May 21, 2013
A New Front in the War on Terror
Posted on Feb 16, 2013
On panel after panel, writers returned to this theme of common human experience. If you had been a mosquito on the wall (there were more of those than flies), your takeaway would have been analogous, insect-wise, to the conclusion drawn by human attendees: There are lots of different colors of skin and varied features walking around, but inside us all is blood.
This idea was expressed directly by a man who famously never kills mosquitoes, the Dalai Lama, an author who was a big draw at JLF this year. “All people seek happiness and want to avoid suffering,” he emphasized, a statement he makes often. The crowd was exceptionally polite during his session, unlike the sharp-elbowed jostling for a packed presentation featuring cricket star Rahul Dravid.
Another major topic of discussion was the writer’s responsibility. In a panel titled The Writer and the State, Ian Buruma argued that fiction writers and poets, at least, don’t have a duty to take on the state, even a repressive one. Buruma referred to Mo Yan, the apolitical Chinese writer whose selection as 2013 Nobel laureate in literature has been criticized. He also cited Thomas Mann’s assertion that the writer should be above the state. For the writer and artist, Buruma said, “The true state of freedom is to choose the degree to which you want to be political.”
Selma Dabbagh, whose father is Palestinian and mother is British, lives daily with this challenge. Her first novel is set in Palestine. She described how for someone like her, with “education, the English language and the luxury of a foreign passport … your job is supposed to be to speak out, to communicate out,” but it’s “very difficult for a fiction writer to explore art” with that burden. Nevertheless, when moderator Timothy Garton Ash asked if she’d “like to be liberated from the duty of being the conscience of the nation, so you could just be a writer,” Dabbagh paused, then said no.
Later he added a statement that found much favor with attendees: He quoted Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal that “the constitutions of tomorrow will be constructed from the words from the love poems today.”
At The Literatures of 9/11 panel, I asked Reza Aslan and Homi Bhabha how they’ve observed writers daring to challenge the party line of their own societies, or not — considering how, for instance, Susan Sontag was vilified for her New Yorker piece shortly after 9/11. Aslan called critics “mindless” when they accuse writers of “giving voice to your enemies. … Susan Sontag was right on, which was ‘that that’s my job, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and if it makes you uncomfortable, then I’ve done my job correctly.’”
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