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The love that dared not speak its name

Having returned to Singapore only last week after a long time, I have been catching up with the news. And one of the stories I have been following is the furore over two gay-themed books removed from the children’s section of the National Library.

I love the library and am sorry to see it and am sorry to see it getting its knickers in a twist with bloggers, writers and others raging against literary censorship. A blog post I read even drew a parallel with Nazi book burnings.

But I have one question: Can you name any great play or novel celebrating same-sex love?

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Books

The anti-American on the Nobel Lit com

I would be surprised if this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature goes to any English language writer, for Doris Lessing won the award last year and English language writers have been getting the award every alternate year since 2001 when Naipaul was the winner.

But no American writer has won the Nobel since Toni Morrison in 1993. Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and Don De Lillo are tipped among the contenders by bookmakers Ladbrokes but the favourite is the Italian Claudio Magris followed by the Syrian Adonis.

Now it turns out there’s an anti-American bias in the jury.

Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the jury that awards the Nobel Prize for literature, said in an interview with the Associated Press:

“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States… The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

Lord, love a duck, this man is living in a time warp! No offence to the Europeans but they are at a disadvantage because English is the global language. How many European writers are internationally known since Camus, Sartre, Kafka and Gunter Grass?

I half suspect the guy was pulling a publicity stunt. Let’s face it, the Nobel Prize doesn’t sell books like the Booker Prize for the simple reason it’s sometimes awarded to authors rarely translated into English. Look at the list of winners for the last 10 years and you will see not every one of them is widely known:

2007 – Doris Lessing
2006 – Orhan Pamuk
2005 – Harold Pinter
2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
2003 – J. M. Coetzee
2002 – Imre Kertész
2001 – V. S. Naipaul
2000 – Gao Xingjian
1999 – Günter Grass
1998 – Jose Saramago

So what better way to get attention than making anti-American sounds that are bound to be picked up by the English language press and reported from Canada to New Zealand. I still recall the buzz when the hugely talented Pinter won the Nobel and sounded off against the Iraq war.

Interestingly, three of the four English language authors honoured in the last 10 years have an African connection — Coetzee is a South African, Lessing Rhodesian-born, and Naipaul has visited and written about Africa — and three are British nationals: Pinter, Lessing and Naipaul.

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Books

Jhumpa Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.

What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.

Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.

But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:

Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.

But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:

It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.

As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:

I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.

Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:

I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.

The Indian connection is fading.

None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That’s a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

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Books

Literature or social studies?

Two days ago a letter appeared in The Straits Times headlined: “English literature: Keep its beauty pure”. “Literature and fiction are not synonyms,” said the writer quite rightly but then went on to add: “My dictionary defines literature as ‘writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest’.” That may be a dictionary definition of literature, but it raises all kinds of questions. What is of permanent or universal interest? Literary fashions come and go. Yesterday’s literary lion is today’s dead bore.

“What about Shakespeare?” I can already hear some people asking. But Shakespeare as interpreted and performed today is hardly the Shakespeare of Garrick or Charles Lamb. And, frankly, how popular, how widely read, is Shakespeare today?

And let’s not even talk of the changing fortunes of poets and writers like John Donne and Anthony Trollope. Some may think it heresy to mention them in the same breath, but Donne’s reputation has risen and fallen just like Trollope’s. In fact, the whole business of literary criticism is not all that different from stock market trading in the sense that writers’ stocks rise and fall. Critics evaluate writers  just like market analysts rate a company’s shares as “junk”, “bluechip” or “lacklustre”. And some critics can be awfully choosy. There was this joke about FR Leavis, the famous critic. His collection of books could hardly fill a shelf, it was said, because he liked so few writers.

“Excellent writing is as essential to the study of literature as accurate calculation is to the study of mathematics,” said the letter writer. But that again begs the question, what is excellent writing? To talk of literature and mathematics in the same breath is like lumping together apples and oranges; they could not be more different. There can be right and wrong answers in mathematics. Tastes and opinions change in literature. Even the language we use is different from our forefathers’. 

The letter writer poured scorn on some of the current favourites: “Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are popular writers. In comparison to the least writer in the English canon, however, their themes are shallow and their wordplay amateurish.” I don’t know what a “least writer” is.

But the letter writer had no doubt at all about what is literature and what isn’t. “Mass-market bestsellers belong in holiday reading or library outreaches. Inferior works that are only ‘culturally relevant’ belong in social studies class.”

Excuse me, then where should have been Shakespeare read in his day? In a social studies class? After all, he was a box office hit who wrote his plays to entertain the “groundlings” too.

I don’t think they taught social studies in school back then. But if they did, Shakespeare would have fitted right in — as well as in the literature class. There lies his greatness. And possibly of every other great writer, I think. They may have left behind “excellent writing”; but writing is not just a matter of craftsmanship; it is a commentary as well on people and society.

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Pinter on Pinter

“I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

“Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

“The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

“In each case I had no further information…”

Those are the words with which playwright Harold Pinter (above) begins his speech accepting the Nobel prize for literature this year.

Forbidden by doctors from going to Stockholm to receive the 10 million crown ($1.2 million) literature prize, 75-year-old Pinter, who has been battling cancer for years, sent a video recording showing him in a wheelchair with his legs under a red blanket, reports Reuters.

His frailty and hoarse voice added to the drama of a speech peppered with the potent silences of his plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, which gave rise to the term “Pinteresque”, it adds.

It turns into a savage attack on the US, and I don’t like that at all, but the early parts are interesting where he talks about his writings. Anyone interested can read the complete text on the Guardian web site.

My favourite speech by a Nobel literature prize winner was delivered by VS Naipaul in Stockholm on Dec 7, 2001. In his speech, titled Two Worlds, he spoke about growing up in Trinidad, his Indian ancestry, and his moving to Britain and his writer’s life. It will be appreciated by anyone interested in writers or the colonial influence.