HOW DOES LITERATURE UNITE THE WORLD?
The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2010, one of the world’s premier literary festivals, aims to unite the world through literature. ERIC FORBES spoke to six authors appearing at the festival who shared their thoughts on this huge, huge topic—the role of literature in bringing the world together.
Author of the novel, The World Beneath, and the collection of stories, Dark Roots
“Writing and reading allow us to construct and inhabit an imagined world. In that imagined world, we can take the arbitrary, chaotic, unjust and incomprehensible nature of our reality and transform it into something which tries to give a meaningful shape to this wild, shared story. And a reader can take heart from this process as much as a writer.
“Whether I’m reading literature or trying to write it, the thought that somebody else perceives the ambiguities and incoherence that I do, and has tried to make it into something coherent—that in itself provides consolation and solace, and that desire for connection crosses languages, cultures and time to move me.
“I know that we’re constantly told that television and the internet are replacing literature the way leaf-blowers are replacing rakes, but the glorious scope of literature to bestow this sense of grace and connection still seems, to me, to be too profound and elemental to let itself be derailed or short-circuited by new media for long. We evolved into what we are sitting round a fire telling stories, and we’ll go on evolving doing it.
“And what an expression of personal freedom writing is, especially in a world so increasingly intent on forming a mass identity for us. In spite of cultural differences or language barriers or the subtler barriers about who’s got a right to a voice: you write, I read, and I begin to understand. You might be writing in translation, a voice coming to me from a thousand years ago, describing a culture long disappeared, but I listen to your voice, and suddenly there is a unity between us like a moment of grace ... what a wonder it is, our capacity for transformation.”
Author of Filming and The Bus Stopped
“Literature—and by this I mean literature with a capital ‘L’, not just anything written in a language—is one of the most complex of ways in which human beings engage with and reflect on the world. Moreover, as it is always in language and always conscious of language, literature also means a very complex engagement with that most human of human attributes: language. In that sense, it is inevitable that literature draws lines of connections and examines issues that affect human beings in the world.
“Literature also takes up intellectual issues at times, but does not confine itself to logical possibilities: by thinking imaginatively about issues and problems and differences, it enables us to find options and solutions that might be closed to purely instrumental or logical thinking. Moreover, literature has always been highly porous. Look at the way stories have travelled across cultures and, later, nations. Right from the beginning, from the ancient epics, from Panchatantra and Aesop’s Fables, downwards to our age, stories and literature in general do not respect political or social borders. In that sense too, they signify the fact that despite all our differences we inhabit one world.”
Author of the Inspector Singh series of detective novels
“Are we all exactly the same under the skin? Or is every culture and people fundamentally different? Sometimes, when I can’t persuade a taxi driver in Shanghai to slow down, I tend towards the latter view. Once in a while, when I receive a postcard about one of my books from somewhere distant, I am convinced we are one people—all six billion plus of us. Either way, stories bind us. To the extent we are different, they are a bridge between worlds, a form of communication, of explanation, a plea for understanding. Even more importantly, what we have in common is expressed in the universal themes within stories … love, death, brotherhood (and taxes?).”
ZHANG SU LI
Author of A Backback and a Bit of Luck
“It is generally true that we fear, dislike or reject what we do not understand. But sometimes, when we are given a glimpse into someone’s backstory, or the opportunity to experience first-hand a culture or society different from our own, we begin to appreciate the unfamiliar, and we begin to open up to the infinite possibilities that exist in this world.
“One of the best ways of learning about a culture and a different way of life is to study its literature. Literature helps us understand the norms and values of a society. What was ugly can become beautiful. What was ridiculous can begin to make sense. What seemed like cruelty can be seen as kindness. Our opinions change with understanding. And yet, at the core of all these differences in the way we live and love, literature also reveals that the most important values of humanity—whether black, white, yellow or brown—are fundamentally the same.”
Author of Glow in the Dark, Dive and Heat Signature
“When a writer is firstly empathetic with the subject—as opposed to sympathetic, pitying, or judgmental—then a reader’s natural position is in understanding. This is the case no matter how horrific or inexplicable the circumstances surrounding a particular subject might be. Where there is good storytelling of human truths, or even a preponderance of what we already know—such as the fact that time is always a conundrum—then there is great and significant communication across all cultural divide.
“Good literature is a global unifier. However, I do not think that something as lofty as unity of the world is ever quite a writer or an artist’s goal or intent. As the painter Agnes Martin once said, ‘Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.’ And it is within art and literature that we make these kinds of connections in our thought and feelings. So through this connectedness in writing, in communication, we have this wonderful side effect of unification. Unity cannot be forced, just as reading cannot be forced. But we can simply enjoy those moments of good writing, good reading, and in feeling ourselves to be at one with the world.”
Author The Good Parents and Gilgamesh
“What is it that we recognise in reading that makes us love and respect a book? For me it is the flash of truth in every word about the experience of being human. The hardest thing in writing is to find and represent this truth. It’s in the accuracy of the detail, the rhythm of the sentences, the shape of the narrative itself. It is the quest of the narrative. The more intense the writer’s vision, the more acutely it will be seen and felt. No matter how specific, in time and place and character, we recognise the surprise of truth. In the musings of a disgraced 19th-century Russian noblewoman. Of a young Indian schoolteacher whose wife has just died. Of a Turkish journalist trudging through the snow … The ‘flash of truth’ in the work is where the reader meets the writer and is compelled to understand. It is where we recognise ourselves.”