November 2010

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.


I. Polemics
Years ago, when I was engaged in the pursuit of the Hindi PhD that I now have, I was approached for an interview by a reporter working for a local Hindi weekly. This was not because I was a notable scholar, but because my presence in the provincial city of Allahabad was odd enough to remark upon in print.  At some point the reporter asked me how I liked Hindi literature in comparison to English literature, and if Hindi literature had even developed to a point that it could be compared to English. I tried to explain, in Hindi that was far from flawless, that if I thought Hindi literature was poorly developed, I wouldn’t have come so far to study it, and that in comparison to English it was perfectly good. When the article came out, the reporter had summarized my response along these lines:

Rockwell believes that Hindi literature has made great progress in its development and can even be compared to works of English literature.

The use of the kind of language we use to describe the economies and infrastructures of developing nations to discuss the literatures of so-called "third world" countries is pervasive (pick up a copy of Aijaz Ahmad’s excellent book In Theory to read more about the third worlding of literature). How often do we hear about the development and progress being made in French or Italian literatures? This discourse is even endemic to the discussions about such literatures that take place among the very authors that write in them. Aside from the ludicrousness of talking about the development and progress of the novel or short story in the same style as one might discuss the building of bridges and the paving of roads, there is also the fact that very few literatures of the world are in their infancy. “Yes!” You might interject, “But surely the novel and the short story are quintessentially modern forms!” Indeed, perhaps they are (though there are many arguments to the contrary). Nonetheless, these forms date back to at least the late nineteenth century in most Indian languages. Other genres of writing in the modern Indian languages stretch back much further than that, some to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, or even earlier, to say nothing of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

English, as the most powerful international language, dominates world conversations on just about everything, but wraps its native speakers in a cocoon that renders them increasingly unable to hear conversations that were not meant for their ears. The cocoon can alienate us from cultural diversity and deafen us to voices that are not speaking directly to us. In this way, as in many others, globalization both broadens our horizons and shrinks them dangerously. Nowadays, development discourse is often used to discuss the great progress that is being made on the front of new writing in English in India, and more recently, Pakistan. Besides the fact that this discourse infantilizes the literary output of writers in English, it paves over the very existence of literary traditions in other languages. As an English-speaking person who likes to read non-English literature from South Asia, I often feel irritable on encountering pronouncements about the extreme youth and great promise of Indian or Pakistani literature.

II. Dialogue
It is thus that I recently got caught publicly fuming over some patches of development discourse. After writing a review of Granta’s recent Pakistan issue for this column, I happened to read an interview in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn with Granta’s editor, John Freeman. I felt irritated by his responses with regard to the very small number of pieces in the issue that had been translated from Urdu and other Pakistani languages. This led me to tweet ungraciously, “After his interview with Dawn, I suddenly hate him.” Freeman then contacted me to learn the source of my pique. What follows are excerpts of our exchange.

There were a couple of things you said that fed into my existing misgivings about the Pakistan issue. I was clear in my review in Bookslut that the absence of translations from Urdu and other languages troubled me. When I saw in the interview that you had actively sought Urdu writing (and Memon did tell me that you attempted to contact him but had the wrong email), I was glad. But it was the assertion that none of the submissions you received 'made sense' that bothered me. Of course I have no idea what you received. The writing could have been bad, the translations were very likely poor. But what does it mean for a piece of writing to 'make sense' in this context? Did they not talk about Islamism or militarization? Were they not keyed into global conversations?

Writers from India and Pakistan who write in English are in dialogue with and cognizant of the debates and conversations that concern readers in the US and UK. They are a part of those conversations and that market. People writing in Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, and so on, are part of different conversations that tend to be more locally rooted. They too have a transnational audience, but they have no expectation of an American readership, for example. I'm not arguing that the latter are more authentic than the former; authenticity debates are specious and unproductive. What I am arguing is that new Urdu writing probably does not take as much of an interest in the subjects that Westerners want to hear about. But what are their concerns? Are they not worth hearing about? Would contextualizing and explaining them become cumbersome and excessively footnoted? Would it be like trying to translate jokes? Would it be impossible to sell?

