Tuesday, July 8, 2008


In his introduction of a keynote speaker for the first-ever Writers and Literary Translators International Congress (or WALTIC) in Stockholm, Mats Sodurland, President of the Swedish Writer's Union, reminded us of the seriousness underlying the conference's reason for existence: that according to PEN International's data, in the last year 18 writers were murdered and 4 of them kidnapped. Still other writers were frightened into not coming to WALTIC, or were denied the visas to attend.

WALTIC came about in response to the need for a forum on the relationship between literature and human rights. It had been planned for three years by the Swedish Writers Union, and those from low-income countries were given scholarships to be able to attend.

Over 600 delegates attended WALTIC from around the world. Over three days, they spoke about literary resources and rights, the struggle for literacy in elementary schools in Africa, censorship, and imprisonment. They shared personal stories about translating literature, immigration, war and its impact on the writing life…no one mentioned the kitchen sink, but that was about it in terms of what wasn't covered.

The notes I took at the conference were mainly in the form of quotations by the speakers. I transcribed them with the intent of using them to inspire and illustrate a piece about WALTIC, but the more I looked at the list the more I feel that the lines as they are speak for themselves. It might even be fun to guess who out of Jamaica Kincaid, Mats Sodurland, Nawal El Saadawi, Ana Menendez, Sasa Stanislic, and Philip Pullman said what…

***Quotes Toward Waltic

I am grateful to this society for this grocery truck, for the library truck…we have money, this is what frightens me, and we know what to do. 640 million elementary schoolkids, 570 million of whom are in schools. 40 of the remaining 70 million live in conflict-riddon zones.

It's not right to die before you've told the end of a story.

The salvation of human beings is found in dialogue.

That early morning hour--known as hour of the moon--when most people die.

…and I do not hesitate to use the word epidemic for literacy--

She was beautiful, a young girl, living in Africa, and I am not saying that if she had been able to read she would not have been infected with HIV. What I am saying is that she didn’t stand a chance. She didn’t stand a chance to find information…illiteracy could be vanquished with the money Europeans spend on their cats and dogs in one year.

The ABC book is still the most important book in the world.

We have to choose the language we speak according to the people who hear it.

We cannot read translations of music, which is why I'm so frustrated when I read translations of my book. It's not MY book.

I reunited my body with my spirit and my mind by writing fiction.

Thus language is a product we inherited since the slave system. Postmodern slavery is inequality in the family, in social and economic systems.

People who never know pain don't know pleasure.

(In an Egyptian women's prison, there were a group of women in the cell for political prisoners, and Nawal El-Saawadi numbered among them. The guard told them that finding a pen or paper in the cell was worse than finding a gun. Next door was a cell for prostitutes. One of the prostitutes had read Nawal's work and so Nawal asked her to bring some paper and a pen. She brought bread, hiding in it the toilet paper and eyebrow pencil Nawal would use to write (gingerly, or the pen and paper would break or tear) over three months her memoir from prison.)

There is no separation between medicine and literature, between religion and politics. Creative words are to undo the fragmentation we learned in universities.

When I sit and write, I get pleasure, more than sex, more than food.

Someone asked me if I believe in god. I said what do you mean by god? There are many conceptions of God……God is justice. God is my conscience. Egyptian illiterate peasants were told they knew nothing of god because they could not read the Koran. They said God is not a book.

Why condemn eve for knowledge? At the end of my play the god who comes out of the printing press has to resign.

The only prize for a writer is to write a good book. The only prize for me is to write a good book and be in dialogue with other people.

There is no authority above criticism. That is how we progress.

That is the problem with identity. Any group of people who want to exploit us has to define us.

Religion is a great weapon for dividing people.

Pure identity means racism. We are all mixed. Realizing this means tolerance.

Men can speak about politics, sex, economics, in a very dissident way. They respect the writer and they respect his wife. Because I wrote people saw my husband as weaker.

I haven't seen democracy in the U.S. I haven't seen it even in academia. I was supposed to go to a place in Missouri but they wouldn’t let me teach because I was too dissident. So a small liberal college took me in.

When they call it the Middle East, I say, "Middle to whom?"

They call me a postcolonial African writer--as if colonialism is finished!

There was a case against me to take away my Egyptian citizenship, my passport. I have a different conception of home. Wherever there are human beings who believe in justice and love.

I can't write in English--because a novel needs your dreams, your desire, your agony, your pain. Creativity is very much tied to memory…to sit and write is to trust yourself. If you don’t love yourself you cannot write. Creativity is very much related to loving yourself…creativity is very much related to getting rid of taboos. Getting rid of shame.

You have Condoleezza rice who comes to our region every day. And she is a woman, biologically.

(A woman who says she has a question stands up and then just says that 430,000 people have been imprisoned in Bangladesh including her husband who is a writer and why isn't anyone paying attention to that?)

There is the censorship which is of the government. But also, there is censorship inside you. Your fear. It's a process, to get rid of your fear.

I don't particularly like identitiy. It implies a sort of underlying evil. And a lot of narratives not of my own choosing.

I often find identity as a need to defend something, to define what is not-me so that I can do something to them or they can do something to me.

The language I speak in, the language I realize myself in, is a product of a history of completely evil deeds. Identity is an eternal reckoning more than a group thing.

The word "identity" is a political word.

When I am writing I am writing for the pleasure of my self, but also writing for other people. I prefer instead of identity the word self.

Every day I get up and think about (family in Antigua), and at the end of the day I say to myself, 'And I never want to see them again.'

I had a lot of mistakes in love. I had to correct my love of the other. And of myself. We were brought up to hate ourselves. Since I was a child I dreamed of flying away. Writing is a way of liberation of the self and the other we learned in childhood.

I could spend a thousand years in America and those thousand years would not be as prominent as the sixteen I spent on Antigua.

I live to remember.

So many problems in the world are "You don’t have a home, you can't come in", or "I want a home so I am going to drive you out"…I love my home, and I want to be safe and I don’t want to be robbed, but I don’t want to be so attached to it that I would ravage the rest of the world for it.

They ask you very detailed things in relation to what they call identity.

Education is not to inject information. It's how to think. I told my students, I can't teach dissidence. I can only undo what education did to you…amnesia corrupts, destroys creativity.

It's only identity when you tell me it's my identity.

Individual identity is a trap. Group identity is a recipe for transgression.

The nobel was intended to be awarded for a great work from the preceding year, 'a person who shall have produced outstanding literary work'. I think the original committee in 1901 would have been terrified to learn that what they had set in motion would define the canon. That the canon would be something current…attention wasn’t meant to be paid to the gender or nationality of an author…great authors are often wandering beings, with unclear ethnicity, unclear language.

The idea that western literature was an organism of its own, autonomous.

The first committee was a child of the 19th century. Certain authors were turned down because their work was too "obscure", "esoteric", "lofty", "perplexing", or, in Freud's case, "disturbing". The standards of the academy have their roots in French modernism. By the 40s, pessimism was on the rise.

The list of winners does not ascribe to any one aesthetic or creed.

If the Nobel Prize were conferred upon whatever the global community liked ("benevolent compromise") it would be futile…nothing would be gained..by trying to exist outside the periphery.

The politician uses words to obfuscate. Artists use words to lift the veil. That's why I am in favor of engagement.

The tension between the autocrat and the charming raconteur.

I want to understand more than I want to explain.

Every immigrant has a gap in their life.

The first thing that war does is to fragment your life. And every day is a struggle to become, and to live coherently.

Not so much nostalgia, as there's nothing so wonderful in our past that we long for it…-

Sometimes (people whose names I changed in my fiction) were even sort of proud even though they were after me. They wanted an identity.

If a reader is about to laugh and then realizes they shouldn’t, then that laugh stuck in their throat is telling them something, making you aware of something.

Fiction is the island of pretending one goes to.

What is the narrative made of? The smallest events possible

The most dramatic point is chosen…in a good illustration, the before and after is described in the image……with cinema, for the first time you could see time passing without the intervention of language.

The elementary particle, water, being poured into something from something else…standing for the whole, a range of symbols for every abstraction conceivable:-- mercy, justice, grammar…the source, the spring, the water, the well:

It would have no value, that which is poured out, if it wasn’t needed.

You don’t become an artist of any profession if you don’t know how to work when not inspired. People ask me, where do your ideas come from? And I say I don’t know but I know where they come to: they come to--my desk, and if I'm not there they go away again.

I see a shimmering perfection of form that gives me the inspiration to work through the material I have to to get there. It doesn’t last for long, but it doesn’t have to.

1 comment:

samraat said...