Suhayl Saadi on “Literature in a Global Age”

The month long GW-British Council residency of novelist, playwright and polymath Suhayl Saadi has come to its end.

Dominick Chilcott, the British Deputy Head of Mission, invited some members of the English department, Dean Peg Barratt, and prominent members of the DC diplomatic and arts communities to his home last night to celebrate a second successful residency under this program. Suhayl read from his novel Psychoraag. He was (predictably) charming and charismatic. We have been fortunate indeed to have him among us.

Suhayl has agree to allow us to publish his comments from the Literature in a Global Age panel. You will find those below … but I just want to say once more how outstanding an author and what a humane person Suhayl is. Also, my eleven year old son is completely smitten by Suhay’s seven year old daughter, so apparently at some point I am obligated to hop a plane to Glasgow and chaperone a first date.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome. Thank you, Tara and Jeffrey for your kind hospitality and your sterling introductions. I am most grateful to the British Council and The George Washington University for inviting me to spend what has been a very exciting Fall in DC as British Council writer-in-residence and for asking me to participate in this highly pertinent discussion tonight.

In some senses, the title of this event may be construed as a Robert Louis Stevenson transformative potion, a stimulant oxymoron – and just as some of my best friends are puns and paradoxes, so some of the most effective catalysts for creativity can reside in such juxtapositions. For surely, if we think about it for a moment, literature – at least since the invention and dissemination of that obsessional activity known as writing – has always been global in nature. After all, there is some suggestion from Ancient Sumeria that writing was invented, not by bards or philosophers, but by merchants. And arguably, from the days of cave-painting onwards, chiromancy and orality have constituted dance and music as hypertextual counterpoints to the etched notations of scripture, poetry, fiction, faction et al.

In past times, textual communication was effected by means of the likes of Michael, Great Magus of Selkirk travelling to Sicily to work with Jacob Anatoli and others on translating key texts and onwards, via an army of celibates, schismatics and heretics, majusculing their way across large swathes of the planet. Nowadays, one should be grateful that chastity is no longer on the job description for writers, though for writers and readers, both, the incipience of poverty or obedience remain. To paraphrase Marlon Brando, whether readers, writers or book-burners, we all write, all of the time.

In my view, there are several interesting issues:

1) The situation is far better than in the past, yet still, the proportion of texts translated into, as opposed to from, English remains relatively small. This is important in itself, but is also crucial because of the nationalisation of speech and writing which has occurred over the past two hundred years with the introduction of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’ and ‘Standard’ English, French, German, Urdu, etc. As someone once quipped, a language is simply a dialect with an army, navy and airforce.

I once was involved in a slightly daft jaunt organised by the BBC called ‘The Big Read’, which basically consisted of TV and radio audiences choosing what they considered to be their ‘twenty top titles’ amongst the millions of novels published through all time. I was disturbed, yet hardly surprised, to learn that nineteen out of the twenty novels voted onto the ‘Top Twenty’ list were Anglophone books, the sole exception being Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ – and that was at Number 20. I literally carried into the studio a sack of ‘other’ books and after the show, found that the studio audience was hungry for these texts. Of course, such populist games as, ‘The Big Read’ and my attempt at subversion may be valuable in inducing people to think and talk about books and to read them, yet when variants of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblins of Flatulence’ are pinned as fundamentally important tomes of all time, one cannot help but feel a little dispirited – and by this I mean no slight to J. K. Rowling, who of course also lives and writes in Scotland and whom I greatly admire (and envy) as a writer and a highly socially-aware and politically-active woman. My experience, during this project and more generally, was that readers – that’s you and me, people – actually are well able to ingest texts which are as complex, non-linear and unresolved as our lives and which permit the facility of an active imagination.

Since, for a number of semiotic, socio-cultural and economic reasons, such texts often can come from either the peripheries of, or indeed, from outside, that mother-of-a-nib, the comfortably codified national, standard monolingual, upper-middle-class consciousness, a broader and deeper rubric of publication, translation and transliteration is necessary if such nibs are to find leaf and form. This would be a liberatory political act, or, if like Swift we wish to hold with the irascibly cynical, it would be contingent upon a more subtle modus operandum of that enlightened despotism of public relations and its chemically-wedded spouse, marketing, which together stand as the twin pillars of our time.

2) There is no universal absolute in time, space, semiotic orientation or language. Writing – and reading – largely is about delineating connections and referential or causal links between people, stories, histories and languages. If this is undertaken in a half-honest manner – honest, that is, regarding the flows of power – at times, it can represent a Walter Benjaminite form of nomadic liberatory exegesis. As an anthropological corollary, a suggestion for discourse over tea, toast and an absinthe or two, let us routinely apply a cultural-ethnic-class-economic critique to the work of white, middle class, English writers.

3) One of the intriguing questions which seems to have been posed on a number of occasions during my visit to Washington has been, “Do you ever think about your reader?” It’s a pertinent and global question, particularly for a writer of what can be fairly challenging texts. Well, I hear the reader as a musician, a jazz musician who, to quote Weightmann, “breaks and enters” the text at will and who, through the act of reading, redefines old modalities. This can produce (to quote) “a higher order of significance from which it is often possible to see not so much what a text means but what it is seeking to do”. This is instrumental in determining how we communicate with one another, with the past and with the multiple others that comprise our selves.

The fourth issue on which I will touch tonight is that of representation. The cartelisation of global publishing towards a capitalist plutocracy necessitates analysis of power structures within the publishing-retailing complex (apologies to Ike). Until very recently, for example, there were no non-white commissioning editors for fiction in the entire corporate UK publishing industry. Nil, zero, nada, zilch. There are now two or three, which is better than none, but to what extent does such token representation simply act as a co-optive force and to what degree do such individuals – with whom I feel a frisson of empathy – have to internalise the biases of the dominant group and neutralise any subversive or transformative thoughts they might have had in order to attain, and maintain, those positions in which theoretically, technically, frustratingly and all-too-often disappointingly, they might be have able to effect change?

I am so very tired of reading hugely-trumpeted novels which to one extent or another, essentialise, nativise, orientalise, provide comforting narratives of rescue or other variations of what I call, ‘Dancing Around the Mango’, for the joy and edification of a perceived dominant clientèle.

I can hardly blame the writers of these books – after all, to dance the dance is to get ahead. On the other hand, I know many excellent writers – powerful writers – particularly ‘people of colour’, who are completely frustrated, who either have given up or else who have not been permitted equivalent space in which to develop their talents and about whom one never hears. Unlike the fruitful dancers, the only time these writers want to be in a box is when they’re dead. This is a loss of voice and breath, of thought and possibility and it diminishes our society – an otherwise self-critical and plural society about which I feel passionately.

There are, of course, texts which against all odds do get through, and the fact that literary prizes sometimes have been awarded for such texts may suggest both complex geographical disparities and something of a disconnect between the publishing-retailing complex and writers, readers and others internationally who at times have constituted the judges of such awards.

To provide a broader global perspective, one of my colleagues, Shahid Nadeem, a stage playwright, TV dramatist and broadcaster in Pakistan, has been imprisoned thrice over as many decades under various tinpot military and civilian regimes and on one occasion – as a result of a weirdly postmodern punishment redolent of Ancient Egypt – was banished to a TV outpost in the desert for poking fun at the then-Prime Minister (now holier-than-thou Leader of the Opposition), Nawaz Sharif. The feminist poet, Kishwar Naheed was under 24-hour surveillance for years – she tells darkly humourous tales of having trays of sugared tea sent out to the secret policemen (who are seldom very secret, since they all seem to prefer an identical brand of Funkadelic, 1975-style shades) because she felt sorry for them, mother’s sons, every one, sitting there outside her house, day-after-day, night-after-night, month-after-broiling-month! On a more tragic note, I recall sipping coffee and making small-talk with the courageous, talented and humble Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya just months before she was pitilessly and shamefully gunned down in Moscow on her way back from the grocery store. Global literature can kill.

In terms of everyday life, what was only a handful of decades ago the largest-ever empire on earth has managed to adapt effectively to being a polyglot, social democratic nation-state which explores, celebrates and occasionally understands its own hybridity. In spite of the negative social equities of neo-liberal economics, multifactorial communal underachievements and structural colonial legacies, and because of bilateral processes of consistent engagement and, yes, progressive state legislation and – at least in the local and national public spheres – at times intelligent state intervention, by-and-large, British multicultural society works well. Much-maligned bodies like the police and Crown Prosecution Service at least have recognised and have attempted to address the problems; unfortunately, outside of the state and academia, no such dynamic exists in any systematised or profound manner in the arts. This is one of the numinous reasons why, at this time, a British Barack is almost inconceivable.

The fact that one is able, in the Western liberal capitalist democracies, to say and write these things (whether or not they come to be broadcast or published is another matter) without fear of overt persecution is testament to the struggle of multitudes over many centuries – from Thomas More to Thomas Paine, from Wat Tyler to the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the women of the match-factory, from Mary Wollstencraft to Oscar Wilde, from the Dreyfusards to Rosa Parks to Desmond Tutu. It would be a repudiation and discontinuation of the ongoing struggle to liberate the human spirit if we choose – and this is the difference, at some level, we can choose – to exist and write in a state of denial and complacency rather than to confront the structural and individual deformations which censor by omission. There is an unspoken requirement placed upon artists by this liberal materialist society to hold together the sum of the symbolic meaning of all its forms. Specifically as far as anything multicultural is concerned, we have high priests of tardive truth, otherwise known as commissioning editors and in the performing arts, too many gatekeepers who resemble those Barthian dyskinetic choristers of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Ultimately, then, this is paradigmatic of the fact that elites do not share power voluntarily, that power, wealth and liberty are inextricably linked and that for readers, writers and audiences, alike, what we are dealing with here is a matter of freedom of expression.

Finally, this global gift of the word which has evolved is a precious one, but as with all human attributes, it is multivalent and we would be well-advised to treat it with a certain neurotic awe as we do, death, Freud and electricity. Literature matters and is central in the collective construction of what we call, ‘the world’ and of power in that world and that is why it is so contested. To read and to write is simultaneously to dream, create and remember. It is to exist at the pinnacle of the eternal present, leavened with the joyous opium of artifice. Creative writing is a shambolic experiment, which like De Quincy’s mendacious textual promiscuity, cannot reliably be reproduced. In the past, we called the essence of this process, the Logos, daimonion, ‘God’ and gave it ninety-nine names. But as any court fool knows, the state of being is noisy, legion and porous and the textual delineation of that far greater part of the world which we cannot know necessitates the perpetual possibility of heresy – and that is what, at best, literatures in the current global age could aspire to be. Thank you.

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