Writing the Globe

These are interesting thoughts, as usual, from Tim Parks. Though I have no doubt that writers like Hassan Daoud and Makkawi Said, who, according to the article, work in traditional genres that would be off-putting to your average Western reader, I’m highly suspicious of the idea that “nobody has any idea how to read them even when they are translated.” That sounds like the kind of comment someone always seems to make at an international literature conference; certainly there’s some truth to it, but just as certainly people outside of a text’s tradition will be able to find something good in it if it’s a good text. After all, it’s in challenging assumptions—linguistic, formal, thematic—that foreign literature can have the most “benefit” in the sense of mutating a local language or tradition. Even the now-ubiquitous magic realist novel wouldn’t have become so prominent in the United States if it hadn’t once appeared strange to American eyes.

Zuccato, the Milanese poet, might have been answering her question, when he made an impassioned attack on the whole concept of post-colonial literature. He suggested that those postwar writers in Africa and India who had chosen to write in English and French for the international community had not only given us a superficial and easily consumed exoticism; in doing so they had made it less likely that a Western public would make the effort to read those working in the local languages and offering something that would be genuinely “other” from the Western novel package we are used to. The Milan-based literary agent, Marco Vigevani, rather confirmed this when he pointed out the situation of Arab language writers such as the Lebanese Hassan Daoud and the Egyptian Makkawi Said who work in traditional genres that mix poetry and prose that have no Western corollary. Prominent in the Arab world, these writers get almost no attention in the West because nobody has any idea how to read them even when they are translated.

What I found fascinating, as this discussion bounced back and forth, was that no one seemed to accept the idea that it might be enough to address one’s own community, that perhaps it was not strictly necessary to appear in this global space or contribute to its formation. Why should the literary world allow itself to be hijacked by this larger project?

The ideal of a single world community is an entirely honourable thing, but when literature (like football) becomes an instrument for creating that community, then there are other implications that may not be so attractive . . .

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. The Obligation to Be a Literary Tour Guide Tim Parks: But globalization is not uniform, and not always so kind. It can happen that a writer remains absolutely trapped in his local community,...
  2. What We’re Missing Words Without Borders has an interesting follow-up to that recent Guardian story that asked prominent Arab writers to tell us what Arabic book they’d most...
  3. Globe and Mail 100 Notables Thanks to Brian Harvey (author of The End of the River: Strangling the Rio Sao Francisco) for pointing me to The Globe and Mail's year...
  4. Joshua Henkin’s Ten Terrific Novels About Writers, Writing, and the Writing Life (Today we have a guest post from novelist Joshua Henkin. Henkin’s novel, Matrimony, about MFA students and writing about writing (among other things), is out...
  5. How Writing Became a Career Yet another vital NYRB Blog post from Tim Parks. Still, none of this prepared us for the advent of creative writing as a “career.” In...

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I wouldn’t say Hassan Daoud is either obscure or difficult to read. Several of his novels have been translated into English and the NYRB published one of his early on. But do understand Tim Park’s point, as usual.

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