21 April 2014

politics and literature

i came across this wonderful conversation between kamila shamsie, whose work i love (burnt shadows was absolutely beautiful) and pankaj mishra, whose work i know. they discussed political anger in contemporary literature, sparked off from the controversy surrounding chinese novelist mo yan’s winning of the pulitzer in 2012. it covers a lot of ground (and authors), and brings up great points for discussion: 

Do we ever expose the political preferences of Mo Yan’s counterparts in the West to such harsh scrutiny?...
[What i objected to] was the attempt to delegitimize [Mo Yan's] literary achievement through some selective reference to his political choices, like his refusal to sign a petition. If we were to take that narrow measure to many of the canonical figures of Western literature—from Dickens with his bloodthirsty writings during the Indian Mutiny, to Nabokov, who adored the war in Vietnam—those writers would have to be dismissed as worthless. 
...we need a more complex understanding of writers working under authoritarian or repressive regimes. Something to replace this simpleminded, Cold War-ish equation in which the dissident in exile is seen as a bold figure, and those who choose to work with restrictions on their freedom are considered patsies for repressive governments. Let’s not forget that most writers in history have lived under nondemocratic regimes: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Goethe didn’t actually enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech. And let’s not forget also, alas, that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee great literature. 

...You have to ask: How many writers in Anglo-America who, unlike Mo Yan, enjoy untrammeled liberty to say whatever they want on political issues, have actually made use of their privileges during the last decade of violence and mayhem unleashed by their governments? 

...The fact is that the patron saint of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, thought that barbarian peoples like the Indians were unfit for self-rule. 

...Where is the rage? It’s one thing to say writers don’t get worked up about what their nation is doing in the Middle East, but here we have writers not getting worked up about what the state is doing to their ability to write without constraint. 
I have been wanting to write up something regarding literature and human rights, and this is the perfect encouragement. in fact, it was nice to read one of my fav authors on a topic close to my heart. isabelle allende, barbara kingsolver, kamila shamsie, gabriel garcia marquez, mohammed hanif; they all write political, social fiction, and i love them all. i have been too busy engorging on the prose lately, and not paying enough attention/homage to the content. this article was a pleasant knock on the head. 

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