The wide availability of Indian and Pakistani writing in English makes it easy to ignore the incredible richness of literary life that exists in all the other languages. Translations are poor and are mostly labors of love. There's little professional work in that area, and publishers tend not to feel the need to get at these books because the stuff in English is so much more accessible. I think the danger of this dynamic is that it becomes an echo chamber, in which readers feel that they are being given multiple perspectives, but they are not. I very much enjoyed this article by Pankaj Mishra I read yesterday on journalism about Asia. The situation is similar, I think, with regard to literature.

The other thing that bothered me in the interview was this sentence: "But in a lot of countries early in the development of their literature – I’m thinking certainly of the United States – people who were writing were well-to-do, Henry James and Edith Wharton for example." Not for the allusion to aristocratic writers, but for the notion that Pakistan is early in the development of its literature. Even for English this is not true. But certainly in terms of Urdu literature, which stretches back to at least the sixteenth century, such a statement is likely to offend. In 1947, when Pakistan was created, there were immediately numerous eminent authors living there. My interview a few weeks ago with Memon Sahib touches on the recent trend of speaking about writing in Pakistan as an exciting new phenomenon.

For some reason, discussions of the arts in so-called 'developing' countries tend to use the same discourse that is used to discuss the economies of those countries. Third world countries are slowly working to build up their literature in much the same way they are building their infrastructure, their manufacturing base or their medical facilities. Elif Batuman dropped a gratuitous passage of this kind into her recent LRB piece on MFA programs (reading literature from developing nations might be considered intellectually edifying, but who would do it for fun?). Perhaps there are young nations out there where there was previously no literature, or at least only oral culture. But India and Pakistan are most definitely not such nations. I realize you made this reference casually, and that it was probably repeated to you numerous times by all different people, including Pakistanis. But heed Pankaj Mishra's warning well, and always ask yourself if you are standing in an echo chamber.

And Freeman responded:

When I said [the Urdu literature submissions] didn’t make sense, I didn’t mean that the themes, or even the context was a problem. It was usually the translation, or the fact that some of the work we looked at simply wasn’t very good, or it was a new translation of a classic epic or a poem by a long dead poet. We did have a few close calls with short stories from Urdu, but in the end we had to pick what had the intensity and beauty which was most arresting. We do have a poems from Pashto and Sindhi, and of course Hussain’s terrific piece, and the Manto story on the website, but I was disappointed we didn’t find more which we liked.

None of this has anything to do with selling or extremism, and in fact a lot of the themes which recur in the issue do not become apparent until we are nearly done, since we are looking at each piece individually. On your point about developing literature, I did not mean to suggest that Urdu literature or any other within Pakistan was without a history or developing...I was referring more to literature which develops within the nation state. The Pakistani nation state is very new; just as when Wharton and others were writing, so was the American nation state. But that doesn’t mean that native American story-telling or pre-revolutionary American texts do not qualify as literature...simply that when a nation declares its independence a different sort of clock starts, especially early on, since the writing starts to help define borders as much as lines drawn up on a map.

I made a decision early on to focus on Pakistan writing of the modern nation, not of the region or of its languages. We never intended this issue to be representative or exhaustive, but since we are the magazine of new writing, we decided to focus on what was new, and to give hints of its heritage among writers still alive and working (why we didn’t have a Faiz poem, for example). I think the long history of Pakistani writing pre-1947 speaks through the writers we chose. On that score I’m pleased with the issue, and I hope this clarifies what its calling from.

To continue with this conversation, race on over to Chapati Mystery, where this column is cross-posted and comments are open. While you’re there, make sure to check out my co-blogger Sepoy’s review of Granta 112, which is much less favorable than mine over here.