Utopians and visionaries

February 16, 2014

Utopians and visionaries

What is, after all, the relationship between literature and politics? Where does literature’s greatest potential rest, taking into account its engagements (to say nothing of its affiliations) with both commodification and spectacular market forces? How should one think about various authors’ stagings of social interaction, or even of the self? When writers adopt other guises or disciplines, are there alternative models of criticism or classification to which we should turn?

An extended look at the 5th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF 2014) can lend a dramatic clarity to these matters and, indeed, might prove generative for our conversations about writing today. A group of scholars met for three days at Beach Luxury Hotel, among them some very prominent writers: Rajmohan Gandhi was a featured speaker, for instance, while Kamila Shamsie and Raza Ali Abidi were the keynote speakers.

Yet as the weekend progressed, it was clear that what had brought writers and thinkers from Brazil, France, England, India, and elsewhere to Karachi was not the need to bear witness to the replacement of one epistemological theory by another, or to celebrate some other step in the development of a specialised literature: Cinema, sociology, politics, and aesthetics were all topics of discussion. A cross between an amusement park and a "return to the womb", KLF 2014 was one of the most uproarious, outrageous and incredibly popular events in years.

KLF 2014 was an open study of the literatures of the present. It is entrusted to a single director, Ameena Saiyed, and co-founder, Asif Farrukhi at the Oxford University Press (OUP) who can choose which lines to follow, which strands to weave, which phenomena to highlight, and can give a unity of reading to the various lines of study. A single curator can take into account the propensities of the very different venues available, and give a unity of direction to the representation. This may be particularly useful to the curators in curating a literary event that aims not to offer information on recent developments in the literary market or launch fashionable writers. It aims rather to look at where writers are going and, perhaps, through their work, where the world is going.

KLF could be seen as a place where artistic translations and productive misreadings took place, and this is what made it a creative site and not simply a place where one culture is put on display for another. 

In his opening speech, Rajmohan Gandhi offered a powerful political reflection on emancipation, on the conditions of democracy as the thought and practice of equality and tolerance. Democracy for him is neither a type of constitution nor a form of society. As a political thinker and a scholar, he showed us that what passes for democracy is nothing but consensus: a Durkheimian vision of the social, whose cohesion depends on each occupying his own space.

Rajmohan Gandhi’s work does not offer prescriptions, prophecies, or norms for action. But it can make us attentive to the fractures in our own present, the moments when another version of democracy, predicated on dissensus, equality, and the emergence of new political subjectivities, may now be perceived.

Another eloquent speaker Ashis Nandy from India in conversation with Nauman Naqvi stunned the audience by calling himself an intellectual street fighter who liked to break certitudes. "I don’t want India to be a super power; I want it to be a compassionate, emphatic state. This region has potentialities waiting to be unleashed." He brought out differences between nationalism and patriotism, and emphasised the need for being careful in choosing one’s enemy because "that would begin to define us."

It is perhaps not that easy to translate the Festival into every language, but if Edouard Glissant, a major theorist of poetic migration and transformation, is right, the translation act itself is a way of making our shared world richer. With every language we lose, the imagination of the world is impoverished. With every translation of a poem into another language, our collective imaginary universe is enhanced: "The cultures of the world are furiously and knowingly coming into contact with each other, changing by exchanging, through irremediable collisions and ruthless wars -- but also through the breakthrough of moral conscience and hope."

Such was the message of sessions ‘The Faiz Everyone Loves’, ‘Basti Aur Uskay Baad’ with Intizar Hussain, ‘Apni Beyaz Sey’ with Zehra Nigah, and ‘Our Sheikh Sa’adi’ and ‘The Simurgh and the Birds’ both with the veteran poet and translator Fehmida Riaz, not to mention the Translation Workshop led by the British Council with Nikesh Shukla, Nikita Lalwani, Gioia Guerzoni and Daniel Hahn in attendance.

Perhaps the most productive collision is that of a work of literature being transformed from one language to the next, or a work of art being introduced to an audience for whom the encounter implies a widening of the intellectual horizon. KLF 2014 could be seen as a place where such artistic translations and productive misreadings took place, and this is what made it a creative site and not simply a place where one culture is put on display for another in a way that treats each culture as something static, a fixed essence that is inevitably rooted in stereotypes.

Instead, beyond the world of spectacle culture, there is still the possibility of truly poetic clashes that which Glissant calls éclat -- a collision that also creates sparks of novelty. Without such sparks, life would be a dreary thing.

