Monday, February 2, 2009

Defining Diaspora: Hari Kunzru, Nadeem Aslam, Tahmima Anam and Tash Aw


The Jaipur Literature Festival 2009 took place recently at the lavishly-decorated Diggi Palace, on the outskirts of the famously Pink City. Author discussions (such as the one below, featuring Michael Wood and Charles Nicholl), book readings, and all-things literary were the delightful order of the day:


One of the sessions I was lucky enough to attend, 'Defining Diaspora', was chaired loosely by Penguin India's very own Hari Kunzru, who was joined on stage by Nadeem Aslam, Tahmima Anam, and Tash Aw to discuss their feelings towards diaspora, and how these might have changed from previous generations.


The first subject the panel addressed was their relationship with the English language. English, Hari felt, had become very much the ' lingua franca' in south-east Asia, and this allowed him to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. Tash Aw agreed, pointing out this was especially the case within middle-class book readers. The panel dismissed the common notion that the use of English is a colonial hangover; things have moved on, it seems, at least within literary circles, from the resentment in postcolonial attitudes, or within postcolonial literature, as suggested here.

One thing that had remained the same, Tahmima Anam noted, was the practice by book publishers to stereotype disasporic or ethnic writers by portraying iconic images of south-east Asia on their book covers. For Tahmina, from Bangladesh, it was the classic 'woman-in-a-sari' tag, on which I found an interesting debate, whereas for Tash, from Malaysia, it was 'houses on stilts...or naked Chinese chicks', the first of which can be seen on a Spanish version of one of his books below:


Having exhausted themes from their own cultures, are European publishers looking to play the ethnic card too often these days? This was a subject raised by both the panel and members of the audience, and perhaps works to the advantage of the 'displaced' writer, propelling them above their less exotic counterparts. Several people felt publishing houses were too quick to compartmentalise all of south-Asian literature, when surely this area is too vast a fiefdom to fit snugly under a generic 'Asian' umbrella.

Whereas diasporic writers before them drew from their experiences to serve as a vehicle for passionate vitriol against colonial oppressors, superbly in some cases (Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart springs to mind, you can read an extract here), there certainly seemed to be less resentment in the panel's feelings towards the past, and in turn the focus of their writing.

Nadeem Aslam (below), felt no pressure to write from a personal cultural viewpoint; instead he argued it was his skill as a writer that allowed him to craft a book. He also revealed that for his next novel, which is based in Afghanistan, he spent time researching the experiences of Afghanistani immigrants now living in the UK, and he would draw from these memories to construct the book.


In closing, displacement, Hari Kunzru surmised, although uncomfortable at times, ultimately provided the creative spark, because it is the very feeling of not belonging that actually enhanced their writing. As the great Lee Marvin once said, "I'm an ex-citizen of nowhere. And sometimes I get mighty homesick..."

It would be interesting to get your thoughts on diaspora and how it impacts on a writer's work, do you feel the definition of diaspora has changed over different generations? Has the subject matter of 'diasporic' books similarly shifted over time?

Guy Fowles
Business Development & New Media

1 comment:

workhard said...

Interesting read