Packaging Commonwealth Literature

In August 2013, the Commonwealth Writers organisation announced that it was discontinuing the prize it had awarded since 1987 (first as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and then the Commonwealth Book Prize). Instead, they instituted the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Not long after, in September 2013, the Man Booker Prize was opened up to include all novels published in English in the UK, which effectively means it has been opened to US authors. Since 1969 it had only been open to writers from Britain and the Commonwealth. These are dramatic shifts in two of English-language publishing’s most prominent prizes, so what could all of this mean for South Asian literature? I would add the disclaimer here that these developments are largely only pertinent to South Asian literature in English, a booming but niche industry, especially within the region itself. However, I think the two announcements do potentially have a broader impact on South Asian literature in a range of languages.

The Man Booker Prize is “abandoning the constraints of geography and national boundaries”, said foundation chairman Jonathan Taylor, in an effort to enhance the prestige and reputation of the prize. Possible effects of opening the Man Booker Prize to American authors are obvious: there will be more competition for the prize. But it is the changing face of the Commonwealth Prize that provides the most complex and interesting commentary on the state of the literature business in 2013.

The Commonwealth Writers organisation itself has announced that the Short Story Prize will aim to “identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities”. They also announced that the change would enable writers from countries where there is little or no publishing industry to enter, in languages other than English. One could perceive the change, then, to be altruistic. Short stories are often the way budding novelists begin. The presumption here is that the novel genre is the epitome of literary achievement (entirely debatable, subjective tastes aside), and that by encouraging the writing of short stories around the world, the future of diverse World Literature is being assured. Glancing down a list of past winners of the Commonwealth Novel Prize, the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India emerge the most frequently. This over-representation of the metropole is not necessarily indicative of where actual literary talent lies, but is more to do with access to publishing centres. In this case, the Commonwealth Writers’ decision to move towards a supposedly more accessible format could certainly be seen as an encouraging, democratising move, the opposite of the Man Booker’s inclusion of American literature, which may have the effect of further marginalising Commonwealth literatures.

But it is also a rather strange move considering that short stories are harder to sell than novels. One could argue that the Commonwealth Writers organisation is not interested in profits for itself or its writers, that they would rather emphasise literary merit and develop talent around the world. But there is another side to this change in focus. Ahmedabad-based scholar of literature and translation theory, Rita Kothari, has written that in this era of print capitalism, anthologies of short stories tend to be pitched as “celebratory… user-friendly, ‘good-value-for-money’ kits that comprise ‘diverse’ voices.” It is possible that the Commonwealth Writers organisation will anthologise their finalists in some way, perhaps similar to Delhi-based publisher Katha’s annual collections of prize-winning translations from a wide range of Indian languages. Indeed, this would be a good idea, as one can imagine readers from London to Mumbai to Wellington picking up an anthology of short stories from Commonwealth countries, being attracted by the possibility of reading a story from Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or any other of the literarily under-represented countries. A compact kit of diverse voices, indeed, and good-value-for-money if locally priced.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with readers wanting such compact introductions to regions that had not been on their radar. But is that where engagement with other literatures—and thus other societies—stops? Will the prize’s new form really mean that writers from first-world Anglophone countries are at no more of an advantage than writers from South Asia or Africa or the Pacific Islands? Or will it just mean that western, Anglophone readers get a more diverse bunch to sample and feel good about ‘doing something’ about the problems of the world, how the ‘other half’ lives, by reading about them? That is a cynical view, but I am not alone in suggesting it.

In a September 2013 review essay in Open magazine, Devika Bakshi argues that the proliferation and popularity of novels about India—by Indian authors, nonetheless—based on the hackneyed trope of the ordinary folk struggling to make do in the dog-eat-dog, neoliberal world that is contemporary India amounts to “looking smugly through the peephole of education and privilege into ‘the world’ and patting oneself on the back for accurately characterising it, for being able to sum it up in so many words, to lay it bare and walk away, as though the mere act of documentation constitutes a resolution for whatever conflict is observed.” Bakshi is not suggesting that such books are written for a primarily Western audience, but that in the contemporary global marketplace—where India is the third largest producer and consumer of English-language books—the class position of readers is more pertinent than location per se. Bakshi believes that upsetting encounters between the (comparatively) wealthy writer and the poor subject leads to writers’ attempts to resolve the uncomfortable situation through penning fiction. When it seems that the task of tackling South Asia’s poverty and problems seems too large, fiction is a form of bearing witness. Bakshi’s view is not simply a snobbish dismissal of ‘bad’ books, as many books widely considered quite ‘good’ fit this category. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes to mind, as does Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, and that reviewed by Bakshi, Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory (and, of course, these books’ filmic counterpart, Slumdog Millionaire).