Today’s world consists of individual nations as well as of globalising forces, and artists around the world create their works amid the tension between the two. In ‘The World of the Novel’ writers such as Bernardo Carvelho, Claire Chambers, and Thomas Brussig, contested notions pertaining to success and failure of a novel while in ‘Memory and Imagination’, Rukhsana Ahmed recounted anecdotes culled from the cauldron of imagination.

In the session ‘Pakistani Novel in English: International Representation and Local Reception’, the panelists reiterated the pressure that the South Asian writer underwent of producing a 9/11 novel whereas Uzma Aslam Khan, Kamila Shamsie and Mohammad Hanif held the audience spellbound with their musings on the structure, theme and dynamics of novel writing in conversation with their respective moderators.

Internalisation can be an emancipatory power that liberates individuals from the limitations of their local culture, but there is no doubt also a homogenising tendency that involves a leveling of cultural differences that can turn the world into a place of monotonous sameness. It may be interesting to think about art as a counterforce to such levelling -- an insistence on differences that have nothing to do with the politically reactionary return to nationalism. The writers invited to KLF 2014 did not represent their nations or linguistic communities but were responsible solely for their own visions.

KLF 2014 was a cavalcade of events without sections that presented different themes yet weaved them into one articulated whole. To make a large event has, in my experience, little to do with implementing a master plan. Inspiration and ideas come from many places. What art history and theory describe as detournement signifies the complex practice of dismantling existing aesthetic structures and reassembling them in an altered and subverted way in order to question or critique society, traditional values, and the status quo. This is precisely what Amar Jaleel, Rukhsana Preet and Rubina Abro, Amar Sindhu and Attiya Dawood did in their sessions while locating contemporary voice in Sindhi in a larger national/global context.

KLF included a large number of events/sessions that seemed to that explicitly, and the repeated exploration of paradoxes through scale shifts, displacement, literality, and fictionalisation suggested that the concept of the model buttressed many forms of artistic productivity currently at play. Whether it was Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here is too Great or Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner, Zahid aur do Kahaniyan by Julien Columeau or What’s Wrong with Pakistan? by Babar Ayaz (or it’s corollary/sequel/defence Pakistan: Not a Failed State by Syed Shabbar Zaidi), the above launched books are a literalisation of the artistic impulse to create fictive situations or adventures that represent reality in simplified, abstract terms.

Publishers also thronged the event with a ‘Roundtable of Pakistani Authors with the French Publisher, Marc Parent’. In addition, books on cooking, music, and crafts were launched.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist, stresses the essential plurality of human beings, and how the undermining of this plurality lies behind most of the world’s most violent conflicts. In fact we are all many, and this is important to remember. He points out that today human beings tend to be defined in terms of their religious identities, ignoring the numerous other factors that combine to make a person who he or she is. This results in a reductive miniaturisation of man that paves the ground for tensions between groups. Instead of viewing others and ourselves in terms of a singular identity, we should remember that each and every one of us carries a multiple within.

In that sense, Sen emphasises, we are all many: "The same person can be, without any contradiction: an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theatre lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician."

If one maintains that a cultural event with participants from many cultures is to be more than a stage where one culture is put on display to another, then it may be important to insist on the complexity of individuals, not to mention the communities that they form. It makes impossible the approach to cultures that stereotypes them as static entities with fixed essences, and instead emphasises the potential of being many in a world that seems ruled by processes of homogenisation. Perhaps literature can be one way out of a world ruled by levelling impulses and dull sameness.

Can each piece of literature be a principle of hope and an intriguing plan for escape? Behind the immediate surface we are many -- together and individually, through the multiplicity of imaginative worlds we hold within. "Who are we," asks Italo Calvino, "who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles…"

In her closing speech, Ameena Saiyid expressed, "Tomorrow, all the chairs and marquees will have been put away and this hotel by the sea, which has so zealously and admirably hosted our festival, will have gone back to hoisting its more customary guests and diners. Tomorrow, will anything remain of these three exciting, enlightening, stimulating, entertaining days we have spent together?"

And as Fatema Hassan puts it: "There are literate, well educated people all around us, and we are in constant dialogue with them. On top of it, the embankment and the atmosphere it wells up is no less than a Utopia. Who would want to leave this dreamlike world but today when it’s time to say goodbye, I am feeling nostalgic as if I am being asked to leave an island of hope and optimism."

Utopians and visionaries