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In this collage of comment, Nobel Laureates Plus gathers comments from a variety of novelists globally. These include Nobel laureate GAO XINGJIAN, SALMAN RUSHDIE, TOMAS ELOY MARTINIEZ, HA JIN, ELIF SHAHAK, AZAR NAFISI AND LILILAN FASCHINGER. It is excerpted from the forthcoming issue of NPQ, entitled "Post-National Writing."


Azar Nafisi, Iranian, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran"

Part of the reason people liked my book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," was because they could experience through reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called an Islamic republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not very different from their own. As a result the rather homogenized image of women from Iran has partly changed.

The media in the West have tended to reduce Iranian society to the Khomeini Era or the Era of the Shah. But Iranian society was there before the revolution and before the Shah. If we gained certain liberties at the time of the Shah — whether women’s rights or the openness to literature from Byron to Wordsworth or Victor Hugo — it was mainly because various forces in Iranian society wanted it. Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie was a very popular writer. His first two novels were translated into Persian and became best sellers. That’s why this Islamist system cannot force the Iranian people to give them up. . . .

Living in a country which has deprived its people of actual contact with the outside world for a very long time, I have seen that the literature and culture of that world as a whole became a genuine means of connection. Many of my students in Iran really were hungry to know about what happened outside the country. Further, works of fiction have a power to create images on their own. They make you imagine life not just as it is, but as it could be, or asit should be. So for us living in Iran there were so many closed spaces. Fiction opened those spaces.


Elif Shafak, Turkish, author of "The Saint of Incipient Insanities"

In the Ottoman times the alphabet was the Ottoman script with mostly Arabic letters. But there were a lot of words that came from the Persian and Arabic languages. It was a mixture of many things, a multiethnic fabric.

However, in the 1920s the Kemalist reformers changed the alphabet in a day. But that change does not seem to me as colossal as the change in the language. The alphabet is something more technical. But how can you change a language? Whole words from Arabic and Persian language were deleted.

Yet very few people in Turkey today question this (ITALICS) Turkeyfication (END ITALICS) of the language. I find that very dangerous because linguistic cleansing is comparable to ethnic cleansing. Imagination shrank. Culture and information couldn’t flow from one generation to another. We have generations of people who don’t know the things their grandparents know, who cannot read the writing of their grandparents, who cannot read or know the meanings of street names. The language of the Ottoman time is quite magical and unique. And it takes the same effort to learn it today as it does to learn another language.


Salman Rushdie, Indian, author of "The Satanic Verses"

After 9/11 the culture in America became very dark. We can see why it happened. Why America became afraid. Why it became so defensive. Why it began to put the shutters up and build the walls. It’s human nature: fear. But it’s also kind of tragic to have happened in a country which built itself on a philosophy of openness.

One of the things I really loved about America was that openness. I have thought lately that this is not the country I fell in love with. This is another darker place. This darkness has to do with fear. It began with an act of terror, and it was cultivated by ignorance. It’s also cultivated by the fact that you don’t know who your enemy is, who is an enemy and who is not, so you are afraid of anyone.

People that I know from India who now live here used to say to me almost in an embarrassed way that one of the great things about being in America rather than in England is that there was no racism aimed at them. Of course there was racism in America, but it was aimed mostly at the African-American community. Now nobody can distinguish between an Indian and an Arab, or an Afghan and a Pakistani.

So there is darkness and fear of everything. This is something, I think, that literature can really help because literature can take away that part of the fear, which is based on not knowing things. . . .

One of the strange things in this world where electronic media, television and radio seem to be dominant is that actually the ideas of a culture come from the print media. Still! If you look at the bedrock, where the ideas of a culture are forged, it’s not on television.

The ideas, of course, are afterwards discussed and popularized and spread by television. But to this day, without books, without print culture, society would not have any forum to discuss itself and to forge new things. That’s what literature can still do. It can still actually be the place from which new ideas and changing of ideas, subtlety and re-imagining of the world, derive.


Lilian Faschinger, Austrian, author of "Magdalena the Sinner"

I feel emotionally attached to my country, something that is very well epitomized by the pastry that ultimately draws my fugitive character in "Magdalena the Sinner"back to Austria. On the other hand I come from rural Austria, an environment characterized by misogynist attitudes and small-mindedness.

But I’m not so sure if globalization is that much better. Commercialism is getting more brutal than ever,and people are getting more impersonal than ever before. So I try to negotiate between the two and find some kind of practical identity in a given situation.

Of course, no one can escape globalization the same way that no one can escape their past. So one has to be positive and look at the bright side of things, I suppose. For example, cities are changing spectacularly and opening up because of globalization. Vienna is developing rather nicely, I think. It used to be gray and a bit backward. Now it’s really moving.

I was influenced by my country in my writing, but not only. The split has already been in my writing for a while. I am fascinated by pop culture. I like to link the high and the low, the global and the local. This is, in a way, the life that I lead, and that’s what interests me. In my new book I use citationsfrom "Hamlet"and Bruce Springsteen. My narratives have referred to the Bible, but also to Batman, Dante as well as Dracula. In one of my novels, my heroine is romantically linked with the artist Christo as well as Clint Eastwood.

I don’t have a problem with post-modernity. So, I guess, the post-national author is a direct outcome of post-modernity.


