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Lahiri says global tag for literary works a marketing gimmick

At the session entitled The Global Novel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste and Xiaolu Guo talked about the best ways to make the literary form travel seamlessly across the globe.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2014 10:25 IST
Tania Goklany
Tania Goklany

As the novel in all its form comes under constant scrutiny in an age of digital media and the world of narrowing attention span, a few practitioners of the craft got together at the seventh edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival to discuss its future.

In a session called The Global Novel moderated by Chandrahas Chaudhry on Saturday, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste and Xiaolu Guo talked about the best ways to make the literary form travel seamlessly across the globe in the Front Lawns of the Diggi Palace.

"There is a difference between global and universal, I am uncomfortable with the use of 'global' in the context of literature," said Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri.

The author of Interpreter of Maladies added that global to her was a "commercial term that seems to market literature" and does not describe literature in the aesthetic sense that it should.

"Universal is a more aesthetic question which art has always striven to live up to despite its limitations," Lahiri told an audience that comprised of people from all walks of life; foreigners, students and elderly alike.

The global novel to her, she said, implied something "that transcended the barriers of ourselves that makes us unique as people and can reach other people despite who and what they are."

Noted American author Jonathan Franzen, however, said he would rather be asked questions about novels and technology in a lighter moment when he did not know if what he was saying on the subject was relevant enough.

"To seek to be a universal author is the worst way to seek to be an universal author. The scary thing to me is the homogenisation of the global culture."

For author Jim Crace, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, writing a novel is a very private affair.

"It's a private act that becomes embarrassingly public," said Crace as the audience, which included a large number of foreigners, laughed and applauded.

Crace said he does not think about the readers and what would happen in the long run.

For him a global novel is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart which captures one's imagination beyond the boundaries of the nation and the century it was written in.

British-Chinese author Xiaolu Guo who uses both English and Chinese said she wrote in Chinese to appeal to a particular nation and then started writing in English to reach out to a wider, global audience.

Her inescapable identity, she said, is Chinese which she thinks comes with a certain cultural burden of harbouring a communist ideology.

"Writing in English, thus, has been a liberating experience for me," Xiaolu, whose new novel I Am China will be published in June, said.

To that Lahiri added that "language is something that defines us and restricts us at the same time."

The dialogue then shifted focus on translations and how a novel written in English quite obviously attracts most readers and the role translations play in the context of a novel.

Xiaolu Guo was of the opinion that translations tend to weaken the real essence of the novel.

She did choose to write in English, she claimed, not in a self-congratulatory attitude of having come so far in as to learning the language and be able to write a novel in it, but in anger.

"Translations are impersonal, unreadable and an industrialised market in itself because of which the habit of reading is being stolen," she said.

Crace believes that it is important to write in one's native language other he cautions that languages like the Maltese will disappear if they aren't defended.

"You can only sing in your voice and if English is the author's second language, then the author will not be able to express himself adequately."

Maaza Mengiste, an American of Ethiopian origin, said that the only way she can try to understand more about her native culture is by reading about it.

And because she cannot read and write her native language, she has to rely upon translations.

To that Lahiri said that power should be in the hands of the readers and not the writers.

"The readers should get to read what they want and as widely as they want. This can happen only if publishers and translators give the readers access to books. It's a liberating thing to be able to read and understand an entirely different culture. The lack of energy put into translation in the American market is embarrassing and shameful."

The panelists seem to agree that the definition of a global novel is a subjective one and that it is problematic to narrow it down to a particular language, culture or time period it has been conceived in.

First Published: Jan 18, 2014 19:30 IST