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Finding Eastern and Western selves through Eastern and Western stories

Gish Jen investigates the effect of Western cultural influence on storytelling and identity.

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Namrata Poddar: In exploring cultural assumptions and differences, your book aptly reminds the reader that the East and the West aren’t mutually exclusive binaries, or for that matter, strict geographical concepts. And yet, it repeatedly reminds the reader how differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of the self do dominate our understanding of creative practices. Can you reiterate your understanding of East–West perceptions toward the self? What do you think are some of the factors engendering this cultural gap?

Gish Jen: This is an enormous simplification but in a nutshell, people in Western industrialized societies, especially the U.S., tend to imagine ourselves as avocados: We imagine ourselves as having a big pit at our center, to which we must above all be true. What’s more, we are preoccupied with the features of those avocado pits, and the ways in which they are unique. In other parts of the world — and, I should say, many parts of the U.S. — people are also unique, courageous and capable of independent action. They have just as much integrity and just as much creativity. But if you ask them why they just undertook what they undertook or made what they made, they will not say because they did it to be true to their avocado pits. Rather, they will say they did what they did out of duty or obligation — because they wanted to repay someone for something, or because their religious beliefs demanded it of them, or because they saw themselves as a part of a great artistic tradition. This might entail self-expression, but it will not be self-expression for self-expression’s sake. That is, the reason will not be their avocado pit.

The factors contributing to this difference? There are way too many to list. But to give you an idea, they range from the realities of rice farming to the experience of immigration to the American frontier to the invention of the horse collar.

NP: As a creative writer, I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which your book shifts the reader’s understanding of storytelling in different parts of the world. What do you perceive as some of the key differences between Eastern and Western literary storytelling?

GJ: Oh, how I hate to generalize(!) — aware as I am that, truly, every writer is sui generis. But in a general kind of way, post-19th century Western literature has tended to focus on the avocado pit — on the exploration of a single character, whose interior — visible or not — is given great consideration. This character’s idiosyncrasy is more important than his or her representativeness; the character must, above all, not have what MFA programs call a “generic” quality. And the structure of the story further reinforces the idea that nothing counts more than the avocado pit, as the pit ultimately generates the plot events.

In earlier Western literature, as well as much non-Western literature, characters are more often “types,” and often cope with, rather than drive, events. Of course, they, too, have inner lives. But the uniqueness of those lives is less important; and the overall emphasis is often on a group or network of characters, even on capturing an entire world.

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This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

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The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim by Bhaswati Ghosh

Bhaswati Ghosh

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.

I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.

The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Perumal Murugan

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By Aminah Sheikh

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

We do a lot of things, not knowing why. The same is true of writing. I don’t have a clear answer to this question. It could be said that I write because writing is my second nature.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My novel Poonachi Allathu Oru Vellatin Kathai (Poonachi or The Story of a Goat) was published in January 2017. It tells the story of a goat’s life in its entirety. In the novel, I experimented with writing both in the conventional mode of storytelling as well as deviating from it. Writing about a goat was more suited to my heart than writing about human beings. I share my experiences and perspectives through my writing. But for that, I don’t think of conveying anything or achieving anything with it.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

My style of writing is very simple. Many stories lie buried in my heart. Of these, I select the one which takes a complete form, and when time and state of mind are conducive, I sit down to write. Life is a multi-layered entity. It is writing with this understanding that perhaps defines the aesthetic of my work.

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Storytelling: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass rendered into Urdu

The lost form of Urdu story telling — Dastangoi — was rediscovered at The Attic, a cozy little venue at the Regal Building in Connaught Place by a group of children.

The venue was packed to the brim with young kids, as well as adults on Tuesday to listen to an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass titled Dastan Alice ki . Continue reading


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Singapore-based Filipino filmmaker Paul David Sarabia wins top prize in ‘Our Better World’ storytelling competition

Our Better World,  an online storytelling initiative powered by the Singapore International Foundation, has unveiled the winners of its first ever video storytelling competition, which focuses on people in Asia doing good to improve the lives of others.

The competition received a diverse mix of stories, from films on foot spas run by the visually impaired, to young people teaching street kids through graffiti and street art, and even fitness enthusiasts engaging in Zumba exercises with the elderly – a testament to how there are countless ways to improve the lives of others. Continue reading


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Veteran filmmaker on storytelling

Diipti Jhangiani in conversation with veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal in DNA

A few years ago I made a film, Welcome To Sajjapur, we had a peon at office, very bright, superb memory but he couldn’t read or write. I would write his letters sometimes, they were very formal, about the family etc. He went to his gaon (village) and got married. Now his wife could write. Being newly married her letters were very intimate, very private; her letters they were really meant for him, the poor fellow didn’t know how to read them. You can imagine! Sometimes I would read them for him, it would be in confidence, but what if it were read by somebody else? I was fascinated by this exchange and that’s how the story formed.

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