by Shivanee Ramlochan, 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest Blogger.
Fifty years ago, a dynamic series of talks on literature emerged in Edinburgh. A gathering of writers from around the world brought pressing questions surrounding literature’s purpose to the fore, prioritizing these lively, oft-raucous debates and driving conversations that had resonances not just in Scottish letters, but in global discussion. The 2012-2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference made its official stop at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest to continue the conversation, and found the stage primed for two explosive and engaging panels. The first of these took place on April 27th, and focused on the troublesome notion of A National Literature?. The panel was chaired by Marina Warner, and featured a keynote address from Marlon James, with Irvine Welsh, Hannah Lowe and Vahni Capildeo filling out the writers’ table.
James’ keynote masterfully butchered the determinism that tends to fuel the titles we ascribe to what we read, and how we then purpose to think about it. Here are just a few lines of brimstone from his full keynote address (accessible here, on the official EWWC site):
“… the danger in the term ‘national literature’, the same danger in terms like ‘black music’ or ‘women’s fiction.’ That this is a categorization and any attempt at categorization is reductive, like the library of congress reducing your novel to three words. Take away literature and substitute any other art and this is quickly apparent: a national music, a national painting, a national dance step, especially in this post-everything age where national boundaries are not only irrelevant but sometimes anti-art. Because at the core of categorization is an attempt not only to make something smaller, but also easily definable.”
Livetweeting for both this and the Sunday panel (on whether or not literature ought be political) was an unrelenting marathon of insights. James’ speech alone contained any number of takeaway gems, including this, my favourite of his hard-hitting declarations: “If you spent your early years with Enid Blyton, you’re gonna need a lot of cultural correction!”
The discussion that followed swiftly on the heels of the keynote was peppered with trenchant perspectives from the writers’ panel. Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo explained that the title of her newest collection, the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize longlisted Dark and Unaccustomed Words, was itself a reclamation, a counterpoint of resistance against an ancient hierarchy of “Who owns words; who dictates the pace of poetry?”
British poet Hannah Lowe expressed deep discontent at the fact that Britain has been a nation “foghorning its own stories for centuries.” She vehemently expressed the desire to write away from that, stressing that “The nation is not necessarily related to geographical space – there is a big gap between being a writer and a national.”
Scottish writer Irvine Welsh pointed out that culture is always contested, by governments, community groups and writers themselves. “The proof of the writing is in the pudding,” he baldly asserted, stressing that writers will, and should, write what they’re most driven to write, without obsessing overtly about how it fits, or doesn’t, into the prevailing hierarchy of accepted “Scottish literature”, or any other territory’s stamp.
Questions rained in unrelentingly, and the session threatened to spill well over its allotted ninety minute mark. The panellists concluded that one of the best uses of National Literature can be each writer’s right to vociferously deny or accept its constructs as they see fit: to write against, around, or alongside ideas of nationalism. Writing itself, Lowe thoughtfully said, is a process of active reconstruction. The spaces, the gaps and silences on the page, these declare as much about the writer’s work as the words themselves.
Photographs by Maria Nunes, Official Festival Photographer.
A full album of official 2013 NGC Bocas Lit Fest photographs from this panel is accessible for viewing on our Facebook page.