Tomas Eloy Martinez, Argentinian, author of "Santa Evita"

In the past literature was the servant of power. Power wrote history. If things happened in history but were not written, they didn’t exist. The only exception to this are the milestones of human evolution, like the invention of fire or the wheel, that were not recorded because nobody remembers when they happened, yet they are manifest in our daily lives today.

But apart from that,the most important ideas are those that are written in history, the things that humanity remembers as history.

Power was very interested in writing history. In Latin America, in Spain and in Great Britain, power tried to exhort influence on authors. This is visible in the golden age of literature because all the great works were put under the protection of a nobleman. But after that, during the 1960s or the 1970s, literature discovered what I call a "dual narrative version." The version of the official history is opposed by another version, a fictional version of history that is sometimes truer than the official history.

The legendary Argentine writer Domingo Sarmiento, in his classic book "Facundo," imposed an imaginary version of history through the idea that the real Facundo is the Facundo of his book, who is totally different from the historical Facundo. But the Facundo of his book is the one who prevails in the imagination of the nation now. I found this very interesting. Taking that idea from Sarmiento, I wrote "The Peron Novel," and I think I had some success because the Peron that people are thinking of in my country today is the Peron of my novel, not the Peron of history.

In "The Peron Novel" there is some reality. But "Santa Evita" — about Eva Peron — is an invention completely. I tried to switch the idea of new journalism. The new journalists report real facts in a literary way. In "Santa Evita" I invent facts as if the facts were written by journalists. I used expressions like "I saw," "I was a witness," "I read" and so on.

I wrote another book called "The Life of the General," which was more about the real story of Evita and Juan Peron and that is quite different. The story of the corpse (in "Santa Evita") is more imaginary. Only a few things are based on real facts. Just the general facts of Evita; she was born illegitimate, she went to Buenos Aires when she was 15 or 17, she married Peron, she died of cancer. I tried to develop a technique I call "true fiction," which has roots in an older literary tradition. "Madame Bovary," "War and Peace" are classic examples of novels using characters from historical reality. It’s a literary strategy.

Evita’s story is a story of failure. Therefore it’s not an epic, but a myth. Argentina is used to myths of failure: Che Guevara, or Carlos Gardel, or Evita Peron: people who lived in a hurry and died prematurely.

Frail Voices, Not Great Laws

Gao Xingjian, Chinese, author of "Soul Mountain"

A writer is an ordinary person. Perhaps he is more sensitive, but people who are highly sensitive are often more frail. A writer does not speak as the spokesperson of the people or as the embodiment of righteousness. His voice is inevitably weak, but it is precisely this voice of the individual that is more authentic.

Literature can only be the voice of the individual, and this has always been so. Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flagof the race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature and becomes a substitute for power and profit.

In the century just ended,literature confronted precisely this misfortune and was more deeply scarred by politics and power than in any previous period, and the writer, too,was subjected to unprecedented oppression.

In order that literature safeguard the reason for its own existence and not become the tool of politics,it must return to the voice of the individual, for literature is primarily derived from the feelings of the individual and is the result of feelings. . . .

This is an age without prophecies and promises,and I think it is a good thing. The writer playing prophet and judge should also cease,since the many prophecies of the past century have all turned out to be frauds. And there is no need to manufacture new superstitions about the future. It is much better to wait and see. It would be best also for the writer to revert to the role of witness and strive to present the truth.


Ha Jin, Chinese, author of "Waiting" and "The Crazed"

Cultural respect is very important for China as it becomes a big power. A nation's culture and literature often represent the spirit of the nation. When you think about Russia, for instance, you don't just think about nuclear weapons. You think about great authors. They give a sort of window of understanding into the psychology of that group of people. In that sense, I think it is important for any nation or culture to present itself, to be viewed and appreciated by others so that others won't deal with you like aliens. People moved by a piece of artwork will think of the human experience behind the work, inside the work, and that . . . creates a different space in people's minds and perceptions.

When you see a movie or read a good book, you think about a group of people. They exist. They are not just in the book. They exist somewhere in space and time, even not far from you. And so I think in that sense exchange always promotes a kind of understanding. It does not have to be accurate or rational but emotional communication. I think that is necessary for all human beings. . . .

Although it is becoming more inclusive, Chinese as a language is quite exclusive. It really does not absorb alien sources, which is a deficiency. But nowadays, people are beginning to think differently. In fiction, there are all kinds of experiments and techniques being used, and there's more of a desire to just write good books . . . . On the other hand, Chinese writers are always saying, "We have to go back to our roots." They want everything to be Chinese, not from the West. I think there is a kind of prejudice. People don't realize that art is not just a national thing, that it does not belong to just one nation.

In the U.S., when people refer to multiculturalism they refer to the increased Eastern influences. After all, Western or European culture has always been a multi-culture. The reason (the West) produced great literature was because there has always been a kind of exchange within the European community over the centuries. Whenever a major (European) classic appeared, within a very short time it was translated and spread all over Europe

That can't be avoided, especially in the U.S. today. More people are living here, and exchange has become broader. For a writer — a writer is a person who needs different kinds of nourishment — there can be many sources. Even the high modernists use texts from other languages: Japanese, Chinese and other sources. . . . In literature, I believe this exchange will produce good work, and writers will benefit from it.

(c) Nobel Laureates Plus
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (6/8/2005)