16 October 2006

Why does literature have to speak the truth?

Last week Turkey's most renowned writer Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature. His name has been in the media quite often in the last year. Even those who have never read his books, will have heard his name – yes, he is the protagonist of the infamous case in which the state wanted to press charges against the written word. Pamuk wrote about the 1915 genocide against the Armenian minority in Turkey, claiming he was the only one who was never scared to bring up the taboo subject in his country. But having a troublesome relationship with certain events from its Ottoman past, the Turkish state was reluctant to call the killings of the Armenian people genocide. Thus Pamuk was accused of “insulting the Turkishness” of his home country.

Orhan Pamuk has often been criticized in Turkey for having views which are too westernized. Even though he is now based in Istanbul, he did spend some time at Colombia University in New York in 1980s. I wonder what makes a writer belong to a particular country. Is Orhan Pamuk a Turkish writer only because he writer in Turkish? And why don´t we regard him an American writer if this is where he got his ideas about freedom of expression from?

Literature has always been tied to a national identity more than other forms of art. Because it uses a national language as its medium, literature was rarely able to stay neutral and purely “artistic”. In crucial historic moments, there has always been a clash between those writers who support the state (even if only by keeping their pens idle) and those who speak out and bare the consequences of such a choice. Some writers fight for their right to write and then face political trials, some go into exile. But whatever the path a writer takes, the words they write are never apolitical.

The Pamuk case was not only about the literary representation of the Ottoman past. International attention paid to the outcome of Pamuk´s plight highlighted the political dimension of literature. Thus Turkey´s commitment to freedom of expression and respect of human rights were seriously questioned in the light of the country´s application to EU membership.

There is no doubt that the 2006 Nobel Prize went to a great writer. And forgive me, but these are my intimate musings - I wonder how healthy it is to judge literature through the prism of international politics all the time. There are writers and writers. Some may feel compelled to be politically outspoken and campaign for freedom of expression and in that course write fabulous texts. Others can produce work of equal quality and keep a very low profile. If this Prize is given for literature, my only question is if we are able to judge books purely on their literary merit. If not and if literature ends up being inextricably linked to politics and values of civil society, I fear we might risk losing this great form of artistic expression. Lastly, is truth really a prerequisite of a great piece of literature?

11 October 2006

Everything she wrote was on the edge

Many things remind me of the place I come from. Of the home land. I carry the feeling of belonging to a place where I am not present any more like a ball and chain around my ankle. It’s almost a nuisance to have an origin. And it’s only after I have left the hearth that I know it once existed. If you stay in one place all your life, you can hardly know you have a motherland.

It is Monday morning and I am up late. I don’t work in the PEN office every day. Only Tuesdays and Thursdays. Still, I check my emails religiously whenever I can, which means non-stop. Most London homes have wireless connection these days and the outside world has become as accessible as the air we breathe. Obviously, only through the computer screen.

I see Amanda’s email in my PEN inbox. She is asking if we are planning to issue a statement on Anna Politkovskaya assassination. I shudder. When did that happen? I search the BBC website and I find it there, under 7th October; breaking news from Europe, an obituary, tribute paid to Russian journalist, comments of outrage, shock and grief. I feel my throat turning dry and my fingers stiff and cold on the mouse pad. They are not moving. I remember Anna’s photo in the ‘Writers in Translation’ folder in my office – pensive but determined gaze, her short grey hair beautifully framed with the purple of her top. She is one of ‘our writers’. Her book ‘Putin’s Russia’ is proudly displayed in the English PEN office. We now only have one copy left with a note sticking out – please do not remove from the office. Other copies have gone missing, which is what usually happens to a good book. Book theft, though, is never considered a crime. I still cannot believe Anna has been shot dead in the lift of the building where she lived.

‘Putin’s Russia’ – a warm but critical depiction of the country where human rights are routinely trampled upon – was the book that inaugurated ‘Writers in Translation’. Anna’s commitment to truth and free expression that she showed in her work as a journalist became the mission of our programme as well. The book was almost dropped from the Harvill and Secker publication list, but with the PEN grant, its print-run grew to almost 20,000 copies. ‘Putin’s Russia’ was available in bookshops around the UK. In duty free zones at airports, where only best-sellers are stocked. It was a recommended reading. She once said that her duty as a journalist was to write what she sees as reality. She wasn’t afraid of the risk that was part of her work. A work of a truth-teller. My professional duty was to do whatever possible to have her book published in English and made available to the world to read.

But Anna’s death cuts deeper than that. She reminds me that I am a writer. A Croatian writer. Constantly pushing the limits of what is publicly allowed, her writing was the expression of attachment to her own country. The strokes of her pen, like a sharp knife, peeled layers of obscurity that cover people’s daily actions and experiences. Anna took the risk of telling the truth and not fleeing. That’s why she makes me wonder why I left Croatia. Why couldn’t I have stayed and written there? Why even now I write in English?

Being a writer is not only an art form, and not only a profession. It is a state of mind which seeks to preserve boundlessness. A writers’ mind will question everything. It will turn the world upside down like a housewife doing a floor to ceiling clean-up. Even the most banal, taken-for-granted things will not escape the scrutiny of a writer’s feline curiosity. But today, I think less of the literary playfulness that governs the writing spirit. I feel that being a writer is about having an integrity. It is a risk that we willingly take each morning afresh. And a risk for which we are sometimes called to pay with our own life.

Why do so many writers leave their countries to be able to write?

Why are so many writers murdered in their own motherlands for speaking the truth?

This was going to be a lazy morning with a languid cup of coffee and a few lines to write. Instead, I am faced with the death of a colleague and challenged to examine my own integrity. What would I say my duty is if asked in an interview?