Literature & Power: Writing about Politics, with John Ralston Saul, Oksana Zabuzhko, Shashi Tharoor, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Francine Prose, and Bernard-Henri Levy
SHASHI THAROOR: Oksana reminds me that the relationship of literature to power was brought to light most famously in the election of that longtime dissident Václav Havel to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. Words, he said at the time, can prove mightier than ten military divisions. The word “solidarity,” Havel said, was capable of shaking an entire power bloc. Words have the power to change history. That was an interesting thought, and he certainly was an extraordinary example of it, but it didn’t work like that half a world away in Peru where Mario Vargas Llosa, the eminent novelist, believed that as an author, he had a “unique understanding of the people, their needs, their concerns, their spirit.” So he ran for president, and lost. Though other writers have assumed positions of power in their countries, and many have demonstrated the power of words to shake governments, serious novelists and poets have generally been unsuccessful in determining their readers’ political destinies. After all, the only president who can lay claim to a best-selling novel is Saddam Hussein.
As an Indian novelist, I find that literature’s relationship to power is particularly complex in countries like mine. Most developing countries are also formerly colonized countries, and one of the realities of colonialism is that it appropriated the cultural definition of its subject peoples. Writing about India in English, I could not but be aware of those who have done the same before me, others with a greater claim to the language but a lesser claim to the land. To think of India in the English-speaking world even today–and despite the exception of Salman Rushdie and others who followed him–is to still think in images conditioned by Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster. But their stories are not my stories. Their heroes are not mine. And my fiction, rather consciously—perhaps self-consciously—seeks to reclaim an aspect of my country’s heritage for itself, to tell in an Indian voice a story of India. And let me stress: a story of India, for there are always other stories and other Indians to tell them.
How important is such a literary reassertion in the face of the enormous challenges confronting a developing country? What does it have to do with power? Can literature matter in a land of poverty and suffering? I believe it does. We’re all familiar with the notion that man does not live by bread alone. In India and elsewhere, I’d argue that literature and the telling of stories are indispensable to our ability to cope with that mighty construct we call the human condition. After all, why does man need bread? To survive, but why survive if it’s only to eat more bread? To live is more than just a sustained life; it is to enrich and be enriched by life. Our poorest men and women in the developing world feel the throb of literature in their pulse. They tell stories to their children under the starlit skies, stories of their land and its heroes, stories of the earth and its mysteries, stories that have gone into making them into what they are. One responsibility of literature in a developing country must be to contribute toward, to help articulate, and to give expression to the cultural identity of the postcolonial society. Both colonialism then, and arguably globalization today, have fractured and distorted cultural self-perceptions. Development will not occur without a reassertion of identity: This is who we are; this is what we are proud of; this is what we want to be.
But those who have taken political roles in many developing societies also seek to seize this process by controlling the form, the shape, and the content of that identity. They seek to use their power to define the identity of their society or their culture in terms acceptable to the state. Now the task of the writer is to find new ways and provide old ones of expressing his culture, just as his society strives in the process of development to find new ways of being and becoming. This involves, in India’s case, resisting the notion that Indian identity can be narrowly defined in any one set of terms. My own novels speak of an India of multiple realities, and of multiple interpretations of reality. I once said that if we had to do an Indian version of the American slogan E pluribus unum, it would have to be E pluribus pluribum. Throughout my fiction runs an acknowledgment of the multiplicity of truth and a consciousness of the many truths that have helped give shape and substance to the idea of India. So in speaking of a cultural reassertion of identity, I do not want to defend a closed construct. I believe Indians would not become any less Indian if, in Mahatma Gandhi’s metaphor, we opened the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house.
My compatriots in India and I have been fortunate in having been free to express ourselves, but we cannot forget that the developing world is full of writers who have to function in societies that do not grant them this freedom. Writers in some developing countries have to cope with the perception that development and creative freedom are incompatible—that literature, for instance, must serve only the ends of a society as defined by the government, or operate only within the boundaries of the permissible as defined by the social or religious authorities. For such writers, the function of literature becomes much more than the creative rendering of social observations. In societies where truth is what the government or religious establishment says is true, literature must depict alternative truths that the culture needs to accommodate in order to survive. The paradox of the power of literature is that only when it is persecuted does it show its true colors. So it’s probably no accident that some of the world’s most remarkable literature in recent years has been introduced by writers who are either in exile from oppressive political systems—Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Breyten Breytenbach—or struggling to hold up a mirror to the oppressive societies within which they live—Nadine Gordimer in South Africa, Neruda in Chile, Havel himself. Literature has always had the potential to raise the awkward question, to awaken the dormant consciousness, and therefore to subvert the established order, which may explain, despite the quote from Havel with which I began, why good writers rarely have the opportunity to make effective presidents. They are better at revealing than at ruling.