by one's national context while still being critical of nationalism

Amardeep, that is the key point. Joyce critiqued the assumptions of Irish nationalism in its sentimentality for the clerical and its Celtic schmaltz, its parochialism and inwardness snf reliance on Rome...and this was fuel for his attempt to create something new, to drag Irish literature away from that into the modern. Joyce was obsessive in his will for Ireland and the nitty-gritty detail of Dublin....but he did not accede to the prevailing nationalist paradigm of Ireland. This idea of the post-national writer is somewhat simplistic.

5:01 AM  
pennathur said...

Arundati Roy's "attachment" to Kerala is like all her other writing superficial and even dishonest. For a person whose knows next to nothing of India's languages and history (contested and otherwise) the attachment is nothing but a means to present a veneer to cover the what by now has become a formulaic exercise in story telling. Davidar in contrast having experienced the community he belongs to and having heard its tales and folklore in Tamizh makes much more sense. Why ever does one have to be critical of nationalism as an Indian writer?

Arundati made a great movie with "In which Annie gives those ones..." managing to poke fun at "socially" concerned but technically incapable and ignorant architects (either intentionally or unintentionally). Wonder what she thinks of it these days.

It is deliciously funny to read Pankaj M accuse Rushdie of contempt. Pankaj does little else thru his reportage and his ill-informed writings on the "fiction" of "Hinduism"

12:55 PM  
Amardeep said...


Forgive my ignorance -- what is Tamizh?

1:08 PM  
pennathur said...


Tamizh is how the word is pronounced in Tamizh. Tamil is an Englishised term for the language. the consonant 'zh' is a very soft retroflex. It is the most difficult consonant to utter in Tamil and the last one to be learnt by children. There's another such consonant L that happens when you retroflex l. You probably would know that the T in Tamizh is the soft sort as in Pratap. Interestingly it is the Tamizh communities (who shall remain unnamed here) who we(a)re charged with being "Aryan settlers" who pronounce 'zh' as it shd be. A large number of Tamizh speakers turn 'zh' into 'L' and 'L' into 'l'. In "Malayalam the second l is actually 'L'. Interestingly again in 'zh' appears extensively in Malayalam and is almost always pronounced as it shd be. More about all that some other day.

3:17 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home