This trend seems to be particularly strong in India, as the liberalisation of its economy in the 1990s both stimulated the publishing industry there, and perceptibly widened the gap between rich and poor, providing fruitful material for such middle-class, metropolitan works of literature. But the trend is not limited to India, particularly if we look to diasporic authors, with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being an Afghan example.

Bakshi’s critique focuses on the writer, but the reader, too, is part of this feel-good literary (non-) activism. Undoubtedly reading geographically widely can be enormously beneficial to one’s understanding of the world, of places that will not be known any other way. But geo- and publishing-politics are tied up with what people want to read. The most popular writers are not necessarily the most original, innovative or even ‘inspirational’ for their communities. The enormous success of Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is evidence of this. The author hit upon a topic that was appealing to western readers at the time—Afghanistan a couple of years after the US invasion—and was possibly just the best example of its type, rather than truly well-written or innovative on its own terms. It may have been inspirational to diasporic Afghans, but I find it difficult to believe it was an inspirational book to those within Afghanistan. The judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize must include a range of people knowledgeable of what is going on in literature within the countries that the nominations come from if it is to avoid selecting style over substance, the trendy over the long-term valuable, and ultimately a ‘dumbing down’ of literary quality throughout the world.

The enormous proliferation of literary festivals around South Asia in the past five years suggests the difficulties of striking a balance between literary merit and populist appeal. Literature is to be made appealing to the ‘masses’, but much literature is simply unappealing to them, so other means are sought to reel in large audiences and convince them that books are worthy of time and money. I do not wish to be misunderstood: I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in both 2011 and 2013 and thought it was an amazing event, so inspirational and exciting. But I am a middle-class, western, native Anglophone, and what I find inspiring in literature is likely to be vastly different from what the majority of South Asians (and other citizens of Commonwealth countries) do. Literary festivals can be inspiring to writers, intellectuals, scholars, teachers, but to spark interest (and attendance) from the ‘average citizen’, such festivals have opened up to include figures only tentatively considered writers.

A major figure at the 2013 JLF was Javed Akhtar, Bollywood screenplay writer; Oprah Winfrey drew massive crowds in 2012, and Gulzar, film-song lyricist, has made regular appearances. In 2011, Kathmandu’s NCell Nepal Literature Festival’s inaugural year, the festival’s magazine featured actor Rajesh Hamal on the cover. As the 2012 magazine’s editorial stated, putting an actor on the cover of a magazine purporting to be about books caught many by surprise: “our idea was to draw people’s attention to Rajesh Hamal, the reader and not Rajesh Hamal, the actor, thereby encouraging them to take up reading.” It seems that what ‘inspires’ many people is not literature at all, but other forms of entertainment. That is fine, and is the way it always has been. But is the Commonwealth Writers organisation naïve in thinking that privileging the short story will give more people access to literary inspiration? That short stories from the Commonwealth will be able to transcend that conception of ‘showcasing’?

There is nothing to say, of course, that the finalists for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition will fall into the voyeurism of the rich over the poor. However, the fact that the organisers wish to find authors who will inspire their communities runs the risk of fostering a developmentalist attitude that could lead to a dumbing-down of literary merit by finding ‘worthy’ or ‘representative’ authors. Bengali feminist literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has warned against mining the literature of the “third world” for its message rather than its merit. She warns that this happens when insufficient care is taken in translating, so that a type of “translatese” is developed, a phenomenon in which language is flattened and a Palestinian woman’s prose comes to resemble a Taiwanese man’s. Will the Commonwealth Short Story Competition be accompanied by a Commonwealth Translation Competition? Unless it is, the well-meaning aims of the organisation to encourage writers from a broader range of nations may end up contributing to the developments of Commonwealth literatures in ways they perhaps did not intend.

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini (2013)

Andthemountainsechoed
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013. (Borrowed copy).

I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini’s first book, The Kite Runner, but sometimes I feel that I’m the only person in the world to dislike the book (its convolution, implausibility, opportunism…) as it was so immensely popular. Sometimes you have to wonder if your own taste is flawed, particularly when people whose opinions on books you usually value can have such differing perspectives. But after reading And the Mountains Echoed I can confidently say that I am not a fan of Khaled Hosseini as an author. Much of this has to do with what I think he represents for western (particularly American) readers, a sort of “native informism” that isn’t properly ‘native’ (to put it very crudely) or informative. But that is a different rant and a different essay. Meta-criticism aside, And the Mountains Echoed was too sprawling and eventually flat.

It started very powerfully, demonstrating that on some levels, Hosseini can be a good storyteller. The narrator tells an old Afghan tale of a family forced to give up its youngest, most beloved child to a demon. The father goes mad with grief, but discovers in time that his lost child has been given a better life, and the rest of the family prospered, through the act of sacrifice. The moral is that sacrifice for the greater good is sometimes necessary, but also that one’s desires for possession can be selfish and that perhaps letting go of attachments is the right thing to do, if not always the easiest. And the Mountains Echoed brings this fable into the twentieth century, beginning in 1950s Afghanistan when a young village girl is bought from her family and beloved brother by a wealthy, bored, childless Afghan couple. She is promised a better life with her adoptive parents, which she does receive, but the ramifications of the displacement echo throughout generations. The search for lost history, roots, and family travels across continents–to the US, unsurprisingly, but also to Greece and France–and time, bringing the novel into the twenty-first century with a lot of meandering and jumping across the decades.

This search for that which has been lost is at the heart of the novel, but there is little else convincingly tying the 400 pages together. A non-linear narrative, as Hosseini has used, can be an effective way of creating suspense and keeping the narrative interesting. It is, though, an over-used device employed when there is not enough substance to the plot, characters, or other aspects of the novel to retain the reader’s interest. This felt like the case with And the Mountains Echoed. The more creative, surprising thing for Hossein to have done would have been to employ a linear structure. The power of the story, particularly the psychological traumas various characters face over many years, could have been retained this way, in fact heightened. This narrative ‘experimentation’ (and I use scare quotes because narrative non-linearity is hardly novel) is not a lone example of Hosseini being needlessly ornate. A large section of the novel is narrated through a letter, and the frequent references to and invocations of the reader of the letter, a Greek man implicated in the plot, are very tiresome and unnecessary. Hosseini seemed reticent to employ an omniscient narrator throughout his novel, even though the complex history and multiple characters and locations really called for one.

Multi-generational sagas that span continents can be impressive books, but only when they are done flawlessly. Hosseini, in And the Mountains Echoed threw in so many irrelevant characters that didn’t plausibly have any reason to care for the separation or reunification of the central family that, ultimately, I didn’t understand why I was being asked to care for this family, either. The potential emotional power that And the Mountains Echoed began with was completely lost through too many poorly executed literary flourishes.

New issue of Himal Southasian out now

Himal Q4 cover
The fourth quarterly issue was launched last week at the Bangalore literature festival by none other than Hindi film lyricist Gulzar, appropriate as the topic of the issue is Southasian film: “Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree”. The Nepal release was at the Film Southasia festival, a documentary film biennale held in Kathmandu.

If you live in Kathmandu or major Indian metros, you can find Himal in good bookshops. If you live elsewhere in the world, you can subscribe via the website.

Film Southasia festival 2013

The Non-Hiker's Guide to Nepal

Today was day one of the four day long Film Southasia festival of documentary films. It is being held at the QFX Kumari cinema in Kathmandu, and runs until Sunday 6th October. I was blogging on it today for the FSA website (rather challenging as the wifi was out for much of the day). For news info on the films, check out the blog and the FSA website: http://www.filmsouthasia.org/blog/ / http://www.filmsouthasia.org/

The major news of today was that the Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into banning the screening of the three Sri Lankan films that were part of the festival. This goes against the entire ethos of the festival, and the organisers of FSA refuse to be silenced by the governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal. As Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair of FSA and Editor of Himal Southasian, stated, the spaces for open dialogue are being steadily constricted in this country (Nepal), and this…

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Himal Southasian now available to purchase online

himalsubscribe Cover july_290 421
Shameless spruiking, but what’s the point of having a personal blog if you can’t do some self-promoting at times?!
My employer, Himal Southasian magazine, has just set up an online payment portal so that international readers can buy copies of the magazine and subscribe. Readers in Southasian countries may be able to find the magazine in bookshops, depending on where you are located, but the distribution doesn’t reach everywhere. I encourage anyone who has any interest in Southasian culture, society, politics, literature, history, to consider a subscription or purchase of single issues. I used to read and enjoy the magazine long before I started work here, so I can vouch for its quality from a reader’s perspective, and not just an employee’s!

Furthermore, my reviews of William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Hanifa Deen’s On the Trail of Taslima appear in the April and July 2013 issues, respectively.

As always, Himal has a great online magazine, too, with different content from the print issue.

Road to Katmandu, Patrick Marnham (1971)

road-to-katmandu

I had seen this book for sale in Canberra’s Academic Remainders Bookshop while I was waiting to hear whether I’d got the job I wanted in Kathmandu. I was tempted to buy it right away, but decided that if I heard the very next day that I hadn’t got the job, I wouldn’t want to read it after all, I would likely feel resentful. Fickle, I know. So, when I found out that I’d got it, I bought it on my next trip to Garema Place.

However, I found it quite disappointing, not least because the Kathmandu of the title–really the only reason I noticed this book–makes a minimal appearance at the end. Patrick Marnham traveled from Turkey to Nepal, overland through Iran and Afghanistan and India, with few resources but an adventurous spirit. Road to Katmandu has been described as a classic, but I think developments in travel writing since its publication in the early 1970s–particularly changes in ideas about the role of the author–means that it has aged poorly. This was a very character-driven travel narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly as the author does note that it was a fictionalised account of the travels he undertook. But, I learned too little about the places being traveled through–even from a biased perspective, as one expects from travel literature–and too much about the young westerners who were, ultimately, pretty uninteresting and vapid people despite the amazing adventures they embarked upon. Nowadays, such self-indulgent travel to “find oneself” is normal for middle-class youths from many first-world countries, it has been thoroughly commodified and normalised. The gap year, or the OE (is this a New Zealand-ism? I never heard it in Australia) is a right of passage. I have some respect for those who blazed the trail, but perhaps nowadays it’s what we (or I) are trying to resist in travelling to exotic lands. Or at least convince ourselves isn’t the goal.

There were some aspects of Road to Katmandu that I found interesting. This was a book that was actually written quite a long time ago now, and it was easy to forget this. I was able to put this back into perspective when I read the following passage, on travelling by bus through Iran:

“The dispute continued well beyond the point of reason or experience and was followed by an hour of determined silence broken only by a youth immediately in front of us. Now and again he popped up over the back of his bench and beamed the beginning of an announcement. ‘Bobby Kennedy kaput.’ He ran his finger across his throat and disappeared still beaming. Apparently the ex-President’s brother was not popular in Persia.” (p. 80-1)

I’m an avid Mad Men fan, and several weeks ago watched the episode where Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. This seems like another age, when people wore different clothes and spoke differently and had different values, and re-contextualising the journey narrated in Road to Katmandu as also of that age is necessary to put it into perspective, to realise that young western travelers like Marnham really were being radical.

The hippy trail was, ultimately, a masculine adventure. The tokenism of female travelers in this journey–whether we are speaking of the actual journey this fictionalised account represents, or the fiction–put me off side from the start. This was not necessarily Marnham’s fault, as a writer or a traveler, as it was a sign of the times, but it prevented me from empathising with the journey. Marnham describes a rare female traveler he meets:

“Ann was a self-contained person with a devastating ability to unman the natives if they got a little out of hand. Like Maud’s brother, she simply gorgonised them from head to foot with a stony British stare. She was one of the few girls we met on the road. Not many travellers wanted to expend that much energy in guarding them. In Istanbul, rape stories had been exchanged like football scores.” (p. 41)

The 2006 edition includes an up-to-date (2005) foreword by the author, in which he does reflect on personal and political changes since Road to Katmandu was written. It should go without saying that some excellent literature provides the reader with an unfamiliar perspective on life, rather than merely reinforcing the known, and this is why most of us read. But, I couldn’t find enough in this to empathise with to really enjoy it. So I’ve been looking for books on Nepal elsewhere. Watch this space.

This edition: London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006. First published 1971.

The Carpet Wars, Christopher Kremmer (2002)

I have a particular liking for travel reportage, and Christopher Kremmer’s The Carpet Wars is very enjoyable, though unsatisfying in several important ways.

The subtitle on the image I have posted (“Ten Years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq”) differs from the one on my copy (“A journey across the Islamic Heartlands”), and I think this demonstrates how much the packaging and meta-textual aspects of a book can affect one’s reading of it. The Carpet Wars is not limited to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at all, covering Tajikistan, Kashmir, a little bit of Delhi, and Iran as well. These latter places are not insignificant in Kremmer’s narrative, so why leave them out of the subtitle? I suspect the subtitle on this cover image is motivated by an attempt to tap into that lucrative market of books on the Middle East, post-9/11. This warps the real purpose of the book, and obscures the fact that this really is a travel account spanning the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

Keeping with my meta-textual criticisms, I found the title a bit misleading, too. Christopher Kremmer is a carpet collector, and on his various trips to these countries spent much time buying, researching and discussing carpets. Yet I don’t feel that I have finished this book knowing much more about carpets than I did before I started. Kremmer is a print and broadcast journalist, and visited most of these places on work assignments over a long span of time–the carpet business was fitted in whenever he had some personal time. Of course it’s fairly smart to combine work and pleasure, but I felt that the depth of the discussion about carpets was lacking because of the primary purposes of his travels. Basically, I think this would have been a richer book if Kremmer had set out to research carpets alone. Most of the discussion of carpets consists of him talking to sellers in their shops, and though the conversations he has are interesting, they didn’t seem all that different from the kinds of conversations anyone shopping in South Asia enters into as a matter of course. The combination of geo-political commentary, gained through Kremmer’s experience as a journalist, with a specific focus on a cultural symbol in the form of the carpet could have worked, but it didn’t quite. The geo-political aspects tended to dominate, which was a bit of a shame, as there are plenty of other books around doing the same thing.

As a travel account I found it very enjoyable, particularly the chapter on Tajikistan, a country I really know little about. Kremmer’s portrait of the Tajik capital Dushanbe made it sound quite sinister, with a little charm, and I must admit reading it and thinking how I should add Dushanbe to my list of places to avoid (though I do remember reading Simon Winchester’s Calcutta many years ago and being completely put off the city, which is now one of my favourite places in India, testament to the importance of keeping an open mind. And a recent conversation with some cousins who traveled through Tajikistan last year renewed my fledgling interest in the place!). An indication of the lawlessness and political instability of the country was the nickname given to the president Rahmonov: “Mayor of Dushanbe.” Kremmer’s descriptions contain a black, desolate humour, as is befitting of many (ex)Soviet places:

“The Hotel Tajikistan embodied the unique ennui of the socialist service establishment. Finding the particular restaurant serving your particular meal on a particular day was a treasureless hunt. Breakfast was in the basement bar, sometimes. Requiring a coupon, it consisted of yoghurt and sour blinchikis served on a genuine imitation snakeskin tablecloth. Dinner was on the ground floor near the lobby bar; I never found lunch. The horsemeat sausages were vile, the waiters refused to put meals on the room bill and were plagued by a mysterious lack of change, and one morning no one seemed to know where the coffee had gone. Yet there was something remarkably homely about the place, a sort of ‘We’re not trying anymore’ bonhomie. The floor lady happily listened to my execrable Russian, handled my laundry and made endless samovars of chai. The hotel’s rooms had balconies overlooking the snowcapped mountains to the south or, like mine, looked across Lenin Park, in which stood a statue of Vladimir Ilyich, eyes fixed on a future nobody else could see.” (p. 245)

(The conversation with the cousin backed up these descriptions of the food- he actually made it sound far worse!)

However, I think a real test of good travel writing is to read about a place you are familiar with and see whether it holds–Michael Palin’s accounts of New Zealand are completely cringe-worthy, for example; Paul Theroux’s observations of Dunedin are completely at odds with mine. Though I have not been to Kashmir, I have read a lot about it, and I ultimately found Kremmer’s account unsatisfying–it was repetitive of a lot of other writing on Kashmir and didn’t really add many new insights, aside from his experiences at carpet-making factories. I read his descriptions of the Dal Lake houseboats and the impoverishment of their owners in the past couple of decades, and had a strong sense of deja vu, wondering whether I had read this passage elsewhere, in a collection of writings on Kashmir. I don’t think I have, but this says a lot about the chapter, and the book as a whole, I think.

But I don’t mean to sound completely negative. It was an interesting and readable book, the type to read while travelling, perhaps. I have Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma stashed away for this purpose.