Thursday, October 7, 2010

I Only Write of My Slice of Humanity

In the most recent issue of Granta that focused on Pakistan, they asked the writers featured how to write about Pakistan. Nadeem Aslam answers, "anyhow you wish."

In real life, and in my writing, I can’t pretend that all Pakistanis are angels any more than I can pretend that all Pakistanis are deceitful. (When they hear the name of the English town Tipton, most people will think of the Tipton Three – the three young men who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. I do too. But I also think of a mosque in Tipton where a mullah was sexually abusing the children who came to learn the Koran from him: when one of the parents found out about it and decided to go to the police, the members of the mosque organisation pulled a gun on the father.) As to the question of what to put into a book, and what to leave out: a good deal is said about the ‘clichés’ that are to be found in sub-continental writing – the mangoes, the monsoon and the spices, the verandahs and the mosquito nets and the extended families. But I would not wish ever to be told that these things are out of bounds to me. Who will tell Derek Walcott that the blue of the Caribbean Ocean is a bit of tourist-board cliché? The palm trees, the warm sands, the beauty of the black women and the beauty of the black men: every page the great man has ever written is full of these things. ‘Verandahs, where the pages of the sea / are a book left open by an absent master …’

This is not to say that these are not tourist clichés – but they must remain available to the artist as well as the non-artist. The genuine artists will bring human warmth and longing and complexity to what is two-dimensional in other, lesser hands.

He's talking about Pakistan, but it can really be true of everywhere. I'm still thinking about the topic of my previous post -- the issue of creating a governance index that I feel is more in response to Western perception of Africa that many Africans have internalized and defensiveness thereof than any wishes to actually change governance in Africa -- and it gets me thinking of how best to react to negative perceptions of where one is from. I like Aslam's approach to this topic. Still, I'm never going to stop being irritated by the quest for a definitive narrative from non-Western writers. It adds to the weight of importance of every news article, exhibit, novel that broaches the topic of Non-Western nations, and I'm beginning to wonder if it is not grossly unfair to the writers as well as to those who are being represented. No one asks Gary Shtyengart or Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers to write a piece that sums up the American experience, after all, and that is as it should be. No one should ever have to shoulder that responsibility